The Rungus by the Sea

14 February 2017

Inspired by the conservation efforts of a British hotelier, the natives of Sabah’s northernmost headland are protecting their beaches with ecotourism.

It’s like a dangerous game of tug-of-war, except there are no ropes involved: waves as tall as walls ruffle in from the open sea, crashing against a smooth, dark-grey crest. Dozens of tourists try to reach the edge, running away as soon as the water folds in, crashing like a liquid punch over the Tip of Borneo. Some people get sorely splashed – the price to pay to catch that perfect, yet silly, selfie shot.

For decades, Simpangan Mengayau has been a popular weekend getaway for Kota Kinabalu’s residents. And an expensive one, too: Tommy’s Place, a simple resort five minutes’ drive from the tip, sells double rooms for RM190 a night.

Simpangan Mengayau.

But it’s only recently that the blissfully empty beaches south of Borneo’s northernmost tip started witnessing the bloom of new, cheaper and more atmospheric grassroots accommodations, managed by the native Rungus people. The Rungus are a sub-group of the Kadazan-Dusun, with their own distinctive language, who reside primarily around Kudat and Simpangan Mengayau. They are one of Sabah’s most traditional tribes, and even in these times of quickening global transitions, they still keep up with their ancestors’ lifestyle based on rice farming and fishing.

Rungus fishermen setting off from Loro Kecil's bay.

Their remarkable beadworks, such as the sandang – two beaded strands worn across the chest – carry designs embedded with Rungus folk legends. Another of the Rungus’s distinguishing traits are their longhouse dwellings, built with low roofs and stilts, with outward inclining walls of wide-spaced poles. The base of Simpangan Mengayau’s current ecotourism developments, these charming nipah-strewn traditional longhouses, or campsites beautifully nestled along the coast’s ochre crescents, are hardly resistible; they feel more authentic, and most importantly, serve a real purpose: to keep the area clean.

The Rungus longhouses at Bavang Jamal.

Indeed, Sabah’s northern coast lies at the bottom end of the South China Sea, and the Tip of Borneo is a receptacle of currents that flush garbage ashore from as far as the nearby Philippines, Kota Kinabalu, and villages along the coast. If this wasn’t enough, waste collectors don’t come to Simpang Mengayau from nearest town Kudat.

The idyllic paddy field seen from the chill-deck of Tampat Do Aman's backpacker longhouse.

“The problem should be solved at the source by better managing waste disposal from the villages and Kota Kinabalu itself,” remarks Howard Stanton, a British married to a Rungus woman, and owner of Tampat Do Aman, the first eco-resort to open in the region in the early 2010s. It’s a delightful jungle lodge with two traveller-longhouses offering beds for RM45 per person per night, five chalets, and a Rungus cultural museum filled with rare local antiques. “If the refuse collection issue is tackled, the amount of rubbish would be reduced on the beaches,” continues Howard. “We take ours to Kudat town every day, but I know that many other resorts either burn it, or just throw it in the bushes, both of which are not good ideas.”

Howard Stanton, Tampat Do Aman’s manager and prime mover of Kudat’s ecotourism.

Tampat Do Aman was instrumental in raising local awareness. Howard founded the Kudat Turtle Conservation Society and organised the first beach clean-ups, teaching locals that conservation is the necessary way forward. Today, things seem to be moving in the right direction: “Resorts and tour operators realised that, if the beaches are dirty, their incomes will dwindle,” says Howard. “Also, few local fellas have taken up the mantle and tried to clean the beaches off their own backs, but it’s not regular enough.”

A local surfer on Kosohui beach.

On a morning walk on Kosohui beach – where Howard opened Tip Top restaurant – we see no garbage; only groups of young local surfers who slide down perfect waves that desperately need more international attention. But moving further south along the attractive Bavang Jamal beach, we bump into Pulau Kulambu, a tiny atoll connected to the mainland by a sandbank. Long and beautiful, the beach of the same name is sadly filled with coconut husks, plastic containers, and trash that washed ashore. As we try to avoid stepping on the garbage, a Rungus fisherman emerges from the sea, still holding his rod and net, and we meet on the sand. “It’s such a beautiful place,” we say, pretending the refuse doesn’t exist, and he nods back. “That’s a pearl of an island,” he replies, as wind sweeps plastic bottles between us. The uncle doesn’t even notice: he scrambles back to his motorbike, seemingly too tired to nag about the problem to yet another visitor.

A view of Bavang Jamal beach.

Regardless of the unstoppable water currents, a few villages are actively tackling the problem and following Tampat Do Aman’s example. Welcoming tourists, in fact, can be the best motivation to take care of the environment, and also improve their livelihoods.

“Clean beaches are crucial in the development of community-based ecotourism [CBET] in the Alternative Kudat CBET Collective, formed by the villages of Bavang Jamal, Loro Kecil, Inukiran and Banggi Island,” confirms Rosalie Corpuz, a national consultant for the Asian Development Bank that funds CTI-Southeast Asia, a regional project which helps improve the management of coastal and marine resources in the Coral Triangle.

A Rungus woman fishing in Loro Kecil's bay.

The waterways behind Loro Kecil’s bay are used for transportation and connected by suspended bridges.

In Bavang Jamal, Roland Agansai and his family built Bavang Jamal Longhouse Stay, an attractive longhouse just a five minutes’ walk from the beach. To keep visitors coming, they take care of keeping the surroundings clean. And in Loro Kecil, a tiny village burrowed in a quiet, idyllic bay, the community is cooperating to receive tourists. “I have been working as a guide for Howard Stanton,” says Jacky Justin, 32, a young father who shuns the idea of having to work in Kota Kinabalu to support his family. “Howard keeps sending guests here, and we take them around the bay on boat. We have thought that, if people love it here, we may as well offer home stay accommodation,” Jacky explains. However, the place has barely minimal facilities, and it’s hard to focus on embellishments when most of the time is spent cleaning up the beaches. “There’s a lot of work to do, but we are not giving up,” Jacky says.

Jacky's wife handmakes traditional Rungus beads in their Loro Kecil home.

As he speaks, his wife emerges from their simple home, their baby snuggled against her chest; he sends them a fond glance. “This is where I want to stay,” concludes Jacky with a smile. If more tourists will come, even selling the beadwork that his wife and other village women handmake in their homes using traditional Rungus patterns could help improve things. For the moment, it’s time to tell people that the Tip of Borneo is ready to welcome all of them.

Tampat Do Aman Kudat, Sabah (013 880 8395).
Bavang Jamal Longhouse Stay (019 812 4577 – Roland).
Tommy’s Place Simpang Menggayau, Tip of Borneo, Kudat, Sabah (013 811 2315).

By Marco Ferrarese
Photos by Chan Kit Yeng

This article is related to NATURE BUSINESS


The Business of Blooms

FRI, 24 AUG 2018

For Kuala Lumpur’s old florist shops, success stems from decades of hard graft and reputation.   A cluster of mom-and-p...


Cake Delivery in Malaysia

THU, 09 AUG 2018

Cake delivery platforms like Eat Cake Today and Cake Together have eased the lives of Malaysian bakers and pastry-lovers alike. G...


Made In Malaysia: SonneAire

THU, 05 JUL 2018

An innovative entrepreneur’s mission is to help cut Malaysia’s carbon footprint through revolutionary energy-saving air c...