Asian Air Safari


Magic of Mt. Kinabalu​

June 24 ’08

Cruising at 10,000ft and Kinabalu was still higher and looking down on us

The first time I ever saw the peak of Mt. Kinabalu, located in the island of Borneo in West Malaysia, was twenty years ago, while flying in and out of clouds.  I was thirty pounds less than I am today, and flying an aircraft that had 375 less horsepower.  I was flying my Cessna 172XP (RP-C391) from Puerto Princesa to Brunei in search of adventure.  The Majestic Mountain looked scary, mystifying, and had a certain magic that invites you to explore her.  The challenge to wander around that part of the world came only through the prodding of my uncle, Ben Roa, who was also a pilot.

One lazy afternoon, while my uncle and I were having a snack at the Manila Aero Club, he said, ” Why don’t we fly your airplane to Brunei to meet the Royal Brunei Flying Club members?”  That was enticing enough to get me on track and spend my lifesavings on fuel.  It was going to be my first international flight on my single engine Cessna.  I had only an ADF and a VOR.  That meant that we had to fly purely on visual rules because the plane did not even have a DME.  Looking back, I couldn’t help but laugh at my foolishness.  But at that time, I thought it could be an Indiana Joy flying adventure!

Since then, I have flown in the area several times en route to Singapore and Thailand on the Citation Jet, King Air 200, Sikorsky S76, Cessna Caravan, Agusta 109 Power helicopter, and a Cessna 421C.  With an altitude between 28-33,000 ft, there are times when the peak of Kinabalu can be seen above the clouds.  There is something about the mountain that makes you feel like conquering her- maybe I wouldn’t do it by foot but I can always try through my reliable flying machines.

Last year, I enjoyed our Malaysian Air Safari with Archie King and the Agusta Power so much that I decided that I should take the whole family before summer ends.   We have all been to Kota Kinabalu when I flew my hot air balloon in Karambunai resort during their opening about seven years ago.  The whole family did the Mt. Kinabalu hiking trip but cheated a bit.  We drove until 10,000 ft and hiked only after that.  Miggy’s (my youngest boy who was only around seven that time) fantasy of raising rhinoceros beetle came true.  We saw so many different colored butterflies, insects, birds, and the flora and fauna in the mountain trail made us feel that we biologists doing a documentary for a national geographic series.  However, at that trip, we flew commercial and could not fly anywhere we wanted to go to.  I really wanted Trina, Spike, and Miggy to see the Orang Utan sanctuary at Sepilok.

A couple of friends wanted to try and fly the route with me with their single engines just for the weekend.   We were suppose to be three airplanes and the Sabah flying club will be our host.  The Flying Club invited me over to help them organize their first Borneo heritage Fly-in that was scheduled for May next year.  Just before departure, everyone had their own different problems and could not make it.   I ended up just flying with the family and the Baron, RPC1158, which is also part of the family.

Spike and I made the flight plan. But even with the expected head winds, we figured that we had plenty of reserve fuel for a direct flight from Manila.  We departed early morning of May 20th.  Manila was still filled with rain clouds but after monitoring the satellite photos the past few days, we assumed that it would clear up.  We were dodging build-ups up to Busuanga but after that was clear blue skies all the way to Kota Kinabalu.  Spike was on the left seat flying and I was co-pilot doing radios and making sure flight plan was followed.   Everyone else was sleeping and they even brought their pillows.

Our flight plan was for three hours and forty but because of the headwinds, we took it in three hours and fifty-six minutes.  We flew over northern Palawan and over Puerto Princesa and flew alongside of Bugsuk Island, which is one of my favorite islands in our country.

Well, Gayan was more direct and I was visual with the terrain so the little excitement woke up the over relaxed pilots.  We were all ready to doze of since we were all up very early and were all lacking oxygen in our system.

Landing was a piece of cake for Spike.  If Trina thought it was acceptable then it must be a good landing.  Arrival was really easy on a private plane and with good friends like Errol and Richard; CIQ clearing is like a walk in the park.  We were even allowed to use the VIP lounge at the terminal.  Cars were waiting for us to be taken to the TanJung Aru Shangrila.  This is close to the airport and by the beach very typical Shangrila set up.  Everyone feasted on nazi lemak and other spicy stuff. 

I had to rush back to the airport for my presentation and meeting with Tenku Datuk Zainal Adlin who was the chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board. Several representatives of the Sabah Tourism Board were also present.  I prepared a short presentation to them showing them we do in Clark.  Everyone was excited and Tengku, being a pilot himself gave us new insights and ideas that will surely make the Fly-in a success.  We will pattern the event to the one I do in Clark but in Sabah, we have all the support of all the government agencies.  We had some newspaper reporters during the meeting so I was surprised to see a photo of myself in the newspaper that Saturday.

It was nice to have a relaxing Italian dinner at the Shang after the meeting with close friends.  It was family night.  Richard and Errol brought the whole family.  It was a good opportunity for the kids to hangout which each other and talk about local school and compared local crazes.

Next day was planned to be an early morning flight to Sandakan.  I was too lazy to pack my things again and stay for just a night in Sandakan so we decided to make it a day trip to Sepilok instead.  We took off early making sure that weather would be good since I wanted to fly direct which will be right beside Mt. Kinabalu.  There were two students at the flying club getting their check ride for their license and fuel in KK in drums was very limited.   I did not want to spoil their fun by eating up all the fuel left for the weekend.  Nice easy flight to Sandakan and we had arrangements for a van to pick us up at the airport.  We exited from the Sabah air hangar and we had to look for the driver in the terminal.  He was surprised to know we were from the Philippines.  Our guide/driver was of Filipino descent but grew up in Sandakan.  He could no longer speak Filipino but he has visited Davao and Zamboanga where his parents originated.  We enjoyed his company and he had real sharp eyes.  As we walked through the forest on our way to the Orang Utan preserve, he managed to see several snakes camouflaged in the leaves of the giant trees. It was always nice to be able to take a close up photo of a snake with our own cameras.

I warned the boys that they should wear their best attire and try to behave like human beings. Otherwise, they may not be allowed to go out of the preserve!  I even asked them to take a shower before the trip! We spent an hour just observing them during feeding time.  Each one had their own personality and was interesting to see how they reacted with different situations.  They were really like kids.  They looked so kind and gentle.  We always feel like touching and giving them a hug. On the other hand, there were mischievous-looking macaques that reminds me of my two boys, jumping and playing around trying to grab some of the Orang utan’s food when they were not looking.  We were also warned that some of the macaques do grab some bags and run away in the jungle.  I was not worried about my wallet since I did not have any money. I was worried though that he might get my pilot’s license, claim to look like me, and fly the airplane back by himself.

We noticed that most of the visitors in the preserve were from Europe and Japan.  We were the only flips.   The normal flips would always rather take a shopping trip to Hong Kong or Singapore or spend summer in the States, or be seen in Paris or Rome in Europe.  My philosophy was that Rome, Paris, and London will not change very much but will just get crowded.  However, these jungles and animals may no longer be around in the future at the rate people are claiming their habitats.  The Malaysians have made use of their natural resources and have used tourism as a very big dollar earner for their country.  The rates they charge for entry fees are not exactly cheap and could be comparable to places in Europe and Japan.

We had a good native Sandakan lunch before departing back to KK.  The rest of the afternoon was enjoying the pool and a nice walk in the beach while watching the sunset.  Dinner was in a local sate place.  The gang was present and Richard ordered food for fifty instead of fifteen.  We could hardly walk out of the restaurant because we ate too much.

I promised to take up the Sabah flying club members for a spin in the Baron Saturday morning. The fanatic aviators were there very early and waiting.  I let the young pilots take left seat and promised an Air Ads T-Shirt souvenir for the one who makes the best landing. The award went to Albert by unanimous decision.

Saturday was night out was Richard’s treat to typical Malaysian Tourist destination-Sea food with traditional costumed dances.  Food was excellent and I beat the Japanese and Chinese guests in the blowgun target audience participation.  There are a lot of similarities with the Filipino dances especially the bamboo sticks.  I almost volunteered and wanted to impress my Malaysian host since I did this once while I when I was in grade school, which of course was not really that long ago.

We decided to go to the KK street market Sunday morning to have a look at what they have.  It was filled with different vibrant colors from red peppers to green eggplants to yellow orchids, gold fishes, miniature roosters and chickens, local birds, batik sarongs, pirated DVDs, loud music, cheap household items, and anything and everything that you can think of.  I took some video and the colors and the background noise was extraordinary.

Just before lunch, Albert with the kids of Errol picked us up for a picnic by the river and some local sightseeing.   We drove up the mountains to the village or “kampong” as they call it of Albert.  He took us to some falls and river where he used to swim as a small boy.  It was a nice drive and we enjoyed our very westernized picnic food.  We explored and took a walk by the riverbank but as usual I am too fat and too lazy to walk under the heat of the sun.  I stayed under a big tree and ate my hot dog sandwich ahead of them.

We visited the monument for one of the tribal heroes and headhunter of the area.  Monsopiad was a great hero for them.  During our visit, thee were some American filming a documentary.  I chatted with him and after seeing both my kids and Errol’s, he asked me with a bit of embarrassment-Are they all your kids.  I said “Yes, I have six wives and looking for a younger one now” He was not sure if I was joking or serious.  He did not seem to be able to say anything for a while until I said I was just joking.

Late afternoon was refueling and flight preparation for early departure back to Manila.  We had to pump fuel out of drums and it was good exercise.  We prepared the flight plans and checked on the weather since it was raining in Manila.  The club members were all very busy preparing the clubhouse for the dinner celebration for the two pilots that graduated.  Yes!  They passed their check-ride and they organized a party for the new graduated and for us.  It was a catered Malaysian food so we were all excited.  After a quick shower back in the hotel, we rushed back to the airport.  Balloons and buntings were all over the corridor leading to the clubhouse.  When we opened the clubhouse, I can smell the food and spices that made me hungry.  Everyone was dressed and most of the boys very louder than normal because of the drinks.  I was asked to pin to the pilot’s pin on Ben who was one of the young pilot.  I had to give a thank you speech and as always, this is very difficult for me talking in front of too many people.  Met the other club members and pilots.  It was a great Sunday dinner and the members made our stay truly a memorable one.

We went back to the hotel and tried to sleep early.  The easy weekend was starting to creep into our system.  We were too lazy to pack and go back to reality of work.

I set the alarm to five in the morning and I always enjoy waking up the kids sadistically.  Richard was on time and he had to sleep at the clubhouse to pick us that morning.  He insisted that catering on board was his treat.  On the way to the airport, we stopped by a Chinese dimsum place.  He said we would buy at the place where I can see steam coming out of the dimsum basket.  We took out the different variations of siopaos that he chose personally.

Airport formalities were quick and easy.  We hoped in the airplane and requested for clearance.  We were given same route back but at 9,000ft.  We had a strong tailwind that took us to Philippine FIR in a breeze.  By the time we were over Puerto Princesa, everyone was hungry and ready to try the chosen siopaos of Richard.  They were all good and was still fresh and steaming hot.  Manila weather was cloudy and hazy but VFR was still opened.  There were air traffic controllers training as per ATIS so when he started giving me headings farther away from the airport, I decided to cancel IFR and just land VFR into 13.

Our operations staff Randy was ready with the CIQ folks waiting for me as we taxied into the hangar.  After an early lunch, I was back to reality working and catching up with what I have left.  The Baron has taken us to so many destinations with so many good memories.  It has opened our horizons and has given us opportunities to meet new friends in different places.  We may not be wealthy but have learned to be happy and enjoy life with our airplane.