Tuesday April 24, 2012
Breathtaking link to two cultural worlds
By KARIM RASLAN
A drive along the Kimanis-Keningau road reminds one of Sabah’s unique geography and how a distinctive ethos has emerged from the people of the coastal zone and those of mountainous interior.
SABAH is a full of surprises and Peninsular Malaysians tend to underestimate its complexities. At the most basic level, we snigger at the accent – the “no bah” and the “yes bah”.
The tendency is for us to write off Sabahans as country hicks, before returning to our pet obsessions of race, politics and economics.
But Sabah is very different. For a start, the state’s geography is quite unlike the peninsula’s, and the most distinctive feature is the Crocker Range separating the state’s west coast from the broad upland valleys of the interior.
With Mount Kinabalu as its highest point – a granite fist looming above the state capital – the Range looms over the low-lying floodplains of Penampang, Lok Kawi and Papar.
In the past, the mountains would have been a near-impenetrable barrier to those looking to expand into or trade with the interior.
As a result, and over the centuries, tamus or marketplaces have evolved between the seashore and the highlands.
Settlements such as Kota Belud, Tuaran and Kimanis became trading stations, midway between the two worlds.
Along with the commerce, the tamus would also have brought together two key cultural forces: the first was the Bajau and Brunei Malay influence of the coast zone – which was a world of rice farmers, traders and fishermen.
From the mountainous interior, the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut came with their rattans, honeycombs and other jungle produce.
For centuries, the mix has been peaceful. There has been a lot of inter-marriages, so much so that Sabah (along with Sarawak) still enjoys the most harmonious inter-communal relations in the country.
In fact, as many Sabahans keep reminding me, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s much promoted 1Malaysia initiative would seem best suited to Sabah’s more easy-going ethos.
In the past, the journey between the two cultural worlds would have taken a day or two on foot.
Now, however, it’s possible to traverse the Crocker Range in a matter of an hour or so. Indeed, there are many roads slicing their way through the mountains.
Nonetheless, the Kimanis-Keningau road is perhaps the most striking thoroughfare that can take you across the mountains.
Moreover, as a relatively recent addition and part of the infrastructural push implemented by current Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman, the road is in superb condi-tion.
Laid out along what was once a former timber trail, the road curves sinuously across the mountains and unlike most conventional transportation links, it makes no concession for the gradients involved.
As a result, some of the stretches are precarious and nigh on impossible for commercial traffic to use.
All of this makes the road one of the most breathtaking in Malaysia, something akin to the drive from Jeli in Kelantan to Grik in Perak, except that the views of Temengor Dam are replaced by stunning vistas from thousands of feet up of the entire western Sabah coastline and the South China Sea farther off in the distance.
In short, the Kimanis-Keningau road-trip is something that you should make – James Bond-style – in an open-topped Porsche 911, an Aston Martin or on a large Harley Davidson bike.
I used the road to cross the Crocker Range two weeks ago.
Departing from Kota Kinabalu early in the morning with some friends, we reached the mountains within an hour.
We stopped for a late breakfast at a roadside cafe with a magnificent prospect that ranged across the mountains and down to the sea.
Even though the sun was shining, the temperature was markedly cooler and we drank our coffee hurriedly before heading off for Keningau and the interior.
Later, when we returned the same day, the crisp, startling clarity had disappeared.
Instead, the road was wrapped in dense mist as rain clouds rolled in from the sea, enveloping everything in sight.
In fact, there was a point when visibility was barely a metre and our car slowed down to a crawl, tracking the reflectors in the middle of the road.
At that point, I remember sticking my hand out of the car window, watching it disappear into the murky gloom.
To my mind, the road serves as an excellent metaphor for Sabah.
It reminds us of the state’s unique geography and the way that a distinctive cultural ethos has emerged from the land.
At the same time the sudden shifts in the weather – the brilliant sunshine and the impenetrable mists – suggest the complexity of a state that we (in West Malaysia) are inclined to belittle or ignore.
With the next general election looming and so much riding on how Sabahans chose to vote, let’s be ready for surprises from the Land Below the Wind.