The smell of burning woods. Heat from the steam engine. It’s like stepping into another era. Chugging away on the historical North Borneo Railway evokes a romance of bygone era.
The official North Borneo Railway was established on 1 August 1914. World wars and the Depression paralysed the system intermittently, then finally in 1971 steam locomotives were replaced by modern diesel trains. In 2000, the steam engines were resurrected as a historic tourist attraction.
The engine used today is a British-built wood-burning Vulcan (supposedly more environmentally friendly than coal).
The five Japanese-designed carriages were built in the 1970s, and refurbished to recreate carriages typical of the 1900s featuring local woods from Sabah.
Each carriage has room for only 16 passengers, sitting facing each other with a wooden table in-between.
Seats are comfy upholstered benches with the North Borneo Railway logo attached on brass plaques and all are window seats as it is one passenger per bench.
Don’t worry if you are travelling backwards, as the train reverses for the return journey.
Large windows remain open for the full smokey experience, and breezy ceiling fans keep the carriage cool. Each carriage has a bathroom, and a British Pullman carriage functions as the kitchen car.
Everyone will be able to watch the steam engine shunt and couple with the carriages, which happens just prior to departure time.
The journey starts with the blowing of the horns and the British Vulcan steam locomotive chugs away with everyone on-board.
Once inside the carriages, everyone will be greeted by well-appointed stewards, all friendly and ready to serve.
They will then be handed their ‘passports’. It’s a small booklet giving commuter a glimpse of what NBR is all about including the origin of the stunning locomotive.
As the train leaves the station, the passengers sitting comfortably in their own personal benches, everyone will be served iced lemon tea then breakfast of local Malay kuih and a choice of Sabah tea or Tenom coffee will be served.
The selection of local treats including kaya toast (coconut jam) and kuih penjaram (rice flour and coconut milk cake) are presented on a banana leaf covered bamboo tray. Coffee and tea are served from metal thermoses in retro china cups.
As the antique beauty chugs further away into the suburban areas, everyone will be able to see village kids running along the railway track, yelling in amusement and waving at passengers, making the journey even more enjoyable.
There will be two stops along the way. A 20-minute stop at Kinarut let passengers visit the beautiful red and gold Tien Nam Shi Buddhist Temple or traditional local shops.
The temple was built in honour of the Mainland Chinese by the local community over 40 year ago. It features 18 statues of Buddhist Monks, a lotus pond to commemorate Kwan Yin the Goddess of Mercy and a 20 foot smiling Buddha.
The local tamu is held every Saturday in Kinarut. Take a chance shopping for local fares or you can opt to photograph the train and take a look at the fireman stoking the engine.
Cold towels and a bottle of cold water await passengers once they board on the train again.
The train will then in its journey passes a 450-metre tunnel built in the early 1900s. Sweet smelling wood smoke will fill the train for the few seconds of darkness.
The train then crosses a steel trestle bridge over the Papar River, and stops at Papar for 30-minute. Go around the small but tranquil town of Papar but don’t forget to rush back to the train station to witness the reversing and coupling or the engine.
Once back on the train, tables are laid with tablecloths, and a set tiffin lunch is served. The menu will consist of local fare: hinava (raw mackerel marinated in lime juice), fern tips with prawns, fish curry, a spicy chicken curry, Sabah red hill rice, and a selection of seasonal fruit.
Food preferences are requested on booking, so vegetarians and allergy sufferers are catered for.
Perhaps the bonus for the whole excursion will be the outstanding service of the safari-suited, long-sock-wearing staff, the click-clack of the wheels, the toot-toot of the whistle and the smell of smoke. Without all these it will just feel like riding a regular train.