From Kota Kinabalu airport to Pantai Merakit (Merakit Beach), it’s a 90 minute drive up the highway to Kelawat village, followed by 20 minutes on a steep and windy “road” until the track abruptly ends at the sea at Mengkabar village. Finally, it’s a short wade out to a small boat that ferries you the final mile across the bay to the otherwise inaccessible beach.
How’d we end up finding this place, you ask? I have no idea. How do we end up at half the places we go?
With that, I present to you…
No, our taxi was not impaled on a lightening rod. This is our driver, Feizel’s, [ever-so-slightly] augmented shifter. We found ourselves in rush hour traffic driving through the Sabah capital, so you might imagine the workout Feizel had in 30-minutes of stop-and-go (FYI, there’s like a half-meter of travel between 2nd and 3rd gear).
There were exactly four ways we could have gotten from KK airport to Bigfin divers (where we’re headed): 1) Public transport—taxi, public bus, taxi, boat; 2) Rental car (leaving the rental car in Mengkabar village for four days and paying for it all the while); 3) Grab/Uber (but it’s hard to find a driver willing to take you such a long distance); and 4) Feizel.
The lovely people at Bigfin arranged Feizel for us (who is not only Bigfin’s choice driver, but a certified taxi driver with his own [ever-so-slightly-modified] yellow/black cab that says “Feizel” on it). At US$30 each way, the ride wasn’t cheap, but seemed reasonable to us for a two-hour private shuttle, considering it costs about US$30 for two roundtrip tuktuk/taxi rides in Vientiane between home and downtown (a whopping 5km (3 miles)). Plus, it easily saved us an hour or two over taking the bus, if we had been able to even get one so late in the day to Kota Belud.
It’s been a long travel day from the banks of the Kinabatangan, so Noe had a number of opportunities to nap along the way, which meant by the time we got to taxi ride he was not keen on sleeping—two hours of books, finger puppets, foam alphabet pieces, stickers, and paper-rock-scissors ensued.
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Then, just before sunset, the gravel track turned into sand, and we found ourselves on the edge of the ocean.
Mengkabar village. Fun fact—there’s a Swiss guy who owns one of these homes, spending six months of each year as a dive instructor in the area before returning to Switzerland for the summer. Not a bad life, if you ask me.
Getting on the boat to Bigfin.
Where’s Noe? Oh yeah, I’m wearing him.
And there it is—Pantai Merakit, and Bigfin divers running up the hill on the left. We’re only a couple hundred meters out at this point, but the tide is very low and it will take another ten minutes for the boat men to maneuver between the coral and rocks up to the beach. Given the obstacles (and that the water is no more than a half meter deep all the way in), it’s pretty amazing that we end up right at the water line.
Inside of our bungalow (panoramic shot—the bungalow is small, but just large enough to accommodate the bed and Noe’s portable crib at the foot of the bed).
It’s three steps down to the rear ablution block. We’ve got running water (rainwater) and electricity from 5pm to 11pm each night (though thankfully the fan in the room runs 24/7 off a solar-powered battery). No hot water here, but the water’s plenty hot in the evening, and warm enough in the morning for the tropical heat.
In our travels outside of Asia, these sorts of places have been fairly common. But they’re getting harder to find in Southeast Asia with each passing year. While there seems to be a strong push in East Africa for sustainable, eco-friendly, off-the-grid lodging options, the market in Asia is largely being driven by young Chinese and Koreans who demand all the modern conveniences of urban living…in the jungle…in a time where we all need to be managing our footprint on the planet better.
There is a sense of entitlement, particularly among the Chinese, that it is now their turn to produce and consume at U.S. post-War levels (prior to the West’s heightened awareness of what that production and consumption was actually doing to humans and the rest of the planet). I don’t fault the Chinese public, necessarily, as I don’t believe they have access to the information they need to make informed choices on these sorts of things. East Asian culture’s intense obsession with fortune/wealth and upward mobility doesn’t help either.
But I digress…
Back to paradise!
The next morning, we stepped out of our bungalow and were greeted by this. That’s Merakit Beach below, and they tell us you can see Mt. Kinabalu in the distance on a clear day.
A bit about Bigfin divers. It’s brand new, just officially opened at the beginning of this year (2018)—in fact, the area I’m standing and taking these photos from was dense jungle just a few months ago.
The property is divided into three parts. A few meters from the beach is the dive center. A short walk up the hill into the jungle is the covered kitchen/ common area. And, up a couple dozen concrete steps—high up on a bluff overlooking the water—is where the accommodation is.
At the moment, they’ve got four bungalows (the last of which was only completed a few weeks ago), a handful of permanent safari-style tents, and an additional camping area. In the course of corresponding via email with the co-owner prior to our arrival (something I absolutely love about Southeast Asia—being able arrange these sorts of things so easily via email with the owner/manager of the property), she gave us a heads up regarding railing (or lack thereof) for Noe. She followed that up by adding that they’ve hosting toddlers with no problems. I didn’t tell her we lived in Laos where it’s a miracle if landings, balconies, decks, or stairs at these sorts of places have railing, but thanked her for the heads up.
With that said, there really is very little railing [yet] here, which kept things particularly interesting in the time between sunset and the generator powering up. We became very close with our headlamps.
Bigfin is owned and operated by a couple about our age (the husband is Malaysian from Sabah, and the wife is British). They started their dive business from the back of their car several years ago, before becoming associated with a couple of small area resorts, and eventually starting their own dive resort here on Pantai Merakit.
Bigfin is staffed with a small crew that is a mix of locals and international nomads. After the owners, Ella and Apex, we had the most interaction with the cook (who’s name sounded something like Owie)—besides cooking up some delicious local fare, his banana pancakes were some of the best I’ve ever had.
With that, it’s time to hit the beach!
View of the bungalows from the beach.
Despite what it may look like in these photos, the water was pretty clear. The sand here is very fine and silty, so the moment your foot touches the bottom, it gets a bit cloudy.
And the temperature of the water? Like a warm bath.
Jellyfish are still present in these parts, but a different type than up north.
Thankfully, all of our jellyfish encounters near shore were with the non-venomous Mastigias Jellyfish (or “true” jellyfish). In the swimming photos above there were dozens of these just below the surface swimming around our feet—most (like the one above) were the size of a softball, but completely harmless.
Nevertheless, we learned our lesson in Kudat, and Noe was covered from neck to toe this time. His swim outfits only came with shorts, however, so we had to improvise:
About fifty meters from the waterline at high tide, the sea floor suddenly becomes more colorful and diverse, though there aren’t a lot of fish to be seen near the beach.
The southern stretch of Pantai Merakit is occupied by an interesting little local business that predates Bigfin by many years.
When we first arrived here, we didn’t know what the deal was with the long rows of hammocks and dining tables. We actually thought it was part of Bigfin—a beachside high-season extension to their resort.
It’s still early on the first day, and we can see a boat full of visitors approaching Palau Pandan [island] 3 km offshore. At this point, we have no idea that there’s a connection between that boat and this complex (more on that in the next post).
Today, we’re blissfully ignorant of the true nature of this place. So, we walk on over and make ourselves at home on the hammocks and sun chairs, and the couple of bored-looking staff milling about seem happy to have us.
We head up to see what’s on offer in terms of beverages, and a woman introduces us to their beer and coconut offerings. Hmm…that’s a lot of coconuts for such a remote beach…expecting some friends, are we?
Sippy time, followed by hammock time. Repeat.
By the time we finish our beverages, it’s nearly time for lunch, so we make our way back up the hill to Bigfin, none the wiser.
To us, it’s a perfect morning in paradise.
Yep, it’s a hot one. Really hot.
Our bungalows heated up significantly in our absence, but fortunately there’s a nice breeze coming up and over the escarpment. We opened the front sliders, turned the solar fan on full-blast and Noe was asleep in a matter of minutes, proving the air-conditioned rooms we’ve been staying in this trip haven’t completely spoiled him.
Lori takes this opportunity to do some snorkeling of her own before an impending afternoon thunderstorm. I’ve got baby duty, and watch from the comfort of one of the hammocks on our front porch.
Lori’s down there doing some snorkeling. Can you spot her?
How about now?
…to answer the question on EVERYBODY’S minds:
YES! The baby monitor signal DOES reach all the way down to the dining/ common area—but just barely. Be that as it may, I’m content at the moment napping in my hammock within spitting distance of the Mister and tracking Lori’s progress. Besides, someone’s got to keep an eye out for those saltwater crocs and all…