ONE picture stopped me in my tracks as I scrolled the @natgeo Instagram page. It was a National Geographic picture of a high lone rock surrounded by smaller mossy beach rocks visible above the retreating sea water.
The algae-covered rocks were the most enticing feature of the picture. My first thought? Must be some foreign location. But the caption told me otherwise. It was taken at Pantai Batu Luang in Sabah. I was shocked. And intrigued.
That one picture lured me to search for the exact location. I managed to slot a time to search for it in between some work stints in Sabah in May last year.
The search for Pantai Batu Luang set my pulse racing as it was not an easy beach to find. An isolated beach near Kuala Penyu, it is not on the state’s tourist map. Kuala Penyu, a coastal town, is about two hours’ drive from the state capital Kota Kinabalu.
We engaged a driver from a local tour company in the city. While our driver knew how to get to Kuala Penyu, he was clueless about Pantai Batu Luang. Still, we were undaunted.
Our drive took us past the towns of Papar and Beaufort with Pulau Tiga just off the seashore. The reality television series, Survivor, aired in 2000, made Pulau Tiga famous.
We drove further to the south of Sabah, passing Sungai Klias where you can go on a river cruise. It is one of many mangrove-fringed rivers that flow towards the South China Sea. The beaches here are long and secluded. Makeshift stalls line narrow roads at several stretches. Locals sell fresh catch from the sea. A pile of three to four lobsters costs only RM10!
We reached a T-junction after a bridge over a river. The left pointed towards Menumbuk, the right to Kuala Penyu town. We turned right, which turned out to be the wrong way. Pantai Batu Luang became more elusive as several locals we approached didn’t know its whereabouts. One of them told us to drive towards Menumbuk instead and find Batu Luang in that direction.
We stopped near Tempurung Golden Beach Resort in Kampung Tempurung, a village we came across along the way. We met a suntanned brawny man, Awang Bongsu Dollah, a Bajau laut from Kota Belud, at a shanty wooden shack near the resort. I showed him the Nat Geo picture on my mobile phone, and he recognised the spot instantly.
“That’s Batu Punggul, not far from here,” he said. He told us the direction to the spot. We also learnt from him the legend of Batu Punggul. Some call it Batu Luang. It is a tragic story about a newly-wed couple. After the wedding celebration at the bride’s home, the couple and their families walked to the house of the bridegroom. When they reached Pantai Batu Luang, the sky turned dark. A thunderstorm suddenly hit the area. They ran helter skelter, seeking shelter in one of the many caves at the base of huge rocks along the beach. When the storm stopped, the group left the cave. The couple was the last to exit. Before the bride could step out of the cave, it collapsed suddenly. Her husband, who had stepped out just moments earlier, grabbed her hand. Much as he tried to pull her out, he failed. Her hand slipped from his grip. Her wedding ring came off and fell into his palm. Then she was gone, sealed in the cave.
Awang Bongsu said some locals swear that till today they can hear the voice of a woman crying in one of the caves at night. Could the legend be true? Or could it have been coined by the old folks to scare their kids from playing and hiding in the caves which would submerge during high tides?
Early settlers called their village Tanah Merah, named after the red surfaces of the rocks lining the shore. In the 1800s, a villager found on the seashore a coconut shell on which was carved some verses of the Quran. The locals regarded the coconut shell as special. They decided to change the name of their village from Tanah Merah to Kampung Tempurung in the hope that their fortunes would change for the better. The name remains to this day.
It was past noon when we left Awang Bongsu to look for Batu Punggul. We scanned the long line of beach as we drove along the main road.
Finally, I saw it. The lone rock. Exactly as I saw it in the picture. But glaringly absent were the mossy green rocks. I learnt later that we had arrived at the wrong time. The tide was high. Most of the rocks were underneath the sand and the sea.
I could see only several boulders and pebbles with scanty algae. There went my dream of capturing the perfect Nat Geo-like picture. But finding the spot was highly satisfying. Googling more pictures of it later revealed that it is a secret hideaway for photographers, both local and foreign, who are out to capture rare gems found only off-the-beaten path.
Batu Punggul and Pantai Batu Luang make stunning sunset shots. The rock against the blue sea and orange-hued sky, with vivid green-sea pebbles in the foreground, is indeed a sight to behold. Although I couldn’t get this perfect shot, I was happy just to be there.
Indeed there are caves underneath the giant rocks, about three to four storeys high, along the beach. The caves are more like rocky holes.
The rock surface is not exactly red. It has only a tinge of this colour reflected in bright sunlight. It turns rustic brownish-red as if painted by the golden rays at sunset. The area’s natural geological formations, including conglomerate deposits of pebbles and gravels that are naturally “glued” together on the rock face, should make interesting study. Batu Punggul and Pantai Batu Luang can be developed into a unique destination in Sabah.
Sabahan Sazali Suzin, who had published pictures of Batu Punggul on his website sazalisuzin.com, said the mossy rocks are best seen from January to June each year during the change of monsoon when the waves wash away the sand that bury them.
For Putri Zanina, the joy and depth of life come from encounters with experiences in both old and new places. Reach her at email@example.com