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The Hunt for the Milky Way in Sabah 2017- Day 1 Tambunan, Sabah

Ever since I was little, I've always been fascinated by the stars, the moon and planets. A telescope was always on my wish list and still is. On clear nights, I would stare at the sky hoping to get a glimpse of some space ship. However, because I live in the city, the most common stars that can be seen with the naked eye would be the Big Dipper.

Once in awhile, during my beach getaways on a somewhat less populated island, I'll get to see more stars and if lucky, a few shooting stars.

Image result for big dipper
The Big Dipper. Credit : WikiHow

If you've been following my Instagram, you would know that I started my Starry Nights watercolour series last year. They're based on photos I see taken by Milky Way enthusiasts on Instagram when my interest peaked early last year. 

I suddenly felt an urge to hunt for the Milky Way which I always thought could only be seen in the Northern or Southern Hemispheres. Then I started searching for local locations- namely Kelantan and Sabah. In November 2016, coincidentally ( I don't remember how exactly), I came across an event being planned by the Sabah Stargazers to Hunt for the Milky Way sometime in late February when there is no moon visible and little chance of rain.

I was a little apprehensive as they emphasized night photography and listed the items to be brought below:

Things that you must have for this exploration will be as follows (MUST HAVE!) :-
∘ Fast Wide Lens (ie. F1.4. F2.0, F2.8 lenses)
∘ Intervalometer / Remote Timer
∘ Tripod
∘ Insect Repellent
∘ Mosquito Coils
∘ Torch Lights / Head Lamps
∘ Windbreaker/Jackets (for cold temp locations)

Things that will be good to have but not necessary :-
∘ Tents for thos who would love to camp under the stars
∘ Floor mat / Tikar
∘ Star Chart
∘ Personal Star Tracker

"Is this outing out of my league?" I thought to myself. I've never been to Sabah and it sounded like a real adventure so I sent them a message with my worries only to be warmly assured that I would be well taken care of and that camping was optional. I could arrange to stay at nearby hotels. I sighed in relief.

I already had a DSLR camera with a F2.8 lens (I last used it 4 year or 5 years ago- before the time of my now-dead OPPO smartphone), a tripod and a windbreaker (both of which I've never used).

All I needed to do was rent a car and book my hotels.

I then started FB tagging my friends who had expressed similar interest last year but all of them couldn't make it so I only had one last option- coax my hubby to join me with a bunch of strangers from different backgrounds, and careers, and from Semenanjung Malaysia, Sabah itself and even a charming couple from Singapore. All with the common interest of photography and adventure. 

He was to be my designated driver. I warned him that we (actually he) would be driving at 2am every day to remote places to shoot the Milky Way and we would be travelling to a different remote location every day for a week. He bravely said he would. I didn't want to scare him off further so I made the whole trip sound like a breeze even though I really didn't know what I was getting into and he sportingly (with slight reluctance) agreed to give up his Guns and Roses concert which was to take place on the day we were to leave for Sabah to accompany me. He's sweet that way! I enticed him further with astro photos taken in Sabah and he didn't believe that we could actually see the Milky Way at the Equator. 

Our planned route for the next 8 days

The weeks leading up the trip were hectic with work and errands and I only started packing our bags the day before the trip. I packed a few pieces of light clothing to last 8 days, two jackets and a sweater for the cold nights (I read that the coldest it could get was about 18 degrees Celsius so I wasn't too worried.) 

The night before the trip, hubby and I had a late night meeting before sending my 3 cats to my in-laws at about 11pm, catching a quick shut eye at 2am and getting a Grab Taxi at 4.30am to catch our 7.00am flight.

I was little too tired to be excited but I knew this would be one epic journey!

DAY ONE- Tambunan

The adventure begins

12pm at the meeting point- Masjid Bandaraya Likas

2pm- Our convoy to Tambunan - an 80km drive through the hills
Paddy fields along the way

Horses are seen casually hanging out at Tambunan town

The temperature here is visibly cooler

Tambunan district of Sabah covers an area of 134,540 hectares with a population of 24,000. The rich plain of Tambunan was almost totally isolated from the west coast of Sabah by the knife-edged mountains at the Crocker Range.

Tambunan is easily accessible via Kota Kinabalu, all it takes is about one and a hour’s drive by a sealed road which crosses which crosses the Crocker Range at Sunsuron Pass which 1,649 meters high.

The road leading to Tambunan goes through Penampang before starting to climb the Crocker Range about 18 kilometers outside of Kota Kinabalu.

It is scattered with farming communities who plant hill rice, pineapples, bananas, mushrooms, as well as other vegetables which visitors are able to obtain at roadside stalls. Besides that, wild and cultivated orchids can also be found at the roadside stalls.

Once we reached Tambunan, we had drinks at a nearby cafe (Thanks for the treat, Anuar!) before checking into our hotel. We weren't hungry so we said we would meet the rest of the group who were camping at Tambunan 360 at 10pm after a short nap.

The temperature dipped significantly that night as we made our way up in a RTM van. RTM was invited to cover this inaugural event.  The 15- minute drive to Tambunan 360 from Tambunan town isn't an easy one which involved driving uphill on a slippery gravel trail so we decided to not use our rented MyVi.

Tambunan 360 is basically a viewing tower about 3000 ft above ground level and is pretty much an open space with an unobstructed view of the sky (and no place to hide from the strong cold wind!). Sabah Stargazers had special permission for our group to stay the night there.

We were very ill-prepared for the bitter cold winds that engulfed us that night till sunrise. I was literally shivering in my 3 layers of clothing and hubby was pretty much frozen in position in a chair. It was very misty and chances seemed bleak for us to sight the Milky Way. I managed to get a few minutes of sleep in a sitting position after Kak Ros and Anuar (participants) kindly offered some biscuits and crackers to us. I'm usually someone who loves packing snacks but due to time constraint, I didn't this time. I would have loved some hot drinks and snacks to keep us warm.

Anuar was a participant who had just found about the trip through FB on the day we left from Tambunan. He already had a camera which he was learning how to use but had no real chance to use it so he spontaneously decided to join us.

At 4.30am, the clouds cleared and I could see a white mist above the hills. This is the Milky Way that the naked eye sees but the white mist looks significantly different on camera. Emma, part of the organizing team, was up all night sharing information about the constellations while the rest of us were fighting the cold and hoping to get good shots.

Image may contain: night, sky and outdoor
Photo by Harris Jeffrey

My first real attempt at night photography. Below us you can see Tambunan town lit up

My Nikon lens aperture can't go beyond 2.8 and it's maximum ISO is 1600 so photos will appear granier compared to those with cameras with higher specs.

After a night that seemed to go on forever, we were rewarded with a magnificent sight of breaking dawn.

Next: DAY TWO- Ranau


  1. Yes, it was an epic trip! Very sleep deprived and am still recuperating.

    1. You and Phng Phng are amazing and so disciplined staying up till dawn! Hubby and I couldn't wake up before 3am ;p Enjoy the rest of your holiday!

  2. Looks so fun and interesting! I'm an adventurous person, would love to head over one day

  3. Srargazing is one of my favorite. I used to go to islands or up hill for star gazing but now no longer able to do it after having kids.

    1. Bring the kids along. They will love it!

  4. great shots. you just need a bigger telescope and you can be a full time astronomer. You can even see the Andromeda if the sky is that clear:)

    1. Thanks! I continue to dream to own a telescope!

  5. I love the night photography attempt, it is so pretty! I should really go to Sabah one day.

    1. Thanks! You must go to feels sooo different from Peninsula Malaysia

  6. You are very adventurous and the photos look good. Wish I have more time to travel.

    1. I'm not that adventurous but the stars, the sea and the hills were calling :)

  7. I am all stoked and hope to be able to get such a great opportunity also... I am planning to visit Sabah soon... have not been there yet

  8. wow the place is so nice. time to make a visit

  9. The view is so amazingly pretty! I never been doing this kind of hunt before, looks like a really pretty fun experience =)

  10. Gosh, what an adventure this was. I wished I could find the luxury of time to just go away chasing after the stars! That would be a dream come true.

  11. Would love to visit sabah some day! never been there but your pics are amazing <3


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