- Elevation: 1,312 m (4,304 ft)
- Prominence: 1,065 m
- Ribu category: Kurang Tinggi
- Province: Sabah (Malaysia)
- Division: Bahagian Tawau
- Google Earth: kml
- Other names: none.
Gunung Magdalena is the tallest peak in the range near the town of Tawau which forms the bulk of the excellent Tawau Hills Park, established in 1979 as Sabah’s southernmost forest reserve. Although not particularly high, Gunung Magdalena is one of Sabah’s most topographically prominent peaks. There is also a fabulous hostel to stay in on the slopes of the second-highest peak, Gunung Lucia (1,201m). Some adventurous hikers include the third-highest too, Gunung Maria.
Magdalena is the most distant destination on the trail, lying 17 kilometres from Taman Bukit Tawau HQ. Fast hikers could complete the trek to both peaks in 2 days but the best itinerary is spread over 3 days so that Lintagu Hostel can be made use of. A guide from the Park is essential. Leech socks or ‘stockings’ as they are known locally are advisable here but mosquitoes do not present a major problem.
Below is a description of a 3 day trip, taking in the two highest peaks. Note that there is accommodation available at Park HQ but it is best to avoid weekends due to how busy it gets.
Day 1 (4 hours):
Starting at Tawau Hills Park HQ (260m) after registering, the first section of trail is very well-defined as it is used on a daily basis by tourists coming to look for wildlife here. Less than 500 metres along the trail is a manned signing in booth after which the trail leads over some minor bridges alongside the river on the right. A well-signposted junction on the left (284m) points the way to what used to be billed as the tallest living tropical tree in the world, a yellow meranti (Shorea faguetiana) at 88.32 metres, until an even taller example of the same species was discovered in 2018 – also in Sabah – in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, measuring 100.8 metres and known as ‘Menara’ (Tower’).
Just over another kilometre along the main trail is a very important junction (293m), with an old bridge leading over to the river on the right. This is the way to the hot springs and beyond to Gunung Maria. Those hikers who aim to reach all three peaks – Magdalena, Lucia and Maria usually hike Maria last and descend this way via the hot springs. The ‘three sisters’ were apparently the names of the daughters of a Westerner who lived and worked locally many decades ago, presumably before the peaks had any widely-used local names.
Continuing along the main trail, a river crossing (299m) is soon necessary, but a rope is provided to help hikers get across during periods when the water level is high. A short distance beyond the river crossing is another important trail junction (332m), with a left turn leading Bukit Gelas waterfall and a right turn leading upwards towards Gunung Magdalena and Lucia. After this point you are not likely to see any other day-trippers searching for wildlife as the trail is almost-exclusively used by mountain hikers. So this is where the proper trek begins and where the trail gets much steeper.
A bit further up the mountainside are some wildlife camera warning signs (577m) so please be careful to avoid disturbing them. The target of the cameras is the Clouded Leopard (‘Harimau Dahan’). You are now entering a part of the forest known as ‘Kerangas Forest’ and supporting high species diversity, the word being taken from the Iban language and meaning ‘infertile soils in which rice cannot grow’. It is also known as ‘heath forest’. The next important point on the trail is Pondok Casuarina (631m), a simple shelter with a water source and basic toilet facilities with a water tank.
Not too long afterwards is a second shelter, Pondok Pandanus (714m) which is very similar to the first. A tiny stream (815m) is crossed just over a kilometre beyond this second shelter and then – after a total of around 4 hours from Park HQ – the wonderful Hostel Lintagu (862m) is reached. This really is a hostel, a spacious long wooden building with several rooms of bunk beds, shared bathrooms, electricity after dark for lighting from the solar panels, a communal eating area and simple cooking facilities. If you avoid weekends you may have it to yourself except for the staff who look after it several days per week, including cutting the lawn surrounding it. The hostel has several names including Hostel 10.55KM (due to its position on the trail), and Hostel Gunung Lucia as it is on the slopes of Gunung Lucia.
Assuming you started your hike quite early, you should have most of the afternoon to relax, do some birdwatching and enjoy listening to the insects in the nearby forest. You may even be treated to a gorgeous sunet or a visit by a rarer animal or two. There’s a jambu tree growing by the hostel so you may even be in luck with a fruit or two. It feels almost luxurious!
Day 2 (8-10 hours):
Day 2 is the bigger day, in between the two shorter treks on Days 1 and 3. Most hikers here will aim to reach the summits of both Gunung Magdalena and the second-highest peak in Tawau Hills Park, Gunung Lucia. An early start is advised.
From Hostel Lintagu, the trail leads up via the Helipad (904m), a grassy open area which was originally used for depositing the materials to construct the hostel, a junction on the left for a waterfall (917m), and eventually Pondok Bumburing (1,137m) which lies just a few metres away from the trail junction for Gunung Magdalena (left) and Gunung Lucia (right). Although Gunung Lucia is only 370 metres beyond the junction, most guides will advise you to bag Gunung Magdalena first and then do Gunung Lucia on your return. It makes sense to try to reach the most distant location first, but given that views are usually best earlier in the morning and partial views are indeed possible from the top of Lucia, unlike Magdalena, there is also an argument for heading up Lucia first if the weather is pleasant.
Assuming you are going for Magdalena first, just over 4 kilometres away, this junction marks the start of a slightly frustrating descent to a river crossing and camp spot (827m) just before another shelter named Pondok Liposu, which lies at the lowest part of the col here. Having lost 300 metres of elevation can be quite mentally draining when you are hoping to reach a higher point, especially when you know you have to return the same way later on!
Actually, the final ascent from Pondok Liposu up to the summit ridge of Magdalena is fairly straightforward. A repeater (1,253m) is reached shortly before the true summit which is a boulder with a couple of summit signs on the top. The boulder is easy to get onto, given the forest vegetation, but offers no views, also due to the forest vegetation. It should have taken around 4 hours to reach this point from Hostel Lintagu, and although going down is usually faster you will probably need another 4 to get back to the hostel with a quick side diversion to bag Gunung Lucia.
Once you are back at the Magdalena-Lucia junction you may want a quick rest at the nearby Pondok Bumburing before the final push up onto the top of Lucia. It isn’t too difficult, and one spectacularly-large boulder (1,163m) makes it very scenic. The summit of Gunung Lucia (1,201m) is a small opening with summit signs and a metal beirut.
You may see a narrow path leading off on the other side of the summit of Lucia. This is the trail over to the third-highest peak, Gunung Maria (1,067m or 1,083m or 1,096m, depending on sources). But if you are intent on hiking Maria too then it will not make sense to return over Lucia to the hostel and you would most likely continue down the other side of Maria and drop down to the hot springs before reaching the trail junction near the bridge not too far from the start of the trail at Park HQ. And this would be a lot to accomplish on Day 2 before dark, especially after having been up Magdalena and Maria first.
Of the three peaks – Magdalena, Lucia and Maria – it is Maria that is thought to have been the most active in pre-historic times and given the hot springs at its base clearly has geothermal potential. Even looking at the contours on a map it is clear that the mountain is volcanic in origins, appearing more in shape like, for example, a volcanic mountain from Indonesia’s Sumbawa island.
After enjoying a break at the top of Lucia, most hikers return to the lovely Hostel Lintagu for a second night before an easy third day.
Day 3 (3-4 hours):
Day 3 is simply Day 1 in reverse. Descend back to Tawau Hills Park HQ, have a shower, and then perhaps have a nice lunch at the canteen (‘Kantin Begonia’).
Bagging report by Dan Quinn (August 2023)
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- Getting there: The closest town is Tawau which has an airport and regular flights to and from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. From the airport to Tawau Hills Park takes about 1 hour by car or taxi (or 30 minutes from Tawau itself). Public transport is poor or non-existent. There is also an express boat from Tarakan (Indonesia) to Tawau 3 or 4 times a week taking around 4-5 hours. In 2022, it leaves at 11am and costs Rp500,000 one-way.
- Guides and GPS Tracks: Want a PDF version for your phone? Looking for a guide? Need GPS tracks and waypoints? Gunung Magdalena information pack can be downloaded here.
- Permits: RM6 conservation fee for Malaysians (Rm20 for foreigners), climbing fee of RM25 for Malaysians per peak (RM50 per peak for foreigners), and guide fee of RM150 per day. The excellent Lintagu hostel is a very reasonably-priced RM20 per night. The Taman Bukit Tawau office is open at 8am until 4pm.
- Water sources: Several places along the trail with piped water but if possible boil before use. The last water point is Pondok Liposu.
Local Average Monthly Rainfall (mm):