Tea and tributes in the Crocker Range
Sevee Chararuks was awarded an MBE for his restoration of Kundasang War Memorial.

The rainforest stops abruptly and tight little bushes form a quilt of leafy green on a fertile patch of the Mt Kinabalu foothills near Ranau.

There are no gates, fences or barriers, just tea as far as the eye can see.

In the cool of the Crocker Range, 37 varieties of camellia sinensis thrive at the Sabah Tea Plantation, Malaysia's only organic tea producer.

I'm a fervent tea drinker who leaves his bag in the full five minutes, and standing among the bushes I'm fascinated by the journey from crop to cup.

The rainforest that rings the 500ha property hasn't only been left for conservation reasons but because it protects the tea from pesticides that may be used in the area, according to senior plantation guide Meliden Giking, a local Dusun man who's been with the company for 10 years.

Previously a Sabah Parks botanist who studied the medicinal uses of plants, Mr Giking says the plantation feels a natural place for him to be.

"I came to Sabah Tea Plantation and loved it so much I ended up staying," Mr Giking says. "It makes sense, tea is very good for people."

The top two leaves and a bud are picked at sunrise and then left in troughs to wither overnight.

A series of troughs, each perhaps 30m long, are filled end to end with leaves. Nearby, a big black roller turns and shreds dried leaves. On a conveyor belt, what looks like slabs of astroturf are fermenting, activating the tannins in the tea.

The tea will be taken to a firing oven where it will turn black, before being sifted to separate the different grades of tea from dust and stalks.

Each hour, a taster drinks a cup of black tea from the new batch to make sure it's up to standard. If it gets the thumbs up, it's either packed as loose leaf or fed through a machine that can make 150, 2g bags a minute.

"Good tea should leave a ring around the cup, have a fresh aroma and a beautiful caramel colour," Mr Giking says.

I tell him of my love for tea but am soon chastened.

"More than three minutes is too long; you'll have too much caffeine and tannins in the cup and you'll be up all night," he laughs.

The plantation land has inextricable links to Australian war history. It was through these foothills, then totally swathed in inhospitable jungle, that more than 2400 Australian and British prisoners of war and thousands of Indonesian slave labourers lost their lives at the hands of Borneo's Japanese occupiers in 1945.

The PoWs had been forced to march 265km from Sandakan in the east to Ranau. They were tortured and starved, their weakened bodies had no defence against disease or the harsh conditions.

Six men who escaped and were helped by villagers survived, those emaciated PoWs that made it to Ranau died from disease, torment or were murdered.

On a hill behind the plantation carpark, the wind blows the Australian and Malaysian flags as one.

In 2005, historian Lynette Silver and Sabah local Tham Yau Kong realised that not only did the death marches pass through the plantation land but that this hill was where Private Allan Quailey, weakened by beri-beri, malaria and starvation, decided he could continue no longer.

The 24-year-old from NSW was murdered on the spot. Today a memorial to Pte Quailey stands beneath the trees on the hill that now bears his name.

The local Dusun people believe the clouds at the summit of mighty Mt Kinabalu protect the spirits of the dead and, in 1962, New Zealander Major G.S. Carter established memorial gardens to those killed in the death marches, under the shadow of the great mountain, at Kundasang.

Money was raised by local Sabahan people, grateful for the role the Allies had played in their liberation, as well as expats, many of whom had served in the war.

But when retired Thai-born builder Sevee Charuruks visited in 2004, the gardens were overgrown, the land covered in rubbish, the walls cracked and blighted.

Touched by the stories of the men who perished on the marches, Mr Charuruks has spent the past seven years replanting the Australian, British, Borneo and Contemplation Gardens, fixing and repainting the walls and digging out layer upon layer of rubbish, often at his own expense.

"I have an emotional attachment with these men, I can't walk away from them now," Mr Charuruks says.

The complete restoration of the Kundasang Memorial Gardens consumes the 61-year-old, who sleeps on site, checking on his wife, cat and dog in Kota Kinabalu twice a week.

Beautiful gardens, filled with rare orchids, heliconia, ginger, ferns and roses are pesticide free and need continual replanting by Mr Charuruks, who also conducts guided tours.

A weakened supporting wall at the Contemplation Garden has been demolished and he has designed a panoramic pergola with Roman pillars and views of the surrounding farmland.

This will complement the memorial hall for which the Australian Government contributed $155,000. There, the young faces of many of those lost hang from the walls above anecdotes and words of thanks from the families they left behind.

Mr Charuruks takes me to where he will build disabled ramps up to gardens, pulling rubbish out of the grass as he goes.

He tells me he won't wait for funds to come through - former State and Federal MP Graham Edwards, who is in a wheelchair, was unable to pay his respects at the gardens and others are missing out.

"Many of the people the ramp will help are old, some of these soldiers are in their 90s," Mr Charuruks says.

Made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, Mr Charuruks says he initially didn't know what the award meant but he's happy for anything that will keep alive the memory of the men who died on the death marches.

"Many tourists come from Australia, New Zealand and Britain and they aren't aware of Sandakan. It's important that they know."

He hopes the time will come when the gardens, which have a modest entry fee of RM10 ($3.10) for foreigners and a small refreshment shop, can support themselves. Then he will join his daughter in Perth and spend his days fishing and golfing.

"Until then, I'm going nowhere. This memory must survive," he declares resolutely.

I ask him exactly how much of his own money he's spent. Embarrassed, he says his wife has a better idea than he has.

"Something like $500,000," Mr Charuruks eventually answers.

"I must admit I've used the odd donation for my petrol, it's getting so expensive."

It's the least he deserves.


FACT FILE

• Malaysia Airlines flies three times a week between Perth and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Flights leave Perth each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12.45am arriving in Kota Kinabalu at 6.25am. Flights return from Kota Kinabalu each Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6pm arriving in Perth at 11.35pm. See www.malaysiaairlines.com

• Sabah Tea Plantation is at Ranau about two hours from Kota Kinabalu. Activities include a Tea Factory Tour with or without lunch at the delicious on-site restaurant. There are also one and two-night packages with trekking and local sightseeing with accommodation at the plantation. Senior plantation guide Meliden Giking is an experienced trekker who has retraced the steps of the PoWs on the death marches. Go to www.sabahtea.com.my.

• Borneo Eco Tours has packages which include visits to the tea plantation. See www.borneoecotours.com.

• The Kundasang War Memorial is open daily from 8.30am-5.30pm. Admission is RM10 ($3.10).

• For more information about Sabah including maps and suggested itineraries, see www.sabahtourism.com.

Niall McIlroy visited Sabah as a guest of Sabah Tourism and Malaysia Airlines: Read more about Malaysia in our 11-page guide in Travel in The Weekend West.

The West Australian

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