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Borneo, Sabah: Sinurambi


Headline: Stunning Home - is symbol of One's man love

Date Posted: 2/1/2006

Richard N Sokial

Tropical Homes

On the rugged mountain ridges of the Crocker Range in Sabah, formerly known as British North Borneo, sits a house called Sinurambi. It is the most famous and exclusive private residence in Sabah, noted for its stunning architecture and surrounding natural beauty. Like an eagle’s nest, the house is perched on the steep slopes of tropical jungle, permeated by the cool breezes that sweep down from legendary Mount Kinabalu, home of the Kadazan ancestral spirits.

Borneo’s pristine scenery provides the backdrop for this stunning home whose name means ‘jungle abode’ in the native Kadazan language. As one travels up the gravel road that leads to the residence, the thick mists part to reveal a striking homestead overlooking the west coast. Surrounded by a lush wall of trees, Sinurambi is like a bejeweled ornament embedded in a natural tapestry set amid hills and valleys. From the grounds of the house, glimpses of white and cream denote the city. Toward the horizon, the azure sky softly melts into the calm waters of the South China Sea.

For owner Terry Mills, building this magnificent home was a fitting epilogue to a great love story – his own. Terry, the founder of a successful mail-order company in the UK, loved sailing, motor-racing, motor biking and traveling and it was this adventurous streak that took him to Costa Rica, Mexico, South East Asia and eventually to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Here he met his beautiful Rose, a Sabahan girl of Kadazan and Dusun parentage. It was love-at-first-sight for Terry and although Rose initially resisted his romantic overtures, the enamored Englishman persisted in wooing her. A tempestuous romance followed so, as a gesture of sincerity, Terry took Rose to the piece of native land he had found on the mountaintop in nearby Penampang and where they would later build their dream home.

As Terry so eloquently states, “When you find a beautiful rose, you can cut it, take it home, admire it and watch it slowly wither and die. Alternatively you can leave the rose where it grows best, see it bloom and hopefully one day it will have little rose buds.” Thus, Terry chose to live in Sabah and build Sinurambi as a symbol of his love and commitment to Rose.

For those lucky enough to be invited as guests to this stunning residence, it’s hard not to be swept away by its creation. It was, however, a formidable challenge for Terry and Rose to build their new home due to the rough terrain and lack of skilled local craftsmen. Equally daunting was the task of finding a local architect who could visualise their concept of creating an architecturally spectacular home that would make the most of the stunning view and natural surroundings.

Terry and Rose approached six of Sabah’s top architectural firms. Two of them could not be bothered to respond. Three more submitted ideas for holiday resorts and had no concept of what the couple were trying to create. Then architect Ling Fah Shing came to visit the site. Terry recalls how the maverick Fah Shing – a Sabahan of Chinese descent who had worked in the United States for 15 years before returning home – stepped foot on the plot and proclaimed that the opportunity to design a house in such a beautiful setting would only come once in an architect’s career. The Mills realised they had finally found the right man for the job.

Sinurambi’s concept as “a house that grows with nature” was conceived by Fah Shing himself, with Terry and Rose giving essential feedback for its spatial layout. Although inspired by Kadazan culture, Sinurambi is hardly “traditional”. The living room is the home’s architectural focal point and is inspired by the form of a wakid, the traditional basket used by the native people. The employment of industrial I-beams for the structural frame of the house – a first for any private residence in Sabah- and its dramatic sweeping roofs made of ironwood leave visitors gaping in awe.

Inside Sinurambi, Fah Shing used elements from the surrounding natural flora to create the home’s unique architectural features. The spiral staircase, for instance, was inspired by the shape of budding fern leaves endemic to the area. This leaf’s spiral form was also carved into the main entrance door, a gift from a friend in Indonesia. A 300-year old wrought-iron lockset – a Mills’ family heirloom – completes the door design. Elsewhere around the doorway, natural sandstone rocks found onsite were quarried and used to create the entrance wall. Upon entering Sinurambi, one feels like having entered the remnants of an old English castle, with undertones of modern tropical architecture.

Rose is a gracious hostess, and her impeccable taste and eye for aesthetics is reflected throughout the interior design of Sinurambi. For instance, she has transformed native rattan baskets into lampshades with which to decorate the towering living room. The petite Rose also takes a hands-on approach to the art of cultivating Sinurambi’s garden – in perfect contrast to her penchant for following her husband on high-powered motorbikes across Sabah’s rough adventure trails. Pieces of art by Sabah’s contemporary artists decorate the inner spaces of the home and reflect Rose’s support and patronage of area artisans.

The Mills’ love to entertain and Sinurambi is ideal for bringing their friends together on the weekends. In fact, the house has been a venue for private art exhibitions and served as a gathering place for Sabah’s elite for many social functions. Sinurambi provides the perfect setting in which to showcase artwork by local and regional artists and allow guests to mingle. Dinner parties held at Sinurambi are like United Nations conferences, where people from all walks of life, interests and ethnicities come together to share life stories and experiences over good food and fine wine. It was their friends and visiting relatives who suggested to Rose and Terry that they should open their magnificent house to paying guests as a base for them to begin to experience the wonders of Sabah’s natural beauty.

The Mills have an army of pets, 12 dogs and 4 cats plus injured jungle creatures being cared for before their return to the wild. Imagine waking up to a dawn chorus of birds and insects chirping away, then enjoying a full Malaysian breakfast on the balcony surrounded by a host of dozing pooches and cats with majestic Mount Kinabalu beckoning in the distance.

This grand display of nature, however, reaches its peak in the late evening, especially after a rainy spell when the beauty of Sinurambi is revealed in all its glory. A riot of activity fills the sky as returning swiftlets flutter through the house and streams of golden sunbeams burst through the storm clouds creating a kaleidoscope of colour unmatched anywhere on earth. No two sunsets are ever the same, something in which Terry and Rose revel. In fact, Rose keeps a camera on standby in the kitchen for those occasions when a particularly brilliant sunset illuminates the deck. The kitchen is filled with photos of beautiful sunsets taken from the house, a testimony to what makes Sinurambi one of the most coveted homes in Sabah.

The nights at Sinurambi are spent out on the enormous deck, enjoying the calm serenity above the lights of the city. But despite its aloof, secluded location, Sinurambi is only 30 minutes from down town Kota Kinabalu and the city airport. As Terry explains, “In England I have to plan my journey to Heathrow at least four hours before departure time in order to beat the traffic. Here, I can sleep late, wake up to a glorious view of Mount Kinabalu, have a cup of coffee, hop into my 4WD and be at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport within 25 minutes. Despite being in the heart of the jungle, Sinurambi is only minutes away from a flight to any destination in the world. It truly is the ideal home for me.”

When Terry and Rose are not entertaining guests at Sinurambi, they can be found cruising on their 80-foot Halvorsen Motor Yacht which is moored in Sutera Harbour Marina. Like the house, the yacht is available to guests who can enjoy trips to the nearby islands, indulge in romantic nights anchored off white, tropical beaches or spend days diving among the colourful corals and tropical fish.

Whether you are into mountain climbing, trekking or whitewater rafting, Sinurambi makes the perfect base for an unforgettable holiday in Sabah. Couples or families who would like to experience a resort lifestyle in Borneo within the ambience and privacy of a family home, or even a writer looking for tranquility and inspiration amid the untouched natural surroundings of Sabah’s Crocker Mountain Range, will find Sinurambi to be the location of their dreams.

Of course, the story of Sinurambi is essentially a tale of how an Englishman traveled the world, fell in love with a beautiful woman on the exotic island of Borneo then built a magnificent home as a symbol of his love for her. One can only hope the magic of Sinurambi will inspire the same passions among couples who come here to rekindle their love for nature and each other.




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Photo Credit: Mills collection