MALAYSIA, Sabah Borneo: In The Land of the Red ApeThe path circuitously meandered by a rushing waterfall and then the first of thousands of steps appeared. Sweat was already coating my shirt. Onwards and upwards to the top of Mount Kinabulu.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2008
Charles Darwin once described Borneo as “One great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself”. Borneo is a mystical island, riddled with tales of tribal head hunters, forest serpents, mountain spirits, coastal wrecks and dark and evil jungles. Whether you’re a naturalist, botanist, climber, adventurer or plain traveller, Borneo eventually pulls you under her spell.
I winced as the straps on my backpack cut into my sunburned shoulders. It was a warm bright morning; sunshine broke through mist sweeping off mountain ridges like flowing chiffon. As we waited for our trekking permits to be issued, the Aussies in our party do what Aussies do best – made jokes about the Kiwis. It probably alleviated any apprehension they may have had.
The adventure of trekking to a 4000 metre summit in a tropical country was on everybody’s mind. My own thoughts were the seizures in my stomach from a bout of Delhi-belly. The inevitable had started at 4am that morning, which I said little about, knowing the Aussies would have given me heaps of stick.
We’d spent the previous night in a Kinabulu Park Lodge, more like a pocket-watch Swiss chalet with twin bedrooms, a wide veranda and a relaxing lounge and open fire. Some sipped tea while others slugged back Jonny Walker – isn’t that what real climbers do?
I’d started preparing for this trip three months earlier. I was hiking 8km a day believing I was about as fit as I could be to climb Mt. Kinabulu. In reality, on the mountain at altitude, all that hard graft would be compressed into just two days.
An Aussie asked Fabian, our tour guide, who was the oldest person to have reached the summit. “A 79 year-old Japanese man,” was his reply and in a mumble added, “and the youngest was a 5-year old boy.” Great!
About 4 km from our lodge was the starting point of the climb at 1856m Timpohon Gate. It was innocuous enough, an iron gate attached to a wooden hut where extra provisions were sold. Nothing daunting crept into my thoughts but having blogged the ascent, I really should have known better than to think it was going to be a doddle – this 4090m hike is not a walk up One Tree Hill!
A downward path circuitously meandered by a rushing waterfall and then the first of thousands of steps appeared. Sweat was already coating my shirt.
The first westerner to reach the summit of Mt. Kinabulu was John Whitehead in 1851, the British Consul General in Kota Kinabulu. His trip took two weeks to complete and he paid his porters in salt. All I seemed to be doing was losing salt!
For centuries, the local Kadazan and Dusun peoples have held that Mt. Kinabulu is the home of their dead ancestors and named it Aki Nabalu – “Revered Place of the Dead.”
On the trail, local porters chugged past us carrying 30-40 kilos of supplies in specially woven back frames up to the overnight resthouse at Laban Rata, a forehead strap taking the brunt of the weight. On average about 100 people a day attempt Mt. Kinabulu, a melting-pot of nationalities trekking its timeworn route.
It was hard for me to hide the fact I’d injured my left knee. A neoprene knee-brace was the giveaway. I downplayed the constant pain and pressed on. Every few kilometres there was a rest hut, a time to drink fluids and eat energy bars or in my case make a quick visit to the long-drop. I trudged upward slowly. By the time I’d reached 2300m the muscles in my right thigh seized with cramp. I couldn’t walk anymore. I’d been using it to take all the weight off my bad knee and as such it had done twice the workload.
Fabian applied a sickly-coloured yellow liniment that smelled like the essence of Tiger Balm and slowly the pain eased. I downed a packet of re-hydration salts in a litre of water. Back on the muddy track my right leg and left knee seemed fine, yet the stomach bug was weakening me far worse.
Just before we reached Laban Rata Resthouse at 3273m the heavens exploded. The narrow trail was braided in a pony tail of small and large boulders – this creek was now in flash-flood mode.
At 5pm most of our group were getting stuck into dinner. Craig could eat for three people. Jason, another Kiwi remarked, “We should call you Anaconda as you’ll eat just about anything.” I tried to spoon down some soup and almost instantly lost it. I took some ‘Diastop’ tablets, two Panadol and went to bed with both a headache and stomach ache.
At 1.30am we were woken up. I pushed my body into thermal leggings and wind pants, thick socks and hiking boots with two thermal vests, a fleece jacket and a beanie, and then added a flask of whisky to my pack. By now the common-room bulged with people all dressed like mannequins in an outdoor clothing store. I swallowed more Diastop tablets.
At 2.45am we stepped out into soot-black darkness to begin climbing sets of steep, slippery steps. All I could see were the heels of the person in front of me. People were struggling for breath by the time we reached a series of ropes tethered to granite slabs. The ropes were to haul ourselves up with.
Slowly a full moon rose in the night sky, but it was still dark enough to need a flash light to see the way forward. We trudged higher over granite rock faces that seemed to indicate we were close to the summit, only to find more mountainous granite ahead that looked even steeper. The rope sections criss-crossed the uneven rock face as up ahead a trail of peoples lights began to snake its way higher and higher, blinking in the darkness like fairy lights swinging in the wind.
In a saddle of granite the wind was bitingly cold. Ahead was a spire-like rock silhouetted against the eerie light of day. It was Low’s Peak, the highest point on Mt. Kinabulu.
At the summit it was just below freezing but at this stage no one cared. Then the sun emerged and the clouds below reflected the morning dawn of a new day over Asia. Mist continued to swirl off the steel-gray craggy peaks as more people kept arriving – euphoria began mixing with frigid air.
All we had to do now was descend - it was all downhill from here. By 4pm that afternoon we were headed for beers in Mesilau Nature Lodge walking much-like our friendly Orang-Utan cousins. Suddenly I realised I’d forgotten to crack open the whisky – I’d carried the flask all the way to the summit and back down again. This would never happen to Hillary I thought.
Virgin Blue offer a daily service from Auckland to Gold Coast. Air Asia X offer a daily service from the Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur. Air Asia also fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabulu.
The middle of the year is the best time to travel to Borneo.
Guides and Permits:
You will need one or more guides depending on your group size. Permits can be obtained the day of your climb. It is recommended to stay overnight at the huts in Laban Rata Resthouse but this is an additional cost.
Remember to bring with you:
Diastop tablets, headache tablets, high energy supplies, good hiking or walking shoes, warm thermal clothing, wind breaker and rain jacket, long sleeve shirts, change of clothes, water bottles, high energy food (chocolates, nuts, raisins, glucose), sun-block, deep heat lotion, plasters, insect repellent, water proof bag for camera, torch or headlight, towel, gloves and hat.
Under cooked food, untreated water, ice in drinks, altitude sickness, heat stroke.
Places to Stay:
Kinabulu Park Lodge and Mesilau Nature Resort can be found at: www.suterasanctuarylodges.com.my
Shane Boocock travelled to Malaysia with the assistance of Tourism Malaysia, Virgin Blue and Air Asia
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