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Climbing Mount Kinabalu

27 September, 2010

We did this walk in January 2007, when we moved from Australia to the UK. We don’t have any pictures from this trip and I thought it would help me remember the walk if I wrote a report. Also, I am procrastinating.

It’s funny to think on now but Kinabalu was only my second overseas trip. My first trip was to Viet Nam and, in some ways, “didn’t count” because it was with my sisters and my parents, because we were staying in 4/5 star hotels (except when we stayed with family and, oh!, the contrast). It was to a culture with which I was reasonably comfortable that I could navigate. Sabah, Malaysia, on the other hand, was what I would deem as my first, real, overseas trip.

When we landed – after transiting through Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan airport, strange but peaceful and spacious – I realised: I had not even bothered to learn the words for hello, goodbye, please and thank you. I’d never been to a country where I did not speak the language before – sure, in Viet Nam, I did not speak the language well, but I could communicate reasonably well even if the people I spoke to fell about in peals of laughter whenever sounds emerged or because I’d used an old-fashioned word, a slightly off-kilter way of saying something. But suddenly, in the humidity of Kota Kinabalu and as we checked into our hostel, I realised: I did not know how to say thank you. And throughout our few days in KK, I never learned because almost everyone spoke English beautifully.

The main purpose of our trip to Sabah was to climb Mount Kinabalu, South-East Asia’s highest peak (4,095 metres). We had one afternoon in KK before we were to be taken up to Mount Kinabalu National Park. Everything had been pre-arranged for us, including transfers, accommodation and meals. This was a strange thing, used as we were to organising ourselves, but it was deliberate and welcome: we’d spent the previous month organising our move from Australia to the UK, and this was a (capital “h”) Holiday.

A small 4WD took us, and only us, from the airport to the hostel, through streets reminiscent of Bangkok, but with more grit, less neon. There was a strong scent everywhere, that never went away the entire time we were there, of dirty oil, mixed in with the smell of wet foliage. It rained, and rained, and rained. But the rain was a welcome distraction from the heat and umbrellas were unnecessary and useless. We just got wet, and quickly dried off when the rain ceased and got wet again when the rain started again. Lots of men went about with hankerchiefs on their head as sole protection against the rain, or as a means of cooling off; I never could work out which.

Our hostel was on the outskirts of the town centre, down the end where there were lots of big bank buildings. It appeared, like many business districts, desolate on a weekend evening but when we saw it (a few days later) during a week day, it was buzzing with everyday working life. That evening, we wandered all around the town centre, looking for somewhere to eat dinner, and getting to grips with the town. We walked through obvious ethnic streets – the Indian quarter, the Chinese quarter, the Malay quarter – and marvelled at the variety and overall harmony of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. We found a market selling souvenirs and another market selling fruit. We crossed huge roads, using excellent pedestrian overpasses, and found ourselves meandering around a car park until we emerged on the other side to find clean, groomed and brightly lit Tourist Restaurants. This patch was full of white faces, laughing people and myriad languages. The tables and chairs were made of wood (elsewhere they were plastic) and the restaurants were your usual array of chains: McDonalds, Starbucks, an Irish pub and, for the first (but not last) time in my life, a Walkabout pub. The Walkabout pub brought me up short and I stared. Nic, more well-travelled than me, explained: they’re everywhere and serve hot chips in a billy tin. I laughed but we did not go in.

I think we chose one of the random restaurants along this stretch and had an okay, if somewhat overpriced, meal of seafood and rice. We would have returned to the plastic-decor restaurants except that they were all on the other side of that huge car park and wide road, and we were tired and hungry.

On our return walk to the hostel, we encountered a fair in another car park, and I ducked into a public toilet to be astounded that the attendant was about 10 years old. I handed over my 20 ringgit cents (i.e., practically nothing) while Nic loitered outside, taking in the neon. The streets were reasonably lively at night and we found another shopping market before stumbling back to the hostel and into bed.

The next morning we breakfasted in the hostel. It was a random breakfast of fruit, bread and jam and not our usual hearty muesli. Still, it was sufficient and we were collected at 9am by our tour guide – Kelvin – and a driver. I don’t remember Kelvin doing much tour guiding. He just sat in the car with us and answered questions when we asked them (What is that farm growing? Palm trees for palm oil. What is that strange smell? Durian. No, not the smell of durian. I know the smell of durian. What is *that smell*? Um, not sure. Palm oil?) We chatted and it was pleasant. During our ride, we stopped at a small market, at which I spotted tiny sugar bananas (my favourite!), so purchased a hand. We probably disappointed Kelvin and our driver by showing little interest in the knick-knacks and tourist tat, and mostly hanging around our vehicle, waiting until it departed again.

When we arrived at the national park headquarters – from where we were to start our walk the following day – there was chaos at reception. We were told something incomprehensible about electricity and rooms and unavailability and asked if we would be prepared to lodge elsewhere – a half hour drive away – at no cost to us. We did not give a straight answer because we did not quite understand what was being asked of us. They said things might resolve after lunch, so we went and had lunch and then a tour of the gardens. I think we were taken on the Silau Silau trail but I must say, I was terribly confused at this stage by what was happening, by being herded from one place to another, and by food that I had not ordered being brought out to me, and so cannot be sure what trail we were actually on.

It was raining torrents as we meandered around the national park, with a family with two young girls, slipping and sliding in the yellow mud, their father asking numerous questions of the guide. I don’t remember much from this walk except that, at the end of it, I realised our camera was drenched and had been sitting in the pool of water that gathered inside the bag. Camera = kaput. I was sad, but philosophical.

When we returned to the hotel reception, we agreed to move elsewhere as, whatever the problem was, it was still not resolved. We were put into a car and driven 30 minutes away, through glorious, dripping wet rainforest, and arrived at Mesilau Nature Resort. Mesilau was entirely different from Park Headquarters. For starters, there was absolutely no one except resort staff about. We followed a porter to our rooms but the porter was somewhat flabbergasted to find that we had no luggage – we’d stored our rucksacks at the hostel in KK and had only a small day pack each for our walk up Mt Kinabalu. We wended our way along a tree-lined path to a small bungalow and entered a heavily air-conditioned room. It was perfectly nice and clean. We were too close to the mountain to see it and there was too much rain. But we could certainly see something. And it was big.

At dinner, there were only a one or two other occupied tables in a restaurant built to take hundreds. There was a strange eeriness to the entire place, so quiet and so deserted. After dinner we meandered around the resort grounds for a bit, startling some birds but finding no other people. We returned to our little bungalow room and slept soundly.

The next morning, we returned to the restaurant for breakfast where I nervously awaited our ride back to Park Headquarters to start our walk. After a short ride, we arrived back at busy, crowded and confusing Park Headquarters. Before we could steel ourselves to enter the fray and work out what we had to do, a man emerged from the mess of people and walked straight up to us saying, “Mr Nicholas?” This was Petra, our guide. He explained that he had completed our registration and handed us our identification tags. Off we set, leaving behind the melee of people.

Petra spoke some English and we spoke no Malay, so we communicated only a little. We told him a bit of our past walking experience and he nodded. He calmly led the way along an initially quite wide path, past a waterfall and then steps and more steps up and up and up. Initially the steps were cut into ground in reasonably well spaced, wide planks but these soon degenerated to little more than worn tree roots and rocks. The path was pretty much entirely up, rather than the more usual up a bit, level out, down a bit, up a lot, level out etc of most mountain walks. Nevertheless we trudged on through rainforest and it really was raining. Nic and I pulled out our waterproofs and sweated inside them as we ascended. Petra pulled out an umbrella. I looked down at his feet and noted that he was wearing simple trainers without socks, while we had rugged ankle high hiking boots. He sauntered ahead of us, pausing to check that we were still with him, while we trudged along behind. Noting our discomfit inside our raincoats, Petra demonstrated how we could wear our raincoats with the hoods perched on our heads and the sleeves dangling, like a cape.

Every now and then, he would stop and gesture for us to step aside, which we obediently did. We watched as agile men and women carrying rucksack sized loads of tiles and other building materials climbed the same path with ease. Some would share a few words with Petra, some a longer conversation. Whenever that happened, Petra would gesture for us to keep on, which we did, and he soon caught up with us.

At our lunch stop, we paused where a large group of walkers lounged around on the simple shelters that dotted the path. None of this group seemed to have packs at all, while we were each carrying a small daypack. Room was made for us and we ate our pre-packed lunch of fried chicken wings, a sandwich and a banana. Petra chivvied us along and we departed from the group, having exchanged only brief pleasantries. They all seemed a lot more exhausted than us. Up ahead, I saw a porter labouring under a multitude of brightly coloured packs bound together with fraying rope. He was the only porter whom we passed; all the others passed us.

At one rest stop, a little red squirrel-like creature darted around us and I asked Petra what it was. After giving me a quick glance to see, perhaps, if I was joking, he replied “a rat,” to which I laughed. Later, he pointed out pitcher plants to us, miming that these ate insects and spiders. This I knew already but was delighted to see them in their natural habitat. I, later, pointed out a huge one to Petra and he nodded with pleasure.

Pitcher Plant, taken at Kinabalu by Cain Doherty.

In the afternoon, as we got higher, I struggled much more with the thinning air and we stopped more frequently to rest. As I felt the onslaught of a headache, I took out some paracetamol tablets and swallowed them without water. Petra gestured to ask me what I had taken and I explained I had a headache. He gave me a worried look and offered me chocolate. I declined his but remembered my own and pulled that out to eat, offering him some in return, which he in turn declined. It was a strange little game we played. As we got closer to Laban Rata hut, our accommodation for the evening, Petra encouraged me with, “Not far, not far; chocolate, chocolate,” and I took a few deep, painful breaths and carried on. Laban Rata hut is at 3,270 metres and the air is thin.

Laban Rata hut by ynwa2005.

A few smaller groups passed us as we neared Laban Rata. When we arrived, there were only about 4 or 5 other people there and we drooped, exhausted, onto simple chairs in the dining room. Petra went off to check us in and then took us up to our own private room and told us that he would brief us at 7pm about the walk to the summit. He then disappeared for the rest of the evening, although we saw him laughing and smoking with porters during our postprandial stroll around the grounds of the hut. Over the course of the evening, other groups arrived and the hut filled up. We had dinner of mediocre burger and chips and, after the aforementioned stroll, went quickly to our room, which we were delighted to discover was an en-suite.  Petra didn’t appear for our 7pm briefing, but we were oddly unconcerned, and resolved to rise at 2am, our pre-arranged time to depart for the summit.

Others in the hut shared a bathroom which was, unfortunately, on the other side of our wall. Behind the other wall, was the men’s dormitory and all night, our sleep was disturbed by their comings and goings. At one stage, in the deep of night, someone banged loudly on our door, shouting something. I got out of bed to answer it, angry – very angry – at the disturbance. When I opened the door, I saw a man disappear into the dormitory next door and realised he’d mistaken our door for his. I was terribly tempted to go bang on his door and demand an apology but instead fumed my way back to bed, where I slept surprisingly solidly until woken by Nic at 2am. We dressed warmly and went downstairs to find Petra, who had fallen asleep and missed the briefing, waiting for us.  He apologised profusely and, after a quick meal, we all set off into the cold night air.

Once again, our gear was over the top in comparison to Petra’s. We each had Kathmandu fleeces and Mountain Design mountaineering gloves. My gloves’ palm, thumb and finger pads had large plastic grip sheets, which looked like a gorilla’s palm. They were technical, ice-climbing gloves and definitely overkill but were the only small sized waterproof gloves in the outdoor store in Brisbane. Petra wore a cotton hoody and some ratty woollen gloves. I held my gorilla mitts up for him to look at and we both laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I kept them on, however, because it was cold. We did all, however, have headtorches, shining like miner’s lamps from our foreheads.

Overnight, we had acclimatised to the altitude and progressed steadily towards the summit, barely seeing much beyond the pool of orange light cast by our torches. The beginning involved many stairs and some ladders, and we shuffled along slowly. Even so, we encountered our first group of other walkers and after some calling out from Petra, and response from that group’s guide, the entire group paused and stepped aside to let us past. I was intent on just walking and breathing and barely noted this extraordinary turn of events. I was also obedient, so when Petra said, “Come! Come”, I just went, went, head down, past the other walkers whom I, at the time, thought were pausing for a rest break.

Whenever we stopped because I was struggling – and I was struggling: every breath was an ordeal, every step took effort – Petra would encourage me with, “Chocolate! Eat chocolate!” and so I gobbled a small piece, offered a piece to him (which he refused) and to Nic (who accepted) and continued, slow, inching steps ever closer towards the summit, which we began to see as the sky lightened.

After the series of stairs and ladders, we emerged onto a granite slab and part of the route involved grabbing a rope and hauling ourselves up. At one of these, I paused and took a deep breath to ensure I had enough oomph to get myself up. I found myself, however, practically vaulting up the rockface; Petra had pushed me from behind.

We passed a few more, smaller groups of walkers and at each bottle neck, Petra would call out to the other guides, who would call their group to a halt.  They would step aside, looking happy to rest, and watch us shuffle past. I only cottoned onto this at the last occassion and, though grateful to Petra, felt bad for the groups we had passed. At one stop, however, I understood Petra’s urgency for us. He was watching behind him, nervously, and we could see the twinkle of lights, like a highway of cars, inching towards us, “Move, move. You strong, you go up first. Come! Come! Chocolate!” And with that, we kept on, “Chocolate” being our rallying cry to be first up the mountain that morning.

And we were. We had the summit of rock scree and a few battered signs and flags to ourselves for a good ten minutes or so. There was, however, no view; although the sun was just rising, the clouds had rolled in. As Nic and I sat on the summit, Petra gestured that he would take a photograph of us on the summit. I looked down in surprise at the camera bag that I had uselessly carried all the way up this mountain and shook my head at Petra, too exhausted to explain that it did not work and absolutely discombobulated by my own stupidity. Petra gave us one of his long looks, and I just knew he was thinking, “These two really are very strange,” but he let us be. After a while, the next few groups reached the summit too and it began to get crowded, so we shifted away from the crowning glory of this walk and began the long descent back to park headquarters.

Approaching Mt Kinabalu Summit (Low's Peak) by myzulkefli.

The sky was magnificent as we descended, with the views opening up as we dropped back below the cloud line. The granite slab that I had so laboured on the way up was an easy stroll. As it grew lighter, we could discern the texture of Mount Kinabalu: strange smooth plateaus and spires of grey granite. With the increasing oxygen of each downward step and the jubilation of the views, we practically skipped down the mountain to Laban Rata hut, where we had a second, greasy breakfast, before retracing our walk of the day before.

Whereas we had gone up, up and unrelentingly up, we were now going down, down, joint-jarringly down. The descent was just as hard as the ascent, as the path was muddy and, in some places, like descending rivulets due to the previous day’s rain, but we got more oxygen as we got lower and felt like fit athletes. It stayed mostly dry for our descent, which was reasonably speedy: we got back to park headquarters before lunch.

Park headquarters remained a chaos of people, many hanging about waiting for buses or negotiating for taxis. We barely had time to thank Petra when a car pulled up and someone said, “Mr Nicholas?” and we got into a 7-seater vehicle. We thought that others would pile into the vehicle with us but instead, it pulled away and we looked back in surprise and apology as we left behind all these others, obviously on more budget trips than ours. We returned to park headquarters for another lunch where we did not get to choose our dishes and merely placidly ate what was put in front of us. Any request for a menu was met with a bemused stare and a, “It’s okay, Madam.”

We concurred that the walk was great but weird and that, though happy we had done it, we would not do it again. In addition, despite being treated so well, we did not really understand Petra’s role as ‘guide’ because if you got lost on that path, something was seriously wrong with your eyes. To be fair, many people of varying levels of mountain-walking ability tackle this hike and without the guides, many more would be injured. Certainly, Petra was indispensable during the night-time climb to the summit, if only for the continual, calm words of encouragement.

We also learned that we did not like popular summits and, I suspect, if we hadn’t liked it when we were given preferential treatment to get to the top, we’d like it even less if we were weren’t so treated. I knew that, even though I never really had a desire to “conquer” the world’s major summits, I really did not want to now, not if they were like this (and many are much more crowded). I’d rather walk in emptier foothills. To enjoy a mountain, I do not need to say I’d stood on its tallest point.

Back in KK, we were left to our own devices for two days; the organised part of our travel had ended. We knew we would be very sore the following day and possibly worse the day after, so we spent some time in the hostel considering what to do to while away the time before our onward flight to England. We were staying on the top floor of our hostel and each climb up to our room was agony and each climb down again worse. We moved like old people, laughing at ourselves even as we winced.

Relaxation was imperative, so an orang-utan tour was out (the car journey was much too long). Instead, we decided to head to one of the islands nearby, thinking this was just the occasion when we could lie around on a beach. We successfully found an island to travel to – there are quite a few a short distance from Kota Kinabalu and well serviced by ferries. However, we failed to lie around on the beach and somehow ended up walking all around the island and up to its (thankfully low) highest point. Although we do not seem to be very good at relaxing, we nevertheless had a wonderful time.

An almost deserted beach on the island of Manukan near Kota Kinabalu, photo by o2elot.

All the photos in this post are used, under a Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr.

If you double-click the picture itself, this will take you to the photographer’s photostream on Flickr.

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