Thursday 12 December 2013

Mt Kinabalu 2

The next day after our arrival, we woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel. It was a simple affair.

Our tour guide then arrived to show us the city.

He was of medium built, strong and very tanned. He seemed to be in his 30s and was a local. Dressed in a safari suit, he looked every bit the outdoors guy as well as businessman!

Our guide Jack was friendly and spoke good English. 

He brought us first to Signal Hill Observatory, probably the most famous landmark in Kota Kinabalu. It was a lookout point that gave us a bird's eye view of the city. 

Afterwards, Jack brought us to various places that had suspension bridges.  It was fun. And there were many of them all seeming to span across mangrove swamps or green colored rivers. Most of the bridges were made of steel cables and laid with wooden planks.

At some bridges, we struck fun poses and took pictures. These suspension bridges reminded me of the ones Indiana Jones would inevitably run to escape across one, chased no less by bloodthirsty natives waving machetes.

In the evening, we had dinner along a food street and retired for the night - all ready to begin our ascent of Mt Kinabalua or Mt K for short.


Early the next day, we made our way to the base of the mountain to start the climb.

But first, like everybody else, we had to register ourselves at Park HQ - a large wooden building with a patio deck built at the back for campers to make last-minute preparations. 

We also met our guide for the climb, a skinny and seasoned-looking chap. It was mandatory to climb with a guide. Once we settled the administrative stuff, we adjourned to the patio to redistribute items in our backpacks (like food and cold weather gear) so they could easily be accessed when needed. 

Richard kept a bunch of bananas in a plastic bag tied to his backpack. He would later feed us that along the way, which caused our group to be named the Banana Group of 8. (Oh, by the way, bananas are a great fruit to bring along when outdoors. It provides energy and allows one to pass motion (i.e. shit) more easily even if dehydrated.)

After some mutual body checking and making sure our shoelaces were firmly tied, we then set off. Not far off was a metal swing gate. Once you pass that, you are well and truly on your way to climb Mt K.

The initial part of the journey was not too difficult. It was like climbing our own Bukit Timah Hill. The paths were narrow but easy to follow. We also crossed a few service roads going up the mountain.

The morning was bright but not too sunny. The wonderful weather put us all in a good mood. There were two couples in our group. The other four were all singles. I buddied up with Dave Wong, who was a reserved but cheerful chap who smiled easily. My friend Cecilia partnered with Jee Yong, who was much older than the rest of us but just as enthusiastic. I decided to look out for her, just in case.

The lot of us were not alone that morning. As we climbed, we met others going up or coming down. Those coming down were also full of spirit and did not look at all tired. That made me think the climb up the peak was easy, which was encouraging! But unbeknownst to me, there were many levels to this National Park. You could climb sections of it in high heels if you prefer.

At 1900m the paths became a bit more natural, lined with bramble or veined with protruding tree roots. Climbing became a little more countryside-like. The paths were in surprisingly good condition and made climbing easy. Perhaps the Park authorities had some sort of maintenance regime in place. 

Along the way, we caught up with a large group of geriatric old men from Japan making their way up. They looked about in their 70s and all had walking or hiking sticks with them. On their foreheads, oddly enough, a kind of miner's headlamp. I would later learn (to my chagrin) what they were for. Though the group was bent with age, they looked a familial and determined bunch. I wondered if they had climbed elsewhere together before. That would have been nice, wouldn't it? For a bunch of old friends to still travel and explore together!

Travelling with this group of old folks were women porters. They were not young nor old but middle-aged. They rather impressed me with their strength and industry. The loads they carried were not light. And not carried with modern equipment too. These women porters used a kind of traditional, large pointy-ended rattan basket to carry their stuff. No backstraps but a simple rattan-fibre band across the forehead - the kind you see on Iban tribal folks in nearby Sarawak.

The pointed bottom of the basket helped it stand quickly on the ground or be leaned easily against a tree. I remember these baskets coming in a set of three and were all made from rattan. The large pointy bottom one was for larger goods; the smaller cylindrical ones were employed like backpacks. Growing up, my family kept one. It was twice the size of a quiver. It was bought from Sarawak during a year's stay there when I was very young.

Over the subsequent years, we often used that round rattan basket as a carrier for a ground mat whenever we went to the beach. 

In Asia or Africa, tribal folks seem to like carrying things with their heads. The neck does have powerful muscles and can carry seriously large and heavy objects (such as a large bundle of laundry, for example)

Beyond 4500ft, the weather around the mountain forest palpably cooled. The paths also widened into 2m ones, both landscaped and large-stepped. The steps were reinforced by short stakes to prevent damage and soil erosion. The many visitors to Mt K every year probably necessitated that sort of measure. From this cooler height, the flora and fauna of the place also changed. There were signs pointing to scenic diversions such as a mossy forest, a stinky Rafflesia plant, a waterfall, a cave, etc. 

Naturally, we stopped at the crossroads to decide where to go or who to do and see what. Cecilia and I decided to visit the Mossy Forest.

A good decision it turned out to be. The place was truly enchanted! 

It was filled with morning mist that gave the place a heavenly or surreal look. One could walk in and disappear from sight!

Cecilia and I took the chance to snap some beautiful photos.

Derrick and his girlfriend Jean went off to see the waterfall. I wanted to see the Rafflesia plant but changed my mind. Choosing the Mossy Forest over the Rafflesia was like choosing Beauty over Stink - not that difficult a choice. It is well known that the giant Rafflesia flower (some 2m tall) gives off an odour like rotten fish or a dead corpse. I had smelt a dead corpse up close before and the memory was still fresh. Nope, maybe I could see a Rafflesia plant at a city botanical garden later. But the only Rafflesia plant I ever saw later was one sculpted out of concrete. The dimensions and color were all correct but there wasn't any foul smell. But why name`such a stinker of a plant after Raffles? Was he that obnoxious?


From an open spot near the path to the waterfall, we could see the summit. It looked like a collection of giant stones piled next to one another. Sabah is called Land Below The Wind and the wind had certainly swept the top of Mt K clean of vegetation. To be fair, much of South-east Asia sits on a bedrock of hard stone with millennia-old forests carpeting its surface. Sabah with its Mt K was no different.

Looking at the peak, the guide pointed out its prominent features. "That's the Rabbit Ears," he said. 

I didn't need any further explanation; I had seen that silhouette many times on tee-shirts and mugs.

After our visits to the side-tracked attractions at the crossroads, we continued with our climb.

At 9000ft the weather turned noticeably cooler. It was like being in Cameron Highlands or any place that had outdoor air-conditioning. We also reached the first rest point, which was a large flat rock area dotted with a few dormitory buildings.

We entered a spacious one for some hot cocoa and a chance to rest our weary limbs. 

Looking at the accommodations, we wondered if we would rest there for the night. But our guide informed us that our rest station was still some 2000ft further up. The reason was so we could climb the remaining distance of 1500ft to the summit to catch the sun rise. It had all been timed to perfection! But that meant starting our climb at 3.00am!

We all wondered about that, i.e. climbing in the dark but our guide assured us that with the moon out, the journey would not be difficult at all.

That settled, we looked around the spacious kitchen for a table to sit at. There were already a few people there and we took the opportunity to rest and chat a bit.


The climb to our hut at 13,000ft was rather uneventful. Sad to say, nothing much interesting happened. We reached the place at roughly 2.30pm after threading through some narrow paths that were surrounded by bushes and shrub. It was no different from climbing Marsiling Hill back home before it got all 'parked' up. And after a climb and turn, there stood the small zinc roof hut we were looking for. It looked only slightly larger than an outhouse toilet from first impression.

Yes, the hut was small but it contained a couple of double-decker beds and a foldable table so commonly found in Asian homes. Well, I guess it was sparse because it was meant to be just a way-station. On the other side of the zinc wall was another hut. So essentially we had one hut for the gents, the other for the ladies. The name of the hut was Waras.

After choosing our bunk beds, we emptied out our packs to make lunch. Richard, our leader, finally told us what he was cooking up special: Nasi Lemak. We saw the remaining fingers of the bananas we had lugged all the way up from the base HQ and was glad it was not more of that stuff. 

Richard then took out a small gas stove and cooked away. Soon the irresistible smell of fried ikan bilis filled the air. Man, after privations along the way, we all swore that was the best food ever. Period. The sweet sambal belachan chilli was authentic, so you could imagine how rapturous we were feeling!

What Richard had done told me two things: 1. Do not scrimp on enjoying food even when on an adventure such as this. 2. Learn to cook.


At the Waras hut, there were bathing facilities. But none of us were inclined to clean ourselves as the weather was very chilly and no water-heater. Who in their right mind would wash up?

In any case, most of us have cleaned up at the hostel facilities earlier on; and the climb up to this hut was not tiring at all.

After our lunch (cum dinner) we sat outside the hut to chat, to while away some time. I took the opportunity to know my buddy Dave a little bit better and discovered that we were both interested in the game of soccer. He was really a nice, friendly albeit soft-spoken chap!

Before light faded, I took the opportunity to take a picture of myself outside the hut. I certainly stood out in my yellow and white ensemble, resembling some Swiss hiker in knee-length pants!


At 2.45am in the dark of night, the guide came to look for us. We had all set our alarms and so was already waiting to start the climb with him.

Fortunately for us, the moon was out. The sky, though cloudy, didn't look too brownish like it was going to rain. We thanked our lucky stars (there were many stars out that night and visible!) and plodded on, not sure what we would face in the semi-darkness ahead of us. But soon our eyes adjusted to the night and we could all move along quite nicely without the need for torchlight.

The route up the summit began easily enough. I only remember a difficult stretch when we had to hug some boulders to go round, holding on to a length of anchored rope. Other than that, the spaces slowly opened up as the landscape became more slate-like and stony. Mt Kinabalu, like most of Southeast Asia, sat on a giant slab of rock.

At one point, we overtook the group of geriatric folks we met earlier. Annoyingly, they were still wearing the miner torchlights on their foreheads, this time lighted and glaring. The lights blinded us and took away our night sight.

However, I practiced a trick I learnt long ago. When faced with a bright light, don't close both eyes, just close one. In this way, the other eye is not affected and can still see in the dark. It is a very useful trick to use when driving along dark highways.


Near dawn, my bowels started to act up. It was a habit that returned after National Service, i.e, to clear my bowels every start of the day. By then we were straggling a bit as the air up there had thinned out a lot. Every 10m became a mighty struggle and we would pant very hard.

As the toilet beckoned, I couldn't wait and so went to the side to take a quick crap. That side turned out to be a sheer drop of a few hundred meters over the ledge! 

Even in the half light, I could see several planes of jagged rock sticking out like bloody knives ready to slice anybody up. 

I took a step back in slight alarm and checked for wind speed. I wouldn't want a gust of wind to toss me over and be sliced like carrot on a mincer.

In any case, I was worried about being missed and quickly took my crap. Thanks to the bananas, it all came out rather nicely. I even gave myself some seconds to moon the world. Not everybody can often claim to have done that at 14000ft above sea-level. Man, it felt good!

Crap done, I rejoined the group. Although I was quick about it, the guide noticed I had gone missing and gave me a gentle stern reminder for straying. I felt a bit stupid but was glad to have seen the other side of the mountain. Apparently there were folks who preferred to climb the hard way from that direction. Folks from the military, and folks, I presumed, to be a bit thick in the head to even attempt that!

By the time we all struggled to the summit, the first rays of the sun peeked through the clouds. It was all timed to perfection! Even the summit was suitably small and narrow, giving us the impression of having reached the pinnacle of a mountain. As we sat down, our guide removed a tin container from a rock cover and took out a log book. We all signed in and was proud of the moment.

The sun continued to rise, sending out golden rays of light that skimmed over that a layer of cottony clouds. We were so high we were above the clouds! It was like being on the outside of a jet plane for once. And with the shadow of the mountain on it, the clouds did look like ground, albeit soft and willowy like being on a bed of marshmallows.

On the other side from whence we came, the ground sloped for about 300m and rose to another high point known as Low's Peak. Because the summit was devoid of vegetation and just slates of granite, the place did indeed look like some desolate valley in some sci-fi film (or nurb space on a curved gravity well). I took a lovely picture of David and his girlfriend Jean who really stood out in her red jacket in all that grey. The photo captured them well, arms raised in jubilation. We all felt like that. The climb up Mt K was not difficult, only long.

That picture remains one of my favourites from the many places I've traveled to since.

Story continues with Mt Kinabalu 3

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