25th May 2016 - 27th May 2016 - Borneo
At 4,095m, the highest point in Borneo is the ironically names Low’s Peak, the summit of Mount Kinabalu. The peak is named after Sir Hugh Low, the British colonial secretary who has the first recorded summit of the mountain in 1851, although it is widely accepted that local tribesmen made the summit first. The name Kinabalu comes from the local Kadazandusan tribes word “Aki Nabalu” meaning “the revered place of the dead”. These tribespeople believe that spirits inhabit the mountain and previously ceremonies used to take place to appease the spirits prior to summit attempts. These days the ceremonies are not required but upsetting the spirits still has dire consequences, the last time this happened was in 2015 when a group of backpackers took nude photos and caused an earthquake (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-33058692). This earthquake closed the mountain for almost 6 months, whilst the trail was checked for safety and, in one area, rebuilt on a separate route. The mountain itself contains a number of geographical topographies from the rainforest at the base to the granite rock face at the summit. Incredibly, the mountain grows by approximately 5mm in height each year. On a clear day, you can see the Philippines from the top of Low’s Peak, the closest point of which is a little more than 200km away.
The mountain, as the name suggests, is back near Kota Kinabalu – the other side of the island to Danum Valley. This meant a long day of travel but first a final jungle walk in the hope of seeing a wild orangutan. Sadly, this wasn’t to be but we did find some wild gibbons. During the two hour transfer back to Lahad Datu, we passed a couple of Barking Dogs and a Monitor Lizard but worryingly I had to get the driver to stop the car as I felt sick. With fingers crossed it was a case of car sickness, we continued back to the town to Lahad Datu from where we were back to Kota Kinabalu. The airport in Lahad Datu has to rank as one of the smallest I’ve ever been in. One check in desk, security you weren’t allowed to pass through until 30 mins before the flight was due to take off and a tiny departure area. It was a short 45 min flight back to KK, where we had a short lunch break then continued on to Kinabalu National Park. Aside from being home to the mountain, Kinabalu National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site supporting a wide range of flora and fauna with over half the species growing above 900m being unique to the area. The most interesting of these include the Nepenthes Villosa carnivorous plants and the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, alongside the far more banal orchid and rhododendron. The park has a number of lodging options available as well as a restaurant and shop. The main entrance also contains important information for those who are going to climb the mountain.
The next morning, I still wasn’t feeling great, but popped a couple of pills in the hope that some medicine would sort me out. We headed to the entrance, had breakfast, stored our large bags and found our guide for the next two days, Jamie. Then it was a short bus ride to Timpohon Gate where the trek began in earnest. One thing you get told repeatedly about climbing Kinabalu is that “every step is uphill” so it was something of a surprise to find that the first 20m away from the gate were down steps followed by a short period of flat. Then it was uphill, mainly on steps. Steps, after steps, after steps. Every 0.5km, there is a marker and at approximately the same place there is a small shelter where you can take a breather or have a toilet stop. It is only a distance of 6km to the evening’s rest stop, a distance I can easily run in well under an hour, but it takes the average trekker 4-6 hours to complete this distance. The first hour I found particularly tough, but then either the medicine kicked in or my body went into preservation mode and I started to perk up. Because the start of the hike is through rainforest, it was very humid and we were sweating within minutes. After 4km, we stopped at Layang-Layang hut for lunch. Finally at 2pm, after 5.5 hours of hiking we reached the overnight accommodation of Laban Rata. This is where all trekkers stay and provides dormitory accommodation and food. We were expecting a large dorm, but instead found ourselves in a small 4 bed dorm. We treated ourselves to some pringles whilst waiting for our early dinner then it was off to bed with lights out at 5.40. Thankfully, the sunsets around 6pm which aided in getting some sleep.
Nothing is going to stop it being dark when the alarm goes off at 1.30am though! We had a light breakfast, after which I promptly went and threw up which meant I was doing that morning’s climb with no energy stores and a feeling of running on empty. Melissa had a bag of haribo with her and the occasional fried egg just about kept me going along with a number of stops. The majority of people leave for the summit between 2.30 and 3.00 and so there is a procession of climbers, each with a head lamp, making its way slowly up the mountain. It is only another 2km to cover, with an altitude gain of approximately 832m, and the first km had a number of those pesky stairs again. At this point, there is a checkpoint after which the vegetation has completely disappeared and you are greeted with sheer granite rock face. This can be very smooth at times, which means that the authorities have fixed a white rope onto the face and you need to use this to haul yourself up the side. It’s hard going even for those who are feeling fit and healthy!
We were aiming to be at the summit for sunrise, but due to my slower than average pace, when the sun peaked its head out at about 5.45am we were still 200m short of the summit. This may not sound a lot but consider that this final part is a number of large boulders to clamber over and can take half an hour on its own. We therefore settled in on a large flat ledge to watch sunrise over Borneo, with a stunning view and very few crowds. We could see on the summit that there was a number of people and so decided that actually, we were in the better place. Once the sun was up, we negotiated the final set of boulders before being able to proudly stand atop not just the highest point on the island of Borneo, but also the highest point between the island of Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas.
After a short while at the summit, it was time to head back down where we learnt a number of things. Firstly, the large boulders were harder to go down than up. Secondly, the rope on the sheer granite cliff face was harder to go down than up. Thirdly, there didn’t seem to be as many stairs on the way down as the way up. Fourthly, because of the pressure on your knees and legs, it’s probably harder to go down than up! We arrived back to Laban Rata at 8.30am where, I threw up again but then was able to go and eat a small amount of second breakfast. It was a long old slog all the way back to Timpohon Gate where we had completely forgotten about the steps we would have to climb up. It seemed particularly cruel. We arrived back at 1.40 which meant we had time for a small lunch before the 2 hour transfer over to KK, during which time our legs seized up and we could barely walk, which meant dinner was a picnic in bed (or bednic as we nicknamed it) before a well-deserved shower and an early night.