Monday was the day we were heading to the base of our walk up Mount Kinabalu. We woke early and had fried noodles, fried rice and egg with our host family for dinner – Asian breakfasts are definitely something I haven’t managed to quite get my head / stomach around while I’ve been away but – obviously – if offered it by a kind homestay family you don’t say no!
We got ourselves up and packed, said goodbye to our family and headed on our way. First top today was a view point of Mount Kinabalu – it’s a pretty imposing mountain but always (as with many mountains) was covered in cloud at the top, but it was still beautiful to look at. We then had a quick wander around the market before moving on.
Second stop of the day was a war memorial –….each place I go to on my travels teaches me more and more about the second world and increasing amounts about the devastation within other countries. It really intrigues me as we learn about WWII at school but only at high levels and mainly about the holocaust – which is off course some of the (if not the) most brutal acts during the war. However through my time in Kanchanaburi and then here in Borneo, I’ve learnt more, specifically around the Japanese and their acts during the war. The war memorial in Kinabalu remembered all those men who dies in awful circumstances in the Sandakan prisoner of war camps and during the death marches the Japanese inflicted on the prisoners at the point they believed their allies would invade the east side of Borneo. 99.7% of those in the camps / on the marches died during the period, with only 6 surviving out of the 2,500 original prisoners. We watched a short film about the period and then spent some time walking about the Australian, English and Borneo gardens all designed to commemorate the men. There was also a lot of information about the individuals themselves. It was extremely interesting but another sobering experience.
After an hour or so wandering around Edwin took us down the road to a huge fruit and veg market nearby. This is where all the locals pack all their grown produce and sell it to other people locally….if the produce doesn’t sell in a couple of days they send it up to the city to sell there….it was interesting to hear that as it shows when you buy fruit within big cities it’s never quite as fresh. Edwin took us to a few stalls and we tried a whole array of things…. Mango, wild avocado, sweet passionfruit, tomatoes, sweet biscuits a little like pretzels (both crunchy and soft), spinach covered in spice, durian (which smelt and tasted awful!), velvet apple, snake fruit, pickily custard apple, a fruit that had consistency of potato, a sour fruit that is normally used to make Malaysian equivalent of Ribena, pomelo and much more (but I can’t remember it all now!).
Despite being completely stuffed having had a great time trying everything our next stop was for lunch! We drove a short distance to the entrance of Mount Kinabalu ‘HQ’ and stopped at another little local restaurant. One of the things I am really enjoying about this tour is the difference in the food available. I found when travelling with G-Adventures in Myanmar that we were taking to a lot of touristy (and therefore slightly overpriced) restaurants to eat so the food being pretty much entirely authentic is a real plus of this tour with Intrepid. Sarah and I have been wondering however whether this is down to the fact that Myanmar is still quite new to tourism so the more local haunts for good food may have not yet been scoped out for the tours they have going there.
A quick Tom Yam soup and a good chat about books and films (I couldn’t add a huge amout to the latter conversation) and we trundled back into the bus to make our way to the accommodation. Kinabalu park itself has a land area bigger than the whole of Singapore so that gave a bit of perspective as to what we were heading into…. The mountain itself is the largest mountain in South East Asia….and we were going to climb it!
Edwin managed to arrange an upgrade for us in the accommodation – the tour notes had specified a ‘hostel’ room for us in this location so we were expecting bunk beds in a shared dorm between us…. Instead we arrived into two, two bedroom apartments with an interconnecting door so we could make one large four bedroom apartment. We had two living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms – it was a bit like a ski chalet…. We were all pretty chuffed!
We had a bit of time to chill out before heading out again so Sarah had a quick power nap (as she hadn’t slept well the night before) and I started to get my things ready for the next day. We had to take a day pack with snacks, waterproof, suncream, water etc in it and then a bag of things to stay overnight which we could either carry or have a porter take up for us …. We went for the latter but more on them when I talk about the trek later.
Late afternoon five of the six of us headed out with Edwin for a walk around the Botanical Gardens near the entrance to the park. It is great having Edwin as our guide because he knows so much about the nature within Borneo as he used to be a jungle Ranger / Guide. Another things that’s been quite interesting on this trip is how much my interest in nature has really developed. I’ve always had an appreciation for its beauty but I’ve found I’ve been particularly interested in the different specie of trees and the animals / insects etc within the different countries – here it is a tropical climate so the foliage is really quite different to that we have at home. We walked around the garden for about an hour with Edwin showing us the plants and talking about their many different uses – some for cuts; thread (for embroidery / clothes / baskets); plants to encourage the appetite in children; one for contraception (that is apparently recognised and researched within Chinese medicine) and even a plant to assist men with erectile dysfunction…. The jungle really does have a multitude of uses! Edwin also talked to us about the reason Kinabalu Park is a UNESCO Heritage site as it holds a large amount plants endemic to the area – with over 600 different types of fern alone!
Happy with our walk and feeling like we’d had a good introduction into the area we headed back to the ‘hostel’ to ge freshened up before heading for dinner. We had food at the main HQ with consisted of a buffet – it was pretty good and nice and easy for the evening. We didn’t want to go too crazy on the food front as we knew we were up early for breakfast before the hike. We headed back to the room afterwards with the intention to sit by the open fire and read / do journal – the guy from accommodation came and lit it for us…unfortunately the use of slightly damp wood meant it didn’t take very well and – despite my, Sarah and Hannah’s attempts at reigniting it we realised we were fighting a losing battle so retreated to bed instead….probably a good thing as we had to be up and out early in the morning to begin the climb!
We were all up bright and early on Tuesday morning, I think most of us a little apprehensive but excited about what was to come. Mount Kinabalu was one of the things on my South East Asia checklist as something I wanted to do while I was here so I was excited the day had come. Prepped with out day packs / overnight bags / big bags ready to go to the various different places we set off down for a big breakfast to build our energy for the hike. Edwin gave us a bit of a briefing and some pieces of advice for the walk before handing us over to our guides. Edwin had decided not to walk with us as he had taken this tour on as an extra to do the office a favour and technically he wasn’t needed on the tour as long as we had the correct mountain guides.
We started the climb at 1866m above sea level, so we were already at a reasonable altitude before we even began. The climb on day 1 was up to our overnight accommodation – approximately 6km in distance but at a level of 3241m above sea level so 1375m of climbing – approx. 230m per km…. pretty steep! We started off as a group and reached the first km together – from there we all began to find out natural pace. I found I was walking with the couple (Claire and Jeremy), while Sarah, the other Claire and Hannah walked at a similar pace and so stuck together. Claire stayed with Jeremy and I for the first 2.5km and then found she wanted to take it slightly easier, Jeremy and I continued on but similarly found we had a slightly different natrual pace as time went on. I was actually surprised and really pleased to find I felt quite strong on the hike as I haven’t done a huge amount of focused training recently but I think this is a lot to do with just generally having been pretty active over the months I’ve been away. We all agreed to meet at the 4km mark to have a bit of lunch – I arrived initially, followed by Jeremy and then Claire and our guide. The three girls came along a little bit later so we could all have a bit of chat about how we were doing and what we had been enjoying about the trek so far. We were all in awe of the incredible ports running up and down the mountains with huge packs on their backs….some carrying things for tourists (our porter was called Didi) and other carrying supplies – food / drinks / mattresses(!) up to the hostel at the midway point. These men and women were incredibly fit….but what made us laugh was the fact that they all stopped for their cigarette break at the 4km mark as they chatted and caught up with their friends….quite amazing! Even one of our guides who goes up the mountain multiple times a week had about 4 cigarettes over the 6km distance, yet he climbed it without a care in the world!
After lunch I decided to continue at my own pace again as the trek was getting steeper and legs were getting more and more tired. The terrain changed quite a lot as it adjusted from stone and mud tracks to limestone rocks – it was definitely trickier climbing! The weather was beautiful – not too hot but warm, dry and clear which made it comfortable for the hike and still allowed for some wonderful views along the way. I eventually arrived at our guest house at about 12.35pm – quite shocked to find I was one of the first to arrive out of the 125 climbers that were heading up that day. Each day only 125 tourists are allowed on the mountain – with their guides and porters – this has been reduced from 200 in previous years due to the earthquake in the area in 2015. The earthquake unfortunately killed approximately 20 people – one being the son of one of our guides – the guide who had been a mountain guide for about 40 years and had climbed it literally thousands of times – as well as a group of young (13 – 16yrs) students from Singapore – it must have been absolutely devastating.
I sat outside looking at the view when I first arrived – above the clouds and overlooking the flawless mountain scenery, it so calming and beautiful to look at. As it became a little windier I got myself set up on one of the tables inside. Edwin had advised we grab a decent one early on as it became quite busy as more people arrive and, given we had a group of six people, it was good to have somewhere secured for us all. Claire and Jeremy joined me just under an hour later at which point I attempted a shower (as Jeremy held the table!) – it was unsuccessful as the water was just so cold so I resorted to a good baby wipe wash down before heading down for a snickers and a mug of hot chocolate….I think pretty well deserved! The other three girls joined us at just after 2pm, tired but so happy with what we’d achieved on day 1!
As we were having to get up at 1.30am the next morning to begin our hike we had dinner at a bizarre 4.30pm! Feeding ourselves up on a great potato salad, other salad bits, rice and meat we felt well fed for the next day. We spent a few hours playing cards (before and after dinner), admiring the beautiful scenery and sunset outside the huge windows in the hostel’s communal area and laughing a little at the evident cliques within the group of German school / university students (there was clearly an ‘in crowd’ and ‘out crowd’ going on) before all prepping for the next day and retreating to bed at 6.45pm…..I don’t think I’ve been in bed this early …without being sick / hungover (sorry mum) since I was a child!
Surprisingly I slept pretty well in the time I had between 6.45pm and when our alarms went off at 1.30pm. Sarah and I were laughing a bit as she was definitely her normal perky morning self and commented how she was going to have to reign it in a little as some of the others weren’t quite such morning people! It was great though, everyone was on good form and ready to attack out climb to the summit for sunrise.
We headed down for our first breakfast of the day – making sure we had enough inside us to give us energy for the climb before getting our final bits and pieces together ready to set off.
Team photo done and we set off to embark the initial 900m climb of steps before we hit the ‘hard’ bit of the rise to the summit. The group found we naturally fell into two groups – Jeremy, Claire and I found ourselves walking with Juru while Sarah, Claire and Hannah walked at a slightly different pace with Sapinggi.
The trek was really tough – we were just hiking a distance of 2.9km but an ascent of nearly 1000m – the terrain became increasingly challenging – starting with some steps, moving onto rock face, at many points we had to physically pull ourselves up with a rope. Bundled up well we found we had to de-robe very early on as, despite it not being very warm outside we were soon heating up! Our guide was fantastic, we guided us at a steady pace throughout, ensuring we took regular breaks and lead us on the most efficient route….which wasn’t necessarily always the shortest but he would guide us in zig zags across the rock face to prevent us from having to just climb directly up (which we tried for a while but it was impossible!). At points we would stop and look back at where we had come from – we couldn’t see anything as it was still pitch black but we were able to see the trail of headtorches making their way up the mountain in a snake after us – it was a fantastic sight.
Our group arrived at base of the final 200m climb at about 2.15pm….this was the point where legs were like jelly … we looked up to the top, gave ourselves a talking to and started the climb. It was really interesting as our guide told us that some of his groups got to this point, looked at the summit and simply decided they couldn’t do it! I don’t understand how anyone could get that far and not complete the final 200m! It was hard, for sure – but not completing it just wasn’t an option! We did it! Reaching the summit at 5.25am….we took a few celebratory pictures but couldn’t see too much of the view at this point we the sun was still down so we made our way back down slightly to set up camp to watch out for the others and see the sunrise.
The moon was incredible – with a wide ring og cloud around it, and there was thunder storm in the distance (we think over the sea in Kota Kinabalu) which we could see from above the clouds – just incredible. After a little while Claire arrived, she had split from Sarah and Hannah as she had been struggling with a bit of altitude sickness and just wanted to keep going. Not too long after I spotted Sarah and Hannah making their way up as well, it was great to see them both smiling but understandably knackered (as we all were!). They took a few pics of the sunrise before continuing up to the summit. Jeremy Claire and Claire started their way down as they were getting cold while I headed back up to the summit with Sarah and Hannah so Sarah and I could get a picture together at the highest point. It was such a sense of achievement getting to the top after a pretty taxing climb.
The thing with climbing a mountain is the climb is hard….but you often forget that ‘what goes up, has to come down’ and, despite us getting to the top, we still had a 9km decent before we were done! We met the others back at the accommodation having walked down the initial 3km – essentially abseiling down some of the roped sections and really feeling it in our knees as we went down rather than up! We arrived back at the accommodation at about 9am where we enjoyed our second breakfast of the day (I ate a lot of eggy bread!), freshened ourselves up, packed our bags for the porters and got ready to attack the final 6km of the mountain.
We set off at about 10am, going down was a bit more mixed, we stayed together for the first 1km or so and then switched amongst different groups. I wanted to make sure that I walked at least some of it with Sarah so we did the first 3km together – either with Jeremy and Claire or with Hannah and the other Claire. We stopped for a snack at the same spot we had stopped for lunch on the way up – it was nice as we all stopped together before continuing on our way.
When we got to about 3km our guide was talking about some of the other groups he had walked with in the past. He mentioned that the last group he had was a similar make up to ours (5 girls, 1 guy) and they had finished the descent at 2.30pm…. that was it, our challenge had been set – we all wanted to finish by then. At about 3km to go we split into two groups again – this time I was with Jeremy and Claire again, we went on a mission to get down…. Claire setting new targets as we went along. We ended up getting back (after the final climb up at the end….so cruel ending on an incline!) at 1.42pm!! Exhausted but happy we had a celebratory photo at the end before collapsing in a heap with Edwin laughing at us from the end platform.
Hannah wasn’t too far behind so when she arrived the three of them jumped in the bus back to the restaurant for lunch while I took my boots off (best feeling ever), had a quick cup of Sabah tea and waited a few mins for Sarah and then Claire to arrive. We all made it within the challenge time with Claire coming in at 2.27pm! Celebratory photos all round as everyone was so happy to have conquered the largest mountain in South East Asia!
We headed back on the bus to meet the others for lunch where I devoured a good 3 plates of fried noodles of beef. All of us were completely shattered.