CURRENT LOCATION: Kudat (Tip of Borneo), Malaysia
We woke up at the ass crack of dawn to catch a bus to Mount Kinabalu National Park from Kota Kinabalu (the city closest to the mountain). Our lovely host, Lucy, walked the three of us (Sam, myself and a German girl named Annagrette) 4 blocks to the main minibus station and helped us arrange our transport. We were charged an extra 5MR (~$2NZD) for having "large bags", but I'm pretty sure that was just the "white people" tax... But never mind, we were on our way and that's all that really matters. It was an hour and 45 minutes to Jungle Jack's home stay where we were based for our climb. Upon arrival we met the famous Uncle Jack. What a character! He was just the right amount of hospitable, crazy and sarcastic! His operation, running tours up Mt Kinabalu, is a highly successful one and he is very proud of it, and not afraid to tell you so. But good on him.
He started this tour package about 2 years ago as a bit of a middle finger to all the other tour providers. They all charge ridiculous sums, making it prohibitively expensive for most backpackers to climb to the summit of the highest mountain in South East Asia. He prides himself on charging only slightly more than what it actually costs to get someone up the mountain. Comparatively, it's cheap. If you were to climb with anyone else it would cost you 3 times as much! Despite his eccentricities and disdain for authority, Uncle Jack runs an outstanding service. He provides you with 3 nights accommodation (including the one night halfway up the mountain), all your food, drinking water, guides on the climb, gear for the climb if you need it, your required personalised passes to enter the National Park, and "the best showers in Kinabalu national park" (confirmed!). You get all this for about $200NZD per person.
Anyways, when we arrived at Jungle Jack's there were a few travellers who had completed the trip and were leaving that day. We got the inside scoop on what to expect and they were all just buzzing about their experience. We were already excited, but now we were seriously amped up. The rest of the "tour group", which consists of the 12 people who signed up to the climb though Jack, had left an hour or two before we arrived and we were told that we would just catch up with them at the hut. We repacked our bags with only the gear we would need for the 2 day climb and got ready to set off. We took 4.5L of water, snacks, a packed lunch consisting of sandwiches containing cheese (REAL CHEESE FROM NEW ZEALAND!!!), warm clothes for the final hike to the summit, and some basic toiletries. We were driven 5 minutes to the base of the mountain where we met our guide and set off on our adventure.
The hike wastes no time at all. Within 2 minutes you're going uphill. Seriously uphill. Stairs. Stairs made of wood. Stairs made of tree roots. Stairs made of rocks. Stairs made of all three. Up and up and up. Now I'm not sure why I (and Sam too, I think) thought it would be any different... We're climbing a freakin' mountain, not going for a stroll in the Waitakere ranges, but it was relentless uphill. We very quickly began to understand why going only 6km was estimated to take 4-5 hours. However, the trail was in excellent shape. This is a direct result of nearly 100 people treading on it every day, plus a reasonably well managed and resourced national park staff. For example, approximately every 1km up until the hut/restaurant there was a shelter that had water (untreated but considered relatively safe), rubbish bins, and a flush toilet. They were well looked after and the toilets were bearable (though a bit stinky). The trail was busy. Seriously busy. It was very rare for us to be walking without encountering other people, either also on their way up or coming down from their climb. This was not such an issue as a friendly "hello", "good morning", and "good luck" from a fellow trekker was a welcomed distraction from pain of climbing the 1,404 metres in elevation.
We took advantage of the strategically placed huts to have water and snack breaks. It was on the first of these breaks, 1.5km into the hike that we met Malaysia's ground squirrel. Cute! They were very accustomed to gawking humans and were borderline domestic. They differentiated the sound of opening chip/cookie/cracker packets and would come scurrying over to you. They would even take food directly out of your hand! Needless to say, this was a pretty big draw card for hurrying to the next shelter and definitely played an important role in keeping us motivated to continue up the seemingly never ending climb.
Along the way we saw many porters going both up and down the trail. These Malaysian men and women were incredible, if not a little insane. They were employed by the restaurant situated at 3,270m in altitude (our destination for day 1) to bring goods up and and down. Most of them carried said goods using an ad hoc backpack made of a plank of wood, some ropes and a half a woven, wicker basket. They positioned the ropes around their shoulders like bag straps and often utilised a length of linen to secure the "bag" on their forehead. Needless to say this looked uncomfortable. Not to mention that these guys and gals were carrying serious loads. One guy had two boxes of water bottles, totalling 36kg of weight, not including the backpack itself! Anyone who has done a multi day tramp with a full pack (average weight 10-15kgs) will understand how insane this actually is. Other loads included full LPG gas bottles, 25 Gatorade bottles, about 400 chicken eggs, and a few guys that we saw heading down were carrying steel bunk bed frames! It was not uncommon for these porters to pass you heading up the trail and the ones coming back down seemed to be on the verge of out of control. This was impressive and a little demeaning at the same time as we lumbered up the mountain with our puny, modern day packs.
Eventually, 4 hours and 20 minutes later we made to the Laban Rata Guesthouse and restaurant. This was our final stop for the day and where we would spend the night. It was an impressive complex. There is a HUGE building that served as the kitchen and restaurant, feeding up to 85 climbers, plus their guides, every day. In addition there were about 5 other huts that served as the accomodation for the staff, climbers and guides. Each contained beds, toilets and HOT showers! Our "hut" had 8 sets of bunk beds, 2 flush toilets, 2 hot showers, and even an electric kettle for boiling water. It was nicer than a lot of hostels we've stayed at. The beds each had sheets, a duvet and a big fluffy pillow. It was definitely not roughing it - classy mountain climbing! On top of this we were now over 3km above sea level, literally above the clouds! It was amazing to be so high and have the views previously reserved only for airplane travel. Occasionally a huge cumulus cloud would form in the distance and in a matter of minutes it will have engulfed the whole mountain stealing away your view and reducing the visible distance to a mere 100m. Then, in another moment it will have passed. As the afternoon wore on we were even lucky enough to witness an electrical storm off in the distance. It was a strange and awe inspiring sight to watch a thunderstorm from above. Seeing the lighting fork and light up the sky from a near birdseye view was a truly unique experience. We shared travel stories with the other members of our group (Jungle Jack Trekkers) in this strange and breathtaking environment until dinner time at about 5.30 pm.
The dining hall was huge and full of enthusiastic, weary tourists and guides who had all made the initial climb that day, the same as us. To accommodate so many people, the set up was a buffet style smorgasbord of high energy food! They had rice, noodles, beef stew, roast chicken, warm barley and rice mystery stodge, bread, coffee, tea etc. It was awesome and you could eat as much as you like. We made sure to fill our bellies in anticipation of tomorrow's early climb to the summit. After dinner Sam and I walked around the compound and watched the sunset from a new angle! It was magic. What an awesome sight to see the sunset from a position above the clouds. Everyone, including us, went to bed early. Really early. I was asleep by 6.45pm. This was partly due to the exhausting climb that day, but also to ensure we had enough rest to tackle the ominous day 2.
0100 hours. Someone's alarm goes off. It is quickly and efficiently dealt to by an irritated snooze push. 0115 hours. Snooze over....time to get up. We were to eat a "supper" at 2 am before we climb to the summit in time to see the sunrise. Luckily, the early bedtime coupled with the comfortable bunk beds meant for a decent night's sleep! I'm sure the sheer exhaustion didn't hurt either. Supper was pretty much the same deal as dinner, except people were looking a little worse for wear and some even looked anxious. Except for the 3 Japanese girls who were putting on their makeup...? After forcing down my first ever (sober) 2am breakfast, we began our climb in the dark.... along with about 80 other people!
Everyone had a headlamp to guide them along the ascending track, which only lasted about 400m. At this point the track disappeared and we were walking on naked granite rock. There was a rope, attached to the boulders and ground that was guiding the way, which was essential in some spots in order to haul yourself up the exceptionally steep bits. This was intense. At a couple of points even scary. The possibility of death was a reality, whereby if you simultaneously had lost your grip on the rope and footing you would have easily slipped and literally fallen off the mountain. The number of people crowded on the rope also added a level of difficulty. Often, someone would lose their balance and pull the rope violently towards to ground as they fell. You can hardly blame them for their Kung fu grip on the rope, their life line, however this would in turn pull down any other climber who was holding onto that particular section of rope. Deciding when to utilise the rope and when not to was a constant hurdle
On top of this we were approaching 4000m above sea level. I'm not exactly sure of the numbers, but at this altitude there is approximately 40% less oxygen than at sea level. This is considered a very high altitude and boy can you feel it! It's such a bizarre feeling taking a huge breath and still feeling like you are short of air. The combination of the decreasing oxygen, the building up of lactic acid from constant uphill walking, the possibility of falling to my death and the fact that is was ridiculous o'clock made for a real roller coaster of emotions. My brain and body were in continuous battle with one another. One minute I felt great. I was unstoppable. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Keep climbing. Almost there. Don't forget to breathe... In, out, in, out. I found my rhythm and I was charging up towards the summit! Then, without any warning the combination of all the harsh conditions would catch up with me. I'm dying. In fact, I think I'm dead. I feel like death itself. I can't get enough air. My legs are on fire. I feel starving and like I'm about to vomit at the same time (This was the weirdest feeling... One I had never experienced before). I have to stop. A short rest, some water, a mentos or two, then back on my feet. Life returns! I'm back on top of the world. This would be the next 2.5 hours. Going back and forth between these extremes. As we approach the final, steep climb to summit, perhaps only 200m away, I experienced for the first time the phenomenon of "hitting the wall". We were now exposed to the wind, which was icy. My legs were starting to shake uncontrollably with exhaustion. The air was seemingly oxygenless. Sam and I were both feeling this way, but we couldn't stop now. We were so close. Every couple of minutes we would hear the victorious cheers and hollers of the other climbers who had made it to the summit. We had to carry on!
At just before 0500 hours we made it! All of sudden the adrenaline kicked in. We felt great! Nothing could stop us! To make it even more sweet, 1 minute after arriving at the sign post signifying the summit, the first rays of orange/yellow sunrise started to fill the horizon. We had made it just in time to see the sunrise from 4,095.2m above sea level! It was simply remarkable. The sense of pride, accomplishment, wonder, and joy was so intense. This was all made even sweeter by the fact that Sam and I had done this together. I make no apologies when I say, in that moment I felt like the luckiest man in the world.
We holed up in a nook to escape the chill of the wind and watched the sun rise into and above the clouds before starting our journey back down the mountain. The descent was quicker, but challenging in its own way. The constant pressure on your knees and ankles caused aches in different muscle groups. Our already fatigued legs really felt this strain. Luckily the adrenaline stuck around long enough to get us back to our hut to have a rest before breakfast.
We were the first two to arrive back at our hut. We took advantage of the quiet and had a quick nap. As everyone else returned and followed suit, we enjoyed a big breakfast to refuel after the whirlwind 5km return hike to and from the summit before our remaining 6km down to the bottom. Our descent was broken up by some mandatory water, snack and squirrel feeding stops, but we completed it in a little over 3 hours. When we finished the hike, we were met by our driver who took us back to Jungle Jack's, where had hot showers and some much needed R and R. Once everyone was back at Jack's place, he took all of us out for lunch, then later on, to dinner. It was a great, relaxed atmosphere at Jack's and it was cool to chat to all the travellers and get some tips and suggestions for places to visit while we are in Borneo.
The next day, 4 of us (Sam, myself, Annagrette, and a nice Canadian guy named Brett) hailed a minibus to take us back to Kota Kinabalu. We had booked ourselves into a hotel to get some much needed quality sleep and to organise our next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, when we arrived at our room it had been freshly painted, had no windows and was about 9 square meters. Of course they had no rooms left at the same price but if we really wanted to change we could pay extra and move into a deluxe room... Out of principle we toughed it out on our smelly, noxious room! Feeling sorry for ourselves we had Pizza Hut for lunch. This Pizza Hut was like the NZ Pizza Hut of old. Seating, menus, table service, the works! After gorging ourselves on garlic bread and pizza we found that moving was rather difficult, so we spent the entire afternoon in our stinky room, in bed, researching activities and accommodation options in Sabah, Borneo. We decided to head up to the beaches and jungle of Kudat, in the northernmost part of Borneo. We found some awesome places to stay here, but I'll save that for next time!
Lots of love,
Zev and Sam xx
(Original post date: 15th May 2015)