I will start my series of blog entries with one of the most memorable (and exhausting) trips I made whilst on my journey around the world – that was to Sabah, Borneo to climb the famous Mount Kinabalu.
I have long held a fascination with Borneo – the faraway island, where my mother was born and where most of my family spent their youth – so it was with both excitement and expectation that I first set foot in Kota Kinabalu. ‘The Mountain’, as it’s known by the locals, is legend in my family. It once defeated my stubborn, ‘happy grump’ of a grand-father who, despite building roads through jungles, and surviving the infamous Bridge of the River Kwai concentration camp, failed to reach the summit… “ Bugger this”, he said, but half way to the top – “I’m going back down for a corpse reviver”, (one of the many cocktails he has invented in his life time. Other favourites include the ‘grave robber’ and the ‘brain crippler’).
How could I, an asthma-ridden, stodge-eating, city girl ever hope to achieve it? Still, I was determined to succeed, and that was enough for me…
Mount Kinabalu towers over everything surrounding it and watches protectively over KK city. It is an impressive sight, and it is little wonder that the locals believe it to have supernatural powers. Visiting the mountain and the lush, tropical national park at its base is a simple task to organise, or so I thought…”tour operator? – pah! Who needs one?” Boy, did I regret that decision!
In a pathetic bid to save a few measly pennies (literally, in Malaysia),I opted to make my own way, via local bus, to the national park. I also snubbed the plush hotels inside the compound for a miserable little ‘pension’ with an ant infested kitchen and ‘colourful’ bed sheets that attempted to mask the years they had spent on the rickety bunks, unwashed, unchanged and crawling with God knows what! It was a miracle that I arrived unscathed…and even more of a miracle that I was alive the next morning to tell the tale…
Once inside the park, I had to arrange my pass, a guide, my accommodation and countless other things before I was able to set off…I was already exhausted, and I hadn’t even started walking yet!
Then, suddenly, I was off….off to conquer the mountain, to race to the top…
Well, that dream was short lived. For ‘race’ I did not: the first day of the trek consists of 4 hours of pure uphill climbing. Not long, some might say, but it is possibly the steepest 4 hour climb I have ever undertaken – harder than the entire Machu Picchu trail put together! That, coupled with the suppressive tropical heat and the increasing altitude makes it, at times, unbearable. However, the trail was beautifully kept, with regular scenic resting stops and plenty of people to chat with along the way. We all encouraged one another up the relentless mountainside to our resting place , close to the top.
Secretly, I enjoyed every minute of it.
In the end, I made surprisingly good time and spent the late afternoon settling into my room, attempting to shower in the icy cold before meeting up with some fellow trekkers. Before long, we were firm friends and watched the stunning sunset together over a couple of beers, a game of cards and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.
I had barely closed my eyes (I had a snorer in my room, who could be heard the length of the corridor…), when I was rudely awoken with a 1 am call to get out of bed and up the mountain in order to see the sunrise. It was exhilarating; there we were on a steep granite slope in the pitch black, able only to see by torch light (now who’s glad they had a head torch!), as we clutched onto ropes to keep us from slipping off the side. Surprisingly, I found the climb much easier in the dark: unable to see the gradient of the incline, I seemed much more willing to push on (unlike the day before!) and made it to the top with my new found friends in record time.
The cold was biting – we used anything that we could find to keep warm: towels as hats, socks as gloves…a sight to behold! And then we sat…waiting, and waiting…and waiting, until, very slowly, bit by bit, the sun started to creep up above the horizon, illuminating our surroundings and setting the sky on fire! The sight was breathtaking, spectacular; absolutely spellbinding. Never had I seen such a unique setting…the jagged hostile nature of the granite rocks surrounding us contrasted with the lush tropical forest in the valley below – making it one of the most striking views I had ever seen. I felt alive to be there, standing as if on the top of the world.
After we had had our fix of marvellous views, we tore ourselves away and began the descent: nothing could have prepared me for the pain that ensued. Walking purely downhill for 8 hours is the most excruciating task…so much so that my legs actually refused to work for the last hour, and I had to walk on my tip toes just to make it down. It was as if my limbs had become independent of my body and flapped around with a will of their own! Still, after a long and painful day, I arrived safely at the bottom with a feeling of satisfaction and elation.
There it stood: the mountain, as tall and majestic as ever…but this time I saw it differently. I had conquered it, I had stood upon its summit, and I would cherish the experience always.