Back to nature in Borneo

Offering dense jungle, rare flowers, all manner of birds and one of Malaysia’s tallest mountains, Sabah, the state crowning the island of Borneo, is a natural choice for adventurous travellers. But come prepared. To travel well is to master the delicate balancing act of preparation. Picture for a moment that sleek leopard-print Speedo you picked up in Bangkok and wore for a week on the beaches of Phuket. That same Speedo isn’t going to serve you quite so well while exploring the ferret dens of South Korea’s Namdaemun Night Market. In a similar vein, consider all that neat vodka you picked up the last time you road the Trans-Siberian into Moscow; vodka is the wrong sort of spirit guide for a Gobi Desert odyssey. Travel, as I have come to understand it, is about checks and balances. Sadly, I was never any good at economics and I tend to think in dichromatic terms: black v. white; day v. night; Charlie Sheen v. Reality. I spend less time preparing for trips than I spend drinking absinthe in Brunei – which is to say, very little time at all.

My laissez faire attitude toward travel and preparation took a serious hit upon challenging the mighty Mount Kinabalu to a stratospheric grudge match. Kinabalu is the 20th-tallest mountain in the world by virtue of topographical prominence – it’s also home to a spreading ground of incomprehensible biological diversity and is a favoured destination among Borneo thrillseekers. A hellacious 20-kilometre circuit to Low’s Peak, some 4,095 metres above sea level, taught me a valuable lesson about preparation, much the same way I imagine Everest taught Sir Edmund Hillary, the greatest mountaineer in history, a thing or two about packing an overnight bag.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by stating the oft-neglected; Malaysian Borneo is as intimidating as a proboscis monkey with a runny nose. This is not your grandfather’s jungle. This is Axl Rose’s jungle: Kota Kinabalu, the bustling capital city of Sabah state and the largest city in Borneo, is as modern and mighty as any mid-sized Asian capital, replete with thumping discotheques, Thai cafés and multiplex digital picture emporiums.

Kota Kinabalu is also known as a bit of a beachcomber’s paradise; Tanjung Aru, located on the main Borneo landmass, boasts a two-kilometre-long stretch of sand, while Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, consisting of five small islands less than five kilometres from Kota Kinabalu, is popular with tourists and weekend warriors alike. Pulau Gaya, the largest of the five islands, gasconades three five-star resorts and is popular among rockstars and the most gastronomically adventurous Parisian celebrity chefs.

Visiting the Central Market, we entertained rumours of a notorious krait colony that exists on Cow Island and preys on unsuspecting snorkellers. Excited at the prospect of encountering authentic Borneo danger, we were left nonplussed regarding our sea-level adventures when not a single water-borne hazard presented itself upon visiting the aforementioned islands. Unless you trip and fall into a ravenous rafflesia flower at the forest reserve near Tambunan or disturb a hungry orangutan during feeding time at the Sepilok sanctuary, the only safety issues you’re likely to encounter in Borneo relate to undercooked street-stall satay.

Luxury and largess conspired against me in Borneo. I let my guard down and got lazy. I ate too much anchovy spiked nasi lemak (coconut rice), spent too many nights on the beach, spent too much time wandering through wondrous markets, and not nearly enough time exploring the mighty jungle frontiers. Touring Borneo’s newest and largest hypermall, I found a used copy of Hillary’s High Adventure in the historical fiction bin. Casually flipping through the dog-eared pages while Megan, my intrepid travel companion, shopped for powder at the Clinique counter, I came across this apothegm, written by Hillary himself: “From the summit we could see at least a hundred miles in every direction.”

I knew immediately that I was destined to conquer Mount Kinabalu as Hillary conquered the indomitable Everest on May 29, 1953. With any luck, I would be knighted for my exploits before I descended again to the sea, as Sir Edmund himself was honoured by Queen Elizabeth II. Of course, trouble lay in my way; to stand at the apex of Kinabalu I knew I must evade the salivating pitcher plant’s sweet toxic nectar, dodge projectiles launched through the air by cheeky garbage monkeys and subsist for 24-hours without access to the internet, a cellular telephone, or hot water. An anonymous international study suggests no one under the age of 30 has survived the latter. I pined to be the first.

Unfortunately, the tour racket is a well-oiled machine on the isle of Borneo and the only way up Kinabalu is with an accredited guide, a fully qualified insurance policy and climbing fees paid in full. While reviewing ascent details from the posh air-conditioned confines of the island’s largest travel agency, I turned again to Sir Ed’s tome for motivational factoids, as the plethora of rules and regulations were dragging me down. “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves,” Hillary wrote. And with that in mind I signed my liability waivers and passed my visa across the counter, determined to do great things on that mountain. “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated,” Hillary said. I knew I was better than sufficiently motivated; I was self-sufficiently motivated, and I was ready to climb a mountain.

A moment to consider routine. Edmund Hillary and the 37 members of the ninth British expedition drank more than six litres of water each, every day, during their seven-week assault on the summit in an effort to combat altitude sickness. The night before Megan and I took on the barren face of Kinabalu we drank two litres of wine, three citrus-infused hefeweizens, ate two servings of rendang curry, a heap of opor ayam (a coconut chicken stew), and a hearty supply of ikan pari (grilled stingray) chased with two dozen or so lychees. We covered the fruit in honey; Hillary himself was a beekeeper by trade and we considered this a good omen and an auspicious offering to the legends of the stratosphere.

Our assault began at 9 a.m. I imagine Hillary had put 15 kilometres behind him by this time on an average day, but we didn’t have as far to go. We collected our guide, Frank, at Kinabalu Park HQ and took to the winding trail. We clambered over rugged terrain, blanketed by the viscous jungle heat, passing hikers less attuned to the scorching temperatures than we were. I snickered at those overloaded with climbing equipment and useless gear like pants, gloves, hats and hiking boots. I was outfitted in the bare essentials; sneakers, shorts and a cheap t-shirt I picked up in a Cambodian night market. In contrast, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay packed oxygen masks, crampons, beaver-pelt mittens and ice axes into their kits, while the Australian mother of three herding her hoard up the mountainside ahead of us was clad in the latest from The North Face, Wigwam and Patagonia. I scoffed at their excessive preparation; all that gear would have only served to slow me down.

Nearly eight kilometres and some six hours into our climb, I found myself seated on a rock next to my exhausted travel companion, watching hikers we passed on the trail hours ago overcome us 500 metres shy of Laban Rata, our base camp for the night. We were woefully dehydrated; between us, we had consumed less than three litres of water. Foolishly, I decided at sea level we were better served travelling swift and light. Suddenly we were not travelling at all and we were seriously light headed.

At more than 3,270 metres above sea level the human body expels nearly three litres of water every hour – from every orifice imaginable. We knew we couldn’t turn around and go back down – our guide, Frank, who had appeared from a secondary trail for only the second time during our quest, informed us that he must rendezvous with his girlfriend, a cook at Laban Rata, before nightfall. He offered us Aspirins, a few sips from his own water stores, and urged us to continue. I told him that if he wished me to spend the night at Laban Rata he would have to carry me the rest of the way. Frank called me fat. I told him I had watched some of his fellow porters pass us with supply loads from Park HQ in excess of 100 kilograms. Frank refused and asked me exactly what I was carrying in my backpack. As I bent over to explore its contents Frank attempted to kick me in the ass. He swears he did not.

Sleep on the mountain did not come easy. While Hillary enjoyed the body heat of his Nepalese Sherpa inside their wind-proof tent, a billion tons of snow kept him safe from the harsh Himalayan elements – snow, of course, is one of the greatest heat insulators in the world. In contrast, I was forced to spend a restless night holed up in a makeshift ice hut with a corrugated steel roof that howled like an angry orangutan every time the wind kicked up outside. Our hut mates, a cheery couple from of the night. Mount Kinabalu is considered by many climbers the most painless 4,000 metre summit on earth; not even two months on Everest could have convinced me otherwise. Hillary had it easy out there on the top of the world.

We rose at 3 a.m. to conquer the summit, our convoy some 200 strong. I snacked on cereal grains and flooded my system with water, but after visiting the toilet half a dozen times in the night and expelling what liquid was left in my system, I was slower up the mountain than most of the school children and the Texas oil man attempting in vain to get reception on his iPhone.

Megan hauled my dehydrated carcass atop Low’s Peak. I remember thinking of the hands and fingers that once functioned when I commanded them to; at that altitude, in that darkness, in that cold, nothing operates as it is meant to. I was filled with a jealous sort of rage looking out upon all the climbers in their thermal gloves and wool-lined jackets while I shuddered in my thin fleece sweater and sweat-soaked shorts. I considered making a move for Frank’s pack to appropriate his emergency flare to signal a rescue helicopter, but couldn’t summon the energy. Where once there was a single surly guide now there were three: one an apparition, one a hallucination, and one angrier than ever at my lack of preparation. Frank urged me onward with a kick.

Taking the final few metres to the peak I tripped and fell, my ravaged copy of High Altitude falling out of my pocket. I thought of the many ways I had failed Hillary, when, suddenly, ripping across the sky like some ephemeral ribbon as if we had reached the end of the first moonscape half marathon, rays of sunlight shattered the dark and illuminated the world above the clouds. “We knocked that bastard off!” I screamed, smiling at Megan and eliciting a chorus of cheers from my fellow climbers. It seemed as though they were familiar with the reference.

I set my pack down on the rock and dug through it, past those things given to me en route by kind climbers: a jug of water; iodine pills; a compass; two candy bars; and a roll of two-ply toilet paper. I removed my camera and framed the landscape before me. Wild, wicked Borneo lay bare, while the rest of the world, a hundred miles in every direction, lay ready for conquest. •

Photography by Flash Parker.


getting there
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane with onward connections to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. The airline also flies direct from Perth to Kota Kinabalu. 132-627;
AirAsia X flies from Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur, with connections on to Kota Kinabalu. 
Creative Holidays can help organise Sabah expeditions. 

when to go

The best time to climb Mount Kinabalu is during the dry season, from April through October. Temperatures on the mountain range from 25°C at the trailhead to below freezing at the peak; dress accordingly.

where to stay
Laban Rata Rest House is the only accommodation available to climbers on Mount Kinabalu; a stay is usually booked as part of a climbing package. Bookings are handled through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.

Other hotels around Kota Kinabalu include:
• Bunga Raya. 6-88/380-390;
• Gaya Island.
• Gayana Eco Resort. 6-88/380-390;
• Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort.
• Sutera Harbour. 6-88/318-888;

further information
For details on Malaysia, contact Tourism Malaysia. 61-2/9299-4441;
For tips on travelling to Sabah, contact the Sabah Tourism Board. 60-88/212-121;

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