In this article our intrepid guest author Rhys, climbs the unexpectedly steep Mount Kinabalu for a New Year’s view from the top, meets the king of the swingers, gets eaten alive in the jungle and catches some squeaking catfish in Borneo.
When people think of Borneo they usually think sprawling rainforest and amazing wildlife, not the highest mountain in South East Asia. For some reason though Danielle, my partner, thought the latter and we booked to climb Mount Kinabalu for what should have been the romantic New Year’s Eve to end them all. We also booked a little bit of the former as well with a three day camp at Uncle Tans wildlife camp.
Borneo, the largest island in Asia (and the third largest in the world), is divided up amongst three counties; Brunei and Malaysia to the North, Indonesia to the South. The country was actually once part of the British empire and you can see the British influence in the three pin plug sockets which were a welcome sight for us and our tangle of iPad, Camera and other assorted chargers and plugs.
We flew in it Kota Kinabalu to start our trip, Kota being the capital of the Northern region of Sabah where we spent all of our time. Although it’s nothing to write home about, it’s still worth a visit for a night on your way through to somewhere else. Check out the cool Sunday Market which closes down one of the main streets for the morning and also go to the Signal Hill Observatory from which you can look out over the whole city and various islands. The night market is a great choice for food, buying a whole fresh fish from a local fisherman and taking it to a food stall to have it cooked with various other delicacies is an experience in itself as well as a delicious meal.
Although information is scarce on this (even on the interwebs), minibuses depart regularly from the central bus station to Kota Kinabalu National Park, the home of Mount Kinabalu, for around $5 each way. Get there early though as once they’re full they’re gone; we were there for 8am and departed with the last minibus by 9am. The luxury buses are slightly more expensive and go from the main terminal a few km out of the town, most hotels will arrange tickets and the tuktuk there.
Mount Kinabalu, not just a walk in the park
Mount Kinabalu stands at just over 4000 meters but for some reason (mainly a lack of any real research) we thought it would be a nice gently sloping climb. As soon as we arrived at the national park to check in to our accommodation we saw what we were up against; gently sloping it was not.
There is a range of accommodation and tour operators with which to book, the secret however is that all accommodation in the national park is provided through Sutera Sanctuary lodges and you can contact them directly for the best rates. Prices range from RM100 to RM1000 per night at the bottom of the mountain, and RM350 to RM3600 per night at the top. We went for the basic packages as we were on a budget but we saw some of the nicer accommodation at the bottom and it certainly had the feel of a luxury resort about it.
Whilst the budget accommodation at the top of the mountain was extremely basic with bunk beds and no hot water (you only really stay for a few hours sleep though before the 2am start) the bottom was actually quite nice for the amount we paid. As part of the package, food is provided via a buffet dinner the evening before the climb, breakfast the morning before, a packed lunch for during the climb, a buffet dinner after day one climb, buffet snacks before day two climb, buffet breakfast after the climb and then another buffet lunch when you get down. Phew! Basically you get fed a lot and although the mountain top food is pretty average (you can see why when the only way to get food up there is on the back of mountain sherpas) the food at the bottom was fantastic with a range of curries and a decent breakfast including fresh cooked omelettes.
Day one starts by paying 80RM for a guide, 30RM climbing permit fee, 14RM insurance fee, 10RM certificate fee, 10RM trail fee to the gate and 10RM storage fee if you need to leave any bags at the bottom (it’s 80RM if you need a porter to bring anything up to 10kg up with you so I’d suggest storing it and bringing a light backpack with a change if warm clothes and any other essentials). It can feel like you’re paying for something every time you turn around, especially as you are shepherded to various windows throughout the process; to be fair most of these fees are pointed out at the time of booking but it’s easy to forget such things when you have to book months in advance to secure a permit.
It’s then time to spend the next five to eight hours walking up very steep steps, relentlessly, until you get to Laban Rata guest house for your lunch. It’s pretty knackering, there’s no two ways about it and it can be pretty miserable at times if it starts to rain as it did for the last two hours with us. I have to confess here that neither of us are mountain climbers in any way shape or form, we both keep fairly fit but we certainty weren’t accustomed to the type of exercise and I think it would have been a lot easier had we done any form of specialist training beforehand. There are some quite spectacular views early on but after that it’s a bit of a drudge to get to the mid way point for your food, sitting and eating said food looking out above the clouds is pretty special though. All though the advice for the mountain is that it’s easily accessible and for all ages we actually found it quite hard going and there were tears from Danielle on a few occasions.
Second day brings the summit
Day two starts at 2am and although that sounds horrific it’s actually pretty exciting being out there in the pitch black, with a head torch, heading for the summit and the first sunrise of the New Year. This second half of the climb is a lot steeper than the first in certain parts, lots of sections don’t have steps and you have to scramble up some quite scary bits of slippy rock in pitch black with just a frayed piece of rope to help you out. It certainly tested our nerve and resolve, this was the highlight of Danielle’s crying throughout the trip with there being more cries per hour than at any other time.
We eventually made it to the summit and a short period of elation gave way to the urgent need to get down as we felt unsafe in between a sheer twenty meter drop and a wall of people bustling to get past each other to have a photo next to the summit sign; it gets very busy in a very small space up there. It was even more treacherous on the way down as it had started to rain and there were certain sections where it seemed if you slipped you could be falling for a very long time. In the end we didn’t see an amazingly romantic sunrise as it was too cloudy but being above the clouds is still pretty unbelievable viewing and we were both overjoyed with our effort and achievement when we arrived back at the park headquarters.
At the bottom of the mountain you can catch one of the regular luxury buses back to Kota Kinablu or on to Sandakan. You can also stay an extra night at Sutera Sanctuary or do like most people do and stay at the hot springs resort near by. We chose to get straight on the bus though and on to Sandakan for a wild life camp at Uncle Tans. Uncle Tans wildlife camp started out in 1986 when the man himself began taking tourists on wildlife tours around Sepilok and Sandakan. Move on twenty years and Uncle Tan is no longer around but the legend lives on with a large Bed and Breakfast/Operations centre, a wildlife camp and boats along the Lokan river in Kinabatangan.
Viewing the elusive orangutan
We stayed at the operations base the night before our trek, this isn’t necessary but you do have to be there at 9:30am the next day so it’s worth at least staying on the same road as Sandakan is up to an hour away. The accommodation at the operations base is basic and our room had no hot water, Danielle would certainly recommend trying one of the number of other more upmarket choices close by. The morning starts off with a visit to the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre, this isn’t part of the camp and you have to pay the entrance fee of RM30 but the transfer from Uncle Tans is complimentary. The centre is a fantastic place, we were unfortunate to have two orangutans turn up for feeding who were camera shy and turned their backs on us for the entire hour but we heard from others at the camp they had seen up to twenty of them turn up and cause chaos jumping all over each other. It’s not a zoo and the orangutans come from the near by jungle for a free nosh up so it can be hit and miss but I guess that’s all part of the appeal.
Later in the morning we were off to camp, an hour by mini bus and then an hour on a boat headed down the river. For some reason the boats the camp use do not have roofs and after remarking to each other how amazing it was to be out on the river we quickly found ourselves in the middle of a biblical downpour. Although we both had decent waterproof jackets on I stupidly had my phone, passport and wallet in my non waterproof shorts pockets. Complete amateur. I’m happy to report both the wallet and passport are now doing fine but the phone didn’t make it. RIP phone. Be warned.
The camp is very basic but we forgave that as we spent the next two days seeing orangutans, proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques and a host of other animals in their natural habitat. We went on morning, afternoon and evening safaris across the two days by boat along the river and some trekking through the jungle, all were fantastic. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and can spot the smallest of monkeys from miles away whilst driving a long tail boat down the river at full speed with huge smiles on their faces, they are all really lovely guys as well.
The catfish weren’t the only thing biting
There is a real family friendly atmosphere at the camp and there were lots of families with children when we were there. There is even a camp band to entertain throughout and after dinner consisting of a few of the guides and the cook. What lack in talent they make up for in volume though which did get slightly annoying later in to the night when we were trying to sleep for our 6am morning safari. Word to the wise, I am normally a magnet for mozzies, in fact I am utterly irresistible to them, like mosquito crunchy nut cornflakes; Uncle Tans mosquitos took it to the next level though. Yeah I don’t know what the next level is either but it involved bites too numerous to mention. Luckily we had some good soothing cream but stupidly we had the worst mozzie repellant ever as it was the only thing available near the camp and the camp incredibly doesn’t sell any….be prepared would be the motto of the day.
We also managed to squeeze in a bit of fishing which was a paid for extra but well worth it. Danielle cried when she caught cat fish after cat fish and they squeaked a terrible, sad sound when they were plucked from the water. Her sensitive side was no match for her competitive spirit though and she plucked a further eight out to my measly one, I didn’t hear the end of that for days. We BBQ’d our fish for dinner and luckily Danielle let me have a few of hers so I didn’t starve. The food in general was fantastic considering it was brought in by boat and prepared in the middle of the jungle. We had a number of different curries and vegetable dishes throughout our stay, all were delicious and we even received a free cooking lesson one evening from the camp cook.
Although there were times when we were extremely tired, uncomfortable, crying and wishing we weren’t there throughout the trip, we both look back now with extremely fond memories. Whilst it isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s certainly not a hard core adventure holiday either and you can certainly up the luxury levels of certain parts of the trip if you so desire. I don’t think we will be pursuing a career in mountain climbing after this but another New Years on a wildlife tour may just be a certainty.
Rhys is a 31 year old I.T. consultant from England who, after working in Sydney for four years, decided to pack it all in and set off with his girlfriend Danielle on the travelling adventure of their dreams. Destinations include Thai kickboxing camp, volunteering in Cambodia, Myanmar, Everest base camp, Burning Man festival and plenty of motorcycling adventures; they are currently blogging daily about their experiences on 365 Days Off Work.
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