Self-reflection from the top

Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu
Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu

What is this overwhelming urge that drives us to climb big stuff? When did it first start? Where did come from? Most likely a group of caveman were sitting around their cave fire, they had finished gnawing on the roasted mammoth they speared earlier in the day and had exhausted their conversation about the advantages of bronze over stone. One sits back contentedly then notices the snowcapped peak rising above their campsite. Suddenly his blood begins to boil with envy and quiet rage. Before going to sleep he thinks, “Look at you sitting there, so high and mighty. I’ll show you!”

The next morning he and his mates are lugging their hairy arses up some monstrously dangerous mountain.

I guess it has something to do with ego, the need to challenge yourself and, in doing so, learn more about your self and your limits. Irrespective, you have to admit that is quite odd that people choose to traipse up and down a big hill in the freezing cold in pursuit of some elusive glimpse of self-enlightenment. Why not just climb up and down some stairs in the comfort (and warmth) of your own home?

Not that I can talk, Amy and I were overcome by the same irrational impulse while in Borneo. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that it was a good idea to climb up and down Mount Kinabalu.

At 4150m, it is the highest mountain in South East Asia.  On a clear day you can see the Philippines from its summit, and we climbed up and down it.

I use the word ‘climb’ liberally as while we found the going quite tough (coming as we did off an intensive six month preseason of pissing on and sitting around) the route is very well established, meaning that ‘walking up a steep track’ is probably a more apt description.

While there are various permutations, to climb to the summit you have to buy a package. We caught a mini-bus from Kota Kinabalu at 7:30am. Arriving at the mountain about two hours later, we checked in our packs, collected our climbing permits and a packed lunch then met our guide. We jumped on another bus which took us up to the park entrance and the beginning of the climb. We spent the next four and a half hours alternating between walking up a really steep track and catching our breath at the rest hunts. We reached the lodge at about 3pm.

We ate, showered and watched the most amazing sunset from above the cloud line before heading to bed at about 8pm.

The next morning saw us rise at 2:30am, scoff down some breakfast before embarking on a two-and-a-half hour trek up to the summit. Negotiating the steep but smooth granite slopes in the dark was interesting but it was the biting cold that consumed us once we reached the summit, which was the most challenging part of the experience. It was well worth it to watch the ever-changing dawn light illuminate the stunning vista that stretched off in every direction.

From that point there was no other way but down. We reached the lodge at 8am, had breakfast number two before completing the four hour trek back down to the park entrance.

I am not sure that our walk up and down Mount Kinabalu taught me anything new about myself or my ego. What I did get was sore legs and a memorable sunrise.

Borneo: forecast unknown

A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Common wisdom holds that you should prepare for travel: do some research about your destination, read some travel guides, and speak to friends and family who have been there before you.

It gives you ideas on what to do and where to go but it also builds expectation. This becomes a problem when the actual travel experience differs from the expectations you have imagined.

We had very high expectations for our time in Sabah Borneo. The things I read and the people I spoke to made it sound fantastic: great diving, jungle and mountain trekking, orangutans, pigmy elephants and great food.

Unfortunately we couldn’t help but feeling a little disappointed when we left. Much of it had to do with bad timing. The fact that it pissed with rain nearly the entire time we were there meant that the jungle trek we had planned was cancelled due to flooding, the beach time was average and the diving visibility poor. The North Borneo Railway line being closed for renovations also didn’t help.

But also unavoidable was the fact that much of Sabah Borneo isn’t the undeveloped jungle paradise we had imagined. Massive tracks of jungle have been logged and replaced by palm plantations, which makes for morbidly monotonous bus trips

Many of the tourist highlights are either highly regulated or ridiculously expensive. While it was exciting to see orangutans feeding in the jungle at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, average punters only get a minute glimpse of the reserve from the confines of boardwalk not much more than a hundred metres long.

That being said, we did have some great times. The food was fantastic, climbing Mount Kinabalu was amazing and the Sandakan Memorial Park, which marks the site of an infamous WWII Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, was heart-wrenchingly fascinating. There were also some unexpected gems like when Amy’s fruit salad was served drowned in mayonnaise, or surviving an eight hour ride in the back of 4WD with nine adults and seven kids under the age of three.

I learnt a lot from our visit to Borneo. First and foremost, disregard your expectations. Secondly, if you want to fully appreciate the natural gems that Sabah Borneo has to offer (the diving at Sipadan or the unspoiled beauty of the Maliau Basin) take a wad of cash. And finally, if you are going to plan ahead for a journey to Borneo, start by planning a visit in the dry season.