In my top bunk of dorm number four, at Laban Rata guesthouse, half way in Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, I actually prayed, “Dear Lord, please make this rain stop!” I am not a religious person by any means, but listening to the rain hammer on the roof and the wind howl and whip round the hostel like a pack of possessed wolves, I felt I had no choice. It was Ten thirty at night , and we had to get up at two in the morning to prepare for the night summit and the strenuous hike ahead through darkness. I was feeling increasingly discouraged about even being able to attempt the summit trail as I listened to the rain get progressively heavier.
I had been in this position before, on Mt Kilimanjaro, at the rest stop 5000m above sea level; alone in my bunk with only the comfort of Enigma on my MP3 player. I had self-heating pads in each of my socks to warm my ice-cold feet. I recall the winds back then being extreme; blowing and whistling through the cracks in the wooden cabin. ‘If this continues it will be too dangerous to summit’ – our guide on Kilimanjaro informed us. However, with some kind of miracle, the winds dropped and the weather was calm enough to make a successful summit.
Re-playing this memory in my mind over and over gave me hope; ‘All I need to do is go to sleep, wake up, and the storm will have subsided’, I thought. Flicking though my music library for Engima trying to recreate the miracle on Kilimanjaro, I was still worried. I glanced around the rest of the dorm to gauge other people’s emotions. There was an old Japanese couple who had climbed in bright pink chenille tracksuits and a young European couple that spoke no English. All were sleeping soundly. It wasn’t fair, I needed to get some sleep! I continued to lie in silence listening to Mother Nature outside, attempting to ruin my trek to the top of Kinabalu.
Mount Kinabalu stands at a mighty 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) above sea level and is one of South East Asia’s highest peaks. Nestled among a lush rainforest setting in the middle of Kinabalu National Park, travelers and hikers don the two day trek in hope of reaching the colossal granite peak known as ‘Low’s Peak’. The summit climb is usually attempted at 3am; walking through the night with only a headlamp and the moon to provide light. The early treck does not go without reward, however, for those who reach the summit are rewarded by witnessing the sunrise over Borneo. This, along with visiting the Orangutans, was the main reason for my three week trip to Borneo.
I am a wildlife lover at heart and have quite the soft spot – some might call it an obsession – with the original ‘Man of the Forest’, the orang-utan. For many years I have dreamt about seeing them in their natural habitat and have done my bit for conservation efforts by donating to charities and adopting the cute ginger fur balls. A trip to Borneo has long been on my ‘to-do list’. However, after summiting Kilimanjaro in 2006 and trekking high in the Himalayas for ten days in 2009, I had also developed somewhat of a love affair with conquering peaks and high altitude trekking. When I heard about Mount Kinabalu, deciding to make this my next trip was a no-brainer. Being able to climb a mountain and see orang-utans in the wild? What more could anyone want from a holiday? Perhaps idealistic white-sand beaches? Clear turquoise waters sporting an abundance of coral reefs and exotic fish? Or tribal cultures and communities that are still very much alive today as they always were? Well Borneo has that too. It truly is a wildlife-lover, adventure-junkie, culture-vulture and beach-bum paradise all rolled into one. That is, if you avoid the monsoon season…
I had planned the trip for late January, and after having done my research, I figured out the rains should have subsided by then. After all, February is usually the start of the dry season. I had spoken to others who had climbed Kinabalu in December who had reported successful summits and had no issues with the weather, so naturally I believed my trip would be a success too. I was expecting the odd thunderstorm, (that is a given when you visit South East Asia) but nothing could have prepared me for what we actually endured during our three week holiday.
My boyfriend and I started in the capitol, Kota Kinabalu. It’s not the most exciting of capitol cities compared to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, but in a way that makes it more special. It is not that developed, and has held on to most of its local charm; most trade happens in the bustling market areas that sell local produce. Throughout the city, there are strong reminders of how it was once targeted in World War II. The main Jetty, Jesselton Point, is the gateway to Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) National Park. It displays photographs and captions of the devastation that hit Kota Kinabalu in the 1940’s along the harbor wall. The Images showed how the city, then named Jesselton, was completely flattened by Allied bombings, leaving only three buildings standing. The city has done amazingly well and has been completely restored in just a few decades. Kota Kinabalu is rebuilding its economy; attracting many tourists as the -appointed capitol city, and acting as the gateway to Sabah’s playground of wildlife and adventure. We spent our first couple days here, acclimatizing to the tropical and humid air that feels so thick to breathe in, and dodging the afternoon thunderstorms that have raindrops the size of golf balls.