In February of 2017 I made an amazing
journey with an awesome crew to go explore the wilderness of Malaysia. For me
the trip began long before the actual journey, as I was so excited to see the
rainforest, then climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu over 13,000 feet up in
the clouds. My first concern was getting the right gear, as a Boy Scout from a
previous life, I already knew some of the handy items I should be bringing
along. For me this trip was going to be about getting back to a younger me and
re-experiencing the wonder of the forest of my youth. Knowing anything in
advance can never recapture the magic of wonder years, I set forth with a slight
air of romance and adventure that I found indeed over the 5 night trip.
The first leg of our journey was a 2 night
stay in the rainforest of Borneo at a river lodge nestled right next to the Kinabatangan
River. The lodge is called the Borneo Nature Lodge and from the photos I could
find online, it looked to be very nice place to stay. We were to look forward
to seeing natural wonders such as caves, the Orangutan sanctuary and all manner
of rainforest wildlife. The second leg of adventure was to take us to Kota
Kinabalu to hike up to the summit of the tallest peak in South East Asia. In
terms of preparation for the trip I found that there was an abundance of
information to be found doing some simple Google searches where I read all
about what clothes to bring and what to expect in terms of climate. Research
done! Let’s go!!
Flying from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in
Borneo is a quick puddle jumper flight on the nation’s favourite carrier, Air
Asia. Beware here ladies and gentlemen; be sure to print all your documents in
advance or they send you to the customer service queue to pay a printing fee.
In my case this proved to be strategically sound as the queue for the customer
service desk was about 10 times shorter so I was able to breeze through
checking in quickly. This is a bit of gamble though as customer service is a
single desk and I think I was lucky to get it through it so fast.
As you would expect, the airport was a
small one at Sandakan but it was clean and there was a lack of usual assault of
cabbies trying to harangue a fare. We were met at the airport by our guide
James who was courteous and friendly from the start. Since we arrived early in
the day there was plenty of time for us to tour the city and stop for a lunch
at the English tea house perched atop a hill overlooking the harbour of
Sandakan. Lovely breezes and a light rain made a picturesque setting in this
antique venue in the hills.
Refreshed and ready to travel, we began the
car ride to the lodge by the river. The bus was nice and new and the aircon
worked just fine. We arrived at the lodge a couple hours later and took a short
boat trip up river. Already the air was thick with jungle smells and rich with
the clean air of being so far away from a large city. We arrived at the lodge
to a warm welcome, cool towels for face and hands, and shown to our cabins.
Accommodation is simple as this is an Eco lodge, but I have to say, they could
probably have used an update to the rooms and cleaner towels and sheets. No
stains or anything like that, just the tired old smell of sundries gone past
their prime. That being said the food was very good and where I usually have
digestive issues with some of the local fare, at the Borneo Nature Lodge I
walked away from every meal feeling good. The food itself was nothing too fancy
mind you, but it was all cooked well with fresh produce so definitely a treat.
On day 1 we saw the Gomantong Caves in
Sandakan and that was like looking into the dark one’s lair. So many insects
all feeding off the guano from the bats made part of an ecosystem that included
the fabled source of birds nest soup. A Chinese delicacy, this soup is made
from the spittle of a bird that nests in these caves. For generations the
locals around here have passed the knowledge of how to collect these nests from
Father to Son. Day 2 was had us on the river for several cruises just spotting
the wildlife from the comfort of our boat. We were very lucky indeed to see
wild Pigmy Elephants including an infant still young enough to be closely
coddled by his mother. The night cruise especially was worth the extra charge
as the diversity and abundance of night wildlife comes alive as the forest
inhabitants come to the waters edge to spend the night in the branches of the
trees overhanging the river.
The next day it was time to go and we made
a stop in at feeding time to say hello to the Orangutans that have been rescued
by the conservation team at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. It’s
sad to think that all the deforestation and development in the area has driven
so many creatures, not only the Orangutan, from the rainforest due to humans
encroaching on their habitats. Whilst the Orangutans are lucky to have a
sanctuary, it’s a shame there’s a need for one in the first place. All the more
reason to see these guys in their natural habitat while we can.
After an even shorter flight than the one
from KL, we arrive in KK to a balmy evening. We check in to our KK hotel to
prepare ourselves for the ordeal ahead. No one knew at the time how much of an
ordeal it would be, but a great and wonderful experience lies ahead. Early AM
on the bus to head to the foot of the mountain. 9am arrive at the base of the
mountain and what lie ahead is a 6km hike up to base camp. What was a running
stream looked to have been blocked off to create a natural path up the
mountain. Flanking the trail either side is flora and fauna strange and
delicate. Everything looks lush and full of shades of green and grey.
Some make it to basecamp before 4pm, others
do not. It started raining about halfway up and the first set of clothes had become
soaked through. Thank goodness I invested in good shoes and socks. Arrive at
basecamp exhausted mostly from elevation which at base camp is a cool 3K++
meters making the air quite thin for someone used to sea level. In bed for 9pm
and up at 2am for the climb to the summit. It’s a beautiful star filled night
and we can see all the way to KK 2 hours’ drive away. There was Milky Way in
all its splendour revealed at altitude just for us. We made the summit just
before sunrise and with a cold wind tearing at our jackets we waited for the
crest of the Sun to draw its’ first lines in the sky with ambers and reds. A
few clouds broke the light amongst the mountain tops and we realised we were
very lucky to have such perfect conditions for a sunrise.
All too soon we have to leave and make our
way back down the trail as we have an appointment to keep on the Via Ferratta.
We booked our mountain climb with the team from Mountain Torq crew and they
kindly provided us with an experience in heights, physical endurance, and what
seemed the easiest way to get down the mountain. This set of steel cables and
tiny footholds that had been nailed in to the rock face to provide a vertical
descent back to basecamp proved to be our bane for we had too little rest the
night before… be wary! 4 hours later and over 1km of climbing and we were
spent. Happy and exhilarated, but totally drained. What a day so far! Up at 2am
and the summit then 4 hours on the Via Ferrata, but wait, we still have the 6km
descent from basecamp left. No worries we think, it’s downhill. But my days
from the Scouts had taught me that downhill can often be the thing that does
people in because it’s so hard on your knees. We did ok but wow was I sore the
next few days. Made it down the mountain in one piece amidst more rain, my
second set of clothes getting soaked through and exhausted, we made our way
back to KK. After a shower and a pretty decent steak at the hotel, I felt human
again and nostalgic of the climb up and down we had just completed. We were all
brothers and sisters of the trail and it felt good having made the journey with
our little band of 4. The next day we flew out early so we could be back in KL
for lunch and went home to nurse our respective wounds and sore muscles. We all
promised to catch up a few weeks later with our families for dinner and we did.
Sometimes you don’t, but this time we all did.
It was a lovely night of food and talk, and nobody really spoke about
how hard physically the last part of the trip was at all.
In summary, the itinerary of the trip was a
really good one. It was a great sampling of a full range of climate here in
Malaysia as well as wildlife, fauna, and flora. Be sure to read up on the climb
if you are thinking about summiting Mount Kinabalu, and be especially sure to
go in good company. The only thing I would have done differently would have
been staying an extra day at basecamp to recover before the descent and its
worth investing in the new VIP cabins they have just opened. The extra time and
comfort would help a lot in terms of recovery, especially at 41 years of age ;)
The trip wasn’t perfect, it definitely had
its ups and some serious downs. However, I heard from somebody very early on in
life that the only trips you remember are the ones that weren’t perfect. Overall,
I had an amazing journey and I would recommend it to anyone with the caveat
that you are physically prepared for it.