The Highs and Lows of Beautiful Sabah

Sunrise on the summit of Mt Kinabalu
The Highs and Lows of Beautiful Sabah
Friendly squirrels scrounging for food along the trail
Friendly squirrels scrounging for food along the trail
Orangutans being fed at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Sandakan
Orangutans being fed at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Sandakan
Teahouse on a hill in Sandakan city
Teahouse on a hill in Sandakan city

17 Feb 2018

The Highs and Lows of Beautiful Sabah

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.


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