Published: May 5th 2011October 6th 2010
After an unremarkable day exploring the city of Kinabalu in Borneo and its immorally gigantic rats, I open the door to my dorm and this random girl asks, as if discussing the weather, “Want to go river rafting tomorrow?”
Padas River: Mud Rafting
Annabelle, my new friend from the UK, and I are picked up by the Riverbug
crew early next morning. After an hour or two, we transfer to a train. This rusty contraption has been running since the 19th century, and, following our guides, we roast our skin on the cargo platform. If you prefer, you can grab a seat in the car, but you'll lose the adventure.
The rail tracks follow the river at a vertical angle giving us a view of a semi-truck’s skeletal remains in the muddied water. We toss jokes with fellow expats about seeing such metal carnage from our seats, laughing each time the train lurches cliff-side. With no seatbelts or safety bars, the situation invites irony, but we manage to survive the ride, enjoying the wind like dogs perched on car windows.
Our guide, Munky, explains the necessary safety measures while two other guides demonstrate for full effect:
if you need rescuing by canoe, you “mount” the tip of the canoe, and, Munky ensures, “we’ll ride you to shore.” The entire demonstration is full of harmless sexual innuendos, but the guides are very serious when it comes to keeping their customers safe--even when they surprise dunk you in the water to make sure you can handle yourself (life vests and helmets included).
The level III-IV waters are easier than Colorado rivers with the same ranking, but the tangled overgrowth surrounding the wide river is a breathtaking contrast to the tidy pine trees back home. Our guides give new names to the bends, “The Washing Machine” or, one warns, “Next one is Samsung!” after learning I'm part Korean.
We come out properly doused in mud water. Despite the warning not to swallow, I can taste some residue staining the inside of my cheeks like wet chalk. Annabelle and I are fortunate enough to be treated to some coffee by Chris, a rocket scientist (no, really), and a group of us expats talk about favorite TV shows from back home.
The Main Event:
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
Almost everyone traveling in Kota Kinabalu has heard of
Between 2:30-5:30am, the rope was ice between our gloved fingers. This was one of the rare moments we took to stop and take a photo.
the mountain, climbed it, or is waiting for the 2-day expedition. Some people are interested because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, while others avoid it for the same reason. After plenty research, I was intrigued.
I booked a couple months ahead, but many people I met managed to slip into spots vacated by cancellations. You may have to wait, but most people found space within a week. This may change with increasing traffic.
One legend has it that a Chinese prince washed ashore and, embraced by the locals, fell in love and wed a Borneo woman. When he left to visit his family back home, his parents forced him into a new marriage under filial piety. His Borneo wife, meanwhile, climbed Mount Kinabalu daily, looking out for her husband until the act drained her to death. The mountain’s spirit, moved by her loyalty, immortalized her body into stone
(Cina Balu = "Chinese Widow" and more on Kinabalu
This dominating mountain stands at 4,095m/13,435ft above sea level. Experiences vary due to volatile rainstorms. Jesper, another traveler, shows me his photo at the peak; pitch black background surrounds him, the specks of water on his camera screen
attesting to the relentless rain.
After skipping out on the evening at Sutera Lodges, I wake up early to find the bus stop. It's a brief walk from the alley with all the hostels (including Borneo Backpackers, Lucy's Hostel, and plenty of other choices).
A Japanese girl, Makiko, asks if I want to group together with a guide, and I say sure. I end up feeling a little doubt and worry for her, as she reveals this is her first time hiking, ever. Still, our group of three (including our sweet guide, Kounggin) begins the climb at Timpohon Gate, trekking slowly so we don’t burnout too quickly.
Every hour or so, men and women in training for the Kinabalu Marathon pounce up the steep mountain. They’re so fast, you see them bounding down a few hours later. Even more unbelievable are the porters who carry food and water bags the size of another human being, trekking past with unimaginable strength and endurance.
A few kilometers up, and we run into Annabelle (on her way down) who shares leftover chocolate and smiles, but, despite her generous efforts, looks shockingly depleted of all her energy.
and climbers who return downhill chant, “Slowly, slowly.” There’s little fluctuation in the grade unlike the Mesilau Trail (I’m told it’s 2 extra kilometers but the varying grades make it an easier climb); our calves and hamstrings flex and flex and flex uphill. In some areas, stairs have been built for safety, and the steep steps feel out-of-place in a vertically challenged Asian society.
I reach Laban Rata and rush to wash myself. Other climbers warn that the shower is freezing, but I can’t stand the sweat and dirt. I shudder under ice pelts and shift my toes atop the even icier floor tiles. As I towel dry, I gasp out visible air.
“I’d rather stink than take a shower! You have to be brave. Are you going to?” A girl with an American accent asks another climber.
After a thoughtful pause the other girl responds, “I’m mentally preparing myself.”
After dinner, it’s lights out for me. I sleep alone in the 8-bed dorm room and briefly awaken when the seven Chinese guests arrive a few hours later. I think, There’s no way they’re going to make the second half . . .
and drop back
At 2 a.m., I dress and pack in the dark while my dorm mates continue their slumber. After a big breakfast, Makiko and I follow Kounggin who takes lead unlike yesterday’s half when he let us set pace. We have only our head torches to light the heels of the person in front of us on the unpredictable path.
A peculiar quality about night climbing—similar to night diving in this respect—is the tunnel vision provided by the light makes you hyperaware of the contradicting darkness. Makiko’s headlamp dims as we climb the ropes and scale the steep pluton mountain (rock crystallized from magma, similar in appearance and touch to granite). She shuffles onward as her limbs refuse a greater range of movement, reflecting my own discomfort. I imagine, If I’m tired after hiking most of my life in Colorado at high altitude, how exhausted is she
? Without uttering a complaint, her persistence is admirable.
We check off kilometer after kilometer. I’m so underdressed for the occasion: my gloves provide a good grip on the wet rope but nothing against the freezing cold; my jeans (the same I used for the first half
of the climb) are damp; my multiple shirts are drenched with sweat from the lower layers and cold moisture from the top. My muscles ache for rest, but any break welcomes the cold down to the bones, so I keep moving forward. Thankfully, my shoes provide a good grip against the slippery rock wall and my jacket is windproof.
Most people who trek ahead disappear from sight, leaving the way invisible except for our guide’s torch. Behind us, microscopic lights grow into a line of torches giving a surreal sense of the black terrain we have covered.
The sky reflects the faintest light as the world begins manifesting itself without the aid of our head torches. Kounggin gives me the go ahead to trek ahead, so I don’t miss the sunrise. Just as the red and blue hues peek through, I’m there.
Clouds flow from the mountain's breast, mimicking the crest of a smoking volcano. With shaking hands, I take unfocused shots of the shifting clouds. Makiko and Kounggin make it up and we pose next to the green sign with frozen grins and a sense of accomplishment.
Once the sunrise has
The Kinabalu Team
Me, Kounggin, and Makiko
spread its plumage across the sky, I realize, I have to move. My muscles tremble and prepare to collapse. This is only the halfway marker
, I remind myself. I hug my group good-bye as they choose to stay a while longer.
The sunlight makes visible nature’s staggering design. From the mountain’s unyielding face to a distant valley’s snaking rivers, the sight is a revelation contrasting the early morning’s obscurity.
I meet two Kiwis on the way down, and we alternate passing on the narrow path. Ginger haired Nicola uses two poles for support as she heads down. She might as well be skiing she's so fast. Her brunette friend, Amanda, leans on a walking stick and slowly descends. I follow last with no helpful aide, sidestepping stairs, and looking pretty disabled as my knees buckle out with each step.
I’m grateful for their conversation as the humor diverts attention away from the never ending descent. Hours later, we reach the entrance and sit down on the benches, laughing, gasping, and shaking our heads in disbelief. The pain steeped in our frigid muscles. The adrenaline of success contradicting our bodies by insisting the two-day hike was indeed worthwhile.
Return to Sea Level
When I return to the hostel, Annabelle has left a note that says, “YOU MADE IT!!” I run into Chris, the rocket scientist, again, and we search for her with no luck as she's departed for her Open Diver in Mabul. Though I don’t see her before leaving Kinabalu, we will run into each other at my next stop.
I meet other memorable travelers, too (in chronological order): an old French man who shares his green Pomelo and encourages me to visit the remote Togean Islands before tourists wreck havoc; a Czech hippie whose politics and suggestive “free love” I politely decline; Lauren and Andy from Travelblog whom I don’t get to know, but it’s interesting to meet fellow bloggers; and last, but certainly not least, Fiona, her brother, Chris, and DM Bear, with their tear-jerking raunchy humor.
With the clarity of hindsight, there are a few things I would have packed differently for this trip:
* Boardshorts for rafting (also good for diving).
* Spare dry
socks for the second climb.
* Spare pants (or thin waterproof pants to place over my jeans).
* Better set
Kinabalu Rope During the Day
This is steeper than it looks.
of gloves (the wet ropes will get to your hands).
But, for the most part, I was lucky with the weather and suffered no mishap. Pre-climb, I received some great advice from friends who had previously done the climb. I found myself very grateful, so I'll pass it forward:
* Small snacks (nuts, chocolate, dried fruit) for the climb. I found the Sutera lunchboxes more than sufficient, so I shared half of mine with my guide. But, extra energy snacks do help throughout the climb.
* A cheap poncho running around 5-10RM (you can find them at a local mall in the cheap sports shops).
* A good head torch. Maybe spare batteries, too.
* A warm hat. It really is freezing up there.
* Did I mention it's freezing? Layers, layers, layers that you can add up when cold, and take off when you get hot on the way down.
* A small-medium
bag. You will be carrying this up. Some guides accepted extra money to carry a heavy duty bag while others outright refused.
* Be prepared for a cold shower even if they say hot is available.
* Extra sweater? I didn't do this and
River Rafting Padas
With the Riverbug Crew
found the blanket warm enough at Laban Rata. Others thought it was freezing.
* Extra water bottle. I was fine with what they gave in the lunchbox. Then again, I don't drink a lot of water in the first place. Some people, especially guys, were glad they brought an extra bottle.
* Some people headed to the hot springs afterward. I didn't, so I can't comment on quality, but on the way down it sounded like a very good idea.
Via Ferrata on Kinabalu?
If you're interested in the via ferrata, I recommend doing it the first time around because it receives great reviews, and is an interesting new way to experience Kinabalu. On the way down, I ran into people wearing hard hats who would extend their climb with extra exciting mountain climbing—scaling more walls, using iron rails, cables, etc). I signed up with Mountain TORQ
thinking that I could handle a second climb via ferrata style a week after my first climb.
There was no way I was going up Kinabalu so soon, I realized. I regrettably canceled my reservation and switched my route towards world renown Mabul & Sipadan (Muck Diving in Mabul
), to recuperate my
Train ride to Padas River.
muscles and return to the more relaxing sport of diving.
There are more photos below