Sunday, August 1, 2010

Malaysian Borneo - Mt. Kinabalu

Towering 13,435 feet above northern Borneo, Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain in all of southeast Asia. Known as Gunung Kinabalu in Bahasa Malaysia, the mountain is quite unlike any other on earth, rising almost twice as high as its Crocker Range neighbors and culminating in a crown of wild granite spires. When the summit is visible (usually in the morning, before the clouds close in) the mountain literally demands your attention.

I had heard this mountain was the highlight of many people's trip to southeast Asia so I decided I had to see what climbing Mt. Kinabalu was all about.  The only problem was that it's so popular that people book 6 months to even a year in advance in order to obtain a climbing permit.  I was determined to obtain a permit and I would do almost anything it took to climb the mountain.  Many people laughed when I told them I hadn't booked in advance and said I wouldn't be able to climb the mountain, but this only fueled the fire.

I figured my best option was to go directly to the mountain and camp out at the park headquarters in hopes that someone would cancel their trip or to see if I could sneak in.  Staying inside the park is ridiciulously inflated and they charge around $50 a night (most of my accommodation has been no more than $5-10 per night) to sleep in a dorm.  If I was going to stick around the park for awhile, I'd have to find somewhere more reasonably priced.  I walked just outside the park and found a local home-stay where they only charged $7 per night, but the only problem was that there was no heat and I only had shorts and t-shirts, and the mountain air was freezing at night.  The other problem was that I heard noisy rats running around in the ceiling all night so I put a few more blankets over me and put
 in some ear plugs to drown out the rambling rats.   

The next morning, I walked back to the park headquarters with my "I'm sad and desperate" face and made my best attempt at charming the female park ranger.  Unfortunately, my nose must have not been big enough for her (Many of the Asians here apparently find big noses attractive), because she shot me down in under 2 seconds.  Luckily, I had emailed the park the day before asking them to let me know if their was a cancellation.  I asked if I could check my email and surprisingly, someone had canceled and their was 1 space available.  Awesome!  I had to scramble to get some gear ready to hike the mountain since I had virtually none of the stuff I would need.  I was able to rent some warm clothes, a head lamp, and  a poncho to keep me dry. 
The devils and me
I also found 2 nice couples that let me join them and share a guide.  The two couples were from Tazmania and planned to travel around Borneo together for several weeks.  They were a bit older than me which at first I thought would be awesome.  I thought I'd be able to take it nice and slow going up the mountain and that surely they would wus out before I did.  What I found out later was that one of the couples competed in ultra-marathons and ran 100 km races.  Just great, I thought, now I'll get smoked by the old folks.  (Sorry Dan, Kylie, Tom and're not really old folks, you're just older folks than me.)

The calf busting climb is usually completed in 2 days with an overnight stay at a small lodge near the top called Laban Rata.  You wake up around 2 am to finish the remainder of the climb and reach the summit by sunrise.  Mt. Kinabalu at sunrise is stunning to say the least.  One of the most beautiful sites I think I've ever seen.  You look over all of Borneo and can see out into the South China and Celebes Seas.  Simply humbling.

It was also great being the fifth wheel for 2 days with the Tazmanian couples.  They basically treated me like their son and refused to let me pay for anything.  I legitimately enjoyed hanging out with them and I would definitely hang out with them even more if I were to ever move to Taz.  After the mountain hike, we split ways and they went to the island of Sipidan to dive one of the world's best spots.  I was highly jealous since I didn't have the time (or the reservation) to dive there.

One other interesting person I met on the mountain was an English woman by the name of Roz Savage.  Roz quit her career as a management consultant in order to accomplish one of her dreams which was to be the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean -- that's right, ROW, not sail, across the Pacific Ocean  Truly insane.  Roz has also rowed across the Atlantic and plans on doing the Indian in the near future.  She now works as an public speaker, a novelist, and an environmental advocate.   

After hiking the mountain, I headed to the capital of Sabah, the lively town of Kota Kinabalu, where I spent the next 5 days licking my wounds and moaning in pain from the soreness of hiking the mountain with ultra-marathon runners.  I didn't do too much here besides eat lots of really good fresh (and cheap!) seafood from the Phillipino fish market along with lots of ice cream.  I also watched movies at the huge air-conditioned shopping mall.  Glorious!

3 huge Tiger Prawns and 1 BBQ'ed tuna steak for a whopping $4

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