Climb every mountain! This epic hike in Borneo offers a thrilling challenge for all
| Daily Mail online version
Don’t let anyone tell you climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest summit in South-East Asia, is a pushover. It isn’t.
OK, at the age of 71 I admit I’m no spring chicken. But having climbed Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, two months before heading to Borneo, I was confident I’d take Kinabalu in my stride.
But one thing bothered me. Though its summit is not as high as Kilimanjaro’s, the speed of ascent and — above all — descent is much faster. Would I be up to the challenge?
The summit of Mount Kinabalu is known as Low's Peak, after a British colonial secretary who, ironically, never scaled it despite three attempts
I flew overnight with Malaysian Airways from London to Kuala Lumpur, where I changed planes for Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.
On arrival, I was driven straight to the headquarters of Kinabalu National Park, 50 miles north-east of the city. Around 8am the next morning, accompanied by my Malaysian guide, I began to climb.
‘My full name is Masnani,’ the woman guide told me. ‘But you can call me Nani.’
She was 42 and had five children, the eldest of whom was 18. I told her I had six children, whose ages range from 47 to 26. Bonds thus established, Nani offered to carry my rucksack, as well as her own, but I pooh-poohed the idea.
I wouldn’t say Nani and I spent a lot of time talking as we forged our way up the trail towards the hut where we, along with other climbers, would spend the night. Frankly, I preferred to save my breath.
That first day we climbed from the Timpohon Gate — at 6,122 ft — to the Laban Rata resthouse, an amazing construction built like a Tibetan monastery at the edge of the mountain at more than 10,000 ft. In other words, we climbed up almost 4,000 ft.
The trail winds up through gnarled tree roots to a mossy world of drifting clouds, orchid-draped trees and rhododendrons.
Then you pass the tree-line and enter a world of sheer granite cliffs and vast, smooth-sided boulders.
It is a bit of a misnomer to say climbers spend the night in the Laban Rata resthouse before tackling the summit. You have a few hours’ break and that’s about it.
Having been warned by Nani we would be starting on the next stage of our climb at 2.30 am, I lay down on my bunk at 9 pm. The idea is to reach the summit at sunrise, so the first few hours of the climb would be in darkness.
‘Don’t forget your head-torch,’ she had said.
Of course, I forgot my head-torch. Happily, for 20 ringgits (£5) I was able to hire one from the resthouse.
It was money well spent. There were moments during the dash to the summit when you needed to haul yourself up a rope using both hands. In no way would a hand-held torch have been fit for purpose.
There was at least one occasion when, unbalanced by the weight of my rucksack, I found myself swinging wildly over an abyss.
The summit of Mount Kinabalu is known as Low’s Peak, after a British colonial secretary who, ironically, never scaled the peak, despite three attempts in the 1850s.
One of the advantages of being a slow climber is that by the time I reached the summit — at 10 am, long after dawn — all the other climbers had left.
As I plodded upwards towards the distant, towering peak, I found myself being greeted by a succession of Malaysians, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese on their way back. Most of them wished me luck.
Some, visibly astonished, asked how old I was and when I gave my age I could see they were impressed.
I’m not sure I deserved that respect. It was just such a pleasure to be there. For 20 minutes on a brilliantly sunny morning, I enjoyed the view of Sabah’s forests and mountains while, to the west, the blue waters of the South China Sea were clearly visible.
Suffering no ill effects from the cold or altitude, I felt I could have stayed up there for hours, but Nani urged me to start on down.
She was right. Though I had trekking poles, my knees took a hammering and a couple of times I missed my step.
By mid-afternoon we were only half-way down the mountain and by sunset we still had at least two miles to go. I was making heavy weather of it.
The second time Nani offered to strap my rucksack on top of hers, I gratefully agreed. Even so, it was past 7 pm when we completed the descent to Timpohon Gate, where, happily, our transport was still waiting.
Of course, you don’t need to climb Mount Kinabalu to enjoy Malaysia’s first World Heritage site. The Kinabalu Park covers 300 sq miles, with an astonishing variety of fauna and flora that crosses four climate zones.
It is home to 1,200 species of orchids and 26 species of rhododendron as well as the world’s largest pitcher plant. The insect-eating Rajah Brooke’s pitcher plants can hold up to six pints of water.
The two days I spent in Kinabalu were a brilliant prelude to a week-long Borneo adventure that included some welcome rest and recuperation in the amazing Shangri-La Rasa Ria resort in Kota Kinabalu, an overnight stay at the Batang Ai Longhouse resort in Sarawak’s tropical rainforest, a boat trip to a traditional Iban community and an afternoon at Semenggoh nature reserve, 15 miles south-west of Kuching, Sarawak’s historic capital.
I saw five orang-utans there, including a mother and infant. Of course, they were not wild.
Semenggoh is home to a rehabilitation centre for animals orphaned due to hunting and deforestation, or rescued from cages where they were kept illegally as pets.
But the aim is to return them to the wild. To see them swinging through the trees of their forest home is a fabulous experience.
Borneo’s forests are under threat as never before. Responsible tourism has much to offer as an alternative to the despoilation of its natural resources — particularly timber and palm-oil plantations — which is, alas, all too prevalent.
Kuoni Travel has seven nights on a tailor-made holiday to Borneo from £1,725pp: one night room-only at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria resort, Kota Kinabalu; two nights’ full board on the Mount Kinabalu climb in Kota Kinabalu; and four nights on the Borneo Adventure, visiting Kuching, Lemanak River and Damai beach.
Flights with Malaysia Airlines with transfers are included. For details call 01306 747008 or visit www.kuoni.co.uk.
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