Wild man in Borneo

Footwork ... the via ferrata on Mount Kinabalu is the highest in the world.

Antony Lawes is exhausted and exhilarated after scaling Mount Kinabalu. And that’s only the start of his day.

The signpost on the track says one kilometre to go – and I’m crushed. At my current speed this means more than an hour of walking and I don’t think I’ve got that much juice left in the tank.

I’ve already been on my feet for 12 hours, half of that time in the pouring rain. I’m drenched and exhausted and in pain. I have certainly lost the sense of wonder I felt watching the sun rise this morning on the summit of this wretched mountain, Kinabalu, and the anticipation of clambering down its sheer cliffs on a guided mountain climb several hours later. I’ve run out of food and water and it feels like I’m no closer to the end than I was an hour ago. I abandon my group at the last rest stop and push on, desperate to end the misery.
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I knew this was going to happen, though. I’ve been bushwalking often enough to understand what the constant downhill strain does to the knees and the morale. I had even been cheerfully predicting our pain the previous day as the five of us and our guide made our way up the mountain, past other grim-faced walkers wincing on their way down.

Walking is like that. You often have to endure hours in hell to be allowed a few minutes in heaven. But no walk I’ve ever done – not in Tasmania’s rugged south-west, the lower reaches of the Himalayas or the steamy valleys of the Top End – was this hard. Maybe I was fitter on those other walks; I was certainly younger. Equally, though, I know of no walk where the heavenly moments are of such staggering beauty that the discomfort is rendered worthwhile. I would cheerfully put myself though it again.

There are some surprising things about Mount Kinabalu, on the northern tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah. At 4095 metres, it’s one of Asia’s highest peaks – and one of its most important. The 750-square-kilometre Kinabalu National Park surrounding the peak was made a World Heritage area a decade ago because of the remarkable diversity of plants and animals found within its borders. According to the administering government body, Sabah Parks, the mountain’s myriad climatic zones, from lowland rainforest to alpine slopes, account for the astonishing number of flowering plants here, including the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.

That’s not to mention the 600 species of butterfly, 300 different birds and more than 100 mammals. But you’ll have to look hard for some of these riches. While there are plants and flowers aplenty, the only animal we see during the two-day walk, apart from the odd frog and insect, is the pygmy squirrel and that seems to be in plague numbers at most of the shelters along the route.

Another surprise is how well equipped this mountain is in delivering some of life’s comforts. It might be a bugger to climb but you don’t have to rough it when night falls – or even when nature calls. Most walkers in Australia are used to the usual privations of the bush but on Mount Kinabalu there’s no need to carry tents, sleeping bags or even much food. We each take a day-pack stuffed with warm clothes, a raincoat, camera, muesli bars, water bottle and a headlamp. There are toilets at most rest stops and several large and well-equipped huts near the top, where everyone stays on their way to the summit. And there’s a restaurant in the biggest lodge, Laban Rata (about 3300 metres), which serves pretty good food for a place to which supplies are carried by porters.

A little higher than Laban Rata is Pendant Hut, where we stay, and this is also the lodge that accommodates climbers taking the via ferrata, or guided mountain climb. To get to Pendant Hut, however, takes the best part of a day’s walk straight up the mountain from the starting point at Timpohon Gate (1866 metres). So to allow enough time to reach these huts, most travellers stay overnight at the park headquarters, about four kilometres from the Timpohon Gate and about two hours’ drive from the Saban capital, Kota Kinabalu, and they start walking early the next morning.

It is apparent at lunch on day one that as a reasonably fit 41-year-old, I’m not as fit as I should be. For a few weeks before the trip I’d jogged the streets around work, run up and down stairs and done some weight training on my legs, knowing they were in for some punishment. But that isn’t enough.

I had read somewhere that those attempting this walk should begin their fitness program three months before the climb. Heed this advice. Don’t be fooled when someone tells you that seven-year-olds have done it or when you read that crazy people run up the mountain in a matter of hours. The fitter you are, the less time you’ll spend cursing the mountain and the more time enjoying what’s around you.

Preparation will also lessen the effects of the altitude, which can cause laboured breathing, headaches and sleeplessness – all of which I suffer once I reach Pendant Hut.

During the six-hour ascent on the first day, we see lush, often mossy trees, some stunning views across valleys when the clouds clear and cool, thick undergrowth that thins as we get higher. It’s a gruelling climb, during which we stop often and drink a lot. But once at Pendant Hut, knowing I’m going to be here a while, my body seems to recover. It’s just as well.

At the hut we’re briefed on our via ferrata climb the next day, which will take place after we’ve been to the summit and before we’ve begun the proper descent of the mountain.

Via ferrata roughly translates from Italian as “iron road” and refers to the iron rungs, cables and bridges that are anchored to the mountain, enabling novice climbers to traverse the “road” while attached to a cable fastened to the rock. The first vie ferrate were constructed in the Dolomite mountains in Italy during World War I to make it easier for troops to move around. They have since been built in many other countries. Mount Kinabalu, however, is the world’s highest.

Perched on the side of the mountain, Pendant Hut has spectacular views to the lowlands and towards the summit from the windows in its common room. It bills itself as an eco-friendly lodge and has several dormitory-style rooms and one double room. It’s comfortable, with running water, hot showers, toilets and bedding on the bunks, though it is a bit creaky during the night when you’re trying to sleep. It reminds me of a comfortable demountable.

The fact we’re walking by 2.30 the next morning is less surprising than the queue to exit the hut. It’s the busiest walking track I’ve seen – and sunrise is three hours away. All 160 or so people staying in the surrounding huts seem to have poured onto the track at once and it creates a traffic jam that lasts the entire way to the summit. Add pouring rain, bitter cold and darkness to the scene and the mood in our group is pretty grim. At the checkpoint, about halfway to the top, I overhear one walker say he’s going back to the hut. He can’t see the point of getting to the summit and standing there in the rain with nothing to see. I have to admit he has a point.

After trudging a bit further, though, the track changes. It’s now predominantly rock under foot and this makes the walking easier, especially as there’s now a rope lying beside the track to haul ourselves up the steeper parts. At one point I look up and see the headlamps of walkers make a blinking trail all the way to the summit – and for the first time I can see what we’re aiming for.

It seems to take forever to reach but when we get to the summit, Low’s Peak, after about three hours’ walking, the clouds part and the sunrise unveils a scene quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

There are jagged peaks that appear from nowhere, a smaller summit right in front of us and to one side is a sheer cliff we haven’t seen in the dark. When the sun climbs a little higher we can see the shadow from this smaller peak stretches all the way to the sea. We’re above the clouds – we’re above everything – and it’s quiet.

We don’t stay long, though. There’s a stream of people arriving and wanting to shoot photos and my climbing companion, Ben, and I have to be at the start of the via ferrata by 7.30am.

No matter how safe it is, stepping off a ledge with only ropes holding you to the rock requires a leap of faith. Maybe that’s why there are only three of us attempting the higher and longer Low’s Peak via ferrata today – the two of us and a Norwegian woman, Hannah, who left her boyfriend behind because of his fear of heights.

With our guide, Jay, behind us, Ben and I step into our harnesses, don our helmets, attach our lines to the cable, thread another safety rope through steel loops on the rock and begin our descent over the cliff.

For someone who normally has trouble looking down a stairwell, I don’t feel so scared and I attribute this to my obsession with following Jay’s instructions – clipping and unclipping each line, one at a time, and rethreading the rope at the end of each length of cable. Jay is calm and reassuring and this helps, too. But the adrenalin level is high and once I get into the swing of what I’m doing the sense of elation is extreme. The view from the summit was good – but this is something else.

We climb down metal rungs fastened into the rock. The cable, which follows us, is attached at lengths of about 10 metres. After a time, these rungs stop at a ledge and we follow it along, then head down again. Both of us, novices at climbing, are scaling sheer cliffs, around corners, over wire bridges. To be honest, once we’re in the swing, it’s pretty easy but it’s also tiring and slow and we’re concentrating like crazy.

The entire 1200-metre course, which includes a stretch of about 300 metres of clambering through thick rainforest, takes us about three hours.

The last 30 minutes is part of the lower, more gentle via ferrata course that our other walking companions have completed. It’s during this last section that the fog starts rolling in and the clouds gather. By the time we’ve finished, it’s raining again.

We arrive at Pendant Hut mid morning, soaked, tired and hungry but buzzing with excitement. We wolf down a big breakfast and then return to the track for the painful descent to our starting point.

After 13 hours of walking – count them – we arrive just before dark, one of the last groups out of the park before the gates shut.

Antony Lawes travelled courtesy of Malaysia Tourism and Malaysia Airlines.


Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu for about $1180, via Kuala Lumpur (about 8hr), then to Kota Kinabalu (2hr 35min). Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax.

Walking there

To climb Mount Kinabalu, non-Malaysian visitors must pay a permit of 100 ringgit ($33); insurance and conservation fees of 23 ringgit to Sabah Parks; everyone must walk with a guide. A guide costs 42.50 ringgit a day for one to three walkers, 50 ringgit a day for four to six walkers. Porters are available on request.

Sutera Sanctuary Lodges has three-day, two-night packages from 452 ringgit for dormitory accommodation at the park headquarters and Laban Rata lodge, including meals. And there’s a four-day, three-night package from 1155 ringgit a person, twin share, including a night at the Sutera Harbour Resort in Kota Kinabalu.

Sutera’s dormitory beds at park headquarters cost from 100 ringgit including breakfast, with private chalets that sleep up to six people from 2500 ringgit a night, including meals and park fees. Accommodation on the mountain costs from 290 ringgit a night, including all meals. Phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414, or see www.flightcentre.com.au/world-travel/malaysia.

Climbing there

Mountain Torq conducts the via ferrata climbing activities on the mountain and operates Pendant Hut, where climbers can stay while on the mountain. It costs 400 ringgit for the easier ”Walk the Torq” route or 550 ringgit for the more difficult Low’s Peak circuit. The company also has packages that include the via ferrata climb, accommodation at Pendant Hut, transfers, park permits and tariffs (minimum of two people). Two-day, one-night packages cost from 1370 ringgit. See www.mountaintorq.com.

Recovering there

When you return from the summit, soak your weary body in individual mineral baths at the Poring hot springs, about an hour’s drive north-east of the park headquarters. This is also a good place to see the rafflesia, see www.sabahparks.org.my. Hostel beds at Poring cost from 100 ringgit a night or beds in swankier lodges, also run by Sutera, cost from 590 ringgit.

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