Photo: Ahmad Furqaan Hod & Nitzus.com
If Maldives is famous for its wondrous island resorts sitting on pristine white atolls, Sabah on the other hand is popular as the tropical getaway not just due to its clear waters and amazing underwater marine life but also its wondrous flora and fauna, local culture, highlands and mountains. Backpackers – like my mates and I from UiTM Shah Alam Recreational Club comprising young mountain climbers equipped with the best military backpack they could find, on a journey – usually go for both so as to stretch our budget while experiencing what this impressive state has to offer.
Exploring Accessible Islands
During our visit to Sabah last June 2013, our group explored the three islands easiest to access from Kota Kinabalu: Mamutik, Sapi and Manukan. We took speedboat to go from one island to another, which are all in close proximity. The speedboat service is easily available and can be obtained at the Jesselton Point. Each of us paid only RM60 to visit all three islands, inclusive of snorkelling equipment rental.
We started our journey by taking the speedboat to Mamutik and beautiful corals and underwater life. We were also fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the well- known clownfish, made popular by Disney’s internationally acclaimed animation entitled Finding Nemo.
The next journey took us to Sapi Island, where all divers head to for deeper underwater experience. Sapi Island is a bit bigger where we got to walk around the island and swim freely away from people. It is a good place for a family vacation as it offers chalets and a huge area for backpackers to set up their tents and barbeque while swimming.
The next and last island for us to explore was Manukan Island, another haven for snorkelling, swimming and relaxing under the sun. By the time we finished our trip to the islands, it was quite late and we hurried to get enough rest for our next mission: climbing Mount Kinabalu.
Attempting Mount Kinabalu
Being backpackers, we used our backpacks extensively due to their convenience in fitting everything that we brought with us into one place. However, since it took us about five hours up to reach the peak, we were advised by to not bring our backpacks but day packs instead. So we filled our day packs with chocolates, bottled water, extra base liners and first aid kit.
Unfortunately, the weather became disagreeable during the day we plan to start climbing – it was raining heavily in Kundasang at 20 degrees Celsius. We wrapped ourselves in fluffy dry fits, base liner, sweater and comfortable hiking shoes. It took approximately half an hour to reach Kinabalu Park from Kundasang by car.
Once we arrived at Kinabalu Park and got our passes and registered our names, the guide advised us on the do(s), for example ‘tell the guide right away if you feel something is not right’ and ‘take small and easy steps while climbing’), the don’t(s), such as ‘don’t pluck, destroy or take back any flora and fauna specimen’), including words of encouragement. We then started our climb at 9 a.m., as scheduled, from the starting point, the Timpohon Gate.
The guide explained to us about the route that we were going through and the distance from one pit stop to another. The first kilometre of the route was smooth and not too rocky. We managed to witness the Carson Fall even though it started to rain heavily. Our jaws dropped when viewing the refreshingly pure water gushing down from the rocks. We stopped at the first pit to drink and change our disposable ponchos while admiring the waterfall.
We continued our climb to the second, third and then stopped at the fourth pit. The climb was starting to take its toll on us at kilometre 4 (the Layang-Layang pit) since the rain persisted. At that point, I nearly experienced hypothermia, having trouble with the cold environment. Fortunately, we have been warned of this symptom and I straight way changed into dry clothes. I was also given a cup of hot Milo by the guide. Hypothermia can worsen when a climber falls down and closed his or her eyes. To overcome such situation, climbers are recommended to bring emergency blanket that can be bought at retail stores selling outdoor attire or changed immediately into dry clothes, besides breathing slowly and consume hot beverage.
We continued our climb and the route started to become rockier. Other tourists, mostly foreign, passed by our group. Some of them were as old as our grandfathers and there were also young children. About few hundreds of metres from the Layang-Layang pit, we were greeted by strong wind and colder weather, believed to 16 degrees Celsius at 2,850 meters above sea level.
As we ascended further, we could see extinct species such as the gigantic Rafflesia and the graceful pitcher plants (periuk kera) that are all remain untouched. Despite the bad weather, we still took pictures along the way. To us, among the amazing scenes were the locals, who function as porters, effortlessly carried tens of kilos of food and supplies tied to their backs up and down Mount Kinabalu. The guide told us that they were paid to carry supplies and it is their part time job, besides growing or selling produce or at the local market. The job does not seem to discriminate gender: I saw it with my own eyes a local woman who carried two cartons of canned drinks on her back with no problem at all. They sometimes also have to carry injured climbers or those who give up climbing at additional cost, charging somewhere in the region of RM300 per kilometer.
An important thing that climbers must know about mountains is that they always have the potential to be afflicted with acute mountain sickness (AMS) caused by exposure to low partial pressure of high altitude mountains. Normally this occurs when climbers reach the 3,000-meter mark above sea level. The signs of sickness can be detected when climbers start to feel weak and dizzy. They also tend to climb slower and remain mute. Usually the guide will notice all of those symptoms and the first thing they will do to the climber is to take him or her aside to rest and assist the individual in breathing control. If the climber’s condition is not critical, he or she may return to the climb. However, if the climber’s condition worsens, he or she will be sent back down to the starting point. AMS is considered as a silent killer because it attacks slowly and the climber usually would not be able to recognise his or her ailment.
Reaching the second pit stop made us feel alive again. The past five kilometres of the route were extremely rocky. It felt like we were climbing on endless stairs, shivering and drenched from the damp atmosphere and our own sweat. The strong wind that blew into our faces affected our sight. Yet, we were advised not to stop due to the risk of being blown away by the wind. After five hours of climbing, we eventually reached Laban Rata and enjoyed hot drinks and cozied up in warm blankets. However, the rain that accompanied us since the start of our climb still had not yet stopped.
Our climbing package included rooms and meals at Laban Rata for two days and one night, which cost us RM650 for accommodation, guide, certificates and meals. We were pleased by the facilities provided at Laban Rata and the delicious food was even served on time. We had our lunch and dinner there, then attended a short briefing to prepare us for the climb to the summit at 2 a.m. the next day.
After checking out with the other climbers, we found out that the price of the packages range from as low as RM350 to as high as thousands of ringgit; it actually depends on the timing of your booking – the earlier you book, say one month ahead of your climb, the cheaper it gets.
Later in the morning after hours of rest and sleep, we were jolted by the sound of thunder, making us felt a bit apprehensive. We went down for breakfast at exactly 2:00 a.m. and the guide greeted us. We waited for the rain to stop so that we could move and continue the final two kilometres to reach the peak. However, after waiting until 3.30 a.m., the rain still did not stop. Instead, the rain got heavier and the wind became stronger. We were notified that the last call would be at 4:00 a.m. – if the rain were to continue, the climb would be called off. Why? The guide mentioned that during rain, a huge waterfall will take form at kilometre 7 on the way to the peak, making the path dangerously slippery and climbers could even be washed away by the gushing water. When the clock struck 4:00 a.m. and the rain did not subside, all climbers went back to bed. It was such a huge disappointment that we could not make it to the Mount Kinabalu summit, which was just two kilometres away, due to the bad weather.
The next morning at 9:00 a.m., we climbed six kilometres down with heavy heart and arrived four hours later at the Timpohon Gate. It was great to experience trekking and climbing in the rain, while being physically and mentally challenged. Though we did not get to reach the summit, we considered our mission successful as we endured the hard journey all the way to Laban Rata – the summit was just the bonus, while the journey was the prize. We then returned to Kota Kinabalu and rewarded ourselves with delicious seafood in one of the restaurants near the jetty. For six of us, we spent only less than RM100 for several delicious dishes, including the must-have local salver called latok. The taste was a bit weird but we finished all of it anyway!
We vowed that we would be coming back the next year with renewed spirits. On the brighter side, we are now able to recommend fellow climbers or backpackers to book early on the climbing package; equipped themselves with the map of Sabah to explore the islands; be fit and prepared for the unexpected weather conditions during climbing day; bring more extra base layers and comfortable dry clothes; avoid lugging backpacks for the climb; and climbers must exactly know their health conditions.