After bidding farewell to Richard, Jo and Robert, we left the Kinabatangan river and headed to Sandakan to plan our remaining days in Borneo. Sipadan stood out as a potential highlight, billed as ‘one of the world’s top dive sites’, and despite my lack of ability to dive, we still felt a snorkel trip would be worthwhile. We arrived in Sandakan, wandered into pretty much the first hostel we saw (we’d been getting increasingly blasé about booking in advance!) and checked in. The hostel was offering various tours and trips, including ones to Sipadan, but one poster caught our eye in particular: Climb Mount Kinabalu – 660 Ringgit.
At the risk of digressing yet again, I will quickly recount our ‘climbing Mt Kinabalu’ saga. It’s the highest mountain in South East Asia (apparently – disputed on various forums) standing at 4095m. The guidebook tips it as a great experience but warns to book in advance as climbing places are strictly limited and controlled by a company called ‘Sutera Sanctuary Lodges’. We were on Ko Lanta (in March) when we first looked it up on the Sutera website, but it was not only inordinately expensive (coming in at roughly £280-£300 EACH), it was also full throughout April. We essentially shelved the idea.
We looked again when EQ mentioned it as a post-race possibility but ran into the same road-blocks as before. When we arrived in Kuching, however, we started hearing talk of a guy called ‘Jungle Jack’ – he was the guy to go to for last-minute bookings apparently. So we sent him a speculative message on Facebook citing possible dates but, once again the response came back that April was ‘all full house’. So the plan got ditched for a third time.
At Kota Kinabalu, we were found some places offering trips ranging between 1200 Ringgit and 2000 Ringgit (roughly £240-£400) per-person so yet again we struck it off as being laughably out of our budget.
Back in Sandakan then, and this poster seemed to be taunting us. There’s no way that’s the price! Even if it is the price, there’s no way there would be availability. But then we got chatting to an Irish couple, Eoin and Siobhan… ‘You were on the river trip just these last two days weren’t you?’ asked Eoin. ‘Erm, we were on the river but we weren’t with you guys,’ I replied, thinking that maybe they had got us mixed up with another couple. It turned out however that they hadn’t got us mixed up, they had just spotted us from their boat and recognised us back at the hostel – the beard, it turns out, is quite a memorable feature! We swapped jungle river stories for a while and then they mentioned that they had just, that night, booked the Mt Kinabalu trip for the following day. Having dropped the plan so many times, we figured it was pretty much pointless in trying but then we came to the conclusion that there was no harm in asking, so we did. And we are so pleased we did!
‘Erm, hello,’ I said tentatively to guy at the hostel reception. ‘This Mount Kinabalu trip … I don’t suppose there’s any availability over the next few days is there?’ ‘I’ll have to make a phone call,’ he replied, ‘Let me check and get back to you.’ It all seemed a bit cloak and dagger but we figured there was nothing to lose. He came back to us a bit later and said that we could possibly climb in three days time – the 24th April – but that he would have to confirm in the morning. This would slot in perfectly, giving us time to pop to Sipadan, come back to climb the mountain, and be back in Kota Kinabalu in time for our flight to Manila on the 27th. ‘I’ll know for definite by about 7:15 am,’ he said. ‘Ok, cool. Well, if we pop down at about 8 to check would that be ok?’ ‘Yes, of course.’
At ten to nine the following morning (oops!), we were awoken with a knock on the door. Opening it with just a towel preserving my modesty, I was greeted unflinchingly by the guy from reception. ‘Ok, so, you can’t go on the 24th,’ he said, ‘but you can go today if you like.’ Today? As in right now?! This was stretching our spontaneity just a little bit but after being given 5 minutes to confirm, and realising that we hadn’t booked any bus or accommodation to Sipadan, we decided to just go for it.
So that afternoon, we found ourselves on a bus to Mount Kinabalu with Eoin and Siobhan with an instruction written on a small paper note: ‘Tell the bus driver to drop you at ‘Bundu Tahan Junction’ Then, walk across the road and turn right. You will see a rock stone, ‘Jungle Jack’. Thank you’. So it turned out we were going to Jack’s after all – Jack is, as we learned over the next couple of days – a very laid back, last minute kind of guy.
Getting off the bus, crossing the road and turning right, there we found the stone, and the man. Jack is a relatively short but well built guy, who smiles out of his eyes, has a wicked grin and exudes charisma. ‘Come in, come in,’ he beckons us, ‘Welcome to Jungle Jack.’ We were ushered into the kitchen where Jack filled up a huge kettle and put it on the gas stove to boil. ‘You can help yourself to whatever you want in here guys, ok? We have bread, cheese, pineapple, mango … Oh, and you have to taste these oranges mate (he says ‘mate’ like an Aussie whilst also managing to sound a bit like a Londoner), they’re good!’ We sat down and quickly made ourselves at home with tea, coffee, fruit and a plethora of cheese sandwiches. (We were a bit awestruck by the novelty of seeing cheddar – it had been a while!)
Jack then sorted out places for us to sleep, which he seems to do off the top of his head rather than as a result of pre-planning. Looking at me he said, ‘I like you! You want the mountain view suite?’ Feeling very excited about the prospect of a ‘suite’ and buoyed up by Jack’s enthusiasm, I happily agreed and so Jack showed us to the room. What I am yet to mention however, dear reader, is that Jungle Jack’s accommodation is entirely constructed out of shipping containers. The ‘Mountain View Suite’ was simply the last container at the end that happened to point at the mountain! It was a great view though.
Jack’s philosophy, you see, is very straightforward. He understands backpackers, as he explained to us over dinner, ‘I’ve been a backpacker for a long time, so I know what you guys need. You want a good bed, lots of food, and cheap beer. Get a hot shower too, and that’s it.’ And, to be honest, he’s right. Jack’s place is no top quality glam-packing hostel, but it doesn’t need to be. You’re welcomed in from the moment you arrive and after that, the place is yours. ‘There are no rules at Jungle Jack,’ he says. ‘Oh, hold on, there is one rule at Jack’s,’ he remembers, and points to a painted sign on the wall above the sink.
In addition to the four of us, there were Heather and Katrine who were also to be climbing the mountain the following day, and we were waiting for four more to arrive to make our group up to ten. So we chatted, ate, drank tea, showered, got comfortable, put on a load of clothes (because it suddenly felt quite cold up there), and went out for dinner.
When we came back, Jayita and Louise arrived – we were up to eight. ‘If you need to borrow anything, hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, just take it from in here,’ Jack explained, showing us his stock of spare clothes. ‘It’s all clean and washed.’ I was wondering at my clothing situation and was trying to decide whether I’d need gloves or not. ‘Is it cold up there Jack?’ I asked. ‘Shit, man!’ came the response, ‘It’s freezing up there man!’ Ok, so I’ll take gloves!
‘Tomorrow, you get up at seven thirty, ok?’ Jack explained to us. ‘Then you can have some coffee, blah blah blah, eat some breakfast, blah blah, make some lunch for the climb. Make sure you take some sandwich! And water too, take water. We leave at about 9:15 so you can start climbing just before ten.’ ‘Are you coming with us, Jack?’ I asked. This was met with a snort and mild hilarity, ‘Haha, no way mate, I’m not climbing that bloody mountain. Ha!’
The final part of the Jack set up is his dogs – Jack adores his dogs! He had three or four at the time, but our two favourites were Ricewine and Pointer. Pointer had just given birth to a litter of puppies a few days earlier so Helena was in heaven.
She gazed longingly into the small hut, and was rewarded with the occasional chance to cuddle one (although it did pee on her arm!) I loved Ricewine, a light brown dog who ambled around slowly and periodically got chased out of the kitchen by Jack. He explained that he was called ‘Ricewine’ because he has dopey, drunk-looking eyes, ‘Like he’s been drinking too much rice wine!’ he said with a grin. We were immediately both very comfortable and happy at Jack’s but we weren’t just here to socialise and stroke the puppies, we had a mountain to climb!
The following morning, we got up, had breakfast and prepared ourselves. We were still only eight people though – where were the other two? Jack explained they they were running late but they would either see us at the start, or some way up the mountain. Armed with our named passes, we took a pre-climb photo and loaded into the minibus.
Edward, Jack’s helper, drove us up into the national park, and when I say ‘up’, I really mean UP! The road was pretty steep in places and we were feeling mixture of relief and guilt at the drive – surely this was making things a bit too easy? We weren’t thinking that way an hour later though, or at any other point on the ensuing climb!
We met our guide, Eddy, who explained that we would be walking up a mountain, and not to take it too fast (which some of us may have partially ignored!) and we got ready to go. At the same time, there were a few locals at the entrance to the path preparing themselves: they were wearing small rubber plimsoles, t-shirts and shorts, and had legs like pistons. They were sorting out various cargo including, to our astonishment, metal bed frames. I looked at these guys and uttered the fatal words, ‘Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if we were beaten up this mountain by a guy carrying a bed on his back….’
Off we went, and the first thing that happens is you go downhill – well, this isn’t so bad, we thought. And then the path levels momentarily before beginning to climb. Since it is such a well trodden path, there’s no way to get lost, so on we went. Enjoying a bit of a workout, I was heading up the front group, with Eoin, Jayita and Louise. The four other girls took a slightly steadier pace with Eddy behind. We paused after about 500 metres and the group got back together, ‘Maybe you’re going a bit too fast,’ said Eddy. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I said, and pledged to take a more relaxed pace … before simply marching off up the mountain again. I suppose there’s a bit of me that just likes a bit of physical exertion. Plus, the guys with the beds were not far behind …
The vegetation and landscape of the mountain gradually changes as you increase in altitude. The start of the path is at 2200 metres, and we were climbing to 3723 metres on the first day (it was to be a two-day climb). The path becomes rockier underfoot, with increasingly large granite sections. The dense jungle at the bottom of the path thins out, offering views across the region, and as far as Kota Kinabalu when the clouds lift. It’s fantastic – but it does sap the legs quite a bit. At about 3km, we paused and said we should wait for the girls (as both Eoin and myself knew better than to disappear up the mountain leaving Siobhan and Helena behind). We rested in a shelter and took on some water, waiting for the group to appear.
After ten minutes or so however, rather than our better halves, a guy rounds the corner shouldering a bed frame. I looked at Eoin, and he at me, ‘I don’t think I can let this guy go up in front of me,’ I said. ‘Me neither,’ he replied, grabbing his bag as we dived back onto the path.
At 4km, however, the guilt set in so we stopped for lunch. Jayita and Louise just carried straight on up (with tentative thoughts of making the summit that afternoon) and we waited. We watched and wept inside as not one, not two, but numerous piston-legged bed carriers marched on past, barely breaking a sweat. But we were pleased to meet up with the girls again and relax before tackling the next two kilometres.
Through the thinning vegetation, the mountain began to rear up ahead of us as we trekked ever upwards. Bizarrely, from the Mountain View Suite at Jack’s, it kind of doesn’t look that high. Now, however, it was looking plenty high enough and we were all beginning to feel the effort of climbing at this altitude. We grouped up with other climbers along the way here and there and paused for photos, and, after just over four hours, made it to the hostel. There, we pretty quickly, and unaniamously, dived into bed for a well earned nap!
Amidst the snoozing sounds of seven or eight sleepers, the final two members of our party bounded into the hostel injecting an air of charisma and energy to our slumber. Lucky and Zeki introduced themselves and made a welcome addition to the group. ‘We started shortly after you guys and thought we might catch you up, but it seems we’re not quite as fit as we thought,’ said Lucky, as Zeki stood beside him with a slightly dazed look on his face from the exertion of the climb. It had taken them close to five hours as opposed to our four..!
We all enjoyed the early buffet dinner which is included in the price – well, it’s sort of included, but that’s another digression that I’m not going to follow just now – before watching the sun set behind the mountain and getting an early night. Eddy had told us to meet him at 02:40, ready to climb. Yes, that is 02:40 am and no that isn’t a typo – the aim was to reach the summit before sunrise.
The morning came, we put on pretty much all of our clothes, and headed over to early breakfast to grab some coffee and a bite to eat. With our head torches switched on and my ‘pair’ of gloves borrowed from Jack keeping my hands from freezing, we were ready to start the climb. One final briefing from Eddy: ‘Follow the path. The first bit is rocky like before and the last bit is on the rope.’
Erm, rope…? What did he mean about a rope? Nobody had mentioned the rope..! We soon found out…
Now, you would have thought that if you start climbing a mountain at 3am, the path would be pretty much deserted, right? Not so, as, of course, the 200 or so other climbers were starting the trek at exactly the same time as us. We had about two and a half kilometres ahead of us and 800m of altitude to gain to reach the 4095m summit. So although the path was steep and rocky, with a load of wooden steps thrown in, our progress was initially quite slow.
Jayita and I managed to work our way through some of the groups ahead but were losing our own group in the process, so I decided to hang back as much as possible while still making forward progress. Jayita was a woman on a mission though and disappeared off up the mountain followed a few minutes later by Louise – these girls were hardcore!
In reality, it wasn’t long before the climbers thinned out and we were steadily following the path onwards and upwards. And then we found the rope. The reason for the rope is very simple: the top of Mount Kinabalu is a bare granite peak. So there is no path as such, just the rope to guide you and on which you often have to pull to kind of half walk half drag yourself up and across the face of the rock. When we reached the rope, we still had a kilometre and a half of the path to go and about 500 metres more of altitude.
Soon, we reached the summit checkpoint which stands at about 3800m. There, we came across Jayita and Louise taking a short break. Looking down the mountain behind us, we could see the long line of head torches bobbing slowly along the guiding rope path in the darkness. We decided to move on – not far now, the last bit can’t be that tough, surely?
Well, as it happens, something happens at around 3800m – the air gets that bit too thin, your legs feel heavier, your lungs feel emptier, what was a manageable climb before seems to be getting increasingly more difficult. You get a little light-headed, you get confused, you feel a little bit sick. It hits some more than others, and affects people in different ways.
Now, Jayita won’t mind me describing this (at least I hope not) Whereas before, she had been leading the pack up the mountain, now it was Louise heading up the group. I was following Jayita actually, and she seemed a bit unsteady, her feet were taking occasional side steps, or crossing over, rather than going up strongly as she had been before. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked, ‘Yeah, not too bad, just got a bit of a headache and feel sick.’ She ploughed on. The rest of us followed, taking short occasional stops to acclimatise, but each time, Jayita was the first to move on up despite feeling increasingly worse with every step.
Soon it became too much and she was actually throwing up (bit graphic, sorry!). The rest of us were also struggling but Jayita was feeling it the worst and we were really concerned. She took on some water but just had one goal in mind and to that end … pushed on and on despite relatively regular ‘vomit stops’.
Eventually, we made it to the summit where we found a jovial Louise. ‘There’s hardly anyone here,’ she said. We had, in fact, made it to the top pretty quickly – despite struggling. We felt pretty happy with ourselves and took some photos with the sign before realising two things: 1 – Jack was right, it was bloody freezing up there (and windy which made it worse) and 2 – the sun wouldn’t be coming up for at least an hour. There was only one thing for it – find some shelter in the rock and huddle!
The rest of the group arrived soon though, so our huddling options increased. And then we were rewarded with what we came to see – a magnificent sunrise, shifting through the clouds and bringing the scene to life with silhouettes and stunning views unravelling in every direction. On the peak ahead of us, vast strands of wispy clouds were being teased out gradually by the wind, tumbling over the rocks and disappearing into the valley; dry ice rolling off the world’s stage.
Momentarily, Helena and I sat and gazed on, resisting the urge to view the spectacle through the lens of a camera for long enough to just take it in, immerse ourselves in the moment and record it in our memories rather than in pixels. The rest of the time was spent mainly taking photos, however – group shots, landscape views, panoramics, silhouettes – but our photography skills once again simply don’t do the experience justice.
After tucking into a hearty breakfast – the last of our included meals – we tumbled happily down the mountain as a group of ten, wishing all of the climbers we passed well and reassuring them that the effort is worth it, most definitely worth it!
All too soon, our merry band was to be disbanded but not before a few friendships were cemented over another meal with Jack, a stroke of the puppies, the painting of an Irish flag on the concrete roadside barrier, and a couple of well-earned beers.