top of the rocks

Since our immersive Bornean jungle experience, we have become intrepid mountain climbers, conquering peaks and pinnacles you wouldn’t believe. Hold the applause.

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It all started with the ambition to climb the Everest that was Mount Kinabalu; the symbol of Sabah and highest mountain in Borneo at 13,425 ft. Not to mention the proud claim among travellers who dared to undertake the physical demands of its summit, and who’d lived to tell the tale.

For those who read my last post, I think it’s fair to say that in the run up, I was dreading it.

We left the jungle and arrived in KK after enduring a 7 hour bus ride from Sandakan with the last two tickets on the back row, right beside the toilet. You could say it was a small mercy there even was a toilet for a 7 hour bus journey, but when it smelt like a port-a-loo at a festival during a heatwave, I would rather have suffered appendicitis than ammonia intoxication.

Our ‘preparation’ for the epic Kinabalu climb consisted of consuming an obscene amount of peanut butter sandwiches and Oreos (nothing screams a balanced diet like a refined sugar combo) and a glass of red wine the night before, you know, for the antioxidants… slash anxiety, on my part.

On the day of, having woken up 6am, we were feeling fairly confident. The weather was ok and our assigned packed lunches looked alright (ie, we wouldn’t starve) – so we had that on our side, at least. After filling out the ‘Who Do We Call in Case of Emergency’ forms, we set off in strong strides, making it to the 3k point (there were 6k in total to reach the mountain lodge) in an hour and a half, having sweat through all of our clothes. It was pretty good going, time wise, considering the trail.

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Props to the porters whose job it was to carryΒ all manner of bags, food supplies and even gas bottles strapped to their backs. They had calves of steel and barely stopped to rest, whistling tunes from their earphones and casually smoking cigarettes, totally at ease.

Our confidence in how fast we’d make it up the rest of the way was misjudged and we were far too cocky – what was to come was much (much) more challenging as the altitude hit harder on every step. It became more and more difficult to get lungfuls of air and oxygen to our muscles, exhausted through the incessant clambering up and over boulders.

But despite the struggle, we kept good pace – even though I had to stop every 10m to clutch my sides – and we made it to the mountain lodge by 1.30pm, both freezing and sweating. We had left our guide, Margaret, and the other Japanese girl in our group way behind.

After a well deserved nap and having eaten for an army, everyone drifted back to their beds at 7pm for a wake up at 2am to get going for the 4k morning climb to the summit for sunrise. The piΓ¨ce de resistance. Having a distinct lack of warm (and now dry) clothes, I had to borrow a very fetching eighties-style retro ski jacket, wearing every other piece of clothing I’d brought with me underneath. (I think it’s fair to say that I officially own nothing practical for these adventures).

Like little head-torched moles, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we headed up the mountain in the pitch black, legs unsteady from the day before, barely able to see even a foot ahead, trusting the footing of our blind steps and grip on the never-ending trail of rope. I’m not afraid of heights usually, but to look back at the lights below (and I mean 3000m below) was unnerving and would give anyone a sense of vertigo.

But up was the only option.

The wind was whipping around us, the temperature had dropped to 5 degrees Celsius and I was not having fun. Not in any way, shape or form.

I was glaring at the back of Lucas’ head (or should I say hoodie – not even he escaped the cold) cursing him for letting me think this would be ‘a good experience.’ I was hating every second of it, wishing I was back in my warm bed at the lodge.

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Well, I got over it and made it to the top (and immediately scarfed a Snickers bar for a much needed sugar hit) with only mild frost bite. Shivering, we watched the sun rise over the horizon, turning the sky all shades of pinks and purples. Fair play, it was pretty spectacular and, yes, it was worth the hellish climb and is something I’ll never forget.

But was it worth the hellish descent? Now that’s another story. After going back down the 4k to the mountain lodge for breakfast and then having to do the last 6k back down again to the Main Gate, I had turned into Bambi, loosing all power and control of my legs. I could barely put one foot in front of the other without feeling like my knees were going to give way and I was going to have to forward-roll all the way to the bottom. I was nearly crying in frustration and about to have a very real – and very embarrassing – tantrum.

I was also wondering to myself whether this would class as an emergency situation, and would I be justified to call an ambulance to the helipad? Who doesn’t love a bit of drama.

Triumphant, we arrived back to KK crippled but in one piece and with our printed certificates to show for it. The wonderful manager at Halo Hostel put us in a room on the first floor, knowing that we’d be suffering the notorious jelly legs for days after. Shout out to you, Mr Lee.

To treat ourselves after the ordeal of Mt K, we headed to Mantanani Island for some much needed R&R, with the aim to be either horizontal and/or asleep for the next few days. This piece of paradise with its crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches was an idyllic place to reenergise and regain the mobility in our legs.

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Apart from a very soggy pack of UNO cards (which, to my delight, was one of the very few games that I am actually better at than Lucas) there wasn’t much else to do there apart from chill out, read, or mooch about the beach. It was wonderfully indulgent.

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The photo above was from when I was finally able to bend my knees, unassisted.

Whilst we were unwinding in our paradise, we decided our next ‘activity’ would be to climb the Pinnacles of Gunung Mulu National Park, once we had recovered. That’s how keen we were – peg legged but still thinking about mountains….

How hard could it be, we survived Mount Kinabalu, so this should be fine, right?

So with this in mind, and after an eventful boat ride back to the mainland (we were pretty much the only people not being violently sick into plastic bags) we packed up to head to Brunei, a pit stop on the way down to Mulu.

I’m not going to dedicate more than a paragraph to Brunei, no offense, Mr Sultan. Not that you’ll be reading this anyway…. Brunei was a NO FUN zone. None at all. It was a pocket of Sharia law Middle East, but in Asia, which was bizarre enough. And the country is dry which means alcohol is ILLEGAL. So the vibe was just not the same. We lasted all of two and a half days (most of which we spent in a coffee shop stealing wifi) before getting on another bus and heading back to the familiarity of Malaysian Borneo.

We spent a few days in Miri to reacclimatise to the fun zone and get our mojos back. Like rebellious teenagers, the reaction to our sinless stint in Brunei was to do all the fun things we were banned from doing immediately upon arrival, which was mainly to head straight to a bar.

Once we’d got that out of our system, we flew into Mulu, our second World Heritage Site in Borneo, to spend four days exploring caves and scaling mountains at the National Park.

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The runway at Mulu Airport was a tiny strip in the middle of the jungle – it made for a pretty cool landing.

Mulu is not only a huge protected rainforest and World Heritage Site, but it’s home to the world’s largest cave system, which was a pretty difficult thing to appreciate without context – I’d never been in a cave before. But they were bloody enormous. It was like stepping onto another planet (or how I imagine another planet to be from the outdated sci-fi films I’ve seen), or stumbling onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. But in this real life version, the air was tinged with a rancid smell, which at first I took to be a bad case of BO – sadly not uncommon – that was in fact the smell of guano. Bat shit, to you and me. And there was tonnes of the stuff, over a metre deep in some parts, and falling invisibly from the ceiling like tiny poo dust…

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Once we’d seen enough guano-covered stalagmites and ‘tites – I’ve only just learned which is which, thanks Lucas – we set off on a 9k trek into the jungle towards a very military sounding Camp 5, nestled on the bank of a river, under an imposing cliff face. The trek was a warm up for the next day’s undertaking, separating the wheat from the chaff, giving you a fair idea of those who would make it and who wouldn’t.

For anyone who has seen a 100 Malaysian Ringgit note (safe to say it’s not something I come across often) its sharp, dagger-like decorative mountain ridges are in fact the Pinnacles of Mulu. So that was a pretty cool fact to learn. And it was to see these symbolic jagged blades of rock that we scrambled up the cliff at 6.30am the morning after, bellies full of an attempt at an English breakfast – the whole beans, egg and sausage – to pull ourselves up 2000m on a natural assault course of tree roots and rocks.

Encouraged by our guide, we were told we would be fine, as he sized us up from the shape of our legs. ‘You guys will have no problem,’ he said, ‘but the others in the group…’ and he tailed off. So with that little ego boost, and emboldened by our victorious Kinabalu climb, we powered up the mountain.

Although the altitude was nowhere near as tough as Mount Kinabalu, the climb to the Pinnacles was far more technically challenging. They were only 2.4k up, but by ‘up’ I’m talking an incline of 45 degree angles at best, even up to 60 degrees at points, and 90 if you count the vertical ladders right at the top.

Using all our limbs, we pulled, pushed, and dragged our bodies up the rocky mountain. I could understand the warning on the brochure which advised to only attempt the climb if you are fit, and really fit, quote unquote. Which is a category I would usually never lump myself into, so I was quite chuffed I could do it and surprised at how much enjoyment I was getting out of it compared to the breathless, never-ending purgatory that was Mount Kinabalu.

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Lucas and I made it up to the Pinnacles first out of the whole group – which perhaps isn’t that impressive considering we left behind a bunch of men who were knocking on sixty and probably hadn’t seen a gym in half as many years. But still, I’ll take the small victory.

But as with most things, what goes up has to come down.

(Is there masochism in our enjoyment of self-inflicted pain and struggle? I can’t understand why we do it sometimes…)

Going up 90 degree angles using ropes and step ladders is much easier than going the other way. It was no wonder they said it takes on average 3 hours to climb and 5 hours to descend.

I’m not going to lie, there were points when I did fleetingly wonder what would happen if I lost my grip on the not-health-and-safety-approved rungs and plunged down onto the shards of rock – would I die on impact, or just be left severely paralysed? I also thought, in a Sensible Susan moment, ‘if we did this in the UK, there would be harnesses, helmets, carabiners’…. None of this ‘I’ll just send you off into the mountains with nothing but a soggy sandwich and an apple. Good luck!’

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But we made it back to camp safe and sound, bar a few scrapes and scratches.

In all fairness, the aftermath of the Pinnacles was less painful in terms of recovery. We were still comatose from the physical exertion and, ok, we may have been peg legged for a day or two after, but nothing compared to the complete crippling debilitation like before.

Another bucket list moment and another peak conquered, there’s no stopping us now.

But unlike last time, sadly there’s no respite on island paradise this week. Gutted, I know. We’re in Kuching, our final stop in Borneo, before we fly to Sulawesi. Once again zero planning or research has been done. All I know is that it’s a star-shaped island and it’s famous for funerals. So that should be interesting…

Borneo’s been a blast and I’ll be sad to go, I’ve done things I would never have dreamed I would (and actually enjoyed them!) but on the other hand I have encountered enough creepy crawlies to last me a lifetime. I will NOT miss the leeches.

So I’m ready to move on, roll on Indo – I’m especially looking forward to the tofu and tempeh.

One thought on “top of the rocks

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