Pride of Sabah, Borneo
Kinabalu shed its cloak of thick clouds just before
nightfall. I stepped out of my bungalow and stared. This massive craggy granite
mountain towered above the surrounding jungle and wrested a few colours off the
swooning sun. Then the magic apparition vanished in more clouds and tropical
I rose early. The morning sun stabbed at drops of dew
and at leaves grey with sleep. At the park headquarters I met my guide James, a
quiet but affable young local man. No visitors are allowed to climb the mountain
on their own. This prevents trouble and helps the local Sabah economy. The track
starts at a power station where the road ends, at 1830 m, and soon strives for
an ambitiously straight course up. The rain forest was steaming with the play of
sunshine and drizzle. We added our sweat. Admiration of huge carnivorous pitcher
plants among the floral profusion halted my steps now and then.
Higher up, oak and chestnut trees invade the forest
and, in turn, give way to cloud forest, orchids and rhododendrons. It is
remarkably cooler here. Among the crags and crevices of the high plateau crouch
gnarled tea trees and more rhododendrons, though stunted. Then the soil peters
out, leaving a thin cover of club mosses, sedges and small alpine flowers. In
this alpine zone, at 3810 m, sits Laban Rata Resthouse to shelter climbers
before their final ascent.
As the hut kept on cooping up people, babble and
mustiness thickened there. Rain prematurely greyed the afternoon, fed high
waterfalls, and doused nude granite shoulders that were rising precipitously
nearby. We chatted about getting to the summit the following morning and about
James gently shook me back to consciousness well before
3 AM. The night was cold, the air felt humid, but the sky was clear. In front
lay the featureless black hunk of the mountain, pierced now and then by
necklaces of tiny points of light. Several groups of climbers had set out
We soon got caught at the back of the first queue.
James called out in his language to the leader, everyone stopped and let us
pass. This seemingly miraculous procedure repeated itself several times. I felt
particularly grateful at places with ropes or metal spikes escorting the route
where we’d have been slowed down considerably.
Suddenly I became aware that James and I were on our
own, the necklaces of lights receding behind us. Instead, the humble shine of
far away settlements near the base of the mountain shimmered through the
darkness. There were more ropes, more ladders. Then a granite slope slowly drew
us upwards, steadily rising like the back of a turtle, smooth, though shedding
layers of rock like giant dandruff.
Were my eyes sharpened by the lack of light or was the
night turning translucent? Strange shapes appeared, almost ethereal, giants
reaching for the stars. “Donkey’s Ears”, James said. “Ugly Sister”.
“St John”. Then rocks broke the smoothness of the terrain, blocks torn apart
as weirdly as imaginable. As the torso of the mountain reared ever more steeply
towards its top, the boulders conglomerated to a labyrinthine jumble. I
appreciated the rope that pointed the way. And the milky dawn steadied my steps.
Almost without noticing it, we scaled the last boulder,
the very top of Low’s peak, 4102 m. Discreetly my guide withdrew, leaving me
alone with a stunning panorama, a world of stone such as I had never seen
before. The rising sun splashed some light onto this world of stark cauldrons,
cliffs and peaks, but not enough for photography. Despite my warm clothes I felt
cold and yet, I was charmed into standing there, slowly turning round, taking in
the magic views, trying to burn them into my memory. The country beyond the
summit area stayed shrouded by heavy mist that crept up slowly, slowly
dissolving the images before my eyes and wrapping me in a veil of drizzle.
Click here to go home Click here to go the top