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 darkness.


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 altitude sickness.


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 earlier.


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.


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