Mount Kinabalu: A Walk In The Park

Yes indeed it was – a walk in the park – literally though not figuratively.

Lows Peak 1
Heading up Low’s Peak 4,095m

Mount Kinabalu located just outside Kota Kinabalu, Sabah sits pretty at 4,095m within the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Kinabalu National Park. An imposing mountain where spirits of the dead are, according to folklore, said to dwell, Mount Kinabalu is the highest in South East Asia and Malaysia’s pride. “Distinctively Malaysia”, you will find pinnacles of Mount Kinabalu on Malaysian bank notes lest you forget to visit such a wonder when you are in this part of the world.

Kinabalu Park 1
Simple acclimatisation trek inside Kinabalu Park – Silau Silau Trail

And in this part of the world I was in the month of August last – a tourist high season in Sabah when accommodation at the “base camp” of Mount Kinabalu was scarce. Unlike other mountain ranges, it is not possible to just pitch a tent anywhere around Mount Kinabalu for the ascent. The trail up will require hiking an initial distance of 6 km between 4 to 8 hours depending on your fitness level starting from Timpohon Gate close to the park entrance at 1,800m up to the Panalaban Rest House at 3,270m where hot meals are served in the canteen and a soft comfortable bed awaits you in pre-booked private rooms or dorms. The last 2.5km you will take from there.

I woke up early the morning of the hike up to Panalaban, eager to get my legs going so that I can rest early for the next morning’s summit. I knew what would be in store for me – another one of those ridiculous 2.00 am morning calls which will make you question whether the sunrise is really worth the trouble. So it was that my climbing friend Ping and I set off from Timpohon Gate with our guide Joe at 9.00am for what would would seem like an endless winding stairway consisting of wooden or rock-paved steps in the middle of a tropical rainforest.

Timpohon 1
Say hi to Joe!

A little about Joe. Joe is a brown-skinned indigenous Kadazan who speaks fluent Malay and passable English. Joe is a Christian, though one would not be remissed to think that he might be a Malay Muslim at first guess. Make no such assumption for this is what Malaysia is – a blend of different races and cultures where diversity of backgrounds and religion have become intertwined and an everyday phenomenon.

With a funny mix of English, Malay and Chinese speak, Joe, Ping and I walked our first 6km, which would on the flat be a breeze but the humidity of the jungle atmosphere, the spattering of rain and sharp incline.

As lovers of nature, Ping and I had many distractions along the way, punctuating our grudging climb up with admiration for wild flowers, odd-looking plants and slow-moving bugs. Kinabalu Park is after all renowned for its rich flora and fauna and species biodiversity due to its wide altitudinal range of 500m to 4,000m with a tropical lowland and alpine-like highland.

Timpohon 3
Camouflaged along the Timpohon-Panalaban trail
Timpohon 2
Webbing it out in Kinabalu Park

In that canopied forest setting, we found to our delight wild orchids, bright lime-green hanging moss and lichen, bell-shaped flowers and our all-time favourite, pitcher plants. No Rafflesias were spotted though (but Ping and I eventually found some in Ranau – this is another story). Adjectives I have may have for these plants, but please don’t ask a non-botanist me to name them.

Further up hill, we came to a beautiful opening – cold, windy and full of light where the trees were stumpy and gnarly yet full of grace. It reminded me of a wide field of bonsai, a finely manicured Japanese garden of great proportions by the hands of Mother Nature. Here we spent many minutes stretching our legs and recuperating.

By 2.30pm, we arrived at Panalaban Rest House and dug immediately into our lunch. Now a canteen is an easy place to make friends, and strangers do not mind if you are stuffing your face or speaking with your mouth full. We spent the rest of the afternoon trading travel stories with other climbers over a hot cup of Milo of course – the Malaysian way.

By then it had started to pour heavily with waterfalls forming along the mountain face. We each looked out at the fog clouds covering the mountain, pursed our lips and knew that the possibility of a summit the next day appeared somewhat bleak.

Rain rain go away come again on a non-summit day

The rain was relentless but at 2.00am, we were woken up by Joe who told us to gear up. By some miracle, the rain had abated and we would be summiting after all. Just in case the sky changed it mind, we hurried and were out the door by 2.45am with our immediate goal to reach the Sayat Sayat checkpoint before last call at 5.00am.

So far so good – well, yes, that is until you have to contend with a climbing partner who has a lifelong struggle with acrophobia. If you have ever tried scaling a mountain with someone who has an acute fear of heights and gets agitated at the mere thought of it, you would emphatise.

Fear of heights?! So what the hey is Ping doing trying to summit a 4,095m peak? Well, simply because she didn’t make it up the highest point Low’s Peak the last time and took home a dull black-and-white achievement certificate (Sabah Parks issues an awesome colourful achievement certificate only if you summit Low’s Peak at 4,095m). This time she was going to – and my only duty was to make sure she did!

The last time Ping climbed Mount Kinabalu was pre the 2015 magnitude 6.0 earthquake using an old trail when the climb up 800m over 2.5km in pitch darkness might seem a continuation of that long walk up from Timpohon Gate. The new trail – the Ranau trail – has since been built to circumvent the devastation of the old route and consists of near-vertical wooden steps and granite rockface at 70 – 80 degree incline. In certain sections without the wooden steps, one would need to propel up large boulders with the help of a fixed rope. A shorter but steeper route, Joe briefed us. Ping hardly slept a wink all night worrying about the weather, the slippery ground, the rain and the deep drop down.

Sayat 1
Headlights up to Sayat Sayat

And the last thing you need when you have a phobia is an insensitive, sarcastic friend who is less than sympathetic and eggs (or aches) you on.

I did egg Ping on, irritating her with my always grinning but unhelpful “shall I blindfold you”, “hup hup come on”, “you can’t see anything right right” as we hiked up to Sayat Sayat in a light drizzle with our headlights on.

Truth be told, I was secretly proud at her attempt to summit and tried to make light of her fears in the hope that she would too. Thankfully she was no extreme case, and her panic attacks were quietly suffered with minor protestations. And luckily too it was so dark out that there was nothing to worry about except keeping to the trail, avoiding shrubs and the next step up.

Sayat 2
I don’t need space, just oxygen!

We reached Sayat Sayat at 4.30am and proudly checked in our climbing passes. From here on the terrain changed drastically to what appeared a series of flat but sloping sheets of asphalt and granite amidst boulders and pinnacles. An open road so to speak. You might forget that you were still on a steep uphill climb were it not for the ropes with which to haul your heavy self up. You might also forget that you were on top of a mountain were it not for the breathtaking views as dawn broke on a suddenly cloudless morning. I did not mind getting on all fours here scrambling up one ridge to the next to catch the familiar pinky orange glow of sunrise.

Sayat 3
Good morning Low’s Peak

With the last 500m to go, we strolled joyfully the plateau noting all the famous peaks of Kinabalu – Donkey’s Ears (one “ear” damaged during the earthquake), the Ugly Sisters, Dewali Pinnacles, St. John’s, South Peak and Gorilla Face, always with one eye on Low’s Peak. It was crowded at the bottom of Low’s Peak, and Ping was visibly nervous around the edges of the gully – a dizzying grey abyss to such a one who feared heights.

Low's Peak 1
Don’t look down – Low’s Gully

At 6.45am, we took our celebratory picture at Low’s Peak. It was rather anti-climatic for me, taking less than 30 seconds to snap a few photos on a small, tight, narrow ledge despite a strenuous, squeezy scramble. In that tensed build-up for Ping to reach the top, my expectations of a wondrous view at Low’s Peak had heightened, but when we were greeted with more of the same, the elation was momentary.

Plateau 1
Jaw-dropping Oyayubi Iwu Peak. Is that a rainbow I see?

The rocky plateau of Mount Kinabalu was however a dream – a paradise for anyone who loves spending time outside and in the clouds. Oh what are men compared to rocks and mountains?

Plateau 2
South Peak

And here we hung around and meandered left and right as we made our way back down towards Panalaban to pack up.

Gorilla's Face
Pinnacle known as Gorilla’s Face
Descent 1
How steep is this?

It was on the descent that Ping (and at times my patience) was truly tested. When you are on the way up, your eyes look up. When you are on the way down, your eyes are cast downward, and downward is an absolutely no-no if you are “gayat” (meaning in Malay going dizzy crazy because of this damn height).

Without need for detailed elaboration, I will leave it to your imagination how we made it down those steep rocky surfaces and winding open stairs in daylight. Suffice for me to say that on our way down we met a girl who had with eyes shut clung on to the wooden rails till her hands were red – she was “gayat”  T  H  E   W  H  O  L  E   W  A  Y   D O W N and loudly too! I am usually rather patient (ahem), but a tired me was totally irritated. But in the end with the help of our patient mountain guides, we spurred each other on to arrive at Panalaban safely together all in one piece.

We did not make good time on the descent, but mattered it did not. Kudos to them I say, for I take my hat off to any who chooses the path of challenge to overcome their fears however trifling it may be seem to us.

Ranau Trail
Ranau Trail from Sayat Sayat to Panalaban

Just as we left Panalaban at 11am, rain started to come down again and rain it did without a moment’s pause the next 4 hours as we marched down the slippery earth – grime, mud and all, with feet heavily soaked in dirty water all the way back to Timpohon Gate. We took no pictures on the way down, and the amazing “Japanese” gardens became lost to me in the shroud. The parks rescue team was called to action that same afternoon to rescue a girl who had slipped down the side of a gully. She was about an hour behind us.

YES! Jumping for joy at St. John’s Peak

Drenched to the bones yet grateful and relieved, we made our way to the next town of Ranau to visit Poring Hotspring for a good soak. The climb had been just that morning, but fatigue had set in and everything seemed forgotten save for one thing – that coloured “you did it” certificate with Ping’s name she kept safely tucked away dry and intact.