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Stairways To Heaven
Text and Photos: Frank Ossen
Once part of the mighty Sultanate of Brunei and located in the most northern part of Borneo lies Sabah, commonly known as "The Land Below The Winds". No doubt Sabah’s number one attraction, dominating the skyline from every perspective, is Gunung Kinabalu, at 4101 meters the highest peak in Southeast Asia. The jungle-clad massif emerges from a level plain then rises to a barren, almost flat-topped block, culminating in several peaks, of which Low’s Peak is the actual summit. The lower slopes of the mountain, farmed to about 600 meters, are the spirit homeland for the indigenous Kadazan, or Dusun, who make up a third of Sabah’s population. A large number of them eke out a living by wet rice or slash-and-burn cultivation. The mountain derives its name from their term "Aki Nabalu", which means "Revered Place Of The Dead", as the Dusun consider the mountain the final resting-place of their departed souls. I easily understood this reverence : tall and forbidding with its peak forever lost in swirling clouds, the mountain is truly mesmerizing. For most people, however, the main reason for visiting Gunung Kinabalu is to witness the spectacular sunrise from the summit : an experience that leaves an everlasting impression.
The mountain and the surrounding area make up the Kinabalu National Park, covering an area of 754 sq. km. This beautiful reserve is home to an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna, including the largest flower on earth, the Rafflesia, which can measure 70 cm. or more across. Over half of the worlds known flowering plants exist here, while more unknown species are still being discovered. Furthermore, it nurtures the Nepenthes (Pitcher plant), a carnivorous species common in Borneo’s jungles, as well as over 1200 types of orchid ! Apart from its overwhelming plant-life, the region preserves a profusion of wildlife : exotic stick insects, giant Atlas moths, the nocturnal slow lori’s, snakes and monitor lizards, bearded pigs, flying foxes, tiny mousedeer, clouded leopards, gibbons and proboscis monkeys (appropriately nicknamed "Orang Belanda", because of their long noses and fat bellies !), to name just a few. This is also one of the last natural habitats of our endangered "cousin", the Orang Utan. Many of the species found here are unique to Borneo, and it is no wonder that Sabah is considered a natural treasure trove.
There are various ways of exploring this botanical paradise. The fit and adventurous can hike the summit trail to Kinabalu’s peaks, usually a two-day affair. However a group of Nepalese Gurkhas, during last year’s annual climbathon, raced to the top in a mere two hours and fifty minutes ! The less energetic can stroll along numerous marked trails around Park Headquarters.
The first foreigner to scale the peak was Sir Hugh Low, a British administrator in the Malay Peninsula, who reached the summit with his Dusun guide in 1851. Trails were non-existent in those days : Sir Hugh hiked for more than three weeks to reach the base of the mountain, where Park Headquarters now stands. Today the 90-km. stretch from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, to the park takes less than two hours by road.
On arrival at Park HQ, I registered, paid the climber’s fee and confirmed my bookings for the hostel there and the chalets along the summit trail. I then visited the information center, which houses an exhibition of the fascinating flora and fauna. I was eager to set out at once, but due to the late hour I decided to wait until morning. Instead I stocked up on food for my planned three-day climb and decided to have a good night’s rest.
Not being an early riser, I missed the only bus to Timpohon Gate, where the actual climb begins, and so walked for about an hour along the narrow, sealed road through dense lowland forest of giant Dipterocarp-trees. The road offered good views of the mountain, which rises almost vertically from the lush tropical greenery of the adjacent hills. As I passed through Timpohon Gate, a clear trail started winding upwards through graceful chestnut and oak forest, passing several waterfalls and crossing streams on its way. Myriads of multi-coloured butterflies fluttered from flower to flower ; lizards scurried away as I passed, betrayed only by the rustling of leaves.
Strong roots served as perfect natural steps and the path continued to climb until I reached the Kambarangah shelter at 2286 meters. Here clouds penetrate the forest, and the scenery abruptly changed. The oak trees gave way to strange, unusual trees with a thick cover of mosses and lichen on their gnarled trunks and branches. They played hide-and-seek with me as they suddenly appeared out of the mist only to disappear seconds later, forming wonderful silhouettes against the grey sky. The soil was very damp and tree ferns dominated the undergrowth, where insects of all sorts abound. This weird but fascinating world is known as the cloud forest.
Amidst these eerie surroundings I sat for nearly an hour, feeling the presence of departed spirits all around me. I even imagined strange voices. It took a while before I could break the spell. I must have walked for at least another hour, before I left the mystic cloud forest below and entered more rocky terrain. Here, dwarf trees with yellowish mossy trunks and scrub were the most common species. As I reached Old Carson Camp at 2713 meters, having passed through the cloud layer into the clear air, the summit became visible once again.
Weary climbers may wish to stay here, but the camp lacks cooking facilities. Besides, it’s still a long way to the top. In this area I saw many types of orchid, including the "Mountain Necklace Orchid", an elegant string of snow-white flowers, as well as flesh-eating pitcher plants. Their mature leaves can be as long as one meter. The tendrils develop into pitchers, generally green with red or purple specks, that collect water. The "Nepenthes Rajah", the biggest of all pitchers, can hold up to two liters of water ! As soon as insects enter the pitcher to quench their thirst, they are trapped. The slippery surface prevents them from climbing out and eventually they drown. The plant then assimilated the decomposing remains. Many Rhododendrons can be seen flowering here as well, and certain types grow exclusively on Kinabalu’s slopes. Sir Hugh Low, not only a hardened adventurer but also a renowned naturalist, discovered many new species of plants on the mountain which consequently bear his name.
I enjoyed a brief rest at the Old Carson Camp before pushing on to the shelter at Panar Laban, at 3415 meters today’s objective. The trail continued to climb steadily and the going became much tougher. At 3000 meters, next to a beautiful stream, I found Paka Cave, a huge overhang. Here Sir Hugh and his Dusun guide had made camp before making their final assault on the summit.
I refreshed myself in the clear waters of the stream knowing that I had only a little further to go before reaching Panar Laban, where an inviting bed awaited me. Daylight had nearly ended and I watched the sun slowly disappear below the clouds until nothing but a dim glow remained.
I stumbled in after dark – the last climber to arrive – just in time as the kitchen was about to close. It had been a long and strenuous day and soon after my meal I collapsed into bed, happy and exhausted.
Unfortunately I had a rather uncomfortable night due to the altitude. I suffered a severe headache and was short of breath. At one point I thought I’d better descent immediately. Late in the night, however, the symptoms lessened and when I got up at three o’clock, I felt a lot better. Dawn had not yet broken when, last as usual, I set out. It is necessary to leave at this ghastly hour to have a few clear hours at the summit, before the inevitable clouds roll in. My torch could hardly scare a mouse, so in pitch darkness I struggled to catch up with the lights of climbers ahead.
Within the hour I got to the Sayat-Sayat shelter, at 3811 meters just above the tree line and at the base of a desolate plateau. Here the trail disappeared and all I had to do was follow the rope that leads to the top. I dropped my bag in the tin shack, where I was to spend the coming night and proceeded without delay.
The final haul was an hour of heavy going; at times the rock face was so steep that I had to use the rope to pull myself up. Many climbers suffered considerable hardship from the freezing cold and lack of oxygen, although most did eventually make it. When I finally reached the summit I was given a warm welcome by some early arrivals. The climb was over; I felt deep satisfaction. I signed the book there before spending what seemed like hours in the biting cold waiting for sunrise.
At last the sun appeared as a new day was born. Astonishing colours filled the sky. The view was absolutely stunning and seemed infinite, encompassing the islands off the north coast, the southwestern part of the Philippines in the northeast and Indonesian Kalimantan in the south. Far below, hilltops pierced the clouds and under my feet lay the gully-scarred plateau surrounded by black granite cliffs hundreds of meters high, remnants of glaciation tens of thousands of years ago. A mere stone’s throw away stood the other peaks ; among them the majestic Victoria Peak, the Three Sisters, South Peak and Donkey Ears. The place had a strong surrealistic look about it, as if it were a dream. Here, according to the Kadazan, roam the spirits of their dead and it felt like heaven indeed.
Exhilarated, I climbed down to explore the plateau, where I soon discovered there was life as well : Growing out of jagged crevices were Low’s Rhododendrons, hardy alpine shrubs with tiny, red vase-like flowers reaching for the sky. Drops of dew, glittering under the morning sun, and a lone metallic-coloured beetle competed for my attention. Elsewhere grew small pockets of beautiful alpine flowers.
I then decided to scale South Peak, an intriguing sharp-pointed boulder at the edge of the plateau. The approach did not seem too difficult at first, but, as it turned out the last few meters were so steep, that I needed to embrace the summit as I crawled to the top. Had it not been for the metal post there, I could not have stood up safely. With one leg firmly wrapped around the post I was able to use both hands to capture the impressive sight on film.
Suddenly, white billows hurtled up the mountain slope. The clouds advanced so quickly that within minutes I was enveloped in dense fog. The temperature plummeted and a cold drizzle set in. The few clear hours were over; it was time to descend to the Sayat-Sayat shelter, and prepare myself a simple but much-needed breakfast consisting of a cup instant noodle soup and some biscuits. Soon the drizzle turned into pouring rain and I spent the remainder of the day huddled up in my sleeping bag trying to keep warm. The view trough the window showed nothing but a sad grayness and I began to wonder if it could have been a dream after all.
The following day I returned to the Park HQ and though I have long since departed, I will always remember the grandeur of this sacred mountain, Gunung Kinabalu, a true heaven on earth.
© Frank Ossen 2002
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