A Bornean Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when near to the hostel, everything was stirring, especially the brothel. Welcome to Malaysia. More specifically, the stretched coastal city of Kota Kinabalu on the mythical island of Borneo. I am here on my Christmas vacation, from teaching in South Korea, and boy do I require a break (attempting to teach toddlers the nuances of English grammar certainly takes its toll). But this would not be a restful week, oh no. I planned on taking in as much of the Malaysian region of Sabah as I could, as well as visiting the infrequently visited Kingdom of Brunei. With Borneo being the third-largest island in the world, I had better get a sleigh on.

As Christmas Day dawned, I grabbed my trunks and Santa hat and hot-footed my way down to the tourist jetty. A short boat ride from the shore lies the once paradisical Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, an island chain that has bore the brunt of the recent tourist boom. A once thriving coral reef is now bleached and broken beyond recognition, hardly the most festive story to tell you but there we are. I was dropped off at Gaya Island, the largest of the five isles, and spent a good few hours snorkelling above the wrecked reef. Although, that is not even the most depressing story to be told of Gaya. On the other side of the island lies a six thousand strong community of undocumented Philippino immigrants, that have basically been ignored by the Malaysian authorities for almost fifty years. Living in squalor (and in a place so dangerous the police won’t even visit) this lawless, forgotten people couldn’t provide a starker contrast to the super-rich tourists staying at the five-star resorts on the other side of the island. Remarkable.

Whilst Kota Kinabalu didn’t exactly make a superb first impression, the mountain from whence its name derived was bound to. An early Boxing Day alarm and taxi ride later and I was in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu: the tallest in Malaysia and twentieth most prominent in the world (not entirely sure what that means). The two-day hike to its summit was my primary reason for basing myself in the bleak city of Kota Kinabalu, although tonight (in contrast) would be spent high in the Bornean clouds. I went halfers with a Swiss bloke named Mike on a required guide and the three of us began our ascent with bright smiles and positive attitudes. The ninety per cent humidity quickly put pay to those and every step soon became an unbearable slog through the densest and dankest of rainforests.

Laban Rata guesthouse was our destination (a full three thousand two hundred metres above sea level), a quite remarkable complex given that all daily supplies have to be delivered by local porters (often spotted running up the mountainside with cigarette in mouth, twenty-five kilogrammes of meat on their backs and wearing nothing but old plimsoles). They surely must be some of the fittest people this side of the Tour de France (and that’s without the use of blood transfusions). We arrived early in the evening, aching and exhausted, and awaited the most coveted chilli con carne of my fledgeling existence. In the upper reaches of the Bornean mountains, you expect to come across a quite eclectic group of hikers and climbers and this evening was no different. Stories of rainforest near misses and desert survivals were passed around until the altitude and beer combination started to take effect on my cognitive abilities and I withdrew to my bunk.

2:00 am on a silent and still mountainside, but for the faint rustlings of weary hikers preparing their packs for the short (but enervating) ascent ahead – this would be the toughest few hours on all my travels thus far. With head-torches lit, Mike (former military) quickly blazed a route ahead that I struggled and spluttered to follow. Ropes were required to mount the larger granite boulders as we picked off the slower climbers and scaled further into the clouds. As the distant shadow of the crepuscular summit came into sharper focus, we knew we would have a protracted wait for our desired sunrise. And so it came to pass. My Swiss companion and I were the third and fourth climbers to reach the zenith of Mount Kinabalu that morning and we were extremely grateful for the bottle of whisky that the first and second climbers were passing around. As my extremities started to numb, I was forced to descend several times in order to get the blood flowing once more – as we waited for our elusive sol to appear.

It was worth the wait. As it crested the horizon, I was treated to (easily) the most spectacular vista I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. As the forenoon clouds dissipated, the view took on an even more phantasmagoric appearance, with mirror lakes and smaller summits around every boulder. I circled the ironically named Low’s Peak several times, and stood for a good thirty minutes in complete awe at my surroundings, before beginning the interminable descent back to earth – for this was somewhere else entirely. Mike and I made it down by early evening, with every muscle and joint crying out in soreness – but my god was it all worth it. Mount Kinabalu is, without doubt, top of my travel experiences thus far and will take some knocking off. I can only hope that my next destination, Brunei, provides half as much wonder. Fingers crossed.


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