Jack & I were dangerously similar personalities. There was much joking, japery and a lot of laughter. He'd been in Borneo a few weeks so was able to offer advice on where to go and what to see based on what he'd been up to. I planned to catch up with a bit of work here, so the next day we met up for breakfast, then for evening food and a couple of beers.
I contacted Borneo Adventures, a tour company based in the city of Kuching. I offered my photography services on any tours where they felt they had a shortfall in their portfolio. I was offered a five day tour searching for wild orang utans in Batang Ai. This was 10 days away, so in the meantime needed to find some Borneo based adventures.
Mount Kinabulu, the tallest mountain in Borneo towers to an impressive 4,095 metres. I thought to myself, 'I should climb that mountain.' I looked in to the costs involved and it seemed like an extremely expensive mountain to trek. Jack's advice was to take the bus to Kinabulu park pay the permit fee to climb the mountain, organise a group of between three and five other trekkers to split the mountain guide price of almost £50.00, and then book Labaing. Labaing was the accommodation on the mountain normally set aside for the Malaysians. A far cheaper option than the heated rooms of the main lodge (where we would be dining anyway) three minutes walk away. So with some good advice from my new buddy Belgian Jack (who'd climbed the mountain a few weeks before) the advertised package of £300+ which I was unwiling to pay like many other backpackers, had been reduced to to a much more realistic £100 (this was based on my finding two other crew members). This included permits, guide, accomodation and meals 6km up the mountain. I was pleased. Thanks Jack.
I sat waiting for the mini-van to fill with people. The sun was hot. The mini-van was like an oven. Forty five minutes later the door slid shut and we departed Kinabulu Park. Two hours later as the cramped mini-van approached Kinabulu Park a beautiful girl with tied up long dark hair was stood on the side of the road in black jeans and a black long sleeved top taking pictures of the grand vista with her iPhone. We continued, and thirty seconds later the van slowed to a halt. I slid the door back and walked down the road to a little homestay. There was no one but me. I was offered a choice of two rooms with three beds in each.
I dumped my gear and walked back towards the park to make enquiries.
Before I knew it I'd bought my permit and had booked and paid for my 'Malaysian' dormitory and food in the main lodge for the following day. The staff told me to return at 7.30am the following morning to complete the remainder of the paperwork and to be assigned my guide. I asked if they would be kind enough to keep an eye out for single travellers who could make up my group.
I closed the door behind me, and who was stood there perusing the large wooden trail map but the tall beautiful girl from the roadside. 'Excuse me!' I shouted. I approaced her and asked was she looking to do the climb. She was, but she too had been put off by the price. I then delivered the great news..... She was overjoyed. At first she couldn't quite believe it. I sent her in to the office armed with this new information. Marjolein from the Netherlands was my first group member.
After she booked we walked one of the trails around the park together, chatting about life and where we'd been. Marjo was a nurse.... The kind of nurse that makes you want to break both your legs whilst visiting the Netherlands.
Once we'd stomped we arranged to meet up the following morning at the park office.
I walked back to my dormitory and slipped off my shoes. One of said shoes seemed very sticky inside. Seed or leaf sap I assumed. The sticky red substance that covered my toes turned out to be my own blood. A cheeky leech had managed to work it's way between my toes and have a good old drink, but had forgotten to replace the lid with it's delightful anti-coagulant.... My foot bled for hours....
The following morning I rose early. I prepared my bag and headed up hill to the roadside cafe. I ate a double breakfast, well I could couldn't I? I was trekking up a mountain today.
Marjolein (pronounced 'tasty Dutch nurse'... Sorry Marjo! Ha ha! Pronounced Mar-yo-line) found another member for 'Team Europe'. Jippy,(pronounced Tremendous Dane, or Yippee).... I'm still not sure I'm saying his name correctly! Sorry Jippy.
We ate breakfast, we chatted then went up to the office to sort our formalities and to be assigned our guide.
Our lovely guide was a local lady in her 50's. She was about 5ft tall. The rest of us were all pretty heighty, including Marjo. We had legs, and this showed during the first hour of climbing. Our little guide (basically a permit to climb the mountain) was unable to keep up with our pace. From time to time we stopped and waited allowing her to catch up. She commented how fast we were, and told us we should go at our own paces, and wait every now and again. This worked for everyone.
The track was steep and rocky in places. Huge uneven steps made of rocks, boulders and slabs made each lunge upwards unpredictable.... Sometimes it was just slippery tree roots awaiting the touch of your foot. It was a challenging surface, combined with challenging humidity. We were all dripping with sweat. I attempted, as usual, to travel as lightly as possible.
Two thin underlayers a sports fabric t-shirt, a hoody for the mountain top, shorts and a pair of socks, that's what was in my back pack, along with a toothbrush and a bar of soap. Then my Olympus OMD camera, a couple of lenses and my carbon tripod attached to the outside. I was wearing my shirt, trekking pants and trail trainers. Marjo brought a lot. I think she had two of everything, including a good selection of snacks. Her random snapping style of picture taking captured some very candid shots during the 36 hours on the mountain.
Our micro-guide was amazed that we arrived at the hostel by 12.30pm. It had taken 3.5 hours.... It was only 6km distance wise, but the steep ascent was hard on the thighs, buttocks and knees. I tried not to think about tomorrow's descent.
We enjoyed a cracking buffet feast around 4pm, which was preceded by card tricks by Marjo, some card games and a few games of Scrabble. Lots of fun and laughter. We were the perfect team.
The evening sun managed to break through the thick cloud as it descended beyond the horizon. I glimpse of light and colour.... A lovely end to the evening's proceedings.
Initially we were told we'd be rising at 1am for a 2am start to reach the peak ahead of sunrise, but our guide informed us we could rise at 2am and leave after 3am as 'Team Europe' were fast, agile and nimble.... Those were my words not hers!
We headed over to the dormitory at around 8pm.
Marjo said she wasn't tired, began chatting, then slipped in to silence, then promptly fell asleep within 5 minutes. Jippe and I slept on and off throughout the night. The room was unheated. It was chilly but the thick quilts were ample.
Mobile phone alarms began chiming from 1am..... We wouldn't get that extra hour of sleeping that we'd so looked forward to... Though we would continue to rest for another 45 minutes.
We rose bleary eyed, grabbed our head torches (Marjo rented an excuse for a headlamp from the lodge) and headed across for breakfast, which was classed as supper. We stuffed as much down as we could.
I was wearing every item of clothing I'd brought with me on this trip, and within 10 minutes of walking I decided to remove my hoody. It was still humid, and the effort required to tackle the steep steps was making me sweat. I didn't want to get my body and clothes wet, as this wouldn't be good for the peak, especially if it was windy.
I let Marjo walk ahead and lit her path. The candle she had attached to her forehead was pointless.
She'd given me one of her two scarves just in case I got cold.
At times we were being guided by ropes anchored in to the rock face. There were steep drops to the left, and I was aware that Marjo was suffering a little altitude sickness. Jippe was also feeling a little light headed. I kept an eye on them both, reminding them to breath as slowly and deeply as they could. Marjo continued to suffer.
Sunrise wouldn't be until after 6am, and we had almost reached the peak. It was only 5.10am with a 15 minute push to the top.
I suggested we take shelter from the wind behind some large rock formations until we were nearer sunrise. Marjo was feeling sleepy. Another sign of altitude sickness. I recognised this symptom from my own experience on a fast, steep ascent in Western Nepal.
We all huddled in. I sat behind her with my legs around her, pulled her in and rubbed her arms, cuddling her in tight. Eventually we fought off her chill, though I was starting to feel it a little due to no longer having my limbs tucked in tight whilst I warmed Marjo. I told her to stay awake and kept chatting with her. It was bloody cold..... A couple of small rats scratched around our feet and bags..... one began eating someones glob of freshly hacked up phlegm. I almost wretched. We grabbed our little packs and started the ten to fifteen minute clamber to the peak.
I took Marjo's hand until she felt steady. I was a little worried about her, so I remained close to her and kept a close eye. Jippe was fine now.
The wind was strong and the air was bitterly cold. The temperature was just touching zero degrees. A Danish guy wrapped in many layers, a woollen hat, scarf and huge coat looked at what I was wearing, and shouted over the wind, 'Aren't you freezing!!!?' I assured him I was fine. And I was. Though my hands were quickly becoming useless. I was doing my best to erect my tripod and hold it steady in the strong wind.
Working the buttons on the camera became almost impossible. When I thought I was pressing buttons I was nowhere near them. I needed to actually watch what my fingers were doing. Marjo perked up. The sky was beautiful, the view was incredible, and we could see all the way to the border of China....
The sun began to glimpse through the cracks in the cloud. Shards of bright light skewered the sky. Wow! This was quickly turning in to one of those spectacular 'I love this travelling mullarkey' moments....
We hung around at 4,095 metres for ten maybe fifteen minutes. I knew Marjo was cold. One of her big green woollen scarves wrapped around my head underneath my grey hoody helping me retain some heat. Thanks Marjo.
We'd done it. We'd trekked and clambered to the top of SE Asia's highest peak and watched the sunrise.... We were all elated. We carefully picked our way over the large boulders descending the main pinnacle. The rays of cold sun still packed enough of a temperature differential to bring feeling back to my hands. They were red raw, but they were working again.
The rock formations, which were hidden under the cloak of darkness on our ascent, were now clearly visible for all to appreciate.
This place was stunning. We danced our way down on the clouds. In 90 minutes we would be back at the lodge enjoying a huge and rewarding breakfast.
We were all on such a high. It really was a pleasure to walk with Marjo and Jippe.... and they worked really hard.
I've been told on many occassions that I have a fairly fast pace when it comes to trekking. Especially when I'm heading up hill. I attempted to sustain a manageble pace for us all. And I think Jippe & Marjo will agree.
By 9am we were already on our post breakfast main descent to the bottom of Mount Kinabulu.
An older Dutch ex-marathon runner joined us on the way down, preferring our pace to that of his mature group. He was quite the character. 57 years old with knees that were in better condition than mine. The descent was proving extremely painful. But I knew I needed to just keep moving at a good pace. Marjo, Jippe and I all slipped at one point, tumbling, recovering quickly and always without injury. We were down at the bottom by 11.30am.
We grabbed our big backpacks from the National Park Office and sauntered down the road to find a mini-van to take us back to Kota Kinabulu.
Fifteen minutes later we were packed in to our ride home. We were all tired. It had been a long 30 hours or so.... Attempts of gaining comfort by resting heads on one another's heads and shoulders were usually destroyed every few minutes as the van bounced along the uneven roads. We dozed, snoozed and relaxed.
That evening we all headed in to town for a few celebratory beers. It was Friday...
Marjo commmented that I was a nicer guy when not in the presence of Jack. When Jack and I got together it was stupid school boy humour and big immature laughs.... Marjo was probably right! Ha ha! It was a fun evening. Me, Marjo, Jippe, Jack, a brief spell with a guy called Joel from New Zealand who'd been on the Isle of Man watching the TT during the Summer and the Danish guys we met on top of Kinabulu....We hung out in KK for another couple of days.
Jack had suggested we go out fishing the day after we returned from Mount Kinabulu. So the three men paid £20.00 a piece to head out to sea. Once we'd dropped anchor that was it for Jippe, he was chundering before he even got a bite. Jack caught his first fish ever, and even ended up being only one fish behind me. The fish were tiny. Absolutely tiny. Considering it had taken 25 minutes to reach our destination I thought we were in for some fantastic fishing. I was sorely mistaken. But was it fun? Yes. Not for Jippe. Though he did enjoy the return boat ride and the incredible pastel sunset.
I had hoped Marjo might join me in Mulu for the cave exploration, but she wanted ot visit the orang utan sanctuary and do some diving around Sandakan and Sipadan in the North. That evening Jippe, Marjo and I played cards and chatted in my little den in The Bunk. It was our last night together as Team Europe. Marjo was leaving before 6am and we were all late getting to our 'bunk pods'. When Marjo pulled my curtain open shortly after 6am to say goodbye I thought to myself she's leaving it a little tight for her flight. An hour later I received a message saying she'd missed her flight and was coming back to the hostel.
When I awoke I wasn't feeling too well. I hadn't been feeling well the previous evening either.
Marjo came back and suggested we head out in to the big street market. It was only 8am, but we took a wander together, perusing the Asian market tat, the puppies in small cages, the albino hedgehogs in smaller cages etc etc, before going and having a fresh juice.
My flight to Mulu was around 11am, and I didn't want to make the same mistake as Marjo. We were both taking Uber (an alternative taxi service, where anyone can register to be a taxi driver) at 11am. I was heading to KK airport, she was heading to the main bus station.
I'd arranged to meet up with Jack on my return. He would be leaving the night I arrived back.
So that was it. More big 'hopefully see you again' hugs.... and we were off.
So here I was in Kuching airport yet again.... Searching for where ever the hell it was that I needed to be to check in.....I was heading off to explore the Unesco protected cave systems of Mulu National Park.... I still felt very sick.... But I was sure I'd start to feel better very soon.
I wandered to the departure gate. The flight had been delayed by an hour. I found a line of seats in the departure lounge and fell in to a deep, sick sleep. When I woke I had that sense of 'have I missed my flight?' panic. I wandered up to the departure gate and joined the line that was currently building. It turned out to be the wrong flight.... I sat back down a couple of seats away from another tourist. Annet was German, maybe 32 years old. She was also going to explore the caves of Mulu. I continued to doze in my seat until the flight finally departed. Then I dozed on the one and a half hour flight to Mulu..... We landed.... I wasn't well and I just needed to sleep.