Sabah, Borneo: Granite Mountains to Steamy Jungles
By Marika Martinez, Women's Own Adventure

It is getting harder to take a breath in rhythm with my footsteps, at the point of not wanting to move another step in an upward direction, with shear exhaustion gripping my body, I stopped and turned around in the semi-darkness. The morning light was starting to filter through the rolling clouds in shades of orange against the dark silhouette of the rocky outcrops.

My head torch was still lighting the steep granite of the final stage to the summit that I had begun to ascend almost 4 hours before at 2:00am. It is very cold with the wind whipping against my face, sending shivers through my body. At this point there is not another soul in sight apart from my mountain guide who has patiently guided me up the steep, rough rock face to the summit plateau. The sheer beauty of daybreak against the backdrop of the view far below was enough to spur me on to the top, about another 400 metres. The top was the summit of Low’s Peak, the highest point of Mt Kinabalu at 4,095 metres. On the other side of the summit is Low’s Gully with a spectacular depth of 1.6 km straight down. At the peak I was elated and at peace with the world, having achieved my first mountain climb.

Mt Kinabalu is one of South-East Asia’s tallest mountains. It rises four kilometres straight up from the rainforest of Kinabalu Park, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000 by UNESCO.  The granite massif is still growing at an estimated rate of half a centimetre a year. The mountain and its surroundings feature a huge variety of flora, and is one of the world’s most important biological sites. Mt Kinabalu boasts a high level of species which are only found within Kinabalu Park and are not found anywhere else in the world. It has over 800 species of orchids, over 600 species of ferns (of which 50 are found nowhere else) and is the richest place in the world for the Nepenthes Insectivorous Pitcher plants (five of the thirteen are found nowhere else on earth). The parasitic Rafflesia plant, whose flower grows to almost 1 metre in diameter and is  the largest single flower in the world, is also found in Kinabalu.

It is believed that the name of Mt Kinabalu is derived from Aki Nabalu – meaning ‘the revered place of the dead’, in the local Dusunic language. The local people farmed the slopes of the mountain, but the last 2,000 metres or so of the granite outcrop was the domain of the spirits, dreaded in all Bornean societies. Local porters and guides performed religious ceremonies on reaching the summit, where chickens were sacrificed to appease the spirits. This ceremony continues today by the local guides on an annual basis.

The long journey to the top had actually begun the morning before when our group of 11 adventurous women from as far a field as Esperance, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney, started the steep climb from the base at Kinabalu Park from where the lofty peak could be seen. The track winds over steep and rough terrain for 6km, which took up to 8 hours of uphill slog to Laban Rata at 3,250 metres, our overnight resting spot.  It was from here that the final 2.7km ascent to the summit began at 2am. By the time I reached the summit, we had all spread out over a considerable distance and not everyone made it to the top.

However we were not done yet, as we still had another 7 hours of downhill to get back to the base of the mountain. The downhill was very hard on the legs, by the end of which we were limping along on sore knees and weary muscles. Relief was in sight in the hot springs of Poring, where we spent the next day recovering.

The mountain was absolutely inspiring, however there is far more to Sabah than just the mountain. The people of the region are friendly and beautiful; they welcomed us with genuine hospitality. We travelled by four-wheel drive vehicle to the village of Kiau Nuluh, which is set among the lush green forest on the mountainside. The Dusun people number around 1,000 altogether with another three nearby villages. Our reception was delightful with a special performance by the mothers group and a dance by the local children.

With a spectacular backdrop of the surrounding mountains it was a wonderful afternoon with many smiling faces.  In the evening we were treated to the most delicious dinner as special guests of the village. The array of food cooked by the women was amazing, and all from local produce of the village. Then came the very potent rice wine, which soon melted away the shyness of our attempts at both the Malaysian and English languages. The locals all loved the opportunity of talking to us and practicing their English. There were laughs and singing all around and into the night. Some of the men of the village were our guides on the climb up the mountain.

Our group then travelled to the community of Batu Puteh along the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah.  This indigenous rural community has had a millennia of traditional reliance on the rainforest for food, medicines, everyday commodities, as well trade with the outside world.

We spent the night in a rough jungle camp located a 20 minute boat ride up the river. Strange sounds through the darkness startled us on the night jungle walk, which revealed the native Civet Cat near our camp. Having spotted an abundance of bird life, monkeys, orangutans and crocodiles along the river, we enjoyed a hot meal and a good nights sleep to the sounds of the jungle under the stars in our hammocks.

One of the highlights of our trip was to see the ancient green turtle lay her eggs on Selingan Turtle Island in the cool of the evening. Some 44 turtles came to lay their eggs on the island that night, with each turtle laying up to 100 eggs each. It takes one to two hours for the female to complete her egg laying process, from sourcing a nesting site to returning to the sea when all is done. It was a touching experience to witness this miracle. Selingan Island is one of a group of uninhabited islands straddling the Malaysian and Philippine boundaries lying within the Sulu Seas. This cluster of islands namely three main nesting islands - Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakkungan Kechil and Pulau Gulisan, covers an area of 1,740 hectares and are protected for the sole purpose of conservation and preservation of turtles and other marine animals inhabiting the area.

Women's Own Adventure and the group of 11 women on this journey have jointly adopted a baby orphan Orangutan named Sogo Sogo from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. These amazing creatures are fascinating to watch as they are rehabilitated back into the jungle. The cultural and wildlife experiences in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo have been fantastic in a country that has very strong conservation policies.

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