A first hand account of life threatening adventure almost gone wrong in the beautiful state of Sabah, Malaysia.
My last post was about why Kota Kinabalu is the best place for Unplanned Travel in South East Asia and my first day at the very place. This one is about my Day 2, an enthralling experience - when scaling the heights of Mount Kinabalu was not enough adventure. Let’s get straight to the action!
Getting bedazzled by Mount Kinabalu
Day 2 was about Mount Kinabalu. I love mountains more than the sea. The excitement to meet my beloved mountains woke me up before time. At sharp 5:30 am I was ready with my other hostel mates to drive to Mount Kinabalu, the highest Mountain peak in South East Asia. The Masada Backpackers hostel staff was helpful in arranging a cab for us. It was pitch dark when we left, the sun still snoozing.
Our thoughtful driver stopped the car at a point which offered the most amazing sunrise view. The sunrise was a sight to behold. It was a surreal sight, like what we used to draw in our nursery drawing books– the sun rising behind the mountain peaks, its shadow creating drama in the river flowing just below the mountains. Birds were flying out of their nests. The sky was like a painting. No camera could do justice to this sight yet we clicked away to glory!
We were driving through lush green valley that was engulfed by white clouds. It seemed that we were driving our way through one of the heavenly highways!. I was smitten by the majestic beauty of Mount Kinabalu, which dwarfs its neighbours with its elevation of 4095 metres. Per Peaklist.org it is the 20th most prominent peak in the world due to its characteristic topography. I felt like I was home and all I could think of was this song - Rain drops keep falling on my head. I had waited for nine months to be with the mountains and I couldn’t stop gushing at the feeling of being united with my love.
And the wait was over. I was at the base of Mount Kinabalu at 7:30 am. Unfortunately I could not climb Mt. Kinabalu because the park had already reached the limit of allowing 135 climbers per day to hike and I could not spare three more days as work beckoned at Manila. So I settled to do the next best thing – explore the Botanical Garden and hike around the other trails from the base.
There are nine trails around the park headquarters:
- Bundu Tuhan View Trail (465 metres, 30 minutes),
- Kiau View Trail (2344 metres, 60-80 minutes),
- Pandanus Trail (598 metres, 45 minutes),
- Bukit Tupai and Bukit Burung Trails (1425 metres, 90 minutes combined)
- Mempening Trail; (3396 metres, 120 minutes),
- Liwagu Trail(5620 meters; 120-150 minutes),
- Silau Silau Trail, (3057 metres, 60-80 minutes)
- Mountain View Trail; (150 metres, 15 minutes)
These trails are fairly easy trails and can all be done in two days. Apart from the stunning views, what makes Mount Kinabalu park even more remarkable is the outstanding biodiversity. This is the very reason why it is in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is also a tropical rainforest park that offers visitors a great opportunity to see rare species of flora and fauna. The park is well maintained, well-marked and has knowledgeable staff.
During my conversation with Lisa, the lady manning the Botanical Gardens’ reception, I got to know that the Mt. Kinabalu Park is very stringent when it comes to employing people. All its employees have Environment Science background and have the desired skill and passion for the environment. Lisa herself was a Bachelors in Environmental Science and as part of her job she is required to be jack of all trades – some days she handles the reception and somedays she’s part of the Research team. No wonder the guides, receptionist and everyone involved knew so much about the biodiversity of the park.
I took a guided tour of two trails and the Botanical Park. The trails were easy and well-marked enough to be walked without a guide. It was the beginning of the monsoon season in Malaysia therefore it rained pretty hard for two hours. But after that it was clear. Hiking around the base was easy, the temperature was around 25 degrees and the humidity rather low. I was totally mesmerized by the park and its diversity.
The park was a treasure house for nature and wildlife lovers. Different kinds of trees, birds, animals, insects, smallest orchids in the world, endangered orchids, heartbreak leaves, laughing mushroom, red ginger, contraceptive plant, mickey mouse plant, tallest moss in the world, prey trapping pitcher plants and what not. The park had plants of all kinds - rare, native, and endemic.
My guide added that Mt. Kinabalu was considered sacred by the local Dusun people, who named it ‘Akinabalu’ (the place of the dead), as they believed it to be the place where the souls of the departed gathered. Visitors are told not to carry anything from the mountain as it brings bad luck to the person. I was so engrossed in her conversation that I lost track of time and didn’t notice when my guided tour ended.
Adrenaline Pumping Canopy Walk
During my guided tour in the park, an Australian couple suggested to visit the Canopy Walk of the Poring Hotsprings. I had not planned anything after my park visit so it sounded like a good idea. And I was lucky to find my hostel mate strolling in the park too. It didn’t take me much time to convince him to join me on that spur-of-the-moment decision.
While we were waiting for the bus, two Europeans enquired us about the park. They had their own car but no plan. Anyway I did not waste my time thinking about them. After waiting for around 20 minutes we got a bus going to Sandakan. We alighted at the forked road from where we had to fetch another transport vehicle to take to our destination. There was no public transport in sight going to Poring Hot springs.
We were under the impression that from that point our destination would be 1-2 kms away so we started walking. But as soon as we saw the direction sign saying 15 kms we were taken aback. Now the face which was glowing with the excitement of seeing a new place had turned pale with a bit of worry. After lot of failed attempts we finally got a hitch in a local commercial purpose van. There was another guy sitting in the van. After bargaining for a while we decided to pay him 10R per person to take us to our destination. When the driver drove into smaller deserted kind of area we got bit worried. But thankfully my imagination’s wild horses were put to rest.
With just 10 minutes for the CANOPY WALK to close we reached the Poring Hot springs at 3:50. You need 20 minutes and a good stamina to climb up slippery mud track, traversing through tree stubs, roots and boulders to reach the Canopy Walk Treetop platform. But hard-pressed for time we took less than 10 minutes. I was huffing and puffing like I ran a marathon. However, the fatigue just vanished as soon as I stood in the middle of the Canopy Walkway. Let me warn you beforehand. Poring Canopy Walkway is not for those who have acrophobia, hypertension or heart problem.
The canopy is over 175 Meters long and 41-43 Meters in height, which is higher than 8-floor building. It is a suspension bridge constructed with ropes, steel cables and a series of aluminum ladders bolted together. The walkway is an elastic suspended wobbling structure, so it will bounce and swing when you walk on it. But don’t worry it has net enclosed on both sides for additional security.
The three bridges are held between 3 super-big trees of the Borneo rainforest. The canopy walkway is narrow and can only take 6-people load at a time. 75% of rainforest animals spend their time on forest canopy. Some of them never come to ground, so canopy walkway is great for observing these animals and is a good spot for bird watching too. The view of the valley from the canopy was too scary but an adventure junkie never frets. We spent some time exploring the rest of the area like Butter Fly Farm, butterfly farm, the Poring Orchid Conservation Centre, the tropical garden, the Rafflesia flower site and Sulphur Hot springs for which the place is renowned.
After the canopy walk I thought I got my adrenaline dose for the day. Little did I know that the real adventure was about to begin.
Return Ride fastened with unthinkable Adventure
At around 5 pm we were out of the Poring hotsprings and thus started our struggle for fetching the transport to get back to Kota Kinabalu. Ranau is a small place with hardly any public transport. So while we were waiting for the taxi, the European guys that we met at Mt. Kinabalu Park arrived. They indulged in a small talk with us and asked if we could wait for them then they can drop us back or we could also join them for party. The over-friendliness of the guys sent an alarming signal in my head. So very politely we decided to give it a pass. Later we regretted for not accepting their offer.
Now we were left with only one option – an old guy offering us to drop to Ranau (the nearby town to get a bus) at triple the price of a taxi fare. I felt the guy was drunk and shared my concern with Yu. Yu thought I was unnecessarily getting paranoid and he dismissed my concern saying he was just an old guy. Anyway we were now in his car. His car was a truck used for farming purpose. It was dingy with soiled eats and a foul smell. One of the windows was broken and there was no air-conditioning. And the worst part- he didn’t have the ignition key to start the car. Somehow he managed to start the car. And boy his driving scared the shit out of us. Even Michael Schumacher would be scared to be his co-passenger.
Basically we were in for an adventure ride of our life. The old man was pissed drunk and was constantly chattering nonsense. I decided to ignore him. After driving for 15 minutes at insane rough speed, in the middle of the road he stopped the car and said,
Mam, this is my house and I have a magic plant that cures cancer. If you don’t mind I would like to show you that.
I was already mad at him and I just asked him to stick to our original plan. On the way he said, we had missed the minivan and he would charge us extra to take us to the town centre. My harsh reply dispelled his attempt to exhort more money out of us. Finally we reached Ranau and he stopped the car at a very quiet place and went away somewhere without telling us where he was going.
We got down from the car and Yu went ahead to enquire from the locals about the transportation options. In Yu’s absence the drunk old man returned and started saying you pay me 300R and I’ll drop you to Kota Kinabalu. While talking he tried to get physical. I blasted him and warned him not to touch me or come near me. After paying his fare I went straight to the police guys. One look at the old guy and they said we were lucky to reach alive as the guy was piss drunk and not in his senses.
We were in a really bad state. It was Sunday evening and there was no transport service available to take us to Kota Kinabalu. We were told that at 7:30 pm there could be a bus going to KK but they were not sure if that service was available on weekends. It had got dark and was raining hard. We were tired. Frustrated. Hungry. Wet.
Above all we didn’t know what to do. Our phones were not working. Our folks didn’t have a clue where we were. We knew nobody in this sleepy ghost town. No eateries or hotels in sight. Didn’t have enough cash or card in hand. We had no choice but to return to KK as we would missed our next day flight to Manila if we didn’t return that night. My excitement to explore the unexplored was proving costly today.
Shivering in the cold night weighed down by the weight of by backpack we waited silently for our bus to arrive. At 7:30 pm a bus arrived at the bus stop and our faces glowed with unsurmountable happiness only to find that it was a College trip bus and the kids had just stopped over to buy their fill of snacks. We pleaded the students and the driver to give us lift till wherever they were going. We played the sympathy card and asked if we could sit on the bus floor. Basically we did everything to convince them. However, the kids and the driver didn’t have the authority to take such decision.
We had lost all hope to get back to Kota Kinabalu that night but it is when you lose all your hope that miracles do happen. We saw a bus approaching towards us. It had Kota Kinabalu written over it. Without much ado we got into the bus and thanked our stars for saving us that day. Never ever have I felt so much happiness at the sight of public transport as I did that night.
We survived one more night to enjoy more adventurous rides in life.
However, I learnt a valuable lesson that day. Follow your gut but be sensible enough to look into details. Sometimes being impulsive can get you into big trouble.