The Land Below the Wind

“In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds” –  Robert Green Ingersoll

Low's Peak. Mount Kinabalu. Sabah, Borneo

Low’s Peak. Mount Kinabalu. Sabah, Borneo

It was with surprise and great sadness that I learnt of the earthquake in Borneo last weekend, which struck Mount Kinabalu and took the lives of several guides and climbers.

It was surprising not least because major earthquakes in that part of the world are relatively rare, the last one having been well over a century ago. But also because while Kinabalu may be a 4000 metre giant that cuts an imposing figure over Sabah, it emits an ethereal serenity and is generally considered a relatively “gentle” mountain.

The ascent takes two days, and is mostly a tough hike, rather than an actual climb. It is rarely snowy, although wind, rain and fog are common and can cause difficulties. The trails are clearly marked, and the number of climbers allowed onto the mountainside daily is carefully restricted and closely monitored. There is one large refuge, Laban Rata, at 3000 metres, where you spend the night before setting off for an early morning summit ascent. There’s no need to carry huge amounts of kit and climbing without an experienced local guide is prohibited.

When I first looked into visiting Borneo I hadn’t anticipated an ascent on a peak as high as Mont Blanc. I’d been fascinated by the rainforest since a school geography project. I’ll never forget the annual rainfall graph we had to draw, which, for the purposes of comparison, needed to be plotted on the same scale as the rainfall graphs for places with other, drier climates. The thing was about six feet long, sellotaped into my exercise book and had to be folded up like an accordion that would unravel itself every time I turned the page. The textbook had black and white, grainy photos of a longhouse; the fact that it was built on stilts to prevent flood damage and had pigs and chickens living under it (could they swim? I hoped so) fascinated me. I tried to picture the “slash and burn” method of cultivation in a place where the vegetation grew so thick and fast it engulfed everything that came near it.  Not to mention the wild and woolly fauna: bats and butterflies, hornbills, weird proboscis monkeys and great big orange hairy orang utan. It was a world away from the life I knew, and so much more fascinating than anything Walt Disney could dream up.

Years later, I decided to take myself there as a 30th birthday present to myself. In planning my trip I realised that, as well as travelling by long, low canoes on rippling rivers, sleeping in a longhouse and passing the time spotting every type of monkey you can imagine, I could hike up a 4000 metre mountain and watch the sun rise over Borneo. And what’s more, I would reach the summit and see that sunrise on the very day I turned 30. Celebrating 30 years on the planet with a bird’s eye view over lush, green rainforest as far as the eye could see. Perfect.

The start of the Mesilau Trail

The start of the Mesilau Trail

The ascent was hard work. There are two trails – the “Summit” trail, and the “Mesilau” trail. I took the latter, which was the more technical, varied and challenging of the two. It was a hot day and I lost count of the amount of times I re-filled and glugged down the contents of my water bottle. I was trekking with lovely people. We encouraged and coaxed each other along when one or other of us was flagging in the heat, and all I thought about on the way up was seeing that sunrise.

The sight of Laban Rata, hoving into view above us was more than welcome. The atmosphere in the refuge is one of such excitement and relief. Tired, hot, altitude-worn bodies are rested, and the warm, spicy smell of red Tiger Balm pervades the dormitories (in Asia, Tiger Balm is generally considered the cure for everything from a broken leg to altitude sickness). The copious dinner is wolfed down at high speed, yet so very much appreciated. After all, as you climb, you’re overtaken 100 times over by locals carrying the supplies up the mountain to stock the kitchen at Laban Rata. The guy with stacks and stacks of eggs on his back in particular had my enormous respect. These dedicated (super-fit) souls devote their lives to feeding hungry mountain-worshipers.

And worship it is. Kinabalu is a sacred mountain, believed to be the home of departed souls. It is guarded by spirits – the Aki – who are deeply revered and respected. The magic of climbing to the summit in dark, cold silence, before watching the sun gradually rise and lift the veil of darkness to reveal those breathtaking views as far as the eye can see, simply can’t be put into words. It’s no wonder the local people have such a deep respect for this mountain, and its spirit keepers.

I was so sad to hear that the first casualty of the earthquake was identified as the son of Soppingi, our twinkly-eyed, smiling local guide. Soppingi is an exceptionally kind, gentle soul, who encouraged us to keep going, slowly slowly (jalan jalan, perlahan perlahan), to absorb every moment of our time in that exceptional place, and not to underestimate the physical undertaking we were about to embark on. In the time we spent together before our ascent, Soppingi and his friends and family offered immense hospitality (including some pretty potent rice wine – although not before some had been offered to the spirits), sang and played guitars, fed us, and partied happily with us until late into the night, as if we’d been friends for years. They showed a generosity of spirit that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere.


Soppingi, our twinkly-eyed local guide

This mountain and its people hold a very dear place in my heart. They gave me the experience of a lifetime, far outside my comfort zone, which I will treasure for always, and which will continue to inspire me for years to come. Their tragedy feels, in a small way, like my tragedy, and my thoughts are with them as they begin to come to terms with the events, and rebuild their lives and, jalan jalan perlahan perlahan, the paths back up to the summit.


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