Beyond the blue

Beyond the blue

Beyond the blue
It was already November and I was yet to find a destination for the December holidays. Malasyia was within reach, and upon reading further, it seemed like Sabah in northern Borneo was best suited to my interests, with a perfect mix of mountain, sea and jungle. Home to one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, some of the smallest mammals, the largest flower and the best dive sites on the planet, Borneo is the world’s third biggest island. This large island is shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and the two Malaysian provinces of Sarawak and Sabah.

A tough climb
It was an adventure right from the start. With a friend, I flew to Kuala Lumpur, but due to a delay, we almost missed our connecting flight to Borneo. We got a couple of days to catch our breath in Brunei and headed straight to the Kinabalu National Park. As we climbed higher, the air got cooler and suddenly, the curtain of clouds opened up revealing a pinkish grey wall of stone — the majestic Mount Kinabalu – the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea, and also the abode of the locally-revered spirit of Nabalu.

After a night at a cosy mountain lodge, I was ready for the two-day, 8.5 km ascent to the summit, starting at Timpohon Gate. We climbed through a beautiful rainforest in glorious weather. The thick, green canopy protected us from the sun. The trail smelt of sweet wild orchids as we walked past yellow, red and pink rhododendrons in bloom. At every kilometre, there was a shelter where little squirrels scurried about hoping to steal a snack. At one such shelter, while having lunch, I spotted a giant Kinabalu leech, at least 40 cm long. I shuddered at the thought of being bitten by it.
The greatest part of this trek is the changing landscape; at the end of the first stretch, the ground got rocky, the trees shorter, and the vegetation more scrub-like. The rest house at Laban Rata, at an altitude of 3200 m, has dormitories, a big dining area and a balcony. We were above a sea of clouds painted pinkish orange by the sun setting behind them. An early dinner buffet opens at 4 pm and after a hearty meal, several cups of tea and a few board games with fellow hikers, I called it a night, only to be up again at 2.30 am for ‘supper’.

Equipped with head torches and warm clothes, we made our way up an endless flight of stairs. We soon crossed the treeline to reach a sheer granite rock face alternating between steep ascents facilitated by ropes and a steady slope that seemed to continue forever in the freezing wind under the full moon. At 5.30 am, I finally reached the base of Low’s peak when I saw an orange streak light up the horizon. I felt a burst of energy and scrambled up the peak on all fours to touch the 4095.2 m tip of this incredible mountain.

As the sun rose in the east, the yellow moon hung above another peak in the west. Standing in the middle, I savoured this precious moment as the trail I had traversed was slowly uncovered by the rising sun. Several peaks stood tall in all directions and soon the moon disappeared.

The climb down the endless steps was hard on the knees but the feeling of accomplishment kept me going. After breakfast at the rest house and lunch at the base, I met my friend at the lodge, picked up our bags and hitched a ride to Kota Kinabalu. The next day, to get rid of the stiffness, we decided to go on a walking tour of the Kinabalu Park and visit a garden near Poring Hot Spring, where we were lucky to see the world’s biggest flower —the Rafflesia — in its 76 cm glory.

It was now time to head to the sea where I was excited to dive in some of the best islands in the world. Staying on Mabul Island, 45 minutes from Semporna in the east, I did three dives in Mabul and nearby Kapalai, where I saw a huge green turtle, a gigantic Moray eel which the locals call Elvis, several colourful parrotfish, big groupers and the extraordinarily rich microlife, including multicoloured nudibranchs. The sandy bed under our cottage was littered with urchins and starfish. It was relaxing to walk through the village and sink my feet in the pure white sand.

The next day, with a group of divers and all our equipment in our boat, we went to Sipadan Island, one of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s favourite spots. This secluded spot in the Celebes Sea is devoid of hotels for the sake of marine conservation. Thanks to this, I got to experience the exhilaration of diving with grey reef sharks, white tip sharks as well as critically endangered hawksbill turtles. It was amazing to see healthy corals and swim right in the middle of a school of metre-long  bumphead parrotfish and hundreds of friendly jackfish.

This leg of my trip ended with an island-hopping excursion to Bohey Dulang, where I encountered nomadic Bajau sea gypsies in their boathouses or stilted cottages. The 300 m walk up this island offers a spectacular view of a circular coral reef fringe, which is actually a sea-filled volcanic crater. This was followed by excellent snorkelling in paradisiacal Mantabuan and Sibuan islands, all part of the Tun Sakaran Marine Park.

Into the mighty jungle
The last part of our Sabahan sojourn focused on wildlife. We drove from Lahad Datu to the Danum Valley Field Centre, which is located in a 130-million-year-old rainforest. Even as we entered the forest, we saw wild boars, a cobra, long-tailed macaques, and a lot of pygmy elephant dung. Borneo has an unbelievable biodiversity. Here the mammals are diminutive and the insects are huge. With our guide Bong and our group comprising an Australian and a English family of five, we were ready to explore the jungle over three days.

On our many walks and drives during the day and at night, we experienced the magic of this marvellous rainforest. On our first walk to a 400-year-old Dusun tribe burial site, we were extremely fortunate to cross paths with a female orangutan and her baby. We also saw shy red leaf monkeys, oriental pied and rhinoceros hornbills, a pit viper and several birds. The night walk was a unique experience with beady spider eyes shining like diamonds under our torch lights.

The sky lit up with a billion stars and as I walked back alone to my room, a kilometre away in the pitch dark, what looked like a leopard cat stared at me, followed by other unrecognisable felines and deer. 

The trip ended in Sandakan from where one can visit an orangutan centre in Sepilok and a proboscis monkey centre in Labuk Bay. We went to the latter and got close to these unique creatures in their mangrove habitat. My trip to Borneo was an absolute success, thanks to the cooperative weather and the kindness and generosity of the smiling Sabahans.

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