It was a farfetched plan of mine to do a “land to sea adventure” for our recess week where we would climb Mount Kinabalu (4,095m high, the highest mountain in the Malay archipelago and one of the highest in Southeast Asia) and then go diving or snorkelling in Sabah. I’m so, so happy that my plan actually came to fruition. It has been an AMAZING week!
Before recess week I had a couple of mid-terms to finish and I found it almost impossible to concentrate for all my excitement! I was so happy when we finally set off on our adventure. We flew from Johor (flights are often cheaper from Johor than Singapore) and ended up spending the night in the airport. Thankfully we lucked out and got 4 squishy seats in a completely abandoned corner of the teeny-tiny airport in which to attempt to get some sleep (I didn’t manage very well…).
We eventually arrived in Kota Kinabalu and spent a few hours wandering around to get a feel for the city. It’s pretty quaint, I actually really liked the vibe. It was very laid-back and quiet. Having said that, we couldn’t turn a corner without being near enough physically assaulted by people trying to sell you goods and services =P. It works out ok if you keep your head down and make it very clear you’re not interested.
We decided to stay the night at the foot of the mountain (in a hostel) so we didn’t have to take the 2 hour bus the morning of the climb. This turned out to be a very good decision! We stayed at a place called Mountain Resthouse and it was pretty amazing as far as hostels go. It was built into a slope and consisted of lots of little tin-roofed hut-like buildings. The owner (and her 2 very young children) were really lovely, and we just so happened to meet a mountain guide at the hostel. He asked if we would request him as our guide and, having assured ourselves we weren’t getting scammed (seeing as all the guides are registered and regulated) we went for it. I’m very glad we did, our guide was fantastic. His english was brilliant, he was very friendly, and he was more than happy to provide encouragement and support when the going got tough.
The morning of the climb consisted of attempts to make our bags as light as possible, and I failed pretty miserably =P. We started the climb around 9:30am and for most of the first day the climb consisted of lots of very, very steep steps. The start of the climb was pretty much a jungle trek. It was quite humid, very green, enclosed and dense. There were lots of checkpoints on the way up which we used to take short breaks.
As we got further up the mountain, the scenery pretty suddenly became sparse. The trees opened up and you could see mountains all around for miles and miles. The change in scenery was so dramatic that it almost felt like we had stumbled upon a desert. There was a lot of clay and the landscape was very arid and barren. It was just about as beautiful as the jungle at the start!
We reached our end-goal for day 1 sometime around 3pm and were welcomed with a buffet lunch. The time passed pretty quickly before we decided to get some sleep in preparation for the second day. The way most people do the climb is to leave at about 2:30am so that you can see the sunrise from the summit. I was absolutely determined to get up there in time so we tried to make good time.
After a buffet breakfast, we set out with coats, hats, gloves and headlamps (at 2am the temperature had dropped quite considerably). This was one of the craziest moments of the week; setting out in the middle of the night to climb to the top of a mountain. Also, from this point the climb was pretty much all rope work. You actually have to pull yourself up for a lot of it, and it really pays not to look down =P. Having said that, it can be pretty cool to look down and see a trail of headlamps all the way down to the lodge. The group of us left a little later than most (around 2:45am) after our guide had given us some advice, so the 2 of us who had a bit more energy did some overtaking on the steps at the start of the climb in the hope of reaching the summit for sunrise.
After we did a lot of the intense rope work, we reached a large flat expanse where although there was rope you really didn’t have to use it. At this point we got hit with altitude sickness pretty hard. Neither of us felt physically sick but we were having a real tough time keeping our breathing steady and we started to tire very quickly. We actually would end up doing 3 big steps and getting so out of breath that we would have to stop, it was really really strange (I’ve never experienced altitude sickness before). So we decided to slow to an absolute snails pace which made things much easier.
There was a bit of a tough climb at the very end to the summit but WE MADE IT! We arrived at the top with just about 10 minutes to spare before sunrise. We were really lucky actually, there were only about 30 people or so at the top in time to see it. It was the most spectacular sight. I’ve attached some photos but my camera really couldn’t do it justice. If you ever get a chance to do something like this, I’d really really recommend it, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that morning!
We ended up spending about an hour at the top just watching the day begin, but we ended up getting really, really cold! We waited around for the last of our group to reach the top but ended up having to leave just before she arrived because we were so cold (hiding in amongst big rocks to block ourselves from the wind only got us so far =P). The first part of the descent was actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole climb because of the views. They were really spectacular. It was only at that point that I realised really how isolated we were. All you could see around you were mountains everywhere! It was incredible.
We got another buffet meal at Laban Rata before finishing the last part of the descent. By this point we were all absolutely exhausted! The others were having some issues with their legs and their knees were starting to act up from the descent. The only problem I was having was with tiredness. At the altitude we were at, I really struggled to sleep the previous night and so I felt like a bit of a walking zombie for the last part of the descent. We slowed down quite a bit for the descent to make sure no one ended up injuring themselves. We all actually had occasions where we were so tired that we would take steps we thought we could handle and would end up falling all over the place =P. As a group we looked pretty ridiculous, uncoordinated and ungraceful =P.
Having said that, we had sooo much fun doing the climb. I noticed that we seemed to be the only group actually talking amongst themselves. We were having an absolute laugh riot the whole way, it was actually really fun just to have hours and hours to talk. Our conversation became (as did we) a little delirious towards the end but that ended up making everything even funnier =P.
We also ended up talking about the porters a lot. You see these guys and girls going up and down the mountain all day long at really intense speeds, carrying really heavy bags and boxes! We pondered what life would be like as a porter and ended up in typically lawyerly debates about happiness, necessity, freedoms and life =P.
When we finally reached the end of the descent I was so very, very happy. The whole experience was incredible and I loved it, but the last part of the descent was definitely tough going (mentally). We split into 2 groups of 2 for the last part and the 2 of us who were out in front ended up leaving notes for the others at the checkpoints. We considered leaving a poncho for our friend when the rain started, but decided that someone else would probably get to it before she did =P.
Once we all had a good long sit, we made our way to the bus that would take us back to Kota Kinabalu and back to reality. It was an incredible experience climbing the mountain and I keep looking back at the pictures wondering whether it really happened! It was incredible.
Despite feeling pretty tired and tender, we all forced ourselves to wake up early the next morning to go diving. Unfortunately everywhere was booked up so we opted for some snorkelling instead. This ended up being an absolutely amazing day!
We took a ferry to Sapi island which is just 10 minutes from Kota Kinabalu and spent the day at the beach. Having hired snorkels and flippers we could pretty much just help ourselves to all the wonders of the sea, as opposed to having to get training etc. It was really relaxed and really fun. The coral reefs at the island were actually incredible! We were all pretty nervous about encountering jellyfish and so would frequently freak out at seaweed…and then proceed to laugh hysterically at each other…then inevitably going on to do the same thing ourselves =P.
It probably sounds pretty stupid, but I had always wondered whether coral reefs REALLY looked like what you see in the pictures…and they REALLY do! It was incredible, so much diversity and colour. The fish were amazing, and they were everywhere. They weren’t afraid of us humans either =P they’d often just swim straight for our faces, or just happily let us join their school on little journeys =P.
Having had a fantastically therapeutic day, I thought it would be a great idea to get some massages to help our aching legs. The group of us spent the day hobbling around looking either decrepit or just very odd =P. We took so, so long to get up and down steps it was unreal. The massage turned out to be a very good idea!
We had come across a small mall full of massage parlours (there was literally nothing else) the day before, and so we decided to casually walk in pretending like we weren’t looking for massages (to try and get a better price). We’re all pretty used to the haggling culture now…as uncomfortable as it was to start with, we now just try and treat it like a game =P. We ended up getting hour long full body massages for 65RM each (around S$24 or £12). It was pretty funny, we asked to look inside every parlour and as soon as we came across ‘Sense of Borneo’ we unanimously agreed this was the one (despite the fact that it was the same price and looked similar to all the others). We later asked each other why we went for it and found out we were all sold as soon as we heard a little fountain in the massage rooms, we all loved the sound of running water (it’s the little things =P).
Afterwards we came out feeling very relaxed and were immediately jumped on by people from other massage parlours (we almost got tempted to go straight back in for another one =P). Instead, we decided to go outside to have dinner by the pier. We found an amazing Italian restaurant (yes, we cheated) and got seats right by the water. The meal was amazing and we had a really good laugh…turns out we all have fairly similar senses of humour and we just couldn’t stop =P.
The Last Day
We had one final day in Kota Kinabalu before heading home and we decided to go to the Mari Mari Cultural Village. I assumed it was genuine but on doing some research we found the village was more like an interactive museum. Knowing that’s what it would be like, we just adjusted our expectations and ended up being pleasantly surprised.
No doubt, it was very cheesy at points, but the surrounding area was amazing and all the huts were really interesting. It was nice to soak up a little culture and there was a really great performance at the end (with a very skilled percussionist).
Our journey back to Singapore, while not exciting, is one of the best stories of the week. We were incredibly lucky! Our flight from Kota Kinabalu was about an hour late. We were panicking in the airport as the board told us it was the final call, but there were no planes in flight and no AirAsia staff to help us. Thankfully we found out everyone else was in the same boat, and apparently every single flight ends up being like this, so we weren’t alone. When we arrived, we realised we were going to have to move pretty quickly to get our shuttle bus in time. We ran through the airport, grabbed our bags and got on the bus with a few minutes to spare (the last bus). The bus dropped us off at the Malaysian border and we had to board a separate bus to the Singapore border. We got very lost inside the Malaysian CIQ building (despite some of us having been there 3 times before) and ended up running to our bus. We boarded and it left under a minute (this being the last bus again). When we arrived at the Singapore border, we knew we had to be quick. We found our way to the bus and actually heard the conductor call “last bus” when we were quite a while away. I full on sprinted, but had to overshoot the bus by quite a way because of a tangle of banisters. I got to the bus just in time and held it for the others…this was a very funny moment…one of my friends decided (with 2 massive bags on her back) to hike over the 8 or so banisters, and ended up nearly getting stuck right in the middle =P. We pretty much laughed the whole way to the MRT station where we were getting dropped off. At this point it was about 11:20pm (the last MRT starts around 11pm and finishes around 12pm in Singapore)…again, we knew we had to be quick. We got to the final train with 2 minutes to spare and started to worry because we remembered there was an interchange where we had to get off. When we arrived, we realised our next train was straight in front of us on the same platform. As we arrived, the doors of the other train were open already, so we literally had to full-on sprint as soon as our doors opened…we all squeezed in the other train just as the doors were closing…We laughed the journey away talking about how lucky we were and finally got home! I never thought I’d be so happy to see U-Town!
Recess week was amazing, but now I need to get down to work. I have a mid-term due on Tuesday (3 days time) and a take-home exam on Friday. I’ve done as much work as I can (accounting for a 5 day holiday) but I’ve still got a lot to do. Once that’s out the way, I’m going to have tonnes of free time (I can’t wait). We have an e-learning week in week 8 (no actual classes) and I’m planning to do more touristy things around Singapore. I feel like I haven’t done all that much since the start of my exchange. For now, I’m going to have to get down to work…well, I’ll start tomorrow =P