Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Miri and the Mighty Mulu

So because I am a smartraveller(.com.au), I heeded the Australian government DFAT’s warnings to ’Do Not Travel’ anywhere in the East of Sabah given the situation with Filipino rebels apparently hiding out in the jungle and the Sabah officials blocking roads and closing areas off, etc. Makes for difficult travel anyway, not to mention it would really ruin your trip to get shot or bombed…

Instead of exploring Sandakan, the sea turtle reserve, the Gomantang caves and diving down in Sipadan, I ended up in Sarawak sooner than I might have otherwise. There was a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Miri, but speaking to another traveller there are about 4 border crossings into and out of Brunei on this bus (see map).

Map-Sarawak

The trip was meant to take 10 hours anyway (so to convert south east Asia time to regular time, probably add 2-4 hours), and only left in the morning at 8am- there was no overnight option. I checked flights and the cost was the same as the bus, but took 50 minutes- DEAL! I love Air Asia! I did have to pay a bit more in the end to add luggage and get an early cab to the airport, but I saved a whole day for about AU$20.

Plane to Miri

So I got into Miri around 9am, and decided since I’d cabbed in to the airport in KK, I should be thrifty and bus into town. Seemed like a good idea, til I had to wait almost an hour for a bus to show up. 5 more minutes and I think I would’ve cracked and got a cab. Which probably wouldn’t have been such a bad thing given my following experience! The bus cost RM2.60 (less than AU$1), and dropped me at the bus station in town.

Miri bus station

By this stage it had started raining. Luckily the bus station was located right next to the Info Centre, as I don’t have a guidebook for this part of my trip. I went in, got a map and some brochures and asked a few questions about visiting the famous Gunung Mulu National Park– a World Heritage famous for its expansive network of caves, unique rock formations and mountains as well as being a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ and having many species of plants and wildlife. Most of the stuff I had read seemed to indicate you needed to book in advance from Miri, and it would be easiest and most economical to book a package, however the guy at the Info Centre told me the complete opposite and said ‘Just do it yourself, just book your flights and book your activities and accommodation through park headquarters when you get there’. Oooook, got it.

the king's chamber- Wind Cave  Wild rhododendrons

Armed with my brochures and map, I hit the streets of Miri to find a guesthouse. Mind you, I was also carrying my big pack, backpack and an umbrella because of the rain, so kind of stood out. On my way out of the Info Centre I managed to drop my umbrella case (cue slow mo bend to the ground with full pack and quick hoist once object retrieved) and then my map (repeat slow mo bend and hoist) before I even got to the street. When I did get to the street I had to cross the road to get to a footpath, and then when I got to the first intersection about a block down, I realised I had gone the wrong direction. About turn, and back to the info centre for take two. This time I went the correct direction. It was so hot and humid because of the rain, even though it was only 10am in the morning, and I could feel the beads of sweat starting to drip down my face. By the time I made it to the guesthouse I’d looked up, I was saturated head to toe from hauling all my gear across town. It took me a good half hour I reckon (including my wayward initial expedition) and the info centre guy had told me 10-15 minutes. Clearly that was if you knew where you were going, didn’t have a lot to carry, were a confident kamikaze road-crosser and didn’t get disconcerted by the sudden disappearance of footpaths and finding yourself walking the line on busy urban roads.

Anyway, I must have looked such a mess, the moment I got up the stairs to reception thinking ‘dear god, please let them have a bed for me!’ and gasped out something along those lines to the man behind the counter, he said ‘Don’t worry, we can do this later! Come with me…’, grabbed me a towel, took me straight to a free dorm and pointed out the shower! Once I was freshened up I went back down to thank Willie and sort out the cash. He was incredibly helpful, and is from Mulu so recommended me a place to stay and gave me the number to book it, and also told me I can sort out bookings at Park HQ when I arrive and find a group. Great!

I spent the day wandering around Miri (much easier now that I was oriented) but there was not a great deal to see. Miri seems to be more of a gateway town to several surrounding national parks, beaches and dive spots. The star attraction is an old oil rig called ‘The Grand Old Lady’ where oil was first struck in Miri, and now they have built up a petroleum museum around it. As fascinating as that sounded, it was a little way out of town and only accessible by cab, so I didn’t go out there. I decided to walk out to see the ‘Miri City Fan’. I have no idea why it is called that, I was semi-expecting a giant statue of a fan of some description but alas, from what I could gather it is just a big park which houses the library and a public swimming pool (closed on Mondays, damn). Quite picturesque though I must say.

Chinese Garden  Islamic Garden

There is an Islamic Garden, a Chinese Garden, a ‘Visual Garden’ (which weirdly appeared to consist of much more pavement than garden) and there was meant to be a musical fountain which sounded like it could quite possibly be the highlight of my day, but unfortunately it was being cleaned when I came by and wasn’t in use. The place was almost completely deserted aside from about 3 maintenance staff and one couple with a small child in the playground. As I left the park I passed a fabulous sign prohibiting ice-skating in the city fan, although I’d salute anyone who actually managed to do that considering I was cracking a sweat standing still in the shade to take a photo of it…

Miri city fan

In the afternoon I tried to book my flights to Mulu and hit my first snag- I need a netcode SMS to put a visa transaction through with Malaysia airlines, but have no phone service! Before I left Melbourne I asked the bank for a token (kind of like a pager thing which generates the codes for you if you need a netcode) but was told it would probably be an inconvenience for me if I only wanted it on the off chance that I needed to make a third-party payment as I would need it for every netbank log in I made. So I didn’t get one as she said if I needed to I could just call the bank and get a half hour exemption which sounded simple enough. So next was a call to the bank and after being on hold for half an hour was told it was a visa thing and had nothing to do with the bank. Awesome, thanks bank lady. So then I phoned Malaysia Airlines to book instead, after another 45 minutes I had finally got flights, but the transaction couldn’t be processed over the phone because my flights were in less than 24 hours so instead I had to pay in person at the airport before 8am. Phew. Next I tried to book my accom- I called the number that Willie gave me and 4 other numbers on the info sheet from the tourist centre, but not one answer! Willie ended up calling his mate for me and got me a room, bless him!

Following on from the wonderful time I had just trying to get to Mulu, organising things once there went along very similar lines. So, from my experience and that of others, here’s some Tips for solo travellers wanting to explore Mulu!

MAS wings to Mulu

1.       FLY! If you want to come in by boat, it is likely to cost you. This used to be the only way in other than hiking the Headhunter’s trail and is meant to be quite scenic, however I met a Swedish guy just after I arrived who had done this and was broke because of it. He ended up having to get cash out in Mulu (not fun, see below) just to pay for food/accom etc, and then couldn’t really afford to do anything much so was leaving after a couple of days. With regular flights now running to Mulu, this path is much less travelled meaning you may end up having to charter boats to take you, and because you are stuck if they don’t take you, they can charge you whatever they like! You have to make several different connections too. The flights only take half an hour, you’re barely up in the air before they are preparing for landing! They run even if the flights are scarcely full- there were 15 people max on my flight there. And even though we didn’t board til after our scheduled departure time, we were only 15 minutes late because getting everyone on and off didn’t take long at all! Mulu airport is great too, only two minutes drive from the park. The highlight was the baggage claim which is literally just a bench where you go up and get your bag!

Mulu baggage claim

2.       If you don’t have unlimited time to hang around and wait for opportunities to come up, PLAN AHEAD if possible! Despite everyone in Miri saying not to worry, Park HQ recommend you book at least 1 month ahead of time! For many travellers this isn’t realistic, but a call or email ahead of your arrival to see what treks/ activities are running when and their availability would help you plan when to schedule your trip. Flights are cheaper if you book in advance too. Could have saved me a hell of a lot of frustration on my first day! I checked into River Lodge and then went straight over to Park HQ to sort out my activities. When I said that I would like to do the Pinnacles trek, they said there are no groups going until Friday, but my flight out was booked for Saturday so that was not an option for me (to change flights you have to go out to the airport, and even then, the office may or may not be open, let alone the extra cost associated). My options were: 1) find some people who wanted to do it with me (and then find a guide to take us as Park HQ apparently had none available), 2) find a guide and fork out to do it by myself (which means paying the equivalent of 3 people which is the usual minimum group size) or 3) not do it and try and do something else for those 3 days. There was not a heap else I wanted to do other than the Pinnacles however (aside from the Headhunter’s Trail or Gunung Mulu summit trek both of which didn’t fit into my timeframe this visit) and the adventure caving you have the same problem of needing a group to do it with.

Batu  Longhouse  the rainforest

3.       COME IN THE PEAK SEASON! The dry(er) season is July-September apparently. I assumed it would be similar to Mt Kinabalu where now (March-April) is the best time for climbing and the park is nice and busy, but that is not the case. It’s relatively quiet at the moment (only 3-4 beds out of 20 were taken in my dorm!!), so there are not a heap of people around and hence it can be difficult/ very expensive/ not possible to do the activities you want to do if you are on your own as mentioned above. I’m assuming there would be more treks running and more people to link up with in peak season. Despite me proactively approaching randoms in the park café, asking the people at my accom and hovering at park HQ to ask newcomers of the latest flight if they want to trek with me, no one was keen. The Park people kept asking me ‘Why you come on your own and don’t bring any friends?’ Way to make me feel like more of a reject loner than I already did! ‘Next time you bring some friend, better for you’… soooo any takers? I’ll be back one day, but will begin by recruit willing participants, so start sending me your expressions of interest 😉 Anyway, all this time spent trying to get on this trek strangely made me more, not less, determined to do it and I made the decision I’d pay up and not have to leave disappointed (I would however have to live on a more frugal allowance for some time after!)

Sunkai Melinau Pitcher plants

4.       Which brings me to the next tip: BRING LOADS OF CASH. More than what you think you’ll need. Mulu is expensive (in relative terms for Malaysia). Accom is about twice the price of the cities, as is food. Water is at least 3 times the price (and boy do you need it!). There are no ATMs in Mulu. Getting cash out is possible, but will cost you. Park HQ apparently sometimes do cash out from credit cards with a 2% surcharge, but they said they didn’t have any cash at HQ (hmmm, don’t know how exactly that works since I did see many people coming and paying for their activities… and did I not just give you 85 ringitts earlier?!). Anyway, once I’d decided to bite the bullet and do the pinnacles on my own, I needed cash as you can’t pay a freelance guide by credit. My only option was to go to Royal Mulu Resort to get money off my credit card for 10% commission plus a 20 ringitt fee, not to mention the cash advance and international transaction fees I’ll get smacked with by the bank! It cost me RM10 for the return trip there and back on top of that!! It turned out it was close enough I could’ve walked except I didn’t have a map so didn’t know where it was. Silly. Maybe add that to the list… get a map…

Butterfly and pagoda flower

5.       BE FRIENDLY! Everyone knows everyone in Mulu, so be nice and people will try to help you out. One of the guys, Macleans, from Park HQ must have seen me come in and out of the office about 16 times that first day and asked me if I was really sure I wanted to do the pinnacles on my own and when I said, ‘Yes! I reeeaaaally want to do it!’ he said he’d help me find a freelance guide. He found a guide and got him to meet me at 7pm in the torrential rain after I came back from visiting some caves, and we locked in a trip leaving the following morning. I handed over a massive wad of cash and hoped he would be there!  My guide’s name was Undi, and he was awesome. When people around town (everyone seemed to know about my dilemma by the evening!) asked me if I found a guide and who it was, they all said ‘Ahhh, Undi, he’s a good guy’ which made me feel better about the large sum of money I had just parted with! I also got chatting to another guide Omar whilst he was singing karaoke in a restaurant I was eating at. Singing along to ‘Sometimes when we touch’, ‘Words’, ‘Always’ and other such corny love ballads reaped its rewards on the trek later when it came to food!

Dragonfly  Centipede

6.       And the reason I was so grateful for bonus food is because MALAYSIAN TINNED SARDINES ARE GROSS! They are the cheapest tinned item in the shop at Mulu for a reason. Don’t do it! I thought I’d have rice and sardines (a la Chester Garcia) as an easy meal, but these sardines are cooked til they are practically solid. The sauce is nice on the rice. But it took me about half an hour to break up the sardines and force them down (my experimental vegan month earlier this year showed me how hungry I’d get if I didn’t eat enough protein!). Luckily I never had to cook my own rice, because Omar gave me his extra (the tour groups get all their meals included cooked by the guides- their curries and stirfrys made my dinners look even more dismal!).

sardines  sardines on rice

I also scored papaya for sweets on my first night and a honey pancake for breakfast on my last day. In addition, some other solo travellers donated me their spare noodles since they were leaving the next day (they felt sorry for me that I had to pay so much for the trek that I had the most povo food ever!). This is not the first time I have attracted food charity. On the Overland Track I became the disposal unit for any extra snacks people had and didn’t want to carry, and in Laos I was given bags of food on 2 separate occasions by 2 separate monks. I must just look hungry all the time…

Ode to Mandy...

7.       So now to the fun part… The Pinnacles! WEAR TRAIL SHOES/RUNNERS, not hiking boots if you want to do the pinnacles. These grip better and have more flexible soles which allow you to feel the terrain which is important for finding your footing and keeping your balance with the climbing. Hiking boots will be a lot more slippery. This is actually more of a clamber than a trek, with an ascent from 50m to 1175m over a distance of just 2.4km! You use your arms as much as your legs in the last parts of the ascent and in most of the descent.

the final 400m!  Up and up

It ended up there were actually 3 private tour groups (all couples) attempting the pinnacles on the same day as me (and for some reason I never found out about any of them until I had already paid Undi… When I said was definitely going alone, all of a sudden people would come forth and say, ‘Oh, but there’s another two going from here…’ Well, that’s nice, but I am already poor now and going on my own… ‘but we thought you find friends at the park office’ Nope, sorry, still a loner! I think it’s a scheme to get more guides more work…)

With Undi half way up  Climbing

Anyway, it ended up not being such a bad thing that I went with my own guide, as 2 out of 3 of those groups didn’t make it to the top (if you don’t make it to 2000m by 11am, you have to go back to camp 5, otherwise you will end up still on the mountain by dark which is not so safe). I would’ve been fuming if I’d had to go through all that rigmaroll to get there and not get to see the pinnacles, even if it was a third of the price. I think Undi knew that, as after the first 45 minutes when we reached the mini pinnacles at 900m (the ‘minicles’ as I liked to call them) he said ‘Mandy, you can have your money back. I don’t think I’m going to make it to the top…’ then grinned at me as I looked around for something to throw at him! However, after another 2 and a half hours of climbing we finally got there!

Made it!  The famous Pinnacles

Coming down was the painful part again. It took about 4 hours going backwards down sharp rocks and lowering myself down foot high drops to lessen the impact on my crippled knees (I think my body hates me for putting it through 2 mountains in two weeks after zero prep!). It was so steep going down forwards was worse- you could clearly see all the stabby bits that might get you if you slipped!  Undi kept trying to encourage me by sniffing the air and saying ‘What’s that Mandy? Oh, I smell the noodles already!’

down we go  Back at camp

I joked if he had a third daughter he could call her Mandy (his other daughters names also start with ‘M’- Murah and Maya) and he said he would give her 3 names- Mandy Noodle Soup! He also quizzed me on random nutrition stuff like ‘What is the most important vitamin?’, ‘what vitamins are good for joints?’ or ‘What vitamins are good for your skin?’… Really testing me Undi! So I gave lots of broad answers like, ‘all of the vitamins and minerals are important’ or ‘eat fish 3x a week’ or ‘green leafy vegetables’…  and finally we were back at camp 5. I had a quick dip in the river just as the rain came in then got into my curry mee to celebrate 🙂

the 'swimming pool' at camp 5 Melinau Gorge

8.       GO AND SEE THE CAVES. There are 4 ‘show caves’ in Mulu which are accessible to everyone with a guide. This is one of the cheaper and easier things to do, and the tours run generally have enough interest to run twice daily. The first day I was there I went to Lang’s Cave, which is smaller than the other caves but has some beautiful rock formations like ‘the jellyfish’, and this other one that reminds me of meringue!

The jellyfish- Lang's Cave  Meringue- Lang's Cave

Next to Lang’s Cave is Deer Cave, the world’s largest cave passage. It is estimated that 2-3 million bats live in there, so was a little whiffy in places with the piles of guano lying around! But it was a pretty awesome, there was a part where you look back at the entrance and it looks like a profile of Abraham Lincoln and another area where the roof had collapsed (known as a ‘doline’, this one was called the Garden of Eden) which was beautiful.

Abe Lincoln  The Garden of Eden

After going inside the cave, you go out to the bat observatory to wait for the bat exodus. After waiting for about 45 minutes the bats started to trickle out in groups for dinner- apparently the bat colony in Deer Cave consume about 15 tonnes of flying insects a night! After a while they started coming in droves and even though watching bats fly out of a cave doesn’t sound that exciting, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was actually incredible to see so many of them streaming across the sky in waves, it just went on and on and on!

Bat exodus Bat exodus

The other two show caves are up river by boat a little way. The first, Wind Cave, has some great rock formations, an amazing area called the King’s Chamber with some massive stalactites and stalagmites, and also some rocks that looked like an old man, an eagle, a camel and mating frogs! Wind Cave also has the helictites which grow sideways, not straight up or down, thought to be because of the wind.

Camel- Wind Cave  old man- wind cave

Eagle= Wind Cave mating frogs- wind cave

Clearwater Cave is the last show cave, it is part of the largest cave network in southeast asia (190km of caves altogether at the last survey) and is the 8th largest in the world. The Clearwater river runs through and there are some pretty massive caverns, as well as these interesting rock formations called ‘phytokarsts’ which look like spikes on the rock and are caused by cyanobacteria- the bacteria produce CO2 which mixed with water dissolves the limestone in the pits where they live leaving the pin shaped spikes. We also saw a plant unique to Mulu which forms as a single leaf hanging from the rock at the entrances. The caves are all different so it is worth checking them all out, I found it really interesting, but take heed of the next tip…

single leaf plant= Clearwater cave  Phytokarsts- Clearwater cave

9.       If you do happen to get yourself out on any activities, BE PREPARED TO GET WET! The first reason is from water. Either from the rain, drips from the trees, or constant drips from the cave rooves… As I was told during a torrential downpour… ‘What do you expect? It is the RAINforest!’ The second is from sweat… if you do any kind movement outdoors at all you are likely to end up soaked from head to toe, it is SO hot and humid in the forest with little breeze or relief until the afternoon rain.  A headband/bandanna/sweatband is a good idea! Nothing dries in a hurry either. The only real way you can get things dry is if you can hang it out in direct sunlight for a period (usually in the morning when it is clear, before the clouds start to roll in) otherwise it will stay in a permanent state of damp because of the humidity. When I got back from the trek, it was sunny and I got ambitious and decided to wash my clothes, but after the handwashing was complete (took me a little while, they needed double washing!) the sun had disappeared and a day later when I had to pack and leave they were still not quite dry dammit! So back to the laundry with them at my next opportunity…

torrential downpour  Ready for the rain!

10.   LEAVE THE MIRROR AT HOME! This is no glamour trip! You will get dirty, smelly, most probably bitten by something. It could be mosquitoes, one of the 70 species of ant native to Mulu, other assorted tropical insects, or if you’re lucky- a leech! You may even have a gecko fall on your head as I did at dinner the first night… his suction pads clearly weren’t in good working order that day. Too bad he didn’t fall in my sardines and attract me a donation of a better meal…

Rainforest  Rainforest

Hiking out from camp 5 on our final day, it was quite wet as it had been raining most of the night. I was wearing leggings but only had ankle socks. Not far out Undi pulled a leech off his leg and showed me and I freaked and tried to tuck my leggings into my shoes and avoid all brushing contact with leaves (very difficult in the jungle!). The tucking didn’t work so well with the whole walking motion, so I was on leech watch every hundred meters, checking my ankles for parasites. I would squeal every time a bit of water or mud hit my ankle, and then breathe a sigh of relief when it was just mud. Undi must have thought I was a complete nut. Anyway, one time leech watch successfully detected a leech- I thought I’d caught it before it bit me and I flicked it off, but it was too quick for me. I made it all the way to the boat pick up without any more leech watch incidents. The boat was late, so we waited about an hour, and when it finally rocked up I noticed a second leech had got me. As I was moaning and deliberating about what to do (thinking maybe i could get some saline from my first aid kit to squirt it with, would that have enough salt?), Undi came and yanked it off my ankle. I thought you weren’t meant to pull them off, but oh well… after that excitement, it was onto the boat, away from leechville and back to HQ.

Sungkai Melinau

On the afternoon I got back, I went for a walk out to the not-so-spectacular Pako Falls (the river was nice and cool for a swim at least after the hot 3km walk to get there), and on my final morning I did the canopy tree top walk, which I was hoping to see some wildlife, but only got to see tree tops (should have known from the name…).
Pako Falls  P1050399

The highlights were definitely the caves and the pinnacles, I was glad to have done the trek even though I am now a pauper. I would definitely come back again to explore some more, but with a bit more time and forward planning, and maybe a friend or two!!

Sunset in Mulu

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From the top of South East Asia

My adventure begins in Sabah, one of the two Malaysian states of Borneo. After saying a teary goodbye to my little sister Cara at Melbourne Airport, I flew in to Kuala Lumpur and on to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, to meet my dad. The signs on arrival advertised Malaysia as ‘Friendly and Professional’, both great attributes for a country I guess… As a lovely surprise, dad had come out to the airport to meet me (and take some almost certainly awful pictures of me coming out of the terminal after more than 12 hours in airports and planes!). That at least saved me having to find the bus to town and navigate my way to the hotel which was a nice start! Just down the road from the hotel there was an awesome fruit shop so I initiated my stomach to the visit with some fresh papaya and pineapple as a late night snack. Then it was packing for our big hike up Mt Kinabalu, south east Asia’s highest peak at 4095m, and off to bed before our early start the next day.

map-sabah

The next morning we were up at 5.45am for a 6.15am pick up to take us to Kinabalu Park Headquarters. Waste no time! Straight into the action for us. We ate some muesli bars and fruit (well I ate some fruit, dad’s not that into fruit) on the bus and made sure we were well hydrated on the 1 ½ hour journey up into the highlands. When the clouds momentarily parted we managed to catch a couple of glimpses of the peak of Mt Kinabalu towering above us to make us suitably nervous.

Off to Mt Kinabalu!  Dad at Timpohon Gate

On arrival at Park Headquarters we picked up our permits and met our mountain guide Freendy (pronounced ‘Friendy’!). The three of us squished into the back of a small van to take us to the starting point of the climb about 4.5km up the road- Timpohon Gate at a starting altitude of around 1800m. We started our climb at around 8.45am. Although the distance for the day was only 6km, the ascent of ~1400m made it very slow going indeed. It was pretty relentless uphill climbing for most of the way, a mixture of wooden steps, dirt/rocky trail and rocky ‘steps’. We made sure we stopped at every 0.5km marker for a picture to give us some extra breaks! It was pretty hot for the first part of the day, but as we got higher the temperature cooled. The clouds also started to roll in and shelter us from the intensity of the sun. A tip- don’t walk too close behind someone hiking with walking poles (though dad may have accidentally-on-purpose whacked me in the chest as payback for dragging him along on this trek with me!)

The neverending stairs...   What I mean by 'rocky steps'

We saw some interesting flora and fauna on the way up, the mountain ground squirrels were rife (or the lazy squirrels as Freendy called them- because they are ‘too lazy to learn how to climb trees’!) and we also saw some very cute little birds and the carnivorous pitcher plant (a big version of the plant I bought the PMac Nutrition Department as my parting gift!). The landscape changed a lot too, from rainforest, ferns, moss and greenery, to drier, rocky mountain scrub and variations between the two.

Pitcher Plant  'Lazy squirrel'

Other interesting sights were the many porters carrying everything you could imagine up the mountain- gas bottles, crates of food, I even saw a slab of premixed milo tetras being carried up (Caz, if you ever do this climb, at least you know you can buy your favourite malay beverage at the resthouse!) We even saw the remains of a refrigerator attached to two bamboo poles sitting on the side of the track about 2km up which was clearly a bit too ambitious even for the very fit and able porters! Getting it to 2km was still quite an achievement…

Porters and their loads  The abandoned refrigerator

Lunch stop was at 4km where we had our packed lunch provided by the tour company (Amazing Borneo)– a piece of fried crispy chicken, a hard boiled egg, an apple and 2 sandwiches (cheese and chicken loaf) with the crusts cut off. I ate it disregarding the blatant gaps in food safety and storage, what with carrying it up a mountain for 3 hours in tropical heat, and hoped it was salmonella free. I also discovered I am terrible at peeling hard boiled eggs… Lunch was tasty nonetheless, and a very welcome break from the climb! I was starting to feel a bit headachy by this point, unsure if it was the altitude, sleep deprivation or caffeine withdrawals or a mixture of all three. Actually, it could’ve been my brain hurting from all the effort I put into peeling that damn egg…

What a handy rest spot...

Freendy told us the climb was fully booked for the day- it’s peak season and bed capacity at the 6km mark is about 200 climbers. So there were plenty of people to say hello to along the way, and plenty also coming down, some smiling and wishing us good luck and others groaning and telling us how much harder it is coming down. I had already thought that in my head but was trying to suppress it… Thanks guys. Eventually by about 2.30pm we reached Pendant Hut, our accommodation for the night at an altitude of ~3200m. Those last 2km were the toughest of the day. I was thoroughly exhausted and fell into my dorm bed for a short power nap. We were woken at 3.30pm for our via ferrata briefing.

Dad on the trail     Pendant Hut

Via ferrata is an Italian term meaning ‘Iron Road’. It is essentially a protected mountain climbing route made out of steel cables, rungs and bridges which allows climbers to be secured to the rock face while they scale parts of the mountain that are otherwise dangerous or usually only able to be accessed by experienced rock climbers with full equipment. The Low’s Peak Circuit via ferrata is the world’s highest at 3776m. It is a 1.2km route with a vertical descent of 365m. It is an option on the way down from the summit of Mt Kinabalu which I had selected to add on to our climb- after all, might as well do it all while you’re there right?! Dad was not so sure…

The briefing took us through the use of our harness, carabiners and the safety rope. They also described the route’s vertical descents as well as the swinging bridge, wire bridge and ‘monkey bridge’. After hearing this dad said ‘What have you signed us up for?! You’re after my will, I know it!’. I told him I had emailed him about it and he should really read his emails properly in future and not just reply saying, ‘Yes, whatever you think dear’… Anyway, we found out he could change to the shorter ‘Walk the Torq’ route or cancel his booking if he wasn’t keen after the summit and that made him feel a bit more comfortable about it. Although when he asked what happens if you get part way through and are too tired, he was told, ‘No choice- you have to finish it’- basically once you’re on there’s no getting off til the end!

After the briefing we went down for an early dinner at the Laban Rata Resthouse. By that stage it had started to pour with rain, so we had got in just in time. During dinner however, the rain cleared and left some breathtaking cloud formations and new waterfalls running down the mountain, a perfect backdrop to our meal. Dinner was buffet style and featured real mee goreng (!) which made my day (I may have had 2 serves…) And there were banana fritters for dessert, score! To try and cure my headache, I popped some panadol, one of dad’s altitude tablets, had a strong Sabah coffee and a Tiger beer (on dad… I can’t afford RM25 for a drink now I’m a backpacker, but after seeing the porters carrying everything up the mountain you can understand the price rise on a luxury item like beer!) Nothing really seemed to work, so by 7pm I was in bed, which was probably just as well considering the even earlier start for the summit climb the next day.

Dinner at Laban Rata   The clouds after the rain

Day 2 of the hike- I somehow slept through the wake up call at 1.45am but luckily dad came over and poked me awake at 2am. It was warm and the beds were comfy so I had managed to sleep quite well despite a small incident of dad missing a step on the way down from his bunk in the middle of the night, falling off the ladder and in the process knocking his pack over and waking everyone in the room! We got dressed and packed the essentials for the summit climb as we’d be back at the hut later so could leave some gear behind. We got a ‘light breakfast’ (aka toast) before our guides came and met us to guide us up to the summit.

Ready for the summit  P1040414

It was a clear night and you could see hundreds of stars in the sky. It was quite a sight seeing the little trail of head torches winding up the trail too- like a little pilgrimage of sorts to the top of south east asia. I tell you what, I was glad I’d brought my thermals. In the heat of the climb on day 1 I was starting to think I mightn’t have needed them, but I sure did. For some of the ascent to the summit, you have to use ropes attached to the rockface to help haul yourself up. At the point where this started there was a bit of a backlog of traffic as some people were too nervous to continue and decided to climb back down and I was shivering uncontrollably. It didn’t take you long to cool down once you stopped moving.

    Climbers

Some other essentials for the climb up- a head torch, lots of layers, a beanie and waterproof gloves. My gloves were not waterproof and were soaked through part of the way from the ropes being wet, leaving my fingers freezing! Luckily my dear father donated his to my cause and swapped me for my soaked ones! It took me a while to realise that I could wear my raincoat for an extra layer of warmth, but it changed my life when I did. Can’t believe I overlooked that one for so long (I think it was because my brain was frozen). I did remember taking note of camo guy however- someone dressed head to toe in khaki camoflage print- even had a camo backpack and camo beanie. So hardcore. I’m glad my brain works for the highest priority tasks in adverse conditions…

Anyway, we made it to the summit by about 6.15am (took us about 3 and a half hours to do 2.7km!) and got to see the sunrise over the peaks. It was stunning seeing the landscape light up, as we couldn’t really see anything when we were climbing in the dark.

The summit!  Sunrise

One of the peaks is nicknamed ‘Donkey Ears’ and another- South Peak, I thought looked like the mountain top Jack Skellington sings on in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’… What do you think? After a little choccy break at the top of the mountain (thanks mum for sending me the best chocolate bar in the world- Cadbury’s Marvellous Creation with popping candy!), we started our descent to 7.5km where the via ferrata starts. Dad had decided he felt good after the summit and was going to tackle Low’s Peak Circuit with me.

'Donkey's Ears' peak Dad with 'Jack Skellington's Peak'

We got harnessed up and connected to the first steel cable, and as we saw the other groups in front of us descending, dad (our team leader) said a bit apprehensively, ‘It looks like quite a sheer drop there dear!’. And it was! The via ferrata was quite physical, you use your arms a lot in the first section (and I have like zero upper body strength) so it tired you out holding yourself up on almost vertical bits of rock! It was hard work, but worth it. The views were incredible and it was exhilarating being so high up, you felt like you were in the sky.

On top of the world!  Down into the abyss

The first section was the longest and hardest, it involved the suspension bridge or ‘swinging bridge’ which was super high up but had a wooden base about a foot wide to walk on, and the wire bridge, which you had a steel cable to walk on and one either side to hold onto- like walking a tightrope. And ‘only a 3m drop’ the guides told us! After we completed the first section we had a short break. Dad’s still got a bit of a competitive spirit even though he was initially reluctant to do the via ferrata, feeling happy to have ‘beat the young whipper-snappers’ – a group of 5 Canadians who came in just behind us!

The suspension bridge    the wire bridge

We then had a short ‘jungle trek’ and the guides encouraged us to wear our helmets due to low hanging branches. And it was lucky I did, as another passive-aggressive attack from dad came my way in the form of a rather large branch springing back into my head! :-p the last section of via ferrata was meant to be the easiest- and it was easier than the first in terms of less steep descents, but contained two of the most terrifying parts for me! The first was what I called the ‘spiderman wall’ where you cross a 90 degree section of rock on little rungs each about a metre apart with a massive drop below. The second was the ‘monkey bridge’- one cable to walk on with one above your head to hang onto which you have to inch your way across sideways. Dad sped off across it and I was barely on it yet. I yelled out ‘not so fast dad!’ and he said ‘but I just want to get off it!’ and I replied ‘but you’re attached to me!!’ -as we had about 10-15m of safety rope connecting us, I would’ve been dragged off my nice safe rung before setting foot on the wire! But luckily he slowed enough for us both to get across unscathed!

The 'spiderman wall'  Dad on the 'monkey bridge'

After the via ferrata, it was a 15 walk back down to Pendant Hut for second breakfast- a more substantial offering of sausages, beans, boiled eggs, toast and mashed potato with gravy. I thoroughly enjoyed my tasty but not very attractive ‘protein mix’ made up of a chopped hard boiled egg (peeled poorly with much anger and cursing) and a chopped frankfurt smothered in baked beans in sauce. Yummo. It was a stroke of culinary genius- try it! (You can thank me later).

The egg giving me a haard time...  Mandy's Own Protein Mix- get into it

After repacking everything, we started the last 6km descent to Timpohon Gate. It was drizzling on and off for the first part. I had taken off my coat because I was too warm with it on, and thought I’d see whether the rain eased, but it really started to rain around 3km. I was getting pretty saturated by this stage but then thought putting my coat back on would result in me being wet and hot and sweaty inside plastic, and just being wet seemed like a better option at the time. Meanwhile our cheerful mountain guide Freendy was just cruising down the mountain holding a giant umbrella and talking on the phone half the time, while dad and I groaned our way down each step with our walking sticks sipping and tripping every now and then (though thankfully no major stacks!).

Freendy and his brolly  Walking on water

I was pretty miserable for that last couple of kilometres, and it took most of my strength to keep from yelling out ‘can somebody please just get me off this god forsaken mountain?!!’ I was tired and sore everywhere and soaking wet- we’d been up for more than 12 hours at this stage and had spent most of it on our feet. I tried to distract myself by thinking of tracks to put on a ‘Mountain Megamix’. I came up with a few for each stage…

The Ascent

  • Hot in Herre – Nelly
  • Climb every mountain – The sound of music
  • The only way is up – Yazz
  • Harder to Breathe – Maroon 5

 The Summit

  • Starry Starry night – Don McLean
  • Stairway to heaven – Led Zeppelin
  • Sun it rises – Fleet Foxes
  • Up in the sky – Clairy Browne and the Bangin Rackettes

The Descent

  • Four seasons in one day- Crowded House
  • Summer rain – Belinda Carlisle
  • Everybody hurts – REM
  • I’m not crying – Flight of the Conchords (mostly for the line: ‘it’s just been raining on my face’)

The one thing that did cheer me up slightly was having a piece of my Cadbury Marvellous Creation popping candy choccy bar every now and then. Whoever says food can’t make you happy has clearly never eaten one of these. So eventually we made it back to the gate, soaked to the core and very weary, but very glad to have finished it. It was a big challenge but very rewarding. At park headquarters, we got certificates for reaching the summit of south east Asia’s highest peak, and completing the world’s highest via ferrata, woo! Anyone who’s looking to do the climb in future and wants to book in advance, I’d highly recommend Amazing Borneo. The staff were lovely, very responsive when booking over email, and everything ran so smoothly for the entire trip, from getting permits, guides, accommodation, food and transport.

Coming downcadbury

Afterward, reflecting over a local coffee (complete with condensed milk, mmm) and a plate of char kuay teow, dad said to me ‘this has been the worst day of my life’ :-/ I must be the worst daughter in the world… Then he tried to clarify… ‘I mean in terms of the amount of time spent hiking… before this my longest day was 8-10 hours on the trail, but today we’ve spent 14 hours!’. Ok, I guess that’s not so bad. But in all seriousness, it was amazing to share the experience with dad. I’m so very glad he agreed to come with me (even though for most of it I’m sure he was wondering why he had!) and I am proud of the way he pushed himself all the way through it and took on the additional challenge of the via feratta too. It was such a tough slog but very rewarding to have done it together.

Finally back at Timpohon Gate The Hill team with Freendy

I said goodbye to dad this morning, and with it my last night of a hotel room double bed to myself, private bathroom and breakfast paid for by dad. Now my backpacking life begins, however first I may splurge on a massage for my aching body…

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