Mandy and the World

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

From the top of South East Asia

on March 15, 2013

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.


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.


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…

2 responses to “From the top of South East Asia

  1. Keith Hill says:

    Hope all is going well in KK and your muscles have recovered. Your mum and I arrived in Singapore last night, all is going well so far, had some more fried kuey teow, roti prata with egg and onion, wanton noodles and char siew – not bad for a days work.
    Love, dad and mum

  2. this is a great inspiring article. i am pretty much pleased with your good work. you put really very helpful information. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

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