Thursday, July 26, 2012

Escape To Borneo


Recently, after giving a talk at a conference in Hong Kong, I spent some time resting in my room on the 41st floor of the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel gazing at the mountains-in-the-making across the way in Kowloon, and wondered how far away might I find the real thing. An unfurl of the map showed that the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea was Mount Kinabalu, 13,455 feet, in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, just three hours flight to the southeast. Climbing a mountain without an elevator was strictly against doctor's orders, as two weeks earlier I had undergone surgery, an inguinal hernia repair, and was told to lay low. But, researching Mt. Kinabalu I discovered the summit was called Low's Peak, after the European who first climbed the mountain in the middle 19th century. The weekend was nigh, so the following morning I was on an Malaysia Airlines flight to the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, just four degrees north of the equator, for a gut-wrenching, four-day adventure in Borneo.

For more than a century, since explorers and missionaries first ventured into the interior of Borneo, outsiders have been captivated by its half-truths and half-fictions, awed by its headhunting heritage, its tales of giant insects and snakes, of wild men who lived in trees, of prodigious leeches that stood up when sensing a human. Borneo, which dominates millions of acres of tropical rain forests on the world's third largest island, was the stuff of nightmares. Sabah once belonged to an Englishman, the publisher Alfred Dent, who leased it and eventually called it British North Borneo. It was a state administered as a business venture until 1942, when the Japanese invaded and took control. After the Second World War, the British returned and Borneo became a Crown colony. In 1963, Sabah gained independence and joined the Federation of Malaysia. The name Sabah means, "land below the wind," a place where early maritime traders sought refuge beneath the typhoon belt of the Philippines.

From the airport I stepped into the silken air of the Borneo night, saturated and hot, with a slightly sweet odor. Even though it was dark, I could sense the mountain to the east, bending me with its silent mind. It seemed to reel in the minibus I rode 60 miles up into the eponymous park headquarters -- Mt. Kinabalu is the most accessible big mountain in the tropics -- where I had dinner and checked into one of the spacious split-level chalet. This was base camp with style.

As I sipped a port on the back balcony, tiny life in the tangle a few yards away broadcast news of my presence in a steady din of clicks, trills, buzzes and noises ranging from deep fat frying to the shriek of car alarms. But, there was more than wildlife in this backcloth of biodiversity beyond my feet. The 300-square-mile national park's botanically famous flora include more than 1,000 orchid species, 450 ferns, 40 kinds of oak, 27 rhododendrons and a plant that bears platter-size flowers, the Rafflesia. In all, Mount Kinabalu is home to 4,000 to 4,500 vascular plant species, more than a quarter the number of all recorded species in the United States.

The next morning I stepped over a moth the size of a bat and outside into a day tidy and bright. For the first time I could see the striking granite massif that looks like a mad ship riding high rainforest waves, with fantastic masts, tines, spires and aiguilles dotted across its pitched and washed deck of rock at 13,000 feet. Waterfalls spilled down its sides as though a tide had just pulled back from a cliff. The youngest non-volcanic mountain in the world, Mount Kinabalu is still growing, pushed upwards at the rate of a quarter of an inch a year. Borneo was formed as a result of plate movements uniting two separate portions of the island some 50 million years ago. Mount Kinabalu now lies near the site where the two parts joined on the northeastern tip of Borneo.

About 40 million years ago, the region lay under the sea and accumulated thick layers of marine sediments, creating sandstone and shale, later uplifted to form the Crocker Range. Mount Kinabalu started out about 10 million years ago as a huge ball of molten granite called a "pluton" lying beneath the sedimentary rocks of the Crocker Range. This pluton slowly cooled between nine and four million years ago, and about a million years ago, it was thrust from the bowels of the earth and grew to a height probably several thousand feet higher than today. When the Pleistocene Ice Age emerged, rivers of ice covered Kinabalu, eventually wearing down the soft sandstone and shale and shrinking the summit. Low's Peak, the highest point on Kinabalu, and the horned towers of the mountain, were created by the bulldozing of these huge glaciers.

Checking in with Jennifer at the Registration Office at Park Headquarters, I saw the sign that said nobody could climb to the summit without hiring a certified guide. So, I enlisted Eric Ebid, 30, a mild man of Borneo, small, enthusiastic with bad teeth but a ready and real smile; eyes the color of wet coal that could see every forest twitch; little English but a knack for communicating; and a beautiful singing voice. His shoes were made of thin rubber, not much more than sandals, but he walked with a spring that made his limbs appear to be made of some resilient, lightweight wood. When he shook hands, he first touched his hand to his heart, and bowed. Eric was a Dusun, the dominant ethnic group of northern Borneo. The Dusuns have lived on the flanks of Mount Kinabalu for centuries and believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside on the summit, the realm of the dead. They call the mountain Aki Nabula, "Revered Place of the Dead." They were once warlike, and used to carry their captives in bamboo cages up the slopes of the mountain, and spear them to death in the shadow of its jagged summit.

The park bus labored to get to the trailhead, two and a half zigzag miles up the hill at a power station at 6,100 feet that not only supplies electricity to Kota Kinabalu, but has a cable that stretches up the mountain to a rest house two miles above sea level.

Off the bus, we stepped through a gate into a world steaming and flourishing, rife with birdsong. We were in one of the world's oldest dipterocarp rain forests, far older than the arbors of the Amazon Basin, now the last place on earth for many of the world's rarest plants and wildlife.

The ascent began by losing 100 feet of altitude, dropping us into a rainforest as lush and improbable as the canvases of Henri Rousseau. Then, in earnest, we began the unrelenting five-mile rise, switching back and forth over razor backed ridges, through groves of broadleaved oak, laurel and chestnut, draped in mosses, epiphytes and liverworts and thickened with a trumpeting of ferns. The trail was fashioned of tree limbs pinioned to serve as risers and occasionally as posts and handrails, a stairway pulled directly from nature. At much-used and appreciated regular intervals, there were charming gazebos, with toilets and tanked water. I stopped at the first, refilling my water bottle.

For a million years Kinabalu was a place where only imaginations and spirits traveled; no one disturbed the dead there -- until the British arrived. In 1851 Sir Hugh Low, a British Colonial Secretary, bushwhacked to the first recorded ascent, accompanied by local tribal guides and their chief, who purified the trespass by sacrificing a chicken and seven eggs. They also left a cairn of charms, including human teeth. Not to be outdone, Sir Hugh left a bottle with a note recording his feat, which he later characterized as "the most tiresome walk I have ever experienced."

By late morning, we entered the cloud forest, where the higher altitude and thinner soil begin to twist and warp the vegetation. There were constant pockets and scarves of fog. At 7,300 feet we passed through a narrow-leafed forest where Miss Gibbs' Bamboo climbed into the tree trunks, clinging to limbs like a delicate moss. Lillian Gibbs, an English botanist and the first woman known to scale Mount Kinabalu, collected over a thousand botanical specimens for the British Museum in 1910, at a time when there were no rest houses, shelters or corduroyed trails.

By mid-day the weather turned grim; skies opened, the views down mountain were blotted, and the climb was more like an upward wade through a thick orange soup of alkaline mud. I was soaked to the skin, but the rain was warm, as if it was all meant to be humane, even medicinal. For a moment, I forgot my hernia.

Still, when the rain became a deluge, we stopped at the Layang Layang Staff Headquarters (which was locked shut) for a rest and a hope that the downpour might subside. We were at 8,600 feet, better than halfway to our sleeping hut. While there, we munched on cheese sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, sipped bottled water. And while there, I watched as a small parade of tiny women, bent beneath burongs (elongated cane baskets) heaped high above their heads with loads of food, fuel and beer for the overnight hut, marched by on sure feet, trekking to serve the tourists who now flock to this mountain.

The first tourist made the climb in 1910, and, in the same year, so did the first dog, a bull terrier named Wigson. Since the paving of the highway from Kota Kinabalu in 1982, tourist development has been rapid, by Borneo's standards. Over 20,000 people a year now reach Low's Peak -- the highest point -- via the Paka Spur route, and hundreds of Dusuns are employed in getting outsiders up and down and around the mountain trails.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Escape To Borneo
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