FOR the past few days I've been haunted by two things: fleeting glimpses of Mt Kinabalu's ominous-looking granite peak and the dawning realisation that I'm the least prepared of anyone in the group.
At 4095m, Mt Kinabalu is South-East Asia's highest mountain, but it's also one of the most accessible; there's no technical climbing involved, just a steady, relentless uphill slog.
As our group of eight has come to know each other better, it has emerged that everyone else has done some serious training.
One couple recently hiked 29km; two guys have been tackling 1000-plus steps; another couple have climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.
The furthest I've ever hiked is 15km. And that was when I was 17.
For now, my concerns are being soothed by the rhythmic splash of paddles as we kayak through the warm, mouthwash-blue water of the South China Sea.
This is the first section in a three-part adventure in Sabah, the Malaysian state that occupies about 10 per cent of the northern tip of Borneo. After three days of sea kayaking, we'll spend two days climbing Mt Kinabalu and then recover with a three-day safari looking for orang-utans and other wildlife on the Kinabatangan River.
Leading the way is Nathan Wedding, our intrepid guide and founder of luxury small-group adventure company Seven Skies.
The former environmental philosophy lecturer swapped academic life for a career as a sea kayak guide, leading explorations in the Arctic Circle, Norway and Tasmania.
He's patient and accommodating, yet assertive when required.
Inevitably on a trip like this, things don't always go to plan, but he never gets flustered and always has a backup. We've spent the past two days exploring the five coral-fringed islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, off the coast of Sabah's main gateway, Kota Kinabalu.
Each morning we've paddled to a different island to snorkel and swim before returning to the Bunga Raya Island Resort
, a secluded sanctuary of tree-house-like dwellings hidden among dense rainforest on the north side of Gaya Island
During the 10km kayak back to the mainland, we pass two large, overwater villages. About 6000 people from the Suluk and Bajau tribes live in these sprawling stilt settlements, consisting of wooden shacks with tin roofs.The villages have a reputation for harbouring smugglers and migrants, so organised tours won't come here. But as we paddle past we're greeted with nothing but excited curiosity. Grinning children appear at windows to wave and call out "Bah!" (hello) while old men with sea-weathered faces fish from wooden boats.
As we cross the busy channel that separates the island from the mainland, we see a startling contrast: the centuries-old subsistence life of sea gypsies on one side; modern Malaysia with its skyscrapers and marbled mansions on the other.
The group is noticeably subdued when we meet later in the hotel's club lounge for drinks.
Wedding talks us through tomorrow's itinerary and reiterates what we need to pack.
Then, one by one, we retire to our rooms, set our alarms for 5.30am and try to get some sleep.
Tomorrow, we climb a mountain.
By the time we've collected our permits, organised porters and taken the short bus ride to Timpohon Gate, the climb's official start point, it's 10.30am. We pose for a photo before setting off on a gravel track bordered by dense jungle. Disconcertingly, the track starts downhill but this is quickly remedied and we're soon ascending countless flights of steep stairs.
"Slow and steady," reminds Wedding as we stop in a rest hut to rehydrate. This is the 10th time he's climbed Mt Kinabalu and he knows that the right pace is critical.
Some of the group have hired porters to carry their belongings and it's astonishing to watch these wiry locals trudge relentlessly uphill, buried under their own bodyweight in bags.
As we climb higher, the terrain changes from dirt track to endless sets of rough sandstone steps.
Only once do we emerge from the rainforest long enough to get a glimpse of the mountain's glaciated peak before the clouds engulf us again.
Finally, after five hours of quad-burning ascent, our home for the night comes looming out of the mist.
Laban Rata is a hostel on the side of the mountain where most climbers stay a night en route to the summit.
Labels: Gaya Island, Kinabatangan, Mount Kinabalu, Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park