Sunday, February 11, 2018

John Leathwick: Climbing Kinabalu

Kinabalu, a massive granite peak in Sabah, Borneo, has a summit elevation of 4095 metres, making it the highest point in Malaysia. It has always had an interest for me, mostly because of the international renown in which it is held for its biodiversity; it supports between 5000 and 6000 plant species, making it an important centre for plant biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

However, I had never seriously considered the idea of climbing Kinabalu – it was not only out of reach geographically, but also because of its height – some 1300 m higher than I’d climbed before.

That all changed in the middle of last year, when my sister suggested that we join her and her husband for a trip to Malaysia to visit some old haunts where they had lived and worked, including a reunion with school pupils whom Mike had taught several decades ago. The prospect of a guided tour through Sabah, complete with local contacts was too good to turn down, and we signed up straight away.

But then the tantalising prospect of Kinabalu came to the fore – could we fit it into our schedule? more important, was there still sufficient stamina in a 60+ year old body for such an undertaking? The scheduling question was quickly resolved, and plucking up our courage, we booked for the climb with Amazing Borneo Tours, resigned to having a good time, even if still somewhat doubtful of an ascent to that altitude!

After some less than ideal fitness preparation, we finally arrived in Kuala Lumpur, and after three days of astounding hospitality, food and humidity, we moved on to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, where our Kinabalu adventure would really begin.

Coming from a New Zealand spring, the heat was opressive, and we wondered how this would play out when it came to walking. With anticipation on the night before, we sorted our gear, gave a case with our city clothes to other party members for safe keeping, and went to bed ready for an early morning call.

The climb begins

At five-thirty the alarm duly cheeped, and we were soon out into the first light of day to where our ride was ready and waiting.  After a couple more pickups, we were on our way, winding out through the early morning traffic, heading north and inland towards the dark bulk of mountain that stood imposingly on the skyline.

Fortunately the higher we climbed the cooler it got, so that by the time we registered at the Park Headquarters, it was a pleasant 20 degrees or so. Once tagged and teamed up with Jimmy, our ever calm and smiling local guide, we were off to Timpohon Gate (1866 m) for a 9 am start to the first day’s climb that would take us to the rest-houses at Laban Rata (3270 m).

At a superficial level, it would be easy to mistake this walk for somewhere in New Zealand, particularly at the beginning – the climate on the lower slopes is not too dissimilar to a New Zealand summer – mild temperatures although perhaps a bit more humid, and a pleasant walk through dense rain forest, with at least some familiar looking genera – Dacrydium, Phyllocladus, and Blechnum to name a few.

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