One of many world’s great city views is from Kowloon, looking across the Victoria Harbor to the mountainous concrete, glass and steel spires on the island of Hong Kong. From Hong Kong looking back, the views were never so lofty, because for 73 years the low-flying planes of nearby Kai Tak airport required building height restrictions. Now, though, with the brand new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, some powerful unleashed energy is pushing the Kowloon landscape higher, like crashing tectonic plates forever lifting great mountain ranges further above the clouds.
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 on the mountains-in-the-making across the best way in Kowloon, and wondered how far away might I find the actual thing. An unfurl of the map showed that the best 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 within the middle 19th century. The weekend was nigh, so the following morning I used to be 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 greater 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. Despite the fact that 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 essentially 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 gentle din of clicks, trills, buzzes and noises ranging from deep fat frying to the shriek of car alarms. But, there was greater than wildlife in this backcloth of biodiversity beyond my feet. The 300-square-mile national park’s botanically famous flora include greater 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 variety of all recorded species in the United States.
The following morning I stepped over a moth the size of a bat and out of doors right into a day tidy and bright. For the first time I could see the striking granite massif that appears 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 on this planet, Kinabalu continues to be growing, pushed upwards at the rate of a quarter of an inch a year. Borneo was formed because of plate movements uniting two separate portions of the island some 50 million years ago. Mount Kinabalu now lies near the location where the 2 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 an enormous 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 very best 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 would see every forest twitch; little English but a knack for communicating; and a phenomenal singing voice. His shoes were fabricated from thin rubber, not much more than sandals, but he walked with a spring that made his limbs seem like manufactured from 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 hold their captives in bamboo cages up the slopes of the mountain, and spear them to death within 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 most of the world’s rarest plants and wildlife.
The ascent began by losing 100 feet of altitude, dropping us right 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 1,000,000 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 primary recorded ascent, accompanied by local tribal guides and their chief, who purified the trespass by sacrificing a chicken and seven eggs. Additionally they 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 “probably the most tiresome walk I’ve 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 have been 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 primary woman known to scale Mount Kinabalu, collected over a thousand botanical specimens for the British Museum in 1910, at a time when there have been 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 a great deal 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 primary tourist made the climb in 1910, and, in the identical year, so did the primary 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 across the mountain trails.
After half-hour the rain hurtled even harder, so we shrugged and continued upwards, into the guts of the cloud forest, among groves of knotted and gnarled tea-trees, whose lichen-encrusted trunks and limbs were stunted and twisted like walking sticks. On the bottom we stepped over foot-long purple worms, black and brown frogs and a black beetle the scale of an ice ax.
As we climbed Eric identified various rhododendrons with blooms that ranged from peach to pink and the insectivorous pitcher plants, the size of avocadoes. Instead of nutrients in the soil, they feed on trapped insects. Coming out of a long leaf, rather like an iris, was the trapping mechanism, a tendril and cup with a mouth that looked like a tiny steam shovel, or the lead in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Local lore has it that Spenser St. John, a botanist who climbed Kinabalu with Hugh Low on his second expedition in 1862, found a pitcher plant containing a drowned rat floating in six pints of water.
At 9,000 feet the terrain began to change drastically. Here an outcropping of ultramafic rock made for an orange, toxic soil, out of which struggled a forest of dwarf pine and myrtle. Here, too, I met an Australian on his way down. Though young and hulkish, he looked, in a word, awful — dour and green and was of the ancient mariner sort, shaken and stuffed with foreboding advice. “It’s best to only do this, mate, if you’re in great, great shape,” and that i felt a ping where my hernia scar pinched.
Accustomed to the Spartan A-frames and Quonsets that function huts on other mountains I have climbed, I used to be unprepared for the majesty of the spruce-wood Laban Rata Guesthouse. Anchored on stilts at the edge of a cliff just above 11,000 feet, two stories tall with a happy yellow roof, the place was like a boutique hotel. Its cozy lounge featured a decorative Christmas tree, a set of X-mas cards, even though this was months before or after the holiday, and a television with a satellite feed showing The Travel Channel. On one wall were certificates prematurely for sale stating summit success. Plate glass windows wrapped the down side of the mountain, where we watched clouds stream through crags and cauldrons like rivers of fine chalk. When the rain stopped, I stepped outside and watched the clouds blow off the mountain above, and suddenly there was an empire of silvery gray granite, castled with barren crags, as awesome as the slopes of Rundle Mountain in Banff, or Half Dome in Yosemite, thick rivulets of water shaving off the smooth face in falls.
The canteen menu ranged from fresh fish to fried rice to French fries and Guinness. In my room, which slept four, there was an electric light and a small electric heater that allowed me to dry my clothes. Down the hall were hot showers.
Exhausted from the day’s trek, I fell into the arms of Morpheus around seven, trusting that Eric would come by with a wake-up knock around 3 a.m. The motivation for starting within the wee hours was that tropical mountains typically cloud over after sunrise, and sometimes it begins to rain soon after, making an ascent at a reasonable hour not only harder, but dangerous, and the coveted views non-existent.
Sure enough, on the crack of 3 there was a knock on the door. Considered one of my roommates, a British woman who was suffering a headache, announced she would not be going further. Another half-dozen at the hut would also turn around here, suffering from exhaustion or altitude sickness. I felt sorry for them, but in addition felt happy with myself that, despite my wound, I had the moxie and strength to continue. I fumbled for my hiking boots and tripped downstairs for a cup of tea. At 3:20, I donned my headlamp and set out under a blue-black sky hung with a glittering Milky Way. The stars seemed as near and thick as when I was a toddler. I listened for ghosts, but everything was bone quiet and cool. This was truly a mountain of the dead.
I followed the little white pool of light my headlamp cast on the granite just ahead of my feet. Above, the summit loomed, felt greater than seen. The dark mass of the mountain vied with the vacuous space all around, we caught between the two. Looking back, I saw a constellation of 20 or so headlamp beams bobbing and flashing as their owners negotiated in my footsteps. I used to be amazed that in my condition I could possibly be ahead of so many.
The emergence at treeline onto the cold granite face was abrupt, just as the primary gold and pink bands of dawn cracked open and singed the sky. It was like stepping from a closet into a ballroom, and everyone seemed to move just a little faster, enamored by the tap of unwrapped stone, rhyming with the rock. “Pelan, pelan,” (slowly, slowly) advised Eric, as if he knew of my injury.
At places where the rock angled up 40 degrees or more, solicitous trail builders had anchored expansion bolts and fixed stout white ropes. At one point, at the rock face of Panar Laban (Place of Sacrifice), where early guides stopped to appease the souls of their ancestors, we got down on our knees and scrambled upwards on all fours.
Within the robed light of 6 a.m., clambering up an aplite dyke, I could make out the pinnacles surrounding us, legacies of the Ice Age: the Ugly Sisters and malformed Donkey’s Ears on our right, immense St. John’s and South Peak on our left. Low’s Peak was tucked in between, like an attic staircase. The sleek plates we had been scaling became a pile of frost-shattered blocks and boulders, forming a jumble of giant tesserae in quest of a mosaic.
To the roof of the world we scrabbled just because the sun showed its face. I sucked some thin air, and looked around. It was stunning to watch the mountaintop transfigured by sunrise. The undulant granite towers warmed with light, as guides lit up their cigarettes. It seemed like the Tower of Babel as each new climber made the last step and cheered in German, Japanese, Australian or Bahasa.
I basked now in the bliss of standing bare against the heavens, with the fathomless interior of Borneo far below me. On one side fell the mile-deep ravine that’s Low’s Gully, sometimes called Death Valley or Place of the Dead, believed to be guarded by a slaying dragon, where in 1994 a British Army expedition got famously stuck in the jungle-filled slash. Padi fields, kampungs (villages) and an endless expanse of jungle unfolded on another side; the dancing lights of Kota Kinabalu and the shimmering South China Sea on another.
I circled the broken bottleneck of Low’s Peak, taking in each facet. Once i completed the circle and looked west again, sunrise hard on my back, the immense shadow of Kinabalu, an enormous, dark-blue cone, seemed to fly over the land and sea, stretching to the horizon. It was sublime; there was nothing to append.
And, I reached down and felt the scar from my recent operation, I felt light-headed, filled to the brim with the helium of gratefulness and felt pretty trick that I had done what my doctor had said I could not. I felt glued together with sweat and brio, king of the jungle and strutted and posed. Until I looked across the plateau and saw a tall, dark-haired woman limping towards me, balanced by a pair of ski poles. She sat down near me, and pulled up her pants leg to reveal a full brace that went from her lower leg to her thigh.
“What happened?” I could not help but ask, and in a Dutch accent she replied, “Skiing accident within the Alps a pair weeks ago. Destroyed my ACL. That is my anterior cruciate ligament. Doctor said I couldn’t climb mountains for six months. But, I could not resist, so here I’m.”
Humbled, I started back down the mountain.
Still sore from the climb, I spent two more days in Borneo, where all who passed instantly recognized something about me, smiled knowingly and said “Kinabalu,” as I hobbled about like an old man.
A 40-minute flight took me to Sandakan on Sabah’s east coast, where I first visited the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, a life raft for one of many world’s largest orangutan populations. Since gazetted in 1964 to reintegrate baby orangutans orphaned by poachers or separated from their mothers on account of intensive deforestation to life within the wild, over 300 red apes have gone through the eight to 12 year rehabilitation process and been released back into the wild. It was a thrill to face among the many apes, exchanging curious looks and wondering how our futures would fare.
Next I visited the Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the banks of the crocodiled Kinabatangan River. From there I took a ride in a hand-carved boat along a gallery of sonneratia trees, where proboscis monkeys, with huge droopy noses and bulging beer guts, made crashing tree-to-tree leaps, while bands of pig-tailed macaques chattered away. At one point a low drone of cicadas accelerated to a fierce roar that was nearly deafening, and i could barely hear the guide as she pointed out a yellow-ring cat snake twisted around an overhanging branch just above my head.
And that i trundled down a laterite road, through plantations from a Somerset Maugham tableau, to visit the limestone Gomantong Caves, about as little as I could go in Borneo after Low’s Peak, where the nests of tiny swiflets’ bring high prices in China as the principle ingredient for the prized bird’s nest soup. It was a nightmarish place, a place crawling with poisonous centipedes, filled with the acrid stench of bat guano and the crunching sounds underfoot of a special breed of giant red cockroaches that may strip a bird carcass in a matter of hours. I used to be pleased to leave. Then I used to be back in Hong Kong.
This time I stayed at the Intercontinental, closest hotel to the waterfront, with the best view of the Hong Kong Island skyline. As I sat back in the hotel Jacuzzi nursing my wounds with a gin and tonic, gazing at the simulacra mountains, the evening light dashed off the windowed pinnacles and spires, piercing a sea of clouds.
Here, if I squinted, the illusion was complete, and i could overlay the crowns of Kinabalu with those of the former Crown colony. Mountains, I realized, be them made by man or nature, reconciled the bourgeois love of order with the bohemian love of emancipation.