Above the Clouds

Well I thought we would go for street food but I suppose this seems quite authentic”. And with that, I knew that I would not get on with this particular member of my new travelling family. This was confirmed later the same night when she was still quizzing our guide as to the ingredients in various items on the menu, as my order was already arriving on the table. It was also confirmed on a daily (sometimes hourly, depending on how much interaction I was required to have) basis throughout the trip. However, don’t think this is the start of another group travel rant. On the contrary, the remaining 5 members of my group were brilliant, as was Richard, our guide. And if every month in 2015 is as good as January was, then it is going to be a great year.

in the foothills of Kinabalu Park

in the foothills of Kinabalu Park

Borneo, or Sabah to be more precise, was always a destination I was particularly looking forward to on my travels as my sister Wendi had spent some time there 15 or so years ago and loved it, so I knew it promised much. In fact I am not sure I have ever heard anything but good things about the country from people who have visited it, and I now know why. I wish I had saved some superlatives for the later entries in my blog: although ‘verdant’ doesn’t even begin to describe the scenery in and around Kinabalu National Park – it is simply beautiful, as are the Sabahan people.

ascending the mountain

ascending the mountain

In the Park we embarked on the most physically challenging aspect of my entire time away – climbing Mount Kinabalu, which at 4095m is one of the highest peaks in South East Asia. We started out early on the Monday morning and climbed 6 kms from 1800m to 3272m. Wendi had warned me not to feel demoralised by the porters who regularly overtake you en route and she was right – these guys practically sprint past you carrying up to 70 kgs up to Laban Rata, the rest stop we were all headed to. The porters are paid (if I remember this correctly) 5 ringit (about a pound) for every kilo they carry up the mountain to the hostel (although they charge more if you require carrying down the mountain, and some do!).

The climb itself is stunning for all the changing biodiversity you see en route (she says, moving swiftly over the number of steps you also see en route). We got to the rest point around 3 p.m. and experienced amazing vistas above the clouds. There is something quite surreal about watching local guides play volleyball with the clouds below them for a backdrop.

volleyball, anyone?

volleyball, anyone?

sunset at Laban Rata

sunset at Laban Rata

view up the mountain from the rest stop

view up the mountain from the rest stop








The start for the summit commenced in the wee hours, timed to coincide with arriving at sunrise, and so the alarms went off at 1.30 a.m. and we set off shortly afterwards. As we pulled ourselves up steep rock faces with ropes, in the dark, I got by singing “I am not scared” (Eighth Wonder, remember them?!) to myself and just forcing myself to keep going, hypnotised by our guide Sopingi’s footsteps in front of me, trying not to think what it might be like in the light on the way down. One of our group admitted to praying at some of the steeper points, even though he wasn’t particularly religious. At the less steep points, it was possible to have a break and appreciate the beauty of the stars in the sky – just breathtaking, and so peaceful, as noone was really speaking on the ascent.


clinging on to the summit

After climbing uphill for 6 hours the previous day, getting barely any sleep before such an early start, I have to admit that the last few hundred metres to the peak were achieved in a blur of adrenalin, sheer bloody-mindedness and quite a bit of scrambling rather than with any kind of athletic prowess, but 4 hours after setting off we had achieved the 2.5kms and 875m required to get to Low’s Peak, the highest point of the mountain.


sunrise from the top of Mt Kinabalu

If I could have my time again, I would remind myself to sit there for longer and take it all in for a while. As it was, the giddiness of altitude and achievement meant I was concentrating more on not falling down the mountain as I took some photos than doing much else.

view on the way down

view on the way down

the rope section...

the rope section…

The descent was (thankfully) less scary than I had anticipated and we arrived back at the rest stop around 9. The feeling of euphoria was quickly replaced by the knowledge that there was still another 6 kms of step-based descent to go. I had been warned to start taking the nurofen before I set off, to use poles, and to accept that no matter how fit I may be, it was going to hurt. “Pah” I was thinking about 3 or 4 kms down as I bounded down with Richard and a few others from my group, what were they talking about? And then – boom – with 1500 metres to go I understood. Complete jelly legs. Is this how it feels in the last few miles of a marathon? I couldn’t take any rest stops, I just had to keep walking otherwise I would not have been able to keep going. For 4 days afterwards I have never felt pain or stiffness like it. Wendi told me they call it the Kinabalu crab walk, because everyone walks sideways up and down kerbs and stairs. Beyond painful. I couldn’t even bear having my legs touched in a massage. Thankfully there were no squat toilets at this point in the trip. But it was worth it, totally, and I would do it again tomorrow. The nature as you ascend the mountain is fantastic, the landscape beautiful, eerie at times as the clouds close in, and the feeling of being above the clouds is just magical. There weren’t too many climbers when we went and on the way down in particular we were completely alone for much of the time, which made it even more special.


wild orangutan at Kinabatangan River



I think the lack of tourists was a positive theme throughout this particular trip that also set it apart from other destinations. We were travelling in low season, but whilst it rained each day, it was generally only later in the day and we also had brilliant sunshine. It benefitted us at our next stop, Kinabatangan River, where there was not the influx of boats that I understand you see in high season chugging down the river banks, stopped to see a wild orangutan, macaques and probiscus monkeys as well as birds (here my twitcher knowledge fails me, but I know we saw some pretty spectacular varieties of hornbill).


wrinkled hornbill


black backed kingfisher

Banded Linsang

Banded Linsang

By night we did a jungle walk from the lodge we were staying at. Donning the leech socks (attractive but necessary) we waded through the mud, seeing a variety of animals including, much to the excitement of the local guides, a very rare wildcat called a Banded Linsang. My photo isn’t great, but it was pretty cool.

Low season also meant that Turtle Island was only at half capacity when we travelled there. When I say travelled, I really mean “got tossed and turned and battered and bruised for an hour and a half” on a boat crossing that one guide conceded as being “quite choppy”! Richard assured us he had been on worse journeys, but what should have taken 45 minutes took double that time, and the same trip was cancelled for the next 2 days due to the sea conditions. Had I not been on some hideous boat crossings in Indonesia I would have been more scared but at least I was above deck and wearing a life jacket for this one, neither of which applied in Indonesia. It is amazing how my fear thresholds have changed (she says, on her 22nd flight of 33 in total for the trip). The journey was punctuated by a variety of little squeaks and the occasional curse (“sorry, I don’t swear, but f***”) from one of our group who was unfortunately positioned at the head of the boat and therefore took the most impact from the bumpy crossing. I tried to focus on the horizon, but that was only possible when you were above the waves…. You get the picture. And you can imagine how much we beseeched Richard to promise us that it was going to be worth it. Mother nature did not disappoint.

monitor lizard

monitor lizard checking us out

There is nothing to do on Turtle Island except sit on the beach by day (which we were doing when Julia casually said “oh Sharon, look”, at which point I turned round and leapt up at the “small” visitor checking us out)…and then in the dining room by night, waiting for the “turtle time” call. At which point you run to whichever part of the island the female turtle has landed on and made her nest. You watch the mother lay her eggs (72 in our case), which are promptly taken by the ranger. Once the mother has finished laying her eggs you are allowed to move to the front and take photos whilst the rangers measure her and clean her up.

turtle time....

turtle time….


releasing the babies


dinner time…

In our case the turtle was already tagged and had been on the island 10 years previously (there is usually a 4/5 year gap between egg laying). We then went with the ranger to bury the eggs in the hatchery, where they are protected from predators such as monitor lizards and eagles. The third part of our turtle night was to then take the turtles that had hatched that night down to the sea to be released back to the wild. The fact that you are essentially releasing fish food/dinner, given only 1% survive to adulthood does not spoil a truly magical evening, definitely worth the bumpy ride.

mother turtle

mother turtle

We then went on to the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Sepilok. This trip really kept producing the goods. Orangutans share just under 97% of DNA with humans and up close you see how. Particularly with the cheeky boy who stalked us for a while after feeding time. He really was a stroppy teenager, sulking because the ranger was watching him and ensuring he didn’t get too close to us.

stroppy teenager

stroppy teenager

feeding time

feeding time









In keeping with tradition I bought a t-shirt and adopted a few babies whilst in Sepilok. And also gave some language lessons to our guide. [*Warning to my friends Paulo and Jenny who sometimes share this blog with their children, I take no responsibility for the awkward squirming that may follow if you are asked to explain anything in relation to the next few lines*]. En route to Sepilok, Richard kept referring to the large flanges on some of the orangutans. Whilst in the rehabilitation centre, he also warned us to avoid the golden shower that the cheeky young boy was threatening. Are any of you with me yet? I wasn’t sure if it was my potty mind, or an english language thing, but later that night I introduced him to the urban dictionary definitions of flange (in his description, the wide face on a male orangutan) and golden shower. He looked slightly horrified and said “but nobody ever told me that before”… It is nice to know he will forever think of me when he gives that talk on the bus each time he takes a group to Sepilok. (Mum: I do not propose to elaborate – look it up and then pull that ”Oh Sharon” face you do when you want to laugh but feel you shouldn’t; Paulo, Jenny: sorry).

So a truly fabulous way to end my SE Asian journey (Borneo, that is, not my urban dictionary lesson). I loved Sabah so much. Even an unbearable member of the group – let’s call her Elphaba II (for those of you who are regular readers you may recall the original Elphaba at the start of my trip in Bali) couldn’t spoil it – the rest of us bonded over our mutual dislike and it just gave us good stories to tell. Like the time Elphaba II’s roommate woke up in the night to find her sleeping topless, with the sheets off. Or the daily mealtime grilling of the guide to establish if there was sufficient chilli in a dish. And the constant explanations to us all of the relative merits of certain vegetables. And more chilli requests. One time we were at a food market and Elphaba II asked Richard “will those tangerines taste nice?”. I would have so loved for him to have explained that he lacked a crystal ball, however he was way too polite to do that.

Another time she didn’t realise there would be bones in her chicken soup at a homestay we did. Rather than just leaving them in her bowl, she stood up, walked round the table, firstly as if to put them back into the soup bowl. Then, realising that our vegetarian member wouldn’t be using her bowl, put them in there instead, and then left the bowl of bones next to the vegetarian, who was still eating. And then there was the “trainer incident”. I had taken my trainers up the mountain with me in case my feet hurt too much after the climb. I ended up lending them to Elphaba II, who packed boots so old that they had broken on the way up the final ascent. I arrived at the bottom of the mountain a couple of hours before she did. She came in to the restaurant we were in, and informed me that whilst my trainers were comfortable, they were very slippy and had caused her to fall over and hurt her knee. I believe she meant to say thank you. That was after she had told me she only had smelly socks to wear with them – “you don’t mind do you” – I did, so I had lent her a pair of mine, which were replaced on my doorstep, inside out, unwashed, on her way to do her laundry. And breathe……..

So, ungracious, ungrateful and completely thoughtless to boot. And fairly stupid, it turns out, as she asked Julia how long the particular marathon was that we were discussing one day…. Had to turn away and stifle a giggle at that point as Julia politely responded “well, it’s a marathon…..”.

[Needless to say, Elphaba II was far too caught up in herself to take any interest in the rest of us and is blissfully unaware of the existence of this blog]

And there ended the group travel element of my trip, and my visit to SE Asia. I feel gutted and happy in equal measure. So sad to have left somewhere that gave me such pleasure, happy to have experienced so many wonderful places and people. Malaysia is somewhere (else!) I would like to return to, to the point where I am contemplating trying to learn some of the language. On a more serious note, there were yet more reminders of the benefits of living in a democracy. My guide is part of a campaign group seeking a referendum on independence for Sabah from West Malaysia. A campaign that is treated as treason in Malaysia and for which several people have already been arrested. We may not like our government but at least we can voice our opinions….

My trip is rapidly coming to an end and I don’t want it to. I am tidying up this post on the flight back from paradise – Lord Howe Island – where I have had no phone reception or decent internet for 5 glorious days, hence the delay in posting. Watch this space for the next post about Australia – I think I am in love*.


sunset on turtle island

sunset on Turtle Island

above the clouds

above the clouds

*with the country, that is, no other news!

2 Comments on “Above the Clouds

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