Kota Kinabalu and Mt. Kinabalu Climb; December 19-23, 2009

When Alex and Jennifer traveled to Borneo in 1992 they were awestruck: a fantastic mountain to scale, dense tropical rainforest, orangutans and other interesting wildlife, superb cheap food, exotic markets, and some of the world's very best scuba diving. While it's not uncommon for us to make return trips to favorite general destinations, never have we replicated an itinerary as exactly as we're doing this time. Seventeen years have passed -- Borneo has surely changed, we've done a huge amount of exotic travel since then, and there are four of us now instead of two. How will it stack up?

So far, great. Thanks to Borneo becoming popular with Koreans, we were able to fly to Kota Kinabalu with just a quick plane-change in Seoul. (On the way back we'll have an 8-hour Seoul connection so we'll explore the city a bit.) Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah, is the biggest city in Malaysian Borneo, although that's not saying much. (Indonesian Borneo and the city-state of Brunei round out the island.) Our trip is entirely within Sabah.

Kota Kinabalu, usually referred to as KK, has changed some -- a few more shopping malls and upscale hotels, but it still has a strong Southeast Asian feel, and the authentic waterfront markets (photo 1) are terrific.

As in 1992, our first order of business after arriving in KK was to scale 13,435' Mt. Kinabalu (photo 2). In 1992 we did the traditional two-day climb and it was superb. We learned a couple of lessons, though: We were extraordinarily sore for a full week thanks to the 7000' descent, much of it on punishing large steps (photo 4). Also we had been lucky with the highly changeable weather. Taking those two factors into account, this time we decided to spend two nights at the mid-mountain guesthouse, to break up the descent in the good-weather case, and to give us a second chance for the summit if bad weather struck on summit day. (Because climbing the mountain has become extremely popular, we had to book our two nights many months in advance.) Luck was with us again, and the good-weather case prevailed.

Overall, the Mt. Kinabalu climb has to rate as one of the best non-technical peaks anywhere. The mountain towers over Borneo, with nothing even half its height anywhere in the vicinity. (For this reason, and for its relative accessibility, Kinabalu is sometimes compared to the considerably more difficult Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which we hope to scale this coming summer.) The Kinabalu summit area is a wide expanse of granite knobs and spires (photos 3 & 5), and reaching the highest point requires only a bit of scrambling. The hike begins in rainforest and ascends through changing flora, with prevalent carnivorous plants (photo 6) a special draw for Tim, who has quite a collection of them at home. About 2/3 of the way up is the very comfortable Laban Rata guesthouse (visible as one of the upper specks in photo 3). We lucked into a four-bed room; the meals and sunsets (photo 7) were excellent.

It's traditional to make the final push to the summit for sunrise, which means leaving the guesthouse around 2:30am and hiking by headlamp. There's a rope following the route all the way to the top, although it's only needed to actually pull oneself up in a few spots. We made good time, arriving at the summit in the dark (photo 8) and watching Borneo unfold under a perfect sunrise (photo 9). Most people hurried down after sunrise, but since we had our extra night at the guesthouse, we took our time and explored the summit plateau (photo 10), probably our favorite part of the hike.

Spreading the descent over two days did the trick -- while we watched many other hikers cope with the "post-Kinabalu hobble," we were barely sore.

Needless to say, Tim has been in photography heaven, now toting multiple cameras and lenses. Jennifer soldiers on capturing the trip with her pocket camera. In this travelog, all photos except 4, 8, & 10 are Tim's.

Next: Divers are no longer allowed to stay in the huts on tiny, renowned Sipadan Island as we did in 1992. Instead, a number of resorts have sprung up nearby. We'll spend six nights at the only reasonably-priced one, and certainly the most unusual: Seaventures Dive Rig.

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