If there is one thing that I have taken away from my days as a cadet, it would be the love of climbing mountains. As a cadet, I had the opportunity to traverse dense jungles and conquer peaks. There is just something about being within nature, climbing slowly but surely, until you reach a point higher than any other that appealed to me. And so, this begun my love of hiking mountains.

For my first destination, I chose to hike Mt Kinabalu. Mt Kinabalu is one of the tallest mountains in the region, and the prospect of being able to conquer it in a short 2D1N appealed to me greatly. Hiking Mt Kinabalu, however, was not exactly cheap. Because of the 2015 Sabah earthquake, which saw 18 casualties (among which 9 were Singaporeans), authorities had to restrict the number of climbers by issuing permits daily. Permits were difficult to obtain, and thus I resorted to contacting a travel agency. I contacted Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures for my trip. They were extremely responsive and receptive to all of my needs. With minimal hassle, my 2 friends and I packed our bags and headed for Sabah in early May 2018.

Mount Kinabalu as seen from a distance

After we landed in Kota Kinabalu Airport, we took a taxi to our accommodation for the night. In our taxi ride, we hit it off with the driver, who brought us to a famous Bak Kut Teh store near our hostel. It was my first time eating Dry Bak Kut Teh and I was pleasantly surprised. After we bade our farewells, we went back to our hostel to rest for the night before our early morning ride to Kinabalu Park.

Climbing a mountain is tough, but having good friends around makes it slightly easier

We awoke at 6.30am for our ride to Kinabalu Park. It was a short 2-hour ride in which my friends and I dozed through the entire duration. When we finally arrived, we met our guide for the climb, Roger. Roger was in his late 30s, short in stature and wore a charming grin on his face. He was extremely friendly to us, often trying to start conversations despite our language barrier. He was popular amongst the other guides too, as they would poke fun and have a laugh whenever they passed each other. However, beneath the good-natured laughter and wide smile lie a fearsome soldier. Roger told us that he used to train with the Malaysian GGK Commandos – among the most elite of soldiers in the region. He spoke of his passion for climbing. When he was younger, he went on a sponsored trip to conquer the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest point in the whole of Africa. However, because he lacked the funds to travel anywhere else for a climb, he was content to climb Mt Kinabalu over and over again.

Mt Kinabalu is a holy mountain, seen as the spiritual focal point of Sabah. However, in recent years, it has become a mountain designed for tourists to hike. There were man-made steps from the bottom to the top. Porters were present on the mountain, transporting just about everything, from basic necessities like toilet paper to climbers’ equipment to even climbers themselves. I saw a middle-aged Chinese man sitting atop what looked like a throne, carried by two porters. Whilst I felt disgusted at the commercialization of what was meant to be a holy and spiritual site, I recognized that this was a massive form of revenue for the locals around. Locals, like Roger, depended on tourists as a form of sustenance and way of improving their lives.

Together with our guide, Roger, a Malaysian commando!

Despite the stairs, the climb was not easy. The steep stairs were at times nearly 90 degrees. It was a constant uphill battle, quite literally. My friends and I pushed through the pain, whilst taking frequent breaks as our bodies accustomed to the elevation and altitude. After a tough 5 hours, we reached Pana Laban, a mid-way point on the mountains where we would rest for the night. We checked in to the Pendant Hut, washed up, took a stroll around the area, remarking at how far we were from the summit. The temperature where we were was around 10 degrees Celsius, and dropped steadily every minute. Having underestimated how cold it would be, we shivered through the night without getting much sleep.

At 1.30am, it was time to wake up. We jumped out of our beds, eager to get our bodies moving. Our bodies stiff and sore, we shuffled out of the hut and into the excruciating cold. It took us nearly 15 minutes before we could feel the blood rushing through our veins again. However, it wasn’t before long we approached a dangerous junction where we had to stop and wait for other climbers to move. Given there was only one path up the mountain, and hundreds of climbers waiting to get to the summit, we had to quietly queue and wait. Thankfully, Roger understood our impatience and ushered us through the crowd of climbers. In 4 hours, we were among the first few to be reaching the summit.

Smiling but dying on the inside as we summit the Malay Archipelago

When we reached the summit, it was still dark, and the sun was not going to rise for another hour. We took the mandatory shot with the summit sign that said “LOW’S PEAK, 4095.2 M”. Cold and tired, we were doing everything we could to keep warm until the sun rose. Unfortunately, when it looked like the sky was going to be too cloudy for a nice sunrise, we started heading back to our hut.

The most amazing sunrise I have ever seen (no filter!)

Along the way, we were proven wrong, as streaks of red and orange appeared in the dark blue sky. Stunned, I simply stood and stared in awe of mother nature’s beauty. At that moment, I felt all the tiredness, soreness and cold leave my body. After what must have been a minute, I turned around to see my friends having the same expression of awe on their faces. We hurried to take pictures and videos, before it was too late.

The journey downwards was much easier than the journey up. Being one of the first few to reach the summit, we were also one of the first few to head down. As such, the path was clear of obstructions. We gathered our belongings at the hut, drank a sip of the local Sabah tea, and started our journey downwards.

On the way down after a tiring but fruitful climb

Overall, I enjoyed the hike very much. While it was a little more on the expensive side, I could not complain because everything went right for me. Furthermore, it was re-assuring to know that my money was spent ensuring my personal safety, as well as generating income for the livelihood of locals in the area. Sabah is a region that thrives on tourism. Among which, the Mukim Batu Puteh Kinabatangan Tourism Cooperative Berhad from Sandakan was also awarded the Best Cooperative in Tourism, Personal Grooming and Healthcare Category in Malaysia. Support from tourists will definitely go a long way in boosting the economy of the region, allowing locals like Roger opportunities to achieve their dreams.

This article was written by Tok Yin Jie, who is a first-year Accountancy and Business Undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University currently interning in SNCF, Campus and Youth team. He is passionate about travelling and learning about new cultures. He hopes to be able to make a change in society in the future