“Climbing” to the top of Mt. Kinabalu and reaching the Philippines
Day 2,117 since October 10th 2013: 186 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
And the beat goes on
I tried to escape the Saga for a few days but it did not work. I did however get to let out some steam which is always good. I’m now 100% sure that there is no escaping the Saga until I reach home. It has been a 24/7 thing since late 2013. You probably cannot imagine it as you have no base for doing so. However I suppose that parents would know a little of it. There is no escaping being a parent either.
I’m full. I have not enjoyed the Saga for longer than I can remember although it has its moments. It is like life. Most of it is not fun…it just is. This is simply life intensified with all its learnings and wonders. I find that the best of the Saga is looking back at what has been accomplished and forward towards the goal and visions of a future. The “now” is not very desirable. Who lives in the “now” anyway? I do not enjoy creating these blogs and they typically take me 5-8 hours from writing the title until they are online. And the readership has declined since we reached Armenia. Why I do not know? Some have said I complain too much. Others say that it is refreshing to have an honest blog which does not hide the frustrations of long term international commitment. What a sentence that was? A great many comment that the blogs have become better over the years. Some feel addicted to these entries and dread that they will someday come to an end. The blog has more subscribers than ever before and fewer hits. Weird? Are you recommending these blogs to friends? They are written by a man who is among the 300 most travelled people on earth ;)
This is St. John's Peak as seen from the top of Mt. Kinabalu. Do you see the face?
Well, this entry is not one of those “I’m sick and tired of everything” ones. This one is about setting a goal and reaching it. This one is about stopping the clock and trying to breathe. This one is about reaching the roof of Borneo. The tallest mountain in Malaysia. But not the tallest mountain in South East Asia (SEA). I wrongfully thought that Mt. Kinabalu (4,095 m / 13,435 ft) was the highest but it is not. It is faaaaaar from it. I’m not sure why I thought that it was? I guess it has been marketed as such. I think I’ve heard a Malaysian or two brag about it as well? However the truth to the matter is that it rings in as the 23rd highest mountain in SEA. Don’t forget that Myanmar is also a part of SEA and they hold the six tallest with Hkakabo Razi being the highest (5,881 m / 19,295 ft). Indonesia, specifically the island of New Guinea, is home to ten mountains that are higher than Mt Kinabalu. But let’s not belittle Mt Kinabalu. It is a gorgeous mountain and well worth visiting. It’s not a climb though! Oh here we go again… You can walk to the top at Low’s Peak with both hands in your pocket. Try climbing a tree with both hands in your pocket and feel the difference. Saying that you ‘hiked’ Mt Kinabalu just doesn’t sound as cool as having ‘climbed’ it. Right…sorry Mt Kinabalu…I love you and did not mean to hurt your feelings. You are okay. You might not be the highest or most technical mountain – but you are something very special…kind of ;)
You cannot trek on Mt Kinabalu without a permit and a guide. Like that it is much like visiting Bhutan or North Korea :) Permits are limited and there are fewer per day now compared to the past. You will find plenty of tour companies willing to take you and I’m sure that the quality varies greatly. I tried my best to get one of them to collaborate and give me a discount or some kind of advantage. But I don’t think they are used to that kind of thinking in this part of the world. I definitely got nowhere. Time matters a little less here on Borneo compared to other places. It’s an easy going part of the world. It seems to be a “why spend five minutes finishing now when you can do it in fourteen days” kind of place. As such I thought I’d just go for the lowest price, pay and definitely not promote anyone as they did nothing special to deserve it. However how can I not mention Jungle Jack?!
Good advise for THE ENTIRE planet.
Jungle Jack is such a character!! Pretty much a legend if you ask me! He is into backpackers and does not find other demographics interesting. He runs a backpacker hostel a stone throw from the entrance to Kinabalu Park. The park is by the way a World Heritage Site. Jungle Jacks hostel is basic in its accommodation and appearance. But the level of service is through the roof and you really sense that he cares more about his guests than money. He loves dogs and they are all over the place. Perhaps around twenty friendly dogs run about wagging their tails. Food is included and delicious. Three meals a day. Bottled water is free. You can borrow the scooter for free. We (the guests) were even offered to borrow his pick-up truck one night. Jungle Jack has the lowest prices for “climbing” Mt Kinabalu. By far the lowest. He has no webpage but you can find him by googling him. He knows an abundance of people and can get you a permit on short notice. You will need a head torch, gloves and a raincoat/poncho for the hike. Jungle Jack provides it for free. And he is super funny and charming!! Basically every sentence he finishes end with “man”. “I know what I’m doing, man”. “I love counting money, man”. “That is no problem, man”. The 62 year old Malaysian is a former chef, he has been married twice and he got in trouble with the locals for the viral “naked group photo”, which locals believed enraged the mountain in 2015 and caused the fatal earthquake. I first heard of Jungle Jack when I met Christo in Brunei. Jungle Jack is a legend and the way to go.
I was joined by Libby from Texas, USA, along with Emma and Levi from the Netherlands. Have you noticed how it makes sense to mention which state in the USA someone is from but not even which city in another country? I guess that’s Hollywood for you or the culture of a superpower spreading across the world. How long will it be before we can reference provinces in China? Libby, Emma, Levi and I were ready to enter the park and begin hiking at 09:50am. We had been fitted with ID tags to wear around our neck and we had been briefed by our park issued guide Yeta. Yeta had been going up and down the mountain twice a week for 22 years so her total amount of ascents might be around 2,000. She was friendly but very reserved and introverted. However very experienced.
And then one foot followed the other for the next four hours. I did not join the trek to be social. Libby, Emma and Levi were super cool but I was there to blow some steam off and accomplish a side project. I was in part on the mountain because I had seen a picture of Bjarke (friend from Denmark) at Low’s Point (peak of Mt Kinabalu). It was hanging on the wall of Bjarke and Kunjung’s apartment in Singapore. I was in part on the mountain because the next ferry for the Philippines was not scheduled to depart until four days later so I had the time. I was in part on the mountain because it’s my thing! I’ve been to the top of both Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. I have been to Mt. Everest basecamp and I have been on top of a long list of Austrian mountains which you have likely never heard of. I wanted to climb Mt Aconcagua in Argentina but it was winter when we reached. I wanted to climb Mt. Cameroun but the Saga was ridiculously stressful at the time when we were there. And Mt Kinabalu is actually a relatively famous mountain and certainly a nice one.
Having small talked a bit with everyone in the group I eventually set my own pace which was faster than the others. I was on my own on the remarkably clean trail which lead to the top. The fresh air! Being physical! Sweat! Nature! I stopped to take plenty of photos along the way. I rested for twenty minutes at Layang-layang having hiked 4 km (2,5 mi). Both the temperature and humidity was high and it was all while moving up towards thin air. Libby had given me one of her sandwiches so I chowed it down with some water and a sneakers bar. And off I went again. I thought that the others might had caught up with me at Layang-layang but they did not. I eventually reached Laban Rata Guesthouse at 3,273 m (10,734 ft). The hike had begun at 1,866 m (6,122 ft). It was almost 2 pm. I found my bed for the night and began drying my clothes and backpack in the sun. I hydrated with water and sent a GPS signal. A while back we were doing the 30 day push-up challenge. Well, I still do them every day and I owed from the day before. So I did 28 push-ups…waited a bit and then did another 29. An hour and a half later the others showed up.
We had dinner quite early as we were scheduled to depart towards the summit at 02:30am. I was in bed at 6pm and more or less slept until 02:00am when most people got up. We were given very comfortable beds in a large sleeping dormitory along with perhaps twenty others. Showers were ice cold. The food was great and plentiful. I woke up out of breath a few times during the night but found my way back to sleep. At 02:00am it was pitch black outside although we had a full, or near full, moon. We had another meal before leaving up the trail in the dark. A snake of head torches could be seen ahead of us on the mountain. Libby, Emma, Levi, Yeta and I were just about the last to leave Laban Rata. Perhaps some sixty people were ahead of us. We quickly caught up to some of them and overtook a few. Sometimes it was too narrow to overtake and the queue of people would simply stop. Sort of like traffic sometimes stops and you don’t know why. It did not take long before I found my own pace and continued on my own. I overtook more and more people until I was completely alone on the trail. I had no intention of being the first and always thought that I would see some light up ahead of me. But I eventually realized that I was the “front runner”. There was nobody ahead of me. I switched off my head torch as the moonlight was proficient. And then I just kept on keeping on.
I walked across this in the darkness of the night under a near full moon.
I reached Low’s Peak at around 04:55am. The next people caught up with me at around 05:00am. It was pretty cold. The sun would not rise until around 06:00am. Maybe it wasn’t so smart to be fast…that was a pretty cold hour…
If there is no photo of it - did it really happen? ;)
It got crowded at Low’s Peak. Everyone wanted a selfies. Or two…or ten. The first ascent took place in March 1851 by Hugh Low. The first recorded ascent in any case. Mt Kinabalu is said to be among the 20 most prominent mountains in the world by typographical prominence. It is not a volcano but rather comparable to a big rock. It is considered a relatively young mountain at only 10 million years. The surrounding jungle is the oldest in the world and dates back 130 million years. Just think about how we often reference that dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago. Crazy.
It was undeniably beautiful up there at first light. And it was all very worthwhile. However it eventually became time to head back down the mountain. This time Libby, Emma, Levi and I teamed up and headed back down to Laban Rata together where we had breakfast around 08:00am. We continued down the mountain around 09:00am. Again more or less as a group but eventually Levi and I broke off and headed down together. As we got further and further down the mountain Levi twisted his ankle and decided to wait for the others. I wanted to head down a bit further were there was an Orang-utan viewpoint. But it turned out to be nothing when I got there so I continued all the way down. Besides, nobody has seen neither monkeys nor apes near the trail for a long while. Once back at Timpohon Gate I began drying my clothes and bag in the sun and did 30 push-ups. Then I waited until the others arrived and together we all returned to Jungle Jacks.
You might remember Clemont from France? We met a week ago as we both left Brunei the same day and travelled together to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. Back then he mentioned that he was heading to Jungle Jacks for a few nights and lo and behold I met him again when I first arrived to the hostel. Clemont was getting ready to leave towards Sandakan the day after we got down from the mountain. So were Emma, Levi and I. Libby was off to Miri so we said farewell the next day leaving our mountain adventure behind us. We all had pretty sore legs as we separated. Jungle Jack just so happened to be heading the 246 km (153 mi) to Sandakan that day and offered Clemont, Emma, Levi and I a ride at a better rate than the bus. And away we went.
Clemont and I had more time to talk. Emma and Levi had booked themselves into a hotel while Clemont and I opted for a cheap hostel. Before we split up Jungle Jack took us to a place which had the best noodles, man. There he offered us some mystery meat which was good and turned out to be pork penis/scrotum. I was not surprised that he would play such a trick on us. However the (regular) noodle soup was delicious. As mentioned, Clement and I had time to talk. He is an interesting fellow and quite thoughtful. We have had some good conversations. He also lend me an ear as I babbled on about general disappointment, hardship and the heavy toll of trying to push the Saga forward and reach the target of every country completely without flying. The Saga has become quite the mental exercise and the path towards the end is not a smooth one.
Buying a ticket to the ferry should have been straight forward. The hostel I stayed at lends out bicycles for free. They have two. A red one and a blue one. The blue one was out of order and the red one had two flat tyres. However I quickly had air in them both and set out on the 9 km (5,6 mi) road to the port. It was 32 C (89.6 F) and the humidity ringed in at 64%. The further I got the less air I had in my tyres. But I got there, However only to learn that the agent who sold tickets was 7 km (4.35 mi) back from where I came. Fair enough and off I went. But after a while there was no more air in the tyres and I had to pull the bike until I found a repair shop with a friendly guy who could inflate them for me. He first inflated the rear tyre and while he was working on the front one the rear tyre suddenly exploded!! There was now a hole in the tyre large enough to put four fingers through it. Hmmm. I thanked him and left again dragging the bike toward Sandakan. On my way I found the agent and requested a ticket. The agent asked where I was from and upon my reply looked up Denmark on a list. “Sorry but you need a visa to embark the ship sir”. Eh? No I don’t? I get visa on arrival in Philippines? But Denmark was on the list along with most other western countries next to “visa required”. Incidentally I noticed that people from the Ivory Coast were not required to have a visa. I left without a ticket and quickly engaged a bunch of friends in Brunei, Singapore and Manila while trying to solve this.
Before I knew of it some ten people were involved across email and WhatsApp. The outcome was that the Philippine Embassy in Brunei said that I would get visa on arrival and that was also in accordance with what is written on the Embassy of the Philippines in Singapore website. So it had to be company policy? We called up Aleson Shipping from Manila and they said that I did not need a visa as long as I arrived with a return ticket. Okay? Then I headed the 30 minutes back out to the agents location and told them what I know knew. But they had their list. I tried to explain that the list did not matter now that I had information straight from the embassy and the shipping company. We danced for a while. We danced for a long while. Why spend five minutes finishing now when you can do it in fourteen days? Well, I left with a ticket. A return ticket. The office ladies were really kind but it took a while.
Back at the hostel Clement and I went for a walk in an old Chinese cemetery before saying farewell to each other. He’s really a good guy and in many ways the way I think a traveller should be. I was told to be at the ferry at 6pm but when I arrived I learned that immigration was not expected before 8pm. That would be the first of many senseless hours of waiting for nothing. Time which could have been spent much better in other ways. Immigration eventually began processing the many passengers and it took its time. And as I grew older alongside my fellow passengers the moment when we finally had to embark the vessel arrived. There was a final checkpoint before we could head up the gangway and I was questioned about my visa which I did not have (and did not need). I have some experience in these debates and it worked out to my benefit. I find that you can often get access to a great deal of places simply by acting confident and sometimes important. I had to defend my position against five different uniformed people at the gangway but was eventually let onboard. For starters I could reference that we had both been in touch with the Philippine embassy and the owners of the ship which both confirmed that I did not need a visa. And as per advise I had a return ticket to prove my intent of departure.
Lot's of security checks before boarding the ferry. And several checkpoints along the road on Mindanao in the Philippines.
I was given a four bed cabin and was soon after joined by two other men. One from Malaysia and the other from the Philippines. Friends traveling together. There was no window however it was nice and clean. Along with me I had brought two instant soups. A habit I picked up from traveling by train in China. It’s a low costs meal and you can often, if not always, find hot water on trains and ships. I guess you could bring your own hot water in a thermos – but now we are getting into advanced thinking ;) Being onboard a ship in a cabin with steel walls and no windows had me thinking: “how would I know if we were sinking?” Would I just be sitting there until I noticed water running in across the floor? Who knows? We reached Zamboanga the next day in the evening. Philippines: country number 186 in an unbroken journey completely without flying. Is this journey any less pointless than the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953? We knew the mountain was there and by all likelihood it could be climbed. So why do it at all? In the words of mountaineer George Mallory who died on the mountain in 1924: “because it is there!!” And in the spirit of the now 50th anniversary of man setting foot on the moon for the first time we may want to recall John F. Kennedy’s famous speech: “We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”.
The kind and fun immigration at Zamboanga.
It took forever to get of the ferry and it took a long time before I met with immigration. However I got there. It was dark outside and Zamboanga might not be the best place for foreign visitors to roam around. The island Zamboanga is on is called Mindanao and it has had some unfavourable history attached to itself since the early days of this millennium. Alas, how does it measure to all the other places we’ve gone in the past years? And I wonder if the majority of those living in Zamboanga do not have smartphones and Instagram like everybody else? Finally it was the only place I could enter the Philippines on a ferry. The immigration officer lifted his eyebrows as his fingers wandered through my passport. I was finally told to go and speak to another officer. Meanwhile I saw almost everyone else be processed and enter the country. I was now speaking to a woman who had all sorts of questions and instead of superficially sticking to the “I’m just a tourist story” I decided to go with the “this is my country number 186 story” which kind of always takes a lot more time and poses a lot more questions but certainly explains everything. The following questions were of the sort that reflected personal interest and not really national security. Then we did some selfies and group photos and eventually I entered the country just before 11pm.
Jollibee's is a kind of "national treasure of the Philippines. It's a fast food chain which is also found overseas...and EVERYWHERE in the Philippines :)
There is nothing I dislike more in travel than arriving to an unknown city in a foreign culture after the sun has set. However I unfortunately have some experience with it and have never been attacked. My first stop was at an ATM while taxi drivers all around me were offering to take me to the airport. Once I had cash I jumped on the back of a motorcycle and off the driver and I went to the bus terminal. This became the beginning of a long and strenuous journey to Manila. Over the next 72 hours I would cross five islands in order to reach the sixth which Manila is on. Five ferries, five motorcycle taxis, three buses, two minibuses, one shared taxi and an interesting tricycle ride would get us to the nation’s capital. All because the weekly ferry from Zamboanga to Manila left Tuesday and I arrived Wednesday. How do they manage not to time that? Alas, my first night in the Philippines was spent in a bus.
My route to Manila...
There was hardly any waiting at all between all of this transport. In that sense the Philippines is a very easy country to travel in. Transport is plentiful and affordable. For whatever reason you need to pay a separate terminal fee before embarking any vessel but the fee is minor. That begs the question: what is the fee for? When I asked the demotivated man who was collecting the fee he rolled his eyes and spoke without words: “just pay the damn fee!!” However as I persisted in getting an answer he simply replied: “for renovations”. Fair enough. Although renovations would likely costs millions so it would take a great many passengers to build up the necessary funds. The beauty of the Philippines is in a class of its own!! The vivid green colours of the rice fields sent me back to Vietnam. The lush green mountains had my mind wondering off to Sierra Leone, Venezuela and Angola among many other places. The feeling I had, the vibe of it all, was a mix of the Caribbean, Latin America and Central Africa. As a bus brought me through the night I spotted a group of young men bathed in orange light, trying to fix a motorcycle on the side of the road. That instantly reminded me of the motorcycle which broke within the first hour of entering the Republic of Congo in early 2016. Pushing myself to continue from one form of transportation to the next was certainly hard but I found myself enjoying it as well. Perhaps it was the easiness of it all while the progress was clear. I do not know? Every island I reached was different from the last.
Selfie while my heart was beating pretty fast.
At one point I found myself hanging on to the back of a tricycle while thinking of all the horrible consequences which could follow! If the bar I was seated on broke then I would likely slide off and a great deal of my skin and flesh would probably be ripped off as I made impact with the road. I might even knock my head against the tarmac which could result in a fractioning of my scull. I figured that was the best case scenario. We were eleven people on the tricycle including four children. Four of us were on the motorcycle itself while the rest were packed into the side carriage. My heavy luggage was on the roof of it. Did the driver know what he was doing? Did he understand the physics of the weight against balance when he made a turn? I figured that if he didn’t then the tricycle would tip on top of me if he made a hard right turn. In that case I would likely fracture my jaw, loose several teeth, break several bones and obviously a lot of skin and flesh would sheer of my body – possibly all the way to the bone. If the tricycle flipped on the other side it would be anyone’s guess what would happen. However it would surely be bad news. How fast were we going? It did not matter. All I knew was that I did not want to fall off at such a speed. It somehow reminded me of hanging on to my life on the back of a motorcycle on a dirt road in Liberia…all while my heavy North Face duffel bag was trying to pull me off…
My bunk bed during the storm.
The calm after the storm.
While onboard one of the ferries I secured a ticket within economy. That meant a field of bunk beds in a covered area which was open to the sea on both sides. The temperature was high so the open sides were welcome as they offered ventilation. Every so often I could smell durian. I didn’t use to mind the smell as much before as I do now. I guess it changed after I tried eating some. The smell of durian has been very common throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and now the Philippines. Please let the durian season end!! ;) As the sun set we all bunked up and I fell asleep. At some point during the night a storm was upon us! I could clearly hear the ocean clashing up against the ferry and the wind was strong and cold. I tried to ignore it but a clear voice commanded: “get up and put your jacket on or you will regret it!” There was no voice. It was all within my head. Perhaps I was still asleep? I listed to the voice, made my way to the duffel bag, unlocked it, pulled out my jacket, closed the bag, locked it, put the jacket on and went back to sleep. Stuff which under normal circumstances would be simple but just felt impossibly hard during the night. And I slept like a baby. I did not freeze and woke up at 05:00am refreshed.
Final ferry before the final bus before Manila.
I need to mention the beauty of the Philippines again. It is really something. I’ve seen a lot of it and I am amazed. By the way, before I forget I should mention that all the ferries I boarded were in great condition. But back to the beauty…volcanos, caves, white sand beaches, lush vegetation, wooden colourful houses…it looks like some sort of paradise. People have been kind. People smile and laugh a lot. I know more than a few Filipinos from all the containerships I’ve been onboard. The holy trinity seemed to be: food, laughter and karaoke. This entry could go on for ever. Let’s save some for next week. We have reached Manila. I had not had a shower for four days and my shoes had not come off my feet for three days. I needed a shower…
Tired - but accomplished.
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Once Upon A Saga