Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Smash It Up

Hot on the heels of no lesser figure than SBY himself, I jetted over to Kinabalu on Borneo’s northernmost tip for this year’s Lebaran holiday. I was hoping for a pleasant break, although I also wanted to check if hard-line Indonesian nationalists had made good on their promise to, “Smash Malaysia.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the place seemed to be fully intact as I bagged a taxi into town.  Kota Kinabalu is rather a pleasant city in fact and sports a lovely long waterfront which overlooks five pristine tropical islands, each of which can be accessed cheaply by day trippers via a 20 minute boat ride.  The province of Sabah that KK sits in is also full of natural wonders.

I guess I’m already beginning to sound like the anodyne croon of a ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ ad. Hopefully however, the experience of visiting this sunny and vibrant seaside city acted as a soothing balm on the inflamed prostate of the president’s national pride and a major conflagration was averted at the recent Kota Kinabalu peace conference between Indonesia and Malaysia. After all SBY has more pressing matters to attend to at home, such as building a luxurious five star fun shack for the country’s indolent legislators and sweeping stabbed vicars under the carpet.

For my part, I was glad to tarry a while in Malaysia and enjoy my Lebaran break somewhere just a touch more organized and together than most of Indonesia is (although I’d better tread carefully here, lest the putative Malaysia smashers redirect their attentions towards the more easily accessible target of Metro Madness Towers).

My main mission however this fine Lebaran was to, in hindsight rather masochistically, scale the mighty Mount Kinabalu and live to tell the tale. Gunung Kinabalu is apparently the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua and stands a daunting 4095m above sea level. Modest by global standards perhaps but quite tall enough for my aging pins to be getting on with.

The entrance to the mountain trail sits in a beautifully verdant national park a couple of hours from town. I set off midmorning with a guide and a frighteningly healthy group of muesli chomping European backpackers and yomped up an increasingly steep 6km long path to the overnight base camp where we rested before the final 3km push to the summit. Along the way I chatted to some of the local guides in their own language (which is almost identical to Indonesian after all) and they told me that they were not particularly interested in going to war with Indonesia as they were great fans of Luna Maya and Ariel’s educational video. Good lads.

After a fitful sleep at base camp, we awoke at 1.30am for the moment of truth. This would sort out the men from the prematurely geriatric newspaper columnists. It was pitch black, raining and pea soup foggy, which is just as well because at times the climb involved clinging onto ropes and gingerly shuffling across precipices and drops that may have had a big wuss like me turning back if I could have seen down for further than about two meters.
Near the top, the terrain was barren, rocky and vertiginously steep and I could only manage around five minutes standing still on the summit before my delicate nipples started to freeze over. And so I began the long trudge down as daylight started to soften the engulfing blackness. After around half an hour I briefly looked up from my frozen hands as they clung for dear life to the guide ropes and was confronted with the most amazingly vast and panoramic view I have ever seen. A huge sweep of rugged geography stretching all the way to the ocean around 90km away.

I still had about 8km of descending to do though and began shoveling chocolate into my face to fuel the ensuing marathon. I’m reasonably fit, however ascending and descending mountains works those muscles like a sadistic, amphetamine fuelled aerobics instructor who’s just lost her car keys. When I finally staggered over the finish line I passed a board proclaiming the results of the ‘2009 Kinabalu Climabathon’. Apparently the winner had made it to the summit and all the way back down again in 2 hours and 40 minutes. He must have been using a stunt double in my opinion.

The following day my calf muscles felt as if they had been surgically removed, hammered with a meat tenderizer for an hour and then delicately sutured back into place. I had used a walking stick on the descent in an attempt to save the old knees a bit, however this meant that my arms were almost as spavined as my legs were. I covered my entire body in mentholated sticking plasters but to no immediate relief.

Don’t let me discourage you though. There are plenty of less strenuous activities on offer in Sabah: jungle treks, beaches, white water rafting, it’s all there and Malays do do the whole tourism thing rather well. Consider it doing your bit for bilateral relations. Promise me that you won’t smash anything while you’re there though.