Add to this one slightly wonky knee, two wobbly ankles and a toenail that has barely grown back and it comes as no surprise that I need focus all my attention on what's right in front of my feet. I try to focus only on the next step ahead, ignoring all the other steps that are still to come. And then I almost trip over a pineapple. As one does when hiking through the jungle in Borneo.
I am in the Sabah region of Borneo with Intrepid Travel and this trip is all about the jungle, trekking and of course, monkeys! But our first hike around the Dusun village we are staying at and leads us through pineapple fields and rubber tree plantations. Uphill, downhill and over tracks that weren't tracks before we came. The trek is challenging at times, but it is mainly due to the humidity that I am drenched in sweat in no time and I don't particularly care. We chat to our guides who are all friendly, knowledgeable about flora and fauna, and speak pretty good English. One of our homestay hosts, Abigail, tells me she wants to be a writer when she grows up. What do you want to write about?, I ask her. She says she doesn't know yet, but definitely not fiction as she deems her imagination not vivid enough. That's okay, I tell her, just write what you know. She smiles and nods, looking a little relieved that I don't deem it necessary for a writer to have imagination, maybe that's what she will do then – just write what she knows.
The next day we move to Kinabalu Park. Mount Kinabalu is still closed after an earthquake in early June and hasn't reopened. Admittedly I was not too sad when I heard the news that my tour would be altered as they are still busy with clearing the mountain paths and are unsure of when it will be passable again. While I had a fitness routine all planned out for the past three months, I didn't spend nearly enough time with it in order to make it up over 4000m. That becomes obvious to me when I finally get a good look at Mount Kinabalu from the village. Locals call it the shy mountain, shrouding itself in clouds and mystery, but if you manage to get up before sunrise you can catch it without covers and find yourself vis a vis with its rocky face. Even in the soft morning light it looks impressive and a little intimidating, I think I like it better from the distance.
With the closure of the mountain a lot of guides find themselves out of jobs and so we are accompanied by six locals to help us on our half day jungle trek through the first and second forest of Kinabalu Park. Only when Sopinggi, our main guide keeps on telling us that we can do it, do I actually start to get worried. I hadn't thought about not being able to do it. After all, how hard can it be to walk through the jungle?
One guide to three of us and we are off into what looks like Jurassic Park. Pineapples are not an issue here, but instead we got roots, thorny trees and huge boulders that we climb under, over and through however Sopinggi sees fit. He is a kind and funny guy and obviously loves what he does. Only later will I learn that his son was one of the guides who recently died in the aftermath of the earthquake while helping hikers to get down. I cannot believe that this happy man just lost his son. He doesn't even seem to dislike the mountain who took his son's life; maybe he finds comfort in the fact that the clouds of the mountain will now keep his soul safe as many locals believe.
There are times when I think chivalry is dead. Today is not such a day. When I trip and twist my ankle, a guide is immediately at my side, checks my ankle carefully and doesn't leave me from then on out. While I
gracefully scramble over rocks or slide on my bum down hills, he is there giving me a helping hand and carries my pack when it gets too tricky to get through an especially tiny crevice. He and his colleagues seem to be everywhere, guiding us, helping us, and seeing us safely through their mountain. I don't look far ahead, but again, just to the next step. When we are in a cave and the way is tight and dark, I focus on my breath and instead of thinking about creepy crawlies, I think about the bats above me. I like bats. I do what I consider a Ninja move over a particularly scary boulder and when I stick the landing I feel quite accomplished. Unfortunately Sean, the one with the GoPro, is nowhere in sight, he will only have gotten the parts with lots of swearing included.
When we get out of the cave, I am covered in something that resembles mud, but is technically a mixture of sweat, soil, and some small branches. A girl from our group is wearing a white tank top that looks like it just came out of the laundry. I just moved like a cat, she declares, so I didn't have to hold on to anything. She is probably also one of those who never gets sand on her towel, someone whom I admire and shake my head in disbelief at. Mind you, when you are sweating buckets, you can't sweat the small stuff and my dusty, sweaty self scrambles on. Wow, you are smiling again, says Sean holding his Go-pro in my face. Indeed, I'm having fun!, I declare, overtake him on the little path, hold on to my steady mountain guide, and continue my moving meditation drenched in green light.
Disclaimer: I was invited by Intrepid Travel to join their Sabah Adventure in Borneo – thank you! If you are thinking of coming to Borneo note that while Mount Kinabalu is still closed indefinitely there are wonderful hikes and treks for all levels that can be done in the lower parts of the park. Please use the local mountain guides to help you on your trek and to support their business until the shy mountain can host guests again!
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