It’s 4 a.m. I’m up 3,800 metres on a mountainside in a biting wind. I have an altitude-induced headache, my pace has slowed to a shuffle and it’s going to take me another hour to get to the top of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu, the tallest peak in South-East Asia at 4,095 metres.
“Eat more chocolate,” says Nathan Wedding, thrusting four squares of the dark stuff studded with hazelnuts in my direction. Nathan Wedding, the visionary and chief guide of Seven Skies, puts ordinary mortals into extraordinary places.
Our Borneo adventure begins with a kayaking trip through Abdul Rahman Marine Park, off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital and gateway.
First stop is Mamutik Island. When we beach 40 minutes later at the comma of sand that extends from Sulug Island, the only sign that anyone has ever been here is the table that awaits us at the water’s edge, loaded with tropical fruit, iced drinks and cold towels. A boat carrying all our overnight gear, and a crew of three accompanies us.
On the second day we paddle around the seaward side of Gaya Island, the largest in Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. The shoreline rises in a wall of greenery laced with tangled vegetation. White hornbills erupt from the trees and a sea eagle rides the thermals off the cliff face. We pass a cave gouged out by the sea where the squeaking of bats overlays the slosh of the waves. On the exposed black rock face Sa’eed, our local kayak guide, points out the swifts’ nests prized by Chinese gourmands for soup.
Buried in rainforest retreating from a crescent-moon beach, Bunga Raya Resort is made for the escapist with a taste for the finer things. One minute we’re paddling along a wild shore filled with squawking birds, the next we’re dining at the resort’s open-air restaurant, where you can order Chateau Margaux from the wine cellar.
Then it’s off to Sandakan for a trip up the Kinabatanan River, which burrows deep into the rainforests of eastern Sabah, often featured in nature documentaries.
Our home for the night is Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge at Sukau, a village about 80 km upstream from the river mouth. The lodge comprises bungalows on stilts strung together by boardwalks. On our second morning at the lodge, a rhinoceros hornbill arrives noisily in the branches of the ficus tree in front of me, scattering the squirrels gorging on the red fruit. It stays for just a minute, eating delicately for such a huge bird and beating its wings as it hops from one bough to another.
Days are spent on river safaris admiring the wildlife. On the first evening we head up the Menangle River flanked by vegetation alive with chattering macaque and larger proboscis monkeys. Adrian, our eagle-eyed guide, spots a python in a hole in a tree, a swimming water monitor, a fish eagle and a darter drying its wings high overhead.
On our second evening, Adrian spots four orang-utans, the largest tree-dwelling ape high up in the branches. In between each adventure, we return to the silky opulence of Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa. For a day, we carb up with coconut smoothies at the resort’s palm-shaded poolside bistro, doze through massages in the Chi Spa and prepare for the next bout of bravado.
Borneo is the toughest adventure in the Seven Skies portfolio with the ascent of Mount Kinabalu. We’re going from Kota Kinabalu at sea level to over 4,000 metres in less than 24 hours.
The walk begins at Timpohon Gate at 1,866 metres, in the thick forests that cloak the mountain’s lower slopes. It’s just 6km to the huts where we overnight at Laban Rata, but that involves a climb of almost 1,500 vertical metres, along a rocky path that rises mercilessly over rocks. We’re walking though a botanical wonderland, home to pitcher plants and the rafflesia, the world’s largest flowering plant. By late afternoon the cloud base has infiltrated the forest with mist. That evening, the sun lays on a lightshow across the clouds below that holds the dying light in a carpet of spun gold.
The next morning we’re up at 2 am to make the summit by sunrise. After the last checkpoint at Sayat Sayat a white rope marks the summit trail and it’s hand-over-hand up the rope until the angle slackens and we can walk unaided. We’re walking up a sloping sheet of solid granite with good footing but the altitude is starting to bite.
I count out 250 slow steps before I have to pause for breath. After a few sessions a faint glow comes from my right and I can see the outline of the summit and a few lamps dancing on the top.
The last 60 vertical metres of the climb is a scramble up broken granite boulders. Then we’re there in the warming light of the rising sun. There’s barely time for a photo at the peak and we’re bounding back down the mountain, legs refreshed, energy restored, marveling at how easy it all seems.
Three days later, on the flight from Sandakan back to Kota Kinabalu, the passenger beside me in the window seat clutches my arm and points. Below us a rippling cloud sea covers everything, except for the jagged profile of Mount Kinabalu, cresting high into the heavens. “It must be amazing to stand up there,” he says.
“I can tell you about that,” I say, “but first, you got any chocolate?”