Saturday, April 07, 2012

Making A Molehill Out Of A Mountain (Of Costs)

As I stood on the deck of my ferry, carrying me from Zamboanga to Sandakan in East Malaysia, in the still night, watching the rippling wake reach behind us through the mirror-smooth Sulu Sea, I found it hard to believe that this is one of the most notorious stretches of water in the world. From Mindanao to Borneo there stretch several island groups -  Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi - that form the heartland of the current Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. Piracy is not unheard of around here and only two months ago a couple of European tourists were kidnapped on Tawi-Tawi whilst taking wildlife photographs. These are certainly not places to travel to thoughtlessly, although peering at the soundlessly calm expanse around me when I awoke in the middle of the night, with only a small glow on the horizon indicating a mini flotilla of sardine boats, it was hard for me to equate the view in front of me with any sort of danger. And indeed there was none to be had as we arrived in Sandakan without a hitch (except for the 9-hour wait in Zamboanga as the 300 passengers cleared the customs inspection that was manned by only two officers - although there were about a dozen soldiers milling around doing little else than motioning the queue to shuffle along every now and again).

A suburban cul-de-sac in Sandakan that reminded me of middle-class suburban neighbourhoods in the UK.

My initial impression upon arrival in Sandakan was one of Britishness. It might be hard to believe, and indeed there is no single feature that I can conclusively point to, rather it is a holistic blend of small quirks and traits that made me think so: from the obviously physical, such as driving on the left and three-prong plugs, to street signs, even pavements and grassy verges, the layout of suburban homes, the understated, yet moving, memorial to the victims of the Sandakan Death Marches, and even the souped-up cars of the local boy racers. Whatever it was I felt quite at ease in this small port town.

I had been looking forward to coming to Malaysia for some time as it is home to one of my favourite foods in the world: roti canai. A flat, fried bread that is torn apart and dipped into accompanying curry sauces. As the name suggests the dish is Indian in origin, but has been adapted and altered in Malaysia to become unique and different to anything found on the Subcontinent. Served with sweet, milky tea it is perhaps the best breakfast in the world (although admittedly this is a purely subjective opinion), and I had been waiting almost seven years to have some more. Of course there is more to Malaysia than just food, and Sabah has some of the country's most outstanding natural attractions. The island of Sipadan is renowned for the quality of its diving, said to be amongst the best in the world, and Mount Kinabalu is incredibly popular with hikers thanks to its unique form and relative ease with which it is scaled. (Also the added kudos gained by climbing "Southeast Asia's highest peak", as it is touted in all the tourist brochures, completely ignoring the fact that there are 9 other mountains in the region that are higher still.) The only drawback is that Sabah is not particularly interested in independent travellers like myself and would prefer people to book tours via overpriced agencies several months in advance.

The iconic peak of Mount Kinabalu rising high above the Bornean landscape like a granite crown.

Diving was out of the question but I really wanted to go up Mt Kinabalu. However the mountain has become notorious amongst independent travellers for the extortionate prices charged just to be allowed to reach the summit. Whilst it is possible to summit and return to the park entrance in one long, gruelling day (ascending and then descending 2300m each way), the peak is usually obscured by clouds by late morning, making such a programme highly unsatisfying. Instead it is best to spend a night at a shelter and to ascend in the early morning to catch the sunrise before the clouds roll in. The catch is that accommodation is restricted to a single lodge that is run by a private hotel company that charges £75 to spend a night in a dormitory bunk. This mouthwatering figure is compounded by the entrance fee of around £25 as well as the requirement to hire the services of a guide for a further £25. The latter cost is particularly galling as the "guide" is completely useless since there is a single, well-marked, path leading to the summit that is impossible to lose. Our guide didn't even share any particularly interesting tidbits of information and spent a good chunk of the time listening to music on his mobile. But I'm getting ahead of myself; how the hell did I, Mr Thrifty, end up going up a hill when it was going to set me back some £125? Had I gone (even more) mad?

To answer that I need to back up a little. In the guesthouse I was staying in in Sandakan I happened to be sharing my dorm with a Czech traveller named Tomáš. It turned out to be headed in the same direction, both of us hoping against hope, to be able to find a way to scale Kinabalu at a reasonable price. His schedule was a day ahead of mine and so we agreed that he would travel to the foot of the mountain and research costs and I would meet him the following day.

When we met it was obvious that Tomáš had been busy. Apparently he had spent the day going round various offices checking prices and getting thoroughly disheartened. He ended up chatting with a park ranger and explained his predicament, laying it on by saying that he had come to Sabah expressly to climb the mountain, but now not being able to (partly true at least). The ranger obviously took pity on him and offered to let him stay at a hut reserved for visiting researchers and scientists for only £4, so only 6% of the official price. He warned, however, that it isn't luxurious and he would need to bring a sleeping bag. Naturally when Tomáš broke the news to me when we met up I was overjoyed that I would have the opportunity to climb the mountain at a price that I could afford.

The next day, properly primed with food, warm clothes and sleeping bags we presented ourselves at the main gate to avail ourselves of the necessary guide. As there were two of us we would be able to split the guide costs between ourselves, but that was still pretty expensive and so we looked around for some more people who would be amenable to sharing the "services" of the compulsory companion. We were lucky to find an Australian couple who had pre-booked their entire Kinabalu package (they had just flown into the country the previous day) and who were happy to let us tag along with them and their guide. And so off we trundled, having paid just £6 for accommodation and guide instead of £100, although we couldn't really get out of paying the actual park entry fee.

Reaching the top a little too early and waiting for the sun to come up.

The ascent itself was pretty straightforward. Mount Kinabalu is perhaps the easiest mountain to climb of such altitude. The route is basically a straightforward trail that is obviously marked all the way to the top. In fact I could see no point in the need for a guide, unless it is to provide employment for local people. Our guide had his earphones on for much of the climb and didn't offer up any information about local flora or fauna. We reached the cluster of huts 800m below the peak in thee early afternoon under a drizzly sky. The clouds regularly collect over the mountain by mid morning, which means that a night ascent to catch the sunrise is the surest way of taking advantage of the mountains unparallelled views over northern Borneo. And so with that in mind we went to bed early in our simple, yet spacious, hut (the two of us were the only ones there, whilst the other tourists were sharing packed 8-person dorms), setting our alarms for 2am. That proved overly cautious as the final ascent is, apart from the altitude, little more than a pleasant walk, so we arrived at the peak an hour before sunrise and had to contend with the cold. But at least it gave me time to admire the geology of the summit. The peak is formed by a granite extrusion that formed as molten magma cooled beneath the earth's surface. As the rest of the mountain eroded away it left this giant slab of rock jutting out above the other mountains. The summit area is therefore made up of a large, bare, granite plateau dotted with crags making it look like a bizarre moonscape, especially in the monochrome light of a full moon, whilst from below the crags and bare rock appear more like a giant crown.

The eerie, moon-like landscape around the peak of Mount Kinabalu.

The sun finally did appear, but was initially obscured by some low clouds, so we didn't get to experience it rising from the azure Sulu Sea. Then it was back down the way we came, passing slower stragglers along the way (Kinabalu attracts people of all abilities so you get a large number of people who lead mostly desk-bound lives who attempt to climb it with no previous training or preparation - many of them don't manage to reach the top). We stopped off at the main lodge along the way and sneaked in to take advantage of their generous buffet for breakfast. Everyone who goes up the mountain is obliged to stay there so they don't check to make sure that you are indeed a guest. We spent a good hour there stuffing ourselves on the full English breakfast on offer there before rolling out the door and down the mountain to the main road and civilisation. In the end I was glad I went up, but had I paid the full amount I would have been sorely disappointed. But as long as there are people willing to pay the prices will remain high and simple travellers will be unable to experience it.

P.S. I've updated my last blog post by adding some further clarification and detail to the paragraph concerning the history of the troubles in Mindanao. I flippantly terminated it with "And the rest is history." before, but although it may be true, it's not necessarily a history that everyone is familiar with. So feel free to have a quick reread to get up to date.

1 comment:

John Morley said...

I remember it being an expensive climb, but we had an awesome guide who was well worth the price.