Words by Chrishandra Sebastiampillai
Photos by Hamza Delbar and Chrishandra Sebastiampillai
*Malay proverb: A mountain that is chased won’t run, when the fog clears it will be seen. Don’t rush to chase a certainty.
It all started in Kampung Kiau in 1851 when two local Kadazan-Dusun men, Gunting Lagadan of Bundu Tuhan and Lemaing of Kg. Kiau, led Sir Hugh Low on a nine-day trek up Gunung Kinabalu. Years later, the summit of the mountain would be named for the colonial administrator and an industry of climbers would follow; providing a livelihood for generations of Kadazan-Dusun men and women, working as mountain guides and porters. The sight of tiny women skipping agilely along the trail, in rain or shine, with gas tanks strapped to their backs and wearing cheap rubber slippers are a common and mind-boggling sight to the struggling climber. As a child, I lived briefly and happily in Sabah for a time while my father was posted to a government department in Kota Kinabalu. And even in the short time I was in Kundasang, I experienced a minor earthquake while staying in Kinabalu Park.
Kampung Kiau is nestled in the shadow of the mountain and inextricably linked to it
Later aged 14, I returned with the kind of youthful arrogance that I can only be amazed at now to climb the mountain. My mountain guide, Petrus Duli, dutifully escorted me up the six kilometres to my overnight accommodation at Gunting Lagadan. Six kilometres that started out enchanting, with the tame squirrels that took food straight from tourists’ hands, the many pitcher plants that lined the sides of the trail, the gorgeous waterfalls, and pleasant conversations with Petrus and other climbers along the trail. Six kilometres that soon got rough when it rained, and the entire mountain trail became a frigid waterfall. The closer I got to six kilometres, the more ill I became. I wasn’t breathing properly. I felt dizzy. I wanted to throw up. The mountain was rapidly becoming a looming, living and breathing schadenfreude. I was at 3,323 metres; only 772 metres, or two kilometres to go the next morning to the peak. Surely it was possible. It was not. I only got progressively sicker over the night, throwing up several times and being cared for by two Sabahan school teachers from Beluran, Sandakan who all but adopted me. The next morning I hiked downwards, feeling immensely healthier as I returned to a more comfortable altitude.
Several years later, that same arrogance told me that it had been a fluke – a mixture of unpreparedness, youth, loneliness, and the freezing rain. So I went again, accompanied this time by my brother and another guide, Arnold. It didn’t rain. It was a little easier. I made some friends on Facebook whom I chat with till today. The next morning I woke up in the pre-dawn chill and hiked past Laban Rata (where I stayed this time in the comfort of central heating) to Gunting Lagadan, where I dived indoors to the toilet to throw up for the first time. Determined, and spurred on by my brother, I continued a further 400 metres than I had ever been before realising that the trail had come to a dead end and been replaced by bare rock face, making my stumbling in the pitch dark, dizziness and retching a real threat. So I turned around and went back to Laban Rata, a descent that Arnold later told me he found alarming in its speed and number of close calls. He went back for my brother, took him to the peak and later the via Ferrata, which I was crushed by disappointment to be unable to do. By now I was utterly disenchanted with the mountain, gazing at it with a mixture of hostility, frustration, belated and grudging respect, and echoes of illness.
Mount Kinabalu’s full grandeur on display during a brief appearance from behind clouds
Clearly I belonged much closer to the sea level. And Sabah obliged, providing gorgeous beaches and a warm sea to soothe my aching muscles and ego both times. I wrote a diary for my first climb. I am reading it now. It is hilarious. Always write diaries – the drama of the moment makes for entertaining reading years later. I also earned a family nickname from the experience – tiga suku, or three-quarters, referring to the amount of mountain I had been able to climb. Several years later, I returned again, this time staying far from the mountain. From a distance, it seemed tranquil and beautiful again, but I knew very well how things could turn for me even in that beauty. And just as it seemed that I had made my peace with the mountain, the mountain rumbled and stirred, displacing the humans that climbed it and the villages that lived in its shadow. The people that depended on it for their livelihood, respected it as a place for the spirits of their dead to dwell, now also learned to fear its capricious nature, if indeed they had been unaware of it before.
Our trip to Kampung Kiau taught me several things. That there is a profound inequality in the lives of those that come seeking to climb it for the thrills and adventure, and those that guide, protect and escort those climbers safely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. That what seemed like a fun challenge for me and many others sometimes represents the only viable occupation for those that live beneath it, hired at a nominal and inadequate sum and yet tasked with stewardship over up to five lives at once (seven, before the earthquake). I had the privilege of retiring to the warm islands after my experience with the mountain, but they lived through the deadly earthquake that ensured that they had no source of income through the mountain for almost a year while the damage of the trails was repaired. They live with the gut-wrenching dread that comes with every little rumble the mountain produces as regularly as several times a month. And they return to the mountain and continue to labour on it despite the many scars it has left on them – physically, mentally and emotionally.
Stark beauty and the rainbow’s promise of a better tomorrow after the storm
I may never climb the mountain again, but I no longer feel that I have only made it tiga suku. Meeting with and talking to the guides that spoke to us in Kampung Kiau took me the last quarter in my understanding of a place so prominent in Sabahan lore that it features on their flag and lends its name to the capital city. It may seem innocuous, peeking mischievously from behind a curtain of clouds and fog, appearing and disappearing mysteriously in a matter of seconds. It may seem like a physical challenge to be conquered, complete with a printed coloured certificate and jubilant photos from the summit. But the revered place of the dead, its dangers and its beauty are very real and tangible things. Perhaps if we spoke Kadazan-Dusun, we would have learned that a lot earlier.
Chrish likes chilli pan mee, Coke, and long walks on a moonlit beach. In reality she can be found eating chilli pan mee with Coke, or toiling past midnight over another self-imposed 25,000 word deadline (stay out of school, kids. These days 2,000 words is barely enough for an introduction).