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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Great heights

Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu.

A pair of Oriental hornbills leap from their perches high in the rainforest canopy and flap noisily across the valley. Their startled squawks, which might have warned us of the approaching bad weather, are cut short by a sudden boom of thunder overhead. Yet another storm is about to descend on the jungled slopes of Mount Kinabalu.

It's a familiar sound to Joseph Duzun. For the 13 years that he's been guiding tourists through the mist-shrouded forests of Southeast Asia's highest mountain, he has never been able to predict the violent moods of the mountain's weather.

Kinabalu Park, which incorporates the 4,101-meter Mount Kinabalu, is one of Sabah's most popular adventure destinations. It receives roughly 80-100 tourists a day, most of whom undertake the tough two-day climb to Low's Peak. Others, perhaps wisely, opt not to pit themselves against the mountain's grueling trails, icy winds and heady altitudes, preferring instead to enjoy the cool mountain air and rainforest gardens around the Park Headquarters.

From the steamy streets of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah's bustling port city, it's a four-hour drive along roads made hair-raising by Borneo's "cannonball run" mini-bus drivers, to reach Park HQ.



In the cool early-morning mist we set out from Timpohon Gate (1,866m), the official trail head, for the five-hour trek to our base camp and first night at Laban Rata. Our party of two yawning schoolteachers from Austria, a pot-bellied Irish barman, and a policewoman from London, looked a bedraggled bunch in the pre-dawn light. But where was our guide Duzun? Had he overslept?

Then, out of the mist he appeared, a small Kadazan man with a huge grin carrying an old canvas backpack. From his rubber boat shoes sprouted legs as thick as tree roots; far better suited to the steep, snaking trails than our high-tech, high-priced hiking boots.

The Kadazan people of Sabah have long regarded the mountain as the abode of the spirits and still pay homage once a year with offerings of chickens, rice and cigars, to their ancestors, whom they believe inhabit its highest peaks. The mountain's name derives from the Kadazan Aki Nabalu, or "Sacred Place of the Dead."

The trail towards Laban Rata conjures up a Conrad-style "lost world," and I could almost hear Orson Welles graveling out his lines from Heart of Darkness as we ascended into the clouds. Indeed, thick mist constantly obscured our path while towering tree ferns appeared like ghostly sentinels leading the way into the heavens. Now and again, tiny bamboo orchids and gold finger mushrooms, highly dependent on the mountain's water-laden clouds, would materialize out of the forest gloom.

Once, Duzun called an abrupt halt to point out what looked like a grove of red and yellow flowers-not flowers at all, but in fact insectivorous pitcher plants capable of holding up to four liters of water in which their prey, mostly nutrient-rich insects and sometimes whole rats, are digested.

Mount Kinabalu rises 4,101 meters to Low's Peak

Mount Kinabalu's slopes attract more than just trekkers, photographers and wild 'n' woolly botanists. Each year, competitors from Southeast Asia and Australasia pit themselves against the mountain-and the clock-in the grueling Kinabalu Climathon. The fastest time from Timpohon Gate to the summit and back is 2 hours and 42 minutes, recorded by a Gurkha soldier.

Breaking any records, however, is usually furthest from the minds of trekkers as they stumble into the lodge at Laban Rata in the late afternoon. Aches and pains and weary souls quickly vanish over steaming bowls of fish soup and hot green tea, served up in the lodge restaurant. It's a sobering thought that all supplies, including cooking gas bottles and building materials, are carried up the mountain by Kadazan porters who are paid five Malaysian ringgit (¥164) per kilo for their services.


Peak performance

At Laban Rata, 3,300m above sea level, the air is noticeably thinner, and simply walking from the restaurant to the bunkrooms, a distance of 50m, becomes a test of mind over matter. The rigors of trekking take their toll: a group of Dutch tourists abandoned their climb because several of their members were overcome with altitude sickness. Freezing pre-dawn temperatures, sprained ankles and headaches also deter many others from seeing the sunrise on Low's Peak.

The final ascent begins around 3am the next morning. To rise in the cold and wet at such an ungodly hour is necessary in order to reach the summit by 6am for the sunrise. Like a funeral procession, we fell in behind 40 other climbers making their way slowly and painfully across the granite rock faces; a scattered chain of torches in the chilly darkness. Guide ropes and trail markers installed by the Parks Authority ensured no one strayed too far towards oblivion.

The mountain's pitcher plants can hold up to four liters of water and digest a whole rat

At 6:10am atop Low's Peak, the long-awaited moment arrived. The first rays of sunlight broke over Mount Kinabalu's cold granite peaks, unraveling the whole of Borneo like a vast green carpet. To the north, Sabah's long muddy rivers snaked lazily across the lowlands towards the South China Sea and the Philippines beyond. To the east, Kota Kinabalu shimmered under its streetlights, while the tiny villages dotting the valleys far below were barely visible under morning cloud. Most intriguing was the shadow of Low's Peak forming a perfect pyramid across the lowlands, reaching all the way to the sea-a distance of some 180km.

With backslapping and celebratory swigs of rum over, it was time to reflect on our achievement.
For most of us, the climb to the rooftop of Southeast Asia had been a Herculean effort. For Joseph Duzun, however, it was all just another day on the job.


Getting there

Malaysian Airlines (MAS) flies direct to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru. The Sabah Parks office (088-211585), Block K of the Sinsuran Kompleks on Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, makes bookings (essential) for transportation to Kinabalu Park. Buses depart at 7am daily from KK for Kinabalu Park HQ; one-way costs RM 10. (¥100=3.04 Malaysian Ringgit)

Where to stay

Kota Kinabalu has two excellent tourist offices that can assist with accommodation: Tourism Malaysia (088-211732), on the ground floor of Wing Onn Life Building on Jalan Segunting, and The Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation (088-218620) at 51 Jalan Gaya. Lodging at Park HQ ranges from hostel style bunkrooms (RM 10 per night) to self-contained, private chalets (RM 60-360 per night). On the mountain, sleeping arrangements at Laban Rata are hostel-style (RM 25 per night, and include blankets and sleeping bag.

More information

Sabah is tropical year-round. Temperatures range from 20C (68F) at night to 30C (86F) during the day. The wet season lasts from October to February and humidity during this period can be oppressive. March to September are drier, though rainfall in the lowland rainforest regions generally remains constant. Sabah's official language is Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian), though English is widely spoken and understood in Kota Kinabalu and in most restaurants, banks and government offices. Climbing permits cost RM 10 per person from Park HQ. A guide is compulsory and fees start at RM 25 per day for one to three people. Joining a group can help cut costs.

Photos by Simon Rowe