Summiting was hard enough, with limited rations and the last dregs of our water bottles burning in our backpacks, but the descent from 4000 metres was another kind of torment altogether. Kinabalu’s thirty degree slope tore at our calf muscles and our resolve as we made our way down into the unexplored heart of the equatorial jungle. Only seven of the original party of ten had made it back. One had succumbed to a bowel-ripping case of Chagas disease on the way up, another to a sever and debilitating bout of Buruli ulcers and the final victim and mistepped the path leading to up to Lowe’s Peak (which turned out to not be so low after all) plummeting and bouncing spectacularly before he disappeared into the clouds below.
The incessant buzzing of throngs of flies was wreaking havoc with our fevered minds. The flies were competing with an army of inch-long leeches slowly making their way about our numerous cuts and blood-smeared shins. Combined with a ground temperature of 37 degrees and the pure, 100% humidity, it was like being spit-roasted over an open bonfire and tumbling down the mound of coals, having your legs seared with glowing-hot cattle-prods and you nether regions simmering in a stew seasoned with Bushman’s Fire “Dynamite” sauce (the one that makes the thermometer on the side of the bottle burst like an adolescents’ acne) – all at the same time. But no-one said the search for the mythical headhunters of Borneo was going to be easy. The unforgiving territory of Sabah, “The Land under the Wind”, stood in our way. Right now, it felt like “The Land under the Toaster”. The big Toaster. Directly under it…
I wish it was so! Oh how dearly I long for such a grand, colonial Conradesque tale of exploration and adventure, and wild loin-cloth wearing, spear-wielding natives – minus the testes stew part. I’ll own up. We never climbed the mountain. We could have, but didn’t. We didn’t delve head first into the jungle. We wanted to, but couldn’t. The trails were closed – how were we to know February was in the middle of monsoon season which would give rise to already treacherous jungle treks being insurmountable. Well, yes, there are guidebooks readily available which warn of such folly, not even to mention the internet…bah. Needless to say, we didn’t find the infamous headhunters either. Nor any heads. Not even one, shrunken, shriveled cranium, except for those we brought along ourselves.
What we did find, however, was even wetter, but not of the green and sweaty, variety, but of the bluest crystal kind. Something others toil their whole lives for, often selling body parts and in-laws to experience: Island living. Mmmm.
Some pics in Part 2.