Monster climbs, orangutans, and sweet native tea. Steve Thomas samples the lot on his recent ride out to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.
Talks had switched to albinos, and whether or not I was one? The old lady hadn’t seen a white man close up before, let alone had one drop in for coffee. So she was duly fascinated by my appearance. It was the end of myself and Isa’s second day of Borneo riding. We’d passed through this small kampung (village) to the north of the town of Kota Belud when I’d caught a glimpse of some toothless old ladies selling bananas at the roadside and had decided to stop and pass the time of day with them.
Much to Isa’s bemusement things had progressed rapidly with my newfound friends. The old ladies had decided to serenade me with a local bamboo instrument. By this time the entire village had crowded around to see what was going on, and many of the locals were attempting to ride my bike around too. It was one of those golden moments, the kind that can really turn a trip into a cultural adventure.
Meanwhile back inside the straw hut we huddled together around a large wooden table, chatting about my skin colour and other village matters. They’d found a young village girl who was slightly paler than the rest of them, they thought maybe we should marry and start a family – being as we were almost the same colour. But I figured that maybe I needed a little more time, which was okay by the locals, for now.
As the old tin pan boiled away in the corner I was greeted with local fried bananas and tapioca while I waited for my Nescafe OO. You see they take their drinks with a mountain of sugar and highly creamed with condensed milk in these parts. I prefer mine strong and black, something they had never witnessed before. Without milk it’s known as Nescafe O, so naturally I reckoned double O would get the point over as well as anything.
We’d spent all of that day just cruising around the local village roads, checking out the kampungs and fishing villages – and generally recovering from our previous day’s baptism of fire ride.
It was already my second visit this year to this enchanting slice of Southeast Asia. Things had been in the planning pot for a while. Originally my plan was to take my cyclo cross bike, so that I could take on the areas numerous dirt roads too. Seemingly my hosts, Tham and Isa had not quite understood my e mails regarding cyclo cross, and were waiting in confusion at the airport to see how exactly I was going to get a moto cross bike through customs. Thus it was something of an amusing and relieved reunion when I unzipped the road bike.
For Isa this meant the hurried resurrection of his old road bike, which had been in storage for some five years. We’d Christened the road trip with a fast moving 100 k first ride out south from Kota Kinabalu (KK) to Papar and back home. After negotiating several herds of water buffalo and goats along the way we crawled back into town, to an endless and longed for reception of sweet ice lemon tea. The heat had been pretty intense and by the time we got back we were both completely cooked, myself also in the sun burnt sense, and pink as I was they still figured I was an albino.
With just one day left in Sabah the time was fast counting down towards our grande finale ride, and what an unexpected mother of a ride it was set to be. As you do, I’d casually mentioned to Tham that I wanted to ride to the foot of Mount Kinabalu, a shrouded jungle peak, which at 4095 meters is the highest peak in all of Southeast Asia. I’d not really bothered to research things too much, but knew that it was around 100kms from KK to the Kinabalu Park HQ. In my infinite wisdom I’d assessed that this would mean something like a 15-km steady climb, at the very most.
The look of fear and despair that spread across Isa’s face, combined with his panic-stricken sprocket counting should really have given the game away. And sure enough I was beginning to question what all this fear was about; “I don’t think that I can make it on this bike, the gears are not low enough. It’s a 43 kilometre climb, you do know?” Muttered Isa. No, no, I did not know! But I was now well and truly signed up to find out!
With little more than a couple of gear changes in our legs we hit the foot of the climb with a heart stopping thud. The jungle parted and a long and widely straight stretch of Tarmac rose up before us, and distantly faded into the mid day haze above. Temperatures were now blistering, and the reality of this task unceremoniously hit home.
Within seconds I was on my bottom sprocket and gasping at the pan-fried tropical air, desperately trying to cram more of it into my lungs. Much cursed questioning later and I vaguely begun to ride into the climb, but only vaguely – at the most. Behind a silent Isa was firmly affixed to my rear wheel, doubtless cursing me for even contemplating riding out this beast. The serious torture was to continue for a whole 13 kilometres. From here on in it was more of a rolling staircase. This may sound good, but the mini descents really take your rhythm away.
As we climbed through the jungle Kinabalu’s majestic peak peered down at us from it’s shrouding cloud cover. I guess the gods of the mountain were pretty bemused at our two-wheeled logic too!
Those closing kilometres were every bit as steep as the opening ones, only these last few had fatigue and altitude on hand to help then manifest as extra tough. It had been a long, long, day’s climb – but hey, we now also had the longest descent in Borneo waiting for us to round off one epic ride.
Distance 116 kilometres
Grade hot and painfully long
Starting from Tamparuli follow the road to Kampung Togop, which comes after 15 kms. Here the climb starts, and continues to the summit of the pass it’s self. This is at the entrance to Kinabalu Park. Turn left here and make the 5-km climb to the road head at the foot of the Kinabalu summit trail. At this point you have climbed from sea level to 1866 meters, and you are about to turn around and ride back down to sea level, after a teh tarik and some nasi goreng, of course!
Kinabalu Pass Road
Several months back I’d driven this road in a misty monsoon, and hadn’t really taken that much notice of it. Huh, big mistake. I wanted to ride the biggest hill in Borneo, and I certainly got to! This wild beast of the jungle is a staggering 43 kilometres in all.
Like a venomous snake it rears straight up form the off. Those first 13 kilometres are absolutely evil, and when combined with the humidity will have you down on the 25 sprocket and lurching for a triple, which really would a be good idea for this mountain.
For a while it eases, dipping and diving up towards the effects of the increasing altitude. Then just when you’re legs and lungs are screaming for mercy the “option” pops up, and of course you have to take it.
A mega steep strip of tarmac somehow clings to the hillside as it grunts a whole 5 kms right to the trail head at the foot of the mighty Kinabalu it’s self. Maybe you’ll make it in one. Maybe you’ll take a triple. Either way you will not forget this “hill.”
For details of organised road tours in Borneo check out www.borneobikers.com