What if I got lost? What if the road was inaccessible to my small car? What if my car broke down in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know how to fix it? I could go on with the list of what-if questions that haunted my mind a few days prior to my adventure to trek Mount Trusmadi, the second highest mountain in Borneo and Malaysia at 2642 meters.
I have usually traveled with my best friend Jason or my oldest sister Shuzy. But this time I would be going alone. I had never been to Keningau town that acted as the gateway for trekking Mount Trusmadi via the Sinua trail, let alone having been to Sinua Village where Base Camp 1, Tainiskon Camp, was located. As someone who got anxious pretty quickly when faced with uncertainty, it was only normal for me to have all those what-if questions and to do whatever it took to alleviate my anxiety. I read extensively. I asked millions of questions. The wife (Veronica) of the camp’s operator (Denis) sent me their location so I could track them via GPS; she also convinced me that the 2-kilometer gravel road to their camp was accessible to even small cars like mine.
The only thing I was quite sure of was my physical fitness to trek Mount Trusmadi. I thought I should not have much difficulty in reaching the mountain’s highest summit considering its lower altitude compared to Mount Kinabalu’s (4095 meters) which I had conquered three times. Of the three trails to trek Mount Trusmadi, I chose the longest one (Sinua Trail) which was about 12 kilometers from the first base camp to the highest summit.
A day before my adventure, I happened to be talking to a girl who was from Keningau Town. Once again, I asked my biggest anxiety-laden question: is the camp accessible to my small car? to which the girl answered “the place is only accessible by 4×4 vehicles, especially when it rains a lot like these days. You’d better double check with the camp operator”. A wave of panic washed over me. It even crossed my mind to cancel the trip. However, all of a sudden, I felt exasperated by fear or anxiety being in the saddle. So I literally said out loud (pardon my language) “fear, go f*** yourself”. I didn’t bother to double check with Veronica regarding accessibility. I mean what’s the worst that could happen?
The following day I left home for the trip at 11am. My usual anxious self would have left much earlier, say at 6am…just in case! According to Google Maps, I should arrive at Base Camp 1 in 4 – 5 hours. I actually felt excited, happy, fearless and adventurous about whatever that was ahead of me. The first day’s goal was to get to Base Camp 1. I followed the mountainous Kimanis-Keningau route. I had read that the highway was “notorious for its very steep gradients along the way, ranging from 10% to about 25%, making the Kimanis–Keningau Highway the steepest highway in Malaysia”. Although my small car moved ever so slowly on uphills, the drive was truly gratifying. I rolled down my car windows, enjoyed the cool air, feasted my eyes on the breathtaking mountainous scenery; the wind was blowing through my hair, and the sun felt nice on my skin. I felt complete freedom. I really couldn’t ask for more. I would definitely not use the word “notorious” to describe my drive along the Kimanis-Keningau highway.
After driving for about 5 hours (with a lunch stop at KFC in Keningau), I came face-to-face with the last 2-kilometer gravel road that would take me to Base Camp 1. Was it as bad as I had imagined? I must say it was nothing like what I had feared. My small car made through it just fine. I also found the camp without any difficulty despite having turned off Google Maps. As I walked toward the reception area of the camp, I thought to myself “I had feared getting lost for nothing”.
The next two days were dedicated to trekking: day 2 was to get from camp 1 to camp 2 (8 kilometers), and day 3 was to get from camp 2 to the highest peak of Mount Trusmadi (about 4 kilometers) and then all the way back to camp 1 after lunch. Trekking with me were a group of 5 fellow trekkers from Germany and 2 guides. Uncertainty aside, I could also get anxious in social situations. Although I would not be obliged to socialize with anybody and I had always felt comfortable being on my own, I still had concerns “what are my fellow trekkers like?”, “is it going to be awkward being in the same trekking group with them?” As it turned out, my fellow German trekkers were some of the friendliest, funniest, most generous, and most humble individuals I could ever meet. They were mother and son, Connie & Marius; a lovely couple, Sylvia & Tobias; and a solo traveler, Tiud. Our guides were Shed and Mac.
Day 2’s trekking was quite easy for me. We started out around 8am. We crossed a suspension bridge. We crossed a river. We went uphills and downhills. We went from lowland forest to mossy forest. We occasionally stopped for a break. As we went up higher and higher, the temperatures dropped, the air became cooler, the forest floor became softer and spongy.
By the time we reached camp 2 around 2pm, I already felt relaxed and comfortable socializing with my fellow German trekkers. I became especially close to Tiud, who was a psychotherapist and at 58, I must say she was such a strong and fit woman to be trekking Mount Trusmadi. A bitter wind was blowing hard, giving a numbing chill to our extremities. The warm sun felt extra nice on my skin. The surrounding scenery was remarkably beautiful — nature in its most intact, undisturbed, wild state. Sitting under a little hut, we had a pleasant chit-chat over coffee/tea and biscuits. I enjoyed getting to know my fellow trekkers – what they did for work, why Trusmadi, about their 3-week Borneo holiday, about Germany…such conversations always reminded me of part of the beauty of travel — how it makes people from different parts of the world cross paths, though only for a short period of time.
Shed and Mac pointed to us the three peaks for tomorrow early morning (1.30am)’s trek. From where we were standing, the peaks seemed impenetrable. For the first time in this trip, I doubted my capability “will I make it?”. All, except Connie and I, decided to abandon their attempt to conquer Borneo’s second highest peak. Personally, I felt I would feel incapable and even regretful if I gave up before I even tried it. As Shed said “just give it a try; we can always go back if you think you can’t go on any longer”.
We all retired to hammock-and-sleeping-bag dreamland when darkness fell. I had trouble falling asleep. The sound of howling wind in the trees and rustling of leaves was rather creepy, the night was freezing cold and I could not shake off the fear of tomorrow’s trek. I was questioning if I should do it at all. Despite the chaos in my mind, I noticed just how magnificent the clear night sky was when decorated with jillions of twinkling dots. The charm of it all must have been so enchanting and calming that I finally fell asleep, before being awaken by our cooks’ loud, passionate he-deleted-me-on-FB conversation while they made our breakfast slightly after midnight.
We (Shed, Mac, Connie and I) started our trek a few minutes before 1.30am. Darkness engulfed us, reducing our sense of sight and increasing our senses of hearing, smell and touch. We could only see as far as our headlights. The ghostly howling noise of the wind sounded more eerie. When it calmed down, we could hear the ambient sound of birds and insects. When they were not singing, the silence of the forest was almost deafening. The night air felt colder but as we went further and higher it felt warm. The mosses that had grown on rocks, fallen trees and living roots on the forest floor felt soft and damp to the touch. A part of me was glad that it was dark all around us except the spot illuminated by our headlights for I would/could not know if the object of my phobia was present or not — soft, fuzzy caterpillars that wobbled, crawled and crept on the forest furniture and fixtures.
For the most part we trekked in peaceful silence. Our pace was slow and steady. The trail became tougher and harsher as we went further and higher. My breathing became more labored. My legs felt heavier. At different points of the trail, we crawled (Shed called it the 4×4 technique); we grabbed tree roots for support; we overcame the steep, almost 90-degree uphills with the help of a rope, a steel ladder, or a wooden ladder; we stretched our thigh muscles as far as we could to make huge steps; we extended our arms as far as we could to hold onto the nearest tree root. We must stay alert and focused at all times as one misstep could lead to a sheer drop into the abyss. With his machete, Shed sometimes cleared the low-hanging or protruding tree branches obstructing our way.
After what seemed like eternity, we finally reached the first summit (2 kilometers from Camp 2). We took a little longer than the planned 2 hours. From the summit, we could see small villages and even Keningau town that appeared as little pulses of light against the dark backdrop. I looked up to the sky and felt lost in the beauty of the stars-dotted night sky. I thought just how small we were in comparison to the whole universe. Perhaps Mother Nature was kind to me for once again I felt energetic and determined to reach the highest peak for sunrise.
The trail from the first summit to the third was as tough and harsh, and mostly watery and muddy. The muddy ground squished as we treaded it. It wasn’t long before my shoes and the bottom part of my long pants were covered in mud. Connie joked that we were dirty like pigs. At one point she turned to me and said “you are crazy” to which I laughingly replied “we both are!”.
As we were approaching the second summit (1.2 kilometers from the first summit), a shimmering grey fog was quick to descend on the area, reducing our visibility and possibly ruining our chances of catching sunrise. Against all odds, we pushed on. Though there was a sense of hurriedness to reach the highest third peak for sunrise, we did not forget to stop and look at the different types of plant species. We saw quite a variety of nepenthes or pitcher plants that I thought the trip might as well be a nepenthes-education trip for me — nepenthes macrophylla, nepenthes lowii, nepenthes tentaculata (which I thought was extremely cute being so small) and nepenthes × trusmadiensis (which was endemic to the upper montane forest of Trusmadi). We were also fortunate enough to spot a Banded Linsang.
As we were closing the distance to the highest peak (800 meters from the second peak), immense satisfaction, an incredible sense of achievement and heartfelt joy and gratitude rushed through me. We arrived just as the sun was rising at 6.10am. Unfortunately, the thick fog stole the spotlight. It effectively blocked the view of sunrise with its ghost-grey, lifeless, noiseless presence. Was I disappointed that we didn’t see sunrise from the top of Mount Trusmadi? Absolutely not! Well, the uninvited presence of the fog was beyond our control. More importantly, we persevered through trials and challenges that we made it to Borneo’s second highest peak. Although being enveloped in fog, the entire area was still absolutely breathtaking. I actually thought the fog added to the splendor as it rendered the entire surroundings with a certain degree of mystery, silence, tranquility, ancientness. Plus, we had the highest peak to ourselves.
The descent back to Camp 2 was, honestly, much of a hell for me as my knees were in excruciating pain. Now that I could see my surroundings clearly, I became sensitive to the possible presence of the object of my phobia. I felt we were on some never-ending journey of pain and exhaustion. When I thought we had walked far enough, my heart sank to see the distance marker that we had just covered another 100 meters. We pushed on and on and on. I kept telling myself that the only way out was through. I made little targets (OK, just get to that weird-looking tree; now, the goal is to get down to that flat moss-covered rock). Sometimes I counted my steps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….
After what seemed like eternity, Camp 2 finally came into sight again. The positive emotions I felt were so intense that I “forgot” about my exhaustion — joy, relief, satisfaction, gratitude, pride… It was like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Our fellow trekkers cheered for us when they saw us coming. It felt good to be supported. As soon as we reached the little hut, I took off my jacket, dirty shoes and socks. The chill air felt good against my skin. It also felt immensely good to stretch my legs. The best part was treating myself to a cup of hot black coffee. I felt almost like in paradise! For the record, we checked back in to Camp 2 at about 11am, recording the total time of 9 hours 14 minutes for the entire trek. I looked up to the peaks and thought in disbelief “was I really up there just a few hours ago?”. From a distance, they seemed impenetrable again.
After lunch, it was time to walk back to Camp 1. 8 kilometers was the distance. 4 hours was the targeted time. My initial plan was to drive back to Keningau town as soon as we arrived at Camp 1. However, the pain in my knees had become rather unbearable. Every step hurt. I also felt dull with sleepiness given the fact I had been awake for more than half a day now. I would most probably have to stay for another night. And I did. By the time we finally got back to Camp 1, it was near 6pm. It would be very unwise to drive even for just 1 kilometer in the state I was in — stiff and painful knees, sleep deprived, absolutely exhausted, and stank!
It felt like a long time ago since we left Camp 1 when it was just the day before when we started. I was glad I stayed for another night, not for the unpleasant state I was in but I had another night of savoring the 5-star dinner prepared by Veronica, of chatting and laughing with my amazing fellow trekkers from Germany, of being charmed by the stars-filled night sky, of the tranquility of being in a rural area, of being away from the modern conveniences at my fingertips.
I was already up at 5.30am the following day. Not wanting to wake my fellow trekkers, I tried to be as quiet as I could. I could see Denis and Veronica’s mother at the reception area. Veronica must be in the kitchen making breakfast. Carrying my backpack and sleeping bag, I walked toward the reception area. My plan was to leave right after settling the remaining payment. However, Denis insisted that I had breakfast before hitting the road. So I did. Chatting with Denis was a pleasure. Without much realization, my time was showing a few minutes before 7am. I’d better get going. Just before I left, Tiud appeared at the reception area to say goodbye. I had never thought that saying goodbye to her and to Denis and family could be a moving moment for me.
Feeling rather adventurous, I decided to follow the alternative Tambunan route back to the city. The scenery of a large part of the route was stunning — mountain views, lush green paddy fields, small villages, roadside stalls (I stopped at one to buy a bag of fresh mushrooms).
I looked back on the last few days prior to the trip. A lot of the times I was gripped by fear-based what-if questions. I definitely had imagined some worst-case scenarios. If I had succumbed to my fearful voices, I would not have such a challenging but satisfying trek up to Borneo’s second highest peak; met people that made my trip more meaningful — amazing host family, wonderful fellow trekkers, patient & knowledgeable guides, 5-star cooks, strong & fit porters.
By not letting my fears win, taking risks, having a little faith in the uncertainty, I felt more confident about myself, about my capability and worth, about trusting. I didn’t know how adaptive I could be in social interactions. I just needed to be myself, be open-minded and be grateful for the chances of crossing paths with beautiful strangers. I was also inspired to explore more of my homeland’s precious natural resources and engage in more solo travel undertakings. I had underestimated the challenge of Trusmadi. Now it made sense to me when people said “never measure the height of a mountain until you reach the top”. I will certainly keep this in mind for future trekking adventures.