Mount Santubong is the big, pointy mountain that you can’t fucking miss as you ride into Santubong unless you’ve had your eyes gouged out by an angry macaque because you refused to hand over your crisps. It looks steep. It is steep. I don’t know why we thought we were in any manner of physical condition to climb the bastard given the fact we were pretty much living off noodles and rum right now but this was our plan and the morning after we’d arrived in Santubong we put it into action.
There’s no national park accommdation here, we were staying in a backpacker hostel but there are other options if you didn’t fancy sharing a large, concrete room with a bunch of other humans. There’s a small office at the entrance to the national park just over a kilometre from Damai Beach where we were staying, where you have to register your intentions to hike so they know how many idiot tourists are still stuck up the hill at the end of the day. So there are two trails; The shorter 2.5km blue trail which is nice and circular, then the red trail which leads to the summit of Gunung Santubong which goes from not too far off sea level to 810 metres in around four kilometres.
If that hadn’t put you off, they have a difficulty scale ranging from 1, which is a flat, paved road, all the way to 10, which is a cliff. The section from a viewpoint they call F7 to the summit is considered 7 to 9.
And again; fuck!
But we were here now so we scribbled our names and phone numbers down in the book at HQ and off we went, starting our hike not long after 7.45am. It started off pretty much like most trails we’d done so far with lots of uneven ground, trees and uncomfortable sweat-chaffing. The way, like everywhere else, is marked with swipes of paint on trees and rocks so you know you’re not horribly lost. The trail from HQ to F7 is actually quite the ankle breaker though, and this was meant to be the easier section. It’s full of rocks and tree roots and other things human joints aren’t too fond of traversing. We had to cross a couple of shallow streams, and after the blue trail forked off to the left and the red trail carried on it started throwing in inclines steep enough to warrant a knotted rope slung between trees to help you up and down.
The trails here aren’t particularly well maintained, possibly because it’s free to get in? Or is it free because it’s not maintained? No idea. A lot of the bridges were in bits but fortunately they weren’t really needed right now. Maybe at certain times of year they cross rivers, but these aren’t the times of year I’d want to be anywhere near this fucking hill. Eventually you come to F5, a waterfall with a rope slung from one side to the other to help you cross. There wasn’t a huge amount of water falling over it despite the regular afternoon downpours, but it was still pretty and we took a short break here anyway. It was hot. I had sweat pouring from places I didn’t know I had places.
We crawled and hauled our way up and up the trail, grabbing onto tree roots and any ropes they’d provided, until we finally made it to F7. They reckon it should take an hour and half to get here from HQ but this estimate, we concluded, probably only applies to people who consider lycra acceptable day wear. It took us two hours and enough sweat to drown a small mammal. A lot of people just fuck off the whole idea once they’ve reached here and head back down again, but we were idiot tourists and everyone knows idiot tourists think they’re way more capable of things than they really are.
We pressed on past F7 and it only got steeper, and I’m talking questionable looking rope ladders kind of steeper. I’m not even shitting you. In all fairness they didn’t look too bad, they all seemed to have “hold the considerable weight of idiot tourists” on their list of things to do today. Just a word of advice if you’re any manner of scared of heights; don’t look down. By this point the views had disappeared and been replaced with a fog which had enveloped the top of the mountain which meant that when I glanced back whilst clinging onto these actually not that stable rope ladders it looked like I was hanging above an infinite abyss. Oh bollocks. A knot of fear the size of fucking Mars gripped my heart and I tried not to freeze. I have a tendency to freeze when I’m scared. Not freeze as in get stupidly cold, with the amount of sweat gushing from my face right now I didn’t think that was ever going to happen to me ever again, I mean freeze as in all limbs refusing to move and no amount of coaxing from my brain is going to make them.
For a while you’d get an incline followed by a rope ladder followed by another stretch of brutal but manageable incline. After a while the rope ladders got more frequent with only a few metres of flat between the top of the last one and the bottom of the next one. Some of them required us to clamber over bulges of rock at the top that you needed to belly flop over. Well, I did anyway. I wondered if I’d ever see my comfort zone ever again, and even if I did would I be welcome back into it? Or had I stretched the boundary of it so far that it snapped and is now in therapy weeping into a box of budget tissues whilst a trained professional nods sympathetically and checks their watch?
At one point, two Scandinavian blokes practically jogged down past us. They’d started climbing maybe twenty minutes before us and had already gotten to the summit and were on their way back down. Not long after that, a local from Kuching and his friend scampered up past us, apparently on his fourth ever trip up Santubong. Fourth? Ha! If I make it out of my first alive I’d be satisfied. Assuming that by “satisfied” I mean “utterly broken and probably traumatised”. Seriously guys, we nearly gave up so many times, just because the thought of getting down again was utterly terrifying, but checking Maps.ME told us we only had, like, 50 metres to go at one point. Okay, so it was a vertical 50 metres, but we could do it. We’d come this far and there were already a shit tonne of really quite frankly horrifying sections we had to negotiate to get back down again. A few more wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the quantity of vodka I’d have to consume to get over this.
It was slow going and we were utterly fucking knackered, but eventually, just as we thought that we’d died somewhere earlier down the mountain and these fucking rope ladders were our hell loop now, it flattened out and a short path led us to the summit of Gunung Santubong. Oh my god. Finally. The fog that had been shrouding the mountain for the last hour had lifted too and we were rewarded with glimpses of views through the trees. We took a few photos then joined the Malaysian blokes on the benches in a shelter that had been built, hoping that we wouldn’t seize up between now and trying to get down again. We chatted to them for a while.
“Did you see the snakes?” one of them asked. Did we… see… did we see the fucking what now?? As they’d been casually scaling vertical fucking walls they’d seen loads of bright green snakes in the trees and bushes. We hadn’t seen a bastard thing, instead choosing to focus all of our energies on not falling and dying. We’d been just sticking our hands and feet anywhere there might have been a decent grip, we never thought to check that it was home to a bitey rope creature. This was going to add an extra element of horror to our descent. Thanks, random Malaysian guys.
It had taken us another two hours from F7 to get here, not bad considering they say it should take closer to two and a half. This meant we’d probably need about the same to get back down again on account of my utter inability to walk down hills. Fortunately this would be more of a backwards shuffle down ladders and knotted ropes than an actual arse-slide whilst swearing, though I wasn’t above that either. We began our ascent at about midday after shovelling sandwiches and Cloud 9 chocolate bars into our chops. It was every bit as awful as we thought it’d be. Tarrant is less of a pussy than me and went first, telling me exactly where I needed to put my feet and in some cases physically guiding them to the next rung as I clutched whatever I was holding onto into my chest and tried to will my arms to straighten so I could actually lower myself down.
This went on for the two hours and fifteen minutes it took us to get back to F7 where my legs tried to decide if they could be bothered holding my weight for the rest of the day. Fuck my life. I mean, yeah, that was the hard bit over with but the less hard bit isn’t much less hard when you’ve already spent over six hours climbing up or down something or other. This is also not somewhere you want to be when Borneo’s characteristic afternoon downpours kick in. I can’t imagine how treacherous this trail is during a deluge, paths usually rapidly become small streams, it’d be impossible to keep upright. The only real guidline they give you is, if you’re still going up by the time 3pm rolls around, stop, turn round, come back down. But that’s more because they want you back at HQ before it gets dark.
An hour and a half later, we limped out of the jungle and back to HQ where we collapsed in a sweaty heap and mauled the kittens that lived there. There was also a bunch of silver leaf monkeys moving through the nearby trees which was amazing to see too, we’d not seen them outside of a zoo yet. And as we sat there, marvelling at the monkeys going about their business, that’s when the rain started. Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We scooted back to the backpackers, showered, and hobbled to a beachfront bar to consume a few ice cold beers to appease our aching bodies. That really was one of the hardest day hikes I’ve ever done, my whole body already ached. Arms and shoulders from hauling myself up the ladders, my poor, abused legs, my core muscles because why the fuck not? My arse muscles too, probably from all the terrified clenching. I’m not sure I’d ever not be walking like I’d shat myself ever again.
Damai Beach, Santubong, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: BB Bunkers
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