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Our first indication that we were in for a serious few days was the dramatic change in the temperature. Earlier in the day we had been hiding in the shade from the scorching heat, and only a few hours later, and a thousand metres higher, we realised that perhaps shorts and sandals were not going to suffice. The fleeces were quickly retrieved from the bottom of our bags and dusted down.
We were at Mount Kinabalu National Park, preparing for our 2-day ascent and descent of South East Asia's highest mountain peak, Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 metres. Our first task was to stock up on warmer clothing, investing in hats, gloves and socks from the local town.
Our second task was to attend the pre-climb meeting to discuss what, where, when and how we would climb the mountain.
The climb starts from the park headquarters at 1,200m. The plan of attack was to leave early on the first day and climb for about 4 1/2 hours to 3,200m before the rain in the afternoon, and to where we would stay for the remainder of the day to help aclimatise. The second stage of the climb involved getting up at 2:30 the following morning in order that we could reach the summit before sunrise at 5:30, and then to descend back to the huts for some breakfast, and then back down to the park headquarters, completing the adventure.
At the meeting our spirits had all been bouyed by the following facts: the oldest person to have completed the climb was 96, the youngest was 5 and the quickest time that the whole ascent and descent has been completed is 2 hours 44 minutes! If they could do it so could we (although may be a tad slower).
The following morning we made our way to HQ to catch the bus to the start of the climb. Everyone was in good spirits, aiming (foolishly, or is that hopefully) to complete the first part of the climb in 3 hours. After an hour, we were well on our way to achieving this target, climbing up through lush rainforest and past waterfalls.
As we went higher, the rainforest thinned out before giving way to sparse scrubland and bare mountain rock.
Our accommodation for the rest of the day and the night consisted of a corrugated iron hut, with a separate toilet and shower outside. It was bloody cold! Because we had gone for the cheapest option no heating was provided. Although not freezing, at 8 degrees celcius, and considering the exertion we had put our bodies through already, trying to keep warm meant sleeping fully clothed (including hat, socks and gloves) in our sleeping bags under a further 2 rugs. Not exactly the sexiest sight on the mountain.
But it has to be said that the views, when the clouds cleared away, were fantastic and the sunset was stunning, making it all definitely worthwhile.
Little was to be done at this point of the climb except to take on plenty of food and fluids, to sleep and generally aclimatise to the new conditions, to prevent altitude sickness.
After an early night in bed, we were up at 2:30am to begin our night ascent to the summit in time for sunrise. The combined effect of the cold, the dark and already tired bodies was not a great motivator to get going again, but this was what we were here for, and the desire to make it to the top easily won through. Although this part of the climb was only 3 hours, we still had the steepest and most difficult elements to contend with, basically having to haul ourselves up steep rock faces with the aid of ropes. These were never really life-threatening, but they certainly got the pulses racing, especially as we were navigating them in the dark.
As the sun started to make its daily journey across the sky, we got our first glimpse of the peak, or so we thought. Unfortunately, as is often the case when climbing a hill or mountain, you are haunted by false peaks, i.e. the peak that you can see is concealing the peak you are really trying to reach. We should have known better as we had only been climbing for 1 1/2 hours, but it is difficult not to build up false hope when you are exhausted.
With the real peak finally in our sights, the climb became relatively easier. Wrong again! The last 200m is literally a vertical climb over huge boulders that saps any remaining energy that you may have had. Still, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, and it woud not feel the achievement that it does, to stand on top of the highest mountain in SE Asia, watching the sun come up over the horizon - absolutely stunning, breathtaking, amazing, awesome, fantastic.
Now walking downhill and back to the hut for breakfast, it did not seem so torturous, and we were actually able to hold a conversation without running out of breath, so we finally got to talk to the rest of the group. After a quick bite to eat we continued back down the mountain side, picking up our climber certificates on the way, back to the start of the climb, arriving a full 9 hours after we had started the night ascent. All we can say is that it felt very, very good to be walking on a flat piece of ground.
With there being no rest for the wicked, after saying some quick goodbyes to our fellow explorers, we hobbled back to the car, and made our way back to Kota Kinabalu, where we caught our flight out to Singapore, and our last few days in South-East Asia.
In Singapore, much of our time was spent suffering from holy monkey legs ... every time we had to go up or down stairs, any onlookers were greeted by a geriatric Pam and James hobbling away, accompanied by a chorus of "ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh, oh god, oh god". Not so great for us, but sure provided plenty of amusement for everyone else.
We were fortunate enough to meet up with our Dutch buddy, Dimphy, who is studying there, and she was able to show us the sights and sounds of the city, via a few bars and restaurants. One highlight of Dimphy Tours was ladies night at Dbl O, whereby all the ladies (if that is what you can call them - I'm not bitter) get in for free and ALL drinks are free (this is proper drinks, not your alcopops or cheap vodka at Chicagos in Maidenhead), whereas the gentlemen have to pay 10 whole British Pounds entrance and then a cool 5 pounds per beer. Unsurprisingly, Pam and Dimphy were completely hammered whereas I was, for once, relatively sober. All I can say is it makes a pleasant change to see things from the other side.
Another highlight was going for dinner with friends of Dimphy to a proper Chinese restaurant which rivalled those from China itself. As Pam would say, "yummy"! And the piece de resistance was slurping Singapore Slings in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, all in the honour of Pam's Dad - thanks John!
Finally, we had to say our fond farewells to mainland Asia after having spent 5 1/2 months enjoying its highs (many) and lows (not that many), and jumped on a flight to our next destination on our great adventure, Australia. When we first booked the trip our feelings were that Asia was going to be the hardest part and therefore we would spend a limited amount of time here. If we could get through it okay, everything else would be plain sailing from there. As it was, we enjoyed Asia and what it has to offer so much that we ended staying 2 months longer than planned, and could have stayed a lot longer. When faced with the prospect of having to move on to Oz, it seemed pretty dull in comparison! But life must go on, and we have the whole world to see, of which Oz is part.
First port of call was the West Coast, and Perth. Unfortunately for Perth, it suffered the brunt of our aclimatisation back into Western civilisation, i.e. everything is very expensive in comparison to Asia, plus because it is so similar to home, you do find yourself expecting to bump into someone you know, which gave it a rather depressing edge. Couple that with the fact that Perth is the dullest city we have so far come across, we were grateful to leave after 5 days. We now also have an insight as to how Pam's parents came to their decision to leave Perth after only 6 months way back when (and have a distinct suspicion not too much has changed over the last 25 years).
That said (we did warn you that Perth suffered our Western backlash), there were a number of highlights to our visit to Perth. The first of these was whale watching on our very first day in Oz. Leaving from Fremantle, we saw a number of Humpback whales, which was awesome. They were huge, although I think they had also been tainted by the sedateness of Perth as they were not very lively, and we were not lucky enough to witness them perform their infamous breaching.
Our second highlight was an impromptu, if expensive, afternoon drinking session in the now very upmarket area of Cottlesloe Beach. Pam and I wound back the months by pretending to be part of the beautiful (and earning) people, enjoying the sun setting over the Indian Ocean, whilst supping a cold beer or three. It was almost as if we were back in London, sat on the bank of the Thames on a fantastically hot British summer's day, enjoying a refreshing glass of Pimms...bliss!
With our wallets well and truely ripped to shreds, our final act and final highlight in Perth was spending the day with Bell family friends, Brian and Audrey, who Pam et al had lived with when they first arrived in Perth all those years ago. We were treated to a fantastic lunch at a posh restaurant overlooking a vineyard, something that we have not enjoyed since leaving home, but not before dropping in at the chocolate factory where Pam and myself put in our well-honed backpacker skills and acquired lots of free chocolate. I thought I was in heaven! There is a lot to be said for family friends.
With our opinion on Perth and the West Coast starting to warm, we had to jump on another flight to Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is commonly known. We stayed at the Ayers Rock Resort, rather than Alice Springs 300km away. Because of its close vacinity to the iconic rock the resort is notoriously expensive, so we took the momentous decision to do something that Pam has sworn in blood never to do...we invested in a tent, a nice little illuminous yellow two-man number. The colour choice was in anticipation of some late night tent searching.
The two days spent at the rock consisted of taking lots of pictures from various angles, at various times of the day. We also went for a walk amongst the lesser known Olgas, another rock formation, but of more interest. At the end of the day, Ayers Rock is just that - a rock! It sticks out of the desert, but it is an icon of Australia and is still worth seeing, especially if you can get a cheap flight and have a penchant for geology ...! For Pam, the most impressive aspect was the fact that the flight from Perth to Uluru lasted 2 hours, and for the whole time all that could be seen was flat, flat, flat desert, with no signs of human activity at all. Also, the weather during the day was scorching, but dry rather than humid as it had been in our previous travels through Asia, which made for a pleasant respite before heading to a very cold Melbourne.
Our first night in Melbourne was spent catching up with our friend Tash, whom we had met travelling through India. Inevitably we ended up hitting the clubs of Flinders Lane, and we completed our first proper night out in Oz at a respectable 3:30am. Needless to say the next day was spent strolling around the city taking in the sights, including the infamous MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground for the uninitiated), whilst taking regular breaks for cappucino time.
Our final act in Melbourne, before hitting the Great Ocean Road, was to go to a live Australian Rules Football game. The AFL Grand Final was actually taking place the following weekend at the MCG which is a huge national event, but with the chances of getting any tickets being the same as Pam and I returning back to the UK any time soon, we plumped for watching the Victoria State Grand Final, which is still an event in itself.
True to form, the weather on the day resembled a typical English Winter's day, being absolutely freezing and raining to boot. It was a definite hat and glove day, but this did not detract from the spectacle that is Aussie Rules Football. It can only be described as complete chaos, and is absolutely hilarious. There are 38 players on the park at any one time, along with 7 umpires, and 4 random guys in luminous green shorts and t-shirts running around the pitch, that we later learned are there to give the players messages from the bench. When the game is in motion it is something akin to schoolboys chasing a football around their makeshift pitch, jumpers for goalposts and all, all wanting to get the ball and not really having any structure or clue as to what they will do with it once it is in their possession. No doubt we are blastheming the national game, but there is no real other way to describe it. And that does not even take into account the number of off-the-ball punch-ups that endlessly occur and all go unpunished. Brilliant!
So, with our fix of Aussie Rules well and truly saturated, we decided to extend our stay in Melbourne, to hire a car and to investigate the area around Melbourne, primarily the Great Ocean Road, and the Yarra Valley wine region.