Sleep isn’t easy and there is a big noise at two in the morning. There is not much point in fighting it so I get up and go downstairs in search of toast and coffee. I’m wearing my thermal top and long johns and have a sweater, fleece, gloves, and cagoule packed in my daysack.
Outside it is clear and cold. We leave the lodge at 3 am and plod slowly up many steps, stone and wooden. The dark shapes of gnarled trees around us in the gentle glow of head torches gradually become more sparse. All at once, we are at the bare rock flank of the mountain.
We contour across and around a steeply sloping smooth rock face. There is a rope to hold onto, and a narrow fault line giving a ledge of just a few inches for a foothold. Down to my right is a scary black void. Rob, ahead of me, can probably just hear my quiet moaning as I tremulously inch forward. But presently we come onto less steeply sloping granite, now heading directly up the line of the slope, still following the rope.
Though there is a full moon, most of the ground is still in shadow and the head torches provide a reassuring glow ahead. The going is now less difficult, but it is hard to gauge our progress. Dark shapes of peaks rear up around us. There is a final scramble over smaller rocks, and suddenly and unexpectedly we are at the summit – Low’s Peak (4095 m). In the east, a faint orange glow is beginning to light the horizon. To the west, I can just make out the coastline and waves breaking on the beach.
The deep orange line gradually spreads upwards, and then a thin sliver of blood-red brightness appears. About half a dozen people are sharing the cramped space on top with me, but more are arriving. After the obligatory photographs at the summit, I descend a short way to a sheltered spot between rocks to watch the splendour of the sunrise. As the sun breaks clear, it casts an orange light on the St John Peak and for a moment, the donkey ears are silhouetted in dark green against the rock. Awesome.
The thermals are doing a great job, but nevertheless I am starting to get chilly. The morning light is clear and brittle as I begin to descend. The sloping granite expanse seems longer on the way down and to ease the strain on my knees I make a series of wide sweeping zig-zags. There’s no sign of Rob or Helen, who were with me at the summit. I assume I am ahead of them, but just after the steep flank with the rope (which is somewhat less terrifying in the daylight) I catch up with Rob. We meet up with Helen again just before Laban Rata, frightening off the ground squirrel that she has been trying to photograph for the last five minutes.
A hearty buffet breakfast back at Laban Rata, and then we must repack our daysacks and begin the descent back to the park entrance. The cloud forest soon gives way to jungle, and the rain begins again early. As we reach the final kilometre, we pass a large party of Koreans, apparently on an “incentive trip” for what seems to be a pyramid marketing organisation. They are only doing the first kilometre of the track, and if looks are anything to go by, the incentive is that they won’t be made to do any more of it next year if they sell sufficient cosmetics this year. Mostly to each other in all likelihood.
We are down by a quarter to twelve and reassemble at the main entrance. After a quick lunch, we board the bus, stop briefly at the hotel to collect Steve, Fi, and our bags, and then continue immediately for Sepilok, a six hour journey. We have a different bus today, an ancient Chinese bus with two engines – one to drive the wheels and a separate one for the air conditioning. Fortunately, the bus is large and we have a double seat each to spread out on and sleep.
There is heavy rain for most of the journey. Torrents of water run off the hillside into the gullies at the sides of the road, and then in rivers down the road edges. The terrain becomes flatter as we pass through seemingly endless palm plantations, and we arrive after dark at the Sepilok Jungle Resort.
I’m sharing a comfortable room with Rob. In the bathroom there are two showers – Rob reports little success in getting significant hot water from the one, so I opt for the other, which provides a very satisfactory gush of cold to wash away the grime of the last two days.