Text and Photos By: John Kong
The Mission of the Gurkha Hut Photography Expedition
While on an expedition to capture images for several projects for the Sabah Park’s Mesilau Nature Gallery and for our sponsors TAMRAC Bags, we made a photographic expedition to visit the highest mountain hut in Borneo and Malaysia to the Western Plateau of Mount Kinabalu!
Though Mount Kinabalu is famed for the picturesque Low’s Peak, our mission took us to discover and document what looms on the western pla of Mount Kinabalu. Nestled among the jagged crown of peaks, Oyayubi Peak is located on the western ridge of the mountain. As one among the 20 or so peaks that scatter the crown, Oyayubi stands 4 000m tall. 95m shy of Low’s 4 095m peak. In Japanese, Oyayubi means “thumb”, as the peak does resemble a thumb.
Just beneath the colossal granite that is Oyayubi Peak, Gurkha Hut is no more than a tiny white dot on a greyscale slope. Built in 1984 by the Gurkha’s from Nepal, and accommodating a maximum of 4 people, this tiny monument stands as the highest man made hut found in Mount Kinabalu and on the whole of the Island of Borneo.
Made of oak wood and a metal zinc roof, the hut is equipped with 4 mattresses, cooking utensils and even a small collection of books, making it quite a homely abode at such a high altitude.
Driving from Kota Kinabalu city to Kinabalu Park in Kundasang, we stayed overnight at the park before our conquest to the peak on the very next day.
The trip begins from the root hill of Mount Kinabalu at the Timpohon gate, which also serves as the starting point of the Mt Kinabalu trail. At 9am, it was already a cloudy day and it was looking as though luck was not on our side as the skies began to pour soon after. But our stay at the Gurkha Hut wasn’t until the next day, so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped for clearer skies.
The trail took us through many different landscapes, from dense tropical grounds to sub-alpine forest, and finally through the harsh granite rock surface where the peaks were finally insight. Reaching Laban Rata at 3pm, it was relief to everyone that the passage of what seemed like never ending stairs was over for that day. We unloaded our pack and rested our gears, as tomorrow we will begin our ascend to Gurkha Hut.
The summit climber ascends to Low’s Peak as early as 2 am in the morning to catch the sunrise, but since we were going to the western ridge and spending the night there, we had the convenience of starting our journey a little after sunrise at 6 am. To our delight, we woke up to fantastic weather and had a great time taking some images while on route.
We reached the Low’s Peak by 9 AM and rested before continuing our journey to the Western Plateau. It was truly exciting, as this was where the photography mission really begins. Making our way there, our view of the Western Plateau was slowly declining as clouds started to rise to the peaks while we were trekking through all the rocky sections. Markers are placed along the trail in the form of small stack of rocks as a guides.
After an hour of trekking, the hidden peak of Oyayubi was finally in sight. Though only partially visible, what a magnificent sight it was! Energized and excited at the sight of the peak, it was 15 minutes later that we spotted the tinny tiny Gurkha Hut, dwarfed by the giant Oyayubi Peak.
Reaching Borneo’s highest mountain hut at 10.30 AM, it was roughly a 4.5 hour hike from Laban Rata. Despite the mornings clear skies, the conditions at the hut were cloudy and by 12pm it started to rain. To pass time, we sorted our equipment and looked on in hopes that the weather will clear. And soon enough, it did!
By 2pm we were out of the hut and photographing one of the most amazing side of Mt Kinabalu. Being on the Western Plateau, the views we witness were unlike anything we’ve seen before. From the peaks and its rock formations, it felt surreal and worlds away from Mt Kinabalu. The Gurkha Hut faces directly west, giving us a pretty spectacular view of the west coast of Sabah at 3 800m above sea level.
On our stay there, we also got to experience one of Borneo’s highest man made toilet. And what a chilly challenge it was when the temperature drops below freezing!
Wasting no time on daylight, we started our shoot for the Tamrac Bags as the other member our team geared up for their time lapse images. The night was clear, and the moon was bright. The stars were all around us, and the universe was above, opening us to its entire enormity. It was a humbling experience for all of us. We shot all through that night and I got several great shots of star trails and we even got a glimpse of the Milky Way.
We pitched a yellow tent close by to protect us from the harsh wind during our photo session that night. But even with that, the weather took a drastic change and by 1 AM we had to stop shooting outdoor as our equipment and bags were starting to frost! The temperature had dropped to -5 degree Celsius! So we packed up and eagerly hoped for a beautiful sun rise from the back of Oyayubi Peak.
The weather conditions seem to be against us ever since day one, with the heavy down pours, a band of clouds constantly rising and the cold winds blowing at every direction. But all of which were worth it for the sunrise we got on day three at Gurkha Hut. Warm light was breaking on the horizon, and we had the Western Plateau all to ourselves. Unoccupied by other climbers, it was serenity at its most divine hour. I took some great pictures during that time, and those images have since made its way to become TAMRAC Bags and Sabah Tourism Board’s promotional material!
Kinabalu Park – Malaysia’s First World Heritage Site
Towards the northern end of the Island of Borneo, the Kinabalu National Park lays cool and composed as one of the most popular tourist spots in the whole of Sabah. Gazette as the first state park in the state of Sabah in 1964, it was then made Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 2000 for its diverse range of flora and fauna.
In a nut shell, the park is the centre of plant diversity in all of South East Asia, with 4 climate zones each supporting its own niche. Amidst some of the world’s oldest rainforest, the park is home the largest flower in the world – the Rafflesia, to even the smallest species of orchids.
Spreading to an astounding 75 370 hectare in size, the park’s most prominent resident is the majestic Mount Kinabalu, standing at 4 095m tall. In the early days, Mt Kinabalu was believed to have been a volcano because of a deep shaped gully that splits the summit into a U shape. Similar to that of a Volcano’s mouth. Contrary to the rumour, Mt Kinabalu is actually a young granite rock that’s still growing half a centimetre each year!
How to Get to Kinabalu Park
Getting to the park is easy. There are hourly buses leaving Kota Kinabalu city for Ranau from as early as 7am daily, at the long distance bus terminal at Bandaraya, beside the Merdeka Field. The journey takes roughly 2.5 hours and will cost Rm15 – 18 per person.
Once at the National Park, there is an entrance fee of RM3 for Malaysian’s and RM15 for non-Malaysians.
If you intend to climb the mountain, some planning needs to be done before hand. You will need to get a climbing permit, insurance, hire an obligatory guide, and book your accommodations at Laban Rata before you will be allowed to climb.
As complicated as the sounds, don’t be alarmed as many climbing packages will cover that for you at a cost. And as always, it is cheaper to do it in groups.
Tips Equipment preparation and things to do and prepare
Clothing – We had to prepare clothes for the cold nights up at the Gurkha Hut, with temperatures dropping below freezing on some nights. For the climb, we prepared 3 basic layers of clothing; the outer layer, the base layer and the fleece jacket.
Photography – For photography, the perfect kit is to bring a small foldable umbrella as you don’t have to wear a full rain coat if it rains. And chances are it will from time to time. Having a full rain cover will be hot when you start trekking. Furthermore you can still take pictures in the rain if you have a small umbrella.
As for camera gear, what I used were Nikon D3s and D3x bodies. Lenses are 24-70mm f2.8, 14-24mm, 16-35mm and 60 mm macro lens. Other essential equipment are a tripod, a remote release cable (most important for star trails), a polarizer and ND filters. As we were working in wet and humid environments, a small micro fibre towel is essential to wipe off drops of water on your lens. The only charging power source available is at 3,270 m. So we had plenty of spare batteries, essential if you plan to do time lapse and star trails photography at night.
Along with sleeping gear, cooking gear and food to last while at the Gurkha hut. Another important item in my pack, is a small bag of glucose. I usual mix it into my drinking water as an energy supplements as well as to fight the high altitude sickness when climbing.
Special thanks – Jonathan Tan Photography Studios, TAMRAC Bags, Nikon Professional Services for D3s Body, Sabah Parks Board of Trustees for accommodations.
Published Magazine Features, Exhibitions and Book
This feature article was published by Sabah Tourism Magazine and Travelution Magazine