My worn slippers scuffed against the rock-strewn path, crunching gravel and pebbles underneath the thin sole. The peak of Mount Kinabalu was clearly visible miles ahead of me. The horizon was painted in flaming red as the sun began to penetrate the mist and brighten up the sleepy green valley down below.
A brisk morning stroll took me to a war memorial on a hill. Standing at the top of the staircase, I watched the quiet town slowly come to life in the morning glow. Local men unloaded baskets after baskets of assorted vegetables and fruit off a truck. They hauled the fresh produce to a small local farmer’s market by the roadside, where vendors called out to passerby to stop by and make a purchase at their stalls.
It was a lovely morning in Kundasang, a picturesque small town in Ranau district of Sabah, Borneo. It is about 2 hours drive away from the state capital Kota Kinabalu.
I didn’t sleep much the night before. Because of the poor sound insulation in my room, I stayed awake in bed, turning and tossing, as a never-ending conversation from a family next door came through the thin wall like a loudspeaker.
I walked into the memorial commemorating 2,428 POWs who perished in camps and the infamous death marches to Ranau during World War II. The brick arched doors opened to lushly landscaped gardens adorned with silver plaques. The air carried a hint of fragrance from the terraces of blooming wildflowers extending down the slope of a hill.
I strolled by a memorial stone and caught sight of an inscribed poem. It was written by Nelson Short, one of the Australian soldiers who survived the deadly march.
I’m dreaming of Australia,
The land we left behind.
Dreaming of the loved ones
We could always bear in mind
Although is only fancy
Our hearts within us yearn.
But we’ll make up for lost moments
When to Australia we return.
There’d be sailing on the harbour,
The Showboat our first choice.
Or maybe we’d be dancing
Listening to our sweetheart’s voice.
Although it’s only fancy
Our hearts within us yearn.
Gee we’ll make up for lost moments
When to Aussie we return.
It is such a beautiful poem, that I pictured Nelson standing where I was standing, looking over the forest-covered valley surrounded by a range mountains. His body must have been reduced to a skeleton, probably covered in wounds and scars too, from malnutrition and the rough conditions of the camp, The serenity enveloping him could have never healed the trauma he had been put through. The poem conjured up an image in my mind of him grappling with homesickness. He dragged himself to his feet and hobbled away from the camp, leaving behind a light trail of blood that was probably not his.
In the afternoon, I made my way back to the town. Outside a grocery store stood a group of local men waiting to take tourists on a tour around Kundasang. A driver named Mazlan approached me for business. After a little haggling, I hopped on his beat-up SUV and headed for Desa Dairy Farm, or famously dubbed as “The Little New Zealand in Sabah” given the resemblance in terrain of rolling grasslands edged by elegant pine trees. The car bumped along a potholed dirt track and occasionally revved up a steep incline, belching black smoke into the air and kicking up a cloud of dust.
“I used to work as a porter for hikers. But I quit after the earthquake.”
Mazlan said with a reminiscent gleam in his eyes.
“The day when the big earthquake struck, I was supposed to go on a hike with a group of backpackers. But something in my head told me I should skip it for the day. I listened to the voice and stayed home. Later, I learned about the earthquake on the news and saw people die being crushed by the falling boulders. It was bad, very bad.”
That was a close call for him, reminding me that life and death are only separated by a thin line.
Kundasang lies in an earthquake-prone zone. In 2015, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck Ranau area and killed 18 people on the mountain, sending a shockwave throughout the country.
Strangely enough, in my fitful sleep the night before, I dreamed of being trapped in a devastating earthquake. The building I was in was on the verge of collapse, leaning precariously at an odd angle towards the street several hundred feet below. I screamed and cried out for help, but no one seemed to hear me. Then I realized there was not a living soul around me. I was in an empty building in a ghost town, alone and helpless. The next thing I knew, the floor gave way and I slid vertically into a free fall, along with tons of falling debris, diving into a ginormous heap of rubble before I bolted upright from the dream.
Mazlan pulled the car to a stop at the ranch’s entrance. The flying dust stirred up by the tires settled, revealing a sweeping lush grassland punctuated with herds of grazing cattle. A scenery straight out of a postcard.
“Take your time, I will be waiting here”. He pulled back his seat and propped his legs on the dashboard, ready for a little shut eye.
The 199-hectare farm is owned by Desa Cattle company, the main dairy product producer in Borneo. A large crowd gathered at a viewing platform to see farm workers milking cows through a floor to ceiling glass window. Kids flocked to the barn to pet and feed calves poking their heads out of the slats to chomp on hay. I must have been dehydrated from the blazing midday heat because I started feeling a little light-headed. I headed to the café to cool off with an ice cream before walking back to the car.
“The pandemic has put many of us out of work. There was not a single tourist in sight for weeks. Even the odd jobs were hard to come by.” He recounted the rough times during the pandemic lockdown, yet brimming with a tone of gratitude.
The car rolled past another stretch of dirt road and headed towards my next and last stop for the day – Sosodikon Hill. At the foot of the hill, a winding trail meandered its way up to a viewing deck. Either side of the trail was strewn with shrubs and a potpourri of wildflowers. I sauntered on until the trail undulated upwards. It resembled the staircase to heaven. With each step I ascended, I had a brief illusion as if the wispy clouds above me were almost within my reach.
I was alone at the viewing deck ruggedly put together with wooden planks. The constant creaking did not unnerve me the slightest. The 360-degree view of Kundasang was almost hypnotizing. The mighty Mount Kinabalu was closer to me now and looked much more imposing than ever.
I remembered hiking the mountain 15 years ago with friends. I was young, unsophisticated, and prone to making hasty decisions driven by blind will. I did not beef up my physical strength before the trip and I only made it halfway. I gave up on the last leg of the hike to the summit. Two of my friends (a couple) forged on despite the fatigue. The guy hid a ring in his pocket and when they reached the summit, pulled out the ring and went down on one knee to propose to her. She came down the mountain to a shower of congratulations when she lifted her hand showing a sparkling engagement ring.
15 years later, the ring still sparkles on her finger. She had probably revisited the mountain, with her one arm interlocked with her husband’s, the other clutching the little hands of their two younger children. The vow they made 15 years ago remains eternal and never ceases to echo in the bare summit.
Underneath me was a range of rolling green hills interspersed with terraces of farmland and houses, spanning far into the horizon.
All the noises in my head were dwarfed by the grandeur of the mountain and silenced by the hum of bees. Time seemed to be frozen at that moment as I fully immersed myself in the tranquility of Mother Nature.
Mazlan waved at me from below. I waved back and started my descent.
It was the month of Ramadan. The prayer call came booming over the loudspeaker from the mosque, signaling the end of fasting for the day. Billows of smoke rising from the smoldering kebab grills in the distance. The local Muslims made their way to the only Ramadan market in town. The pungent aroma of spices and herbs wafted in the air. My stomach was gurgling in hunger. I followed the crowd to the market.
I smiled a little as I approached the market. After all, what could be a better way to end a perfect day with a perfect gastronomic treat?