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Rice Wine and Stories of the Mountain

Rice Wine and Stories of the Mountain

THE SKY darkened and we returned to our bunkrooms to get out our headlamps to head to one of the village houses for dinner. Fortunately we were in the closest house, so there wasn’t far to walk. We walked down to the saddle, and then followed the steep road uphill until we reached the first house. We entered the carport area (though there was no car here) and took off our shoes at the entrance.

Dinner - it was all grown here
Dinner - it was all grown here

The first thing I noticed upon entering the house was the complete absence of furniture. There were no tables or chairs, just a large bench along the far wall where the food was being prepared. We sat on the green chequered lino floor. The walls were cheap fibreboard with no paint or other protective coating covering them.

Dinner came out on large serving bowls that were placed on the floor in the middle of the room in the middle of the circle where we sat. We were given cheap plastic floral decorated plates, cutlery and cups. We helped ourselves to the food - rice, beans, stir fry mixed vegetables, a salad, and chicken. It was really delicious and obviously fresh. Sapinggi explained all the food, including the rice, were picked from the vegetable gardens around the village today, and the meat was from animals killed today. You can’t get much fresher than that! It certainly wasn’t the rubbish I get at home that would have been in cold storage for up to and over a year.

Eating off the floor like this really was a bit of a culture shock. I had always eaten from sitting on furniture, and usually from eating from a table as well. Although this village was strongly Christian, they seemed to follow a lot of the Muslim eating habits, or perhaps the origins of the eating habits were from their indigenous animistic past.

Sapinggi introducing the rice wine
Sapinggi introducing the rice wine

As we finished eating, Sapinggi produced an old soft drink bottle filled with a white milky drink in it. It wasn’t properly mixed though. The top half was translucent and yellowish, and the bottom half was white and opaque. Next to the bottle was a stacked pile of small plastic blue translucent cups. He explained the drink was rice wine, homebrewed right here in Kiau. He introduced a game where we would go around in a circle and introduce ourselves, saying our names, where we are from, and why we want to climb the mountain. Then we needed to fill our plastic cups up to two fingers deep in rice wine, drink it all quickly, then turn the cup upside down. If any drops of rice wine fell out, Sapinggi would fill it up again for us to quickly drink again.

He asked if anyone in the group was a non-drinker. I put up my hand saying I never drink alcohol, but happy to make an exception tonight and give this a go.

We started around the room with Therese, who introduced herself saying she was from Ireland and currently in a trip around the world to find herself. Then it was my turn. “I’m Jeff White from New Zealand, currently living in Australia. I’m here because I have climbed mountains in New Zealand, but because it is so cold there, I cannot climb any higher than two and a half thousand metres. I have come here to go higher than any mountain in New Zealand.”

Trying rice wine
Trying rice wine

Sapinggi had filled up my plastic mug with one finger high of the rice wine before I started my speech, so upon finishing the presentation, I drank the rice wine. Amazingly I actually liked the taste. Every other alcoholic beverage I had ever drunken tasted absolutely disgusting. This was actually quite nice for a change. I don’t know why, perhaps it was because this rice wine had a very low alcohol content.

I turned the cup upside down and a few drops did fall out. Everyone cheered as Sapinggi filled the cup again and I drank from it. This time no drops came out.

Curiously exactly the same thing happened to everyone else. The first time they turned their cups upside down, one or two drops came out. The second time no drops came out. We had all told our stories and drunken the rice wine, quite naturally settling in to our cultural surroundings.

With introductions and dinner complete, Sapinggi began a fascinating briefing of the mountain.

He mentioned that no one knew for sure what the name Kinabalu meant, but there are two theories:

The first theory is the name is derived from the term “Aki Nabalu” meaning the revered place of the dead. That was consistent with the local beliefs that the spirits of the dead ascend the mountain on their way to the afterlife.

Sapinggi telling stories of the mountain
Sapinggi telling stories of the mountain

Sapinggi’s tribe considers themselves the guardians of the mountain, known locally as Gunung Kinubalu. This is a very spiritual place as indigenous Malays from all around Sabah believe their spirits go up the mysterious mountain when they die. The mountain is therefore revered amongst the peoples, but particularly for Sapinggi’s tribe, having been bestowed the huge responsibility of being its guardians. They consider it to be a real honour to be the guardians of the spiritual home of those passing into the afterlife. Effectively they are the guards of the stairway to heaven.

The second theory was the name really was “Cina Balu”, meaning Chinese Widow, named after a woman who had married a Chinese man and had died up the mountain after she had lost him.

He said there is a telling amongst the tribes around the mountain that a Chinese prince was cast away to Borneo when his ship sank in the middle of the South China Sea. Dehydrated and near death he was rescued by the natives of a local village. As he recovered he was accepted by the villagers and fell in love with a local woman. He stayed there for several years until he decided to return to China to visit his emperor parents.

Upon successfully returning to his home, he mentioned his new wife to his parents. They denied him his new wife. There was no way that a Chinese royal heir to the throne was going to marry a foreigner. Instead they had found a new princess for him. Having no choice he took his new Chinese wife and stayed in China.

His wife in Borneo patiently waited for him, but he didn’t return. She would climb Mount Kinabalu at sunrise every morning and return in the evening to care for her children. One day she fell ill and died at the top of the mountain whilst awaiting her husband. The spirit of the mountain turned her into stone – St John’s peak. She remains there to this day facing the South China Sea to forever await her husband’s return.

The people in her village were touched by her death, so they named the mountain Kinabalu – Chinese widow. It would remind the people that the mountain is a symbol of the everlasting love and loyalty that should be taken as a good example by women.

The first Westerner to climb Mount Kinabalu was Hugh Low in 1851. He only reached the dome though, documenting that all the peaks were accessible only to winged animals. Sapinggi assured us though that he was wrong on that count when it came to the highest peak. The highest summit was first conquered in 1888 with relative ease by zoologist John Whitehead.

Sapinggi playing the guitar
Sapinggi playing the guitar

Sapinggi became the leader of this tribe at the very young age of nineteen. He was now in his fifties. He started leading groups up the mountain in 1976, and has done so three times per week ever since. That’s about three thousand climbs! He has a number of assistant guides, and numerous porters. All the fit men in the tribe work on the mountain as guides or porters, going up and down a couple of times a week to earn their living. Their wives stay at home to look after the children and farms in the village.

Sapinggi mentioned that as this was a long climb up into high altitudes, we would have to go pelan-pelan (Malay for “slowly slowly”) to get up the mountain. After several hours, we would reach the lodge at Laban Rata. From there we would stay the night and set off at about two thirty the next morning to climb through the night to reach the top in time for sunrise. Then we will be heading down again.

Now not everyone takes it slowly. Sapinggi mentioned the Kinabalu Classic, a race from the bottom of the mountain to the top, then back to the bottom and to the information centre. Whilst this would take most people two days, the record for the race was two hours forty minutes up and down. That was amazing. Another man has done the climb to the summit and back barefoot in just over three hours. That’s insane.

On the other hand, some people are a lot slower. I imagined this comes from tourists not being screened in any way for fitness. The record for the longest climb was taking all day to climb to Laban Rata, then a slow climb the next day reaching the summit in late morning. They did not reach the bottom until one thirty the following morning. That sounded quite extreme.


With regards to age, Sapinggi didn’t mention the age of the youngest person to ever go up, but the oldest person to reach the summit and safety return was ninety two. This was all sounding encouraging to us. If a ninety two year old can climb the mountain, then maybe there is hope for me.

Now the weather at the top is nearly always clear at sunrise, and summit attempts are very rarely abandoned due to inclement weather. The weather usually turns for the worse by mid-morning though, and the peak is seldom clear in the afternoon.

There doesn’t seem to be any limits on what the porters can carry up the mountain. Everything used to build and service Laban Rata and other huts on the mountain is carried up on the backs of the porters. They don’t use helicopters except for emergency rescues, and they are very expensive. The porters are therefore used to carrying heavy loads, usually around thirty kilogrammes. The record for a single porter was one hundred kilogrammes. That sounded unreal especially given how small these people are and how difficult the track sounded going into such high altitude. Perhaps the scales were broken at the time his load had been weighed.

By the time Sapinggi had finished telling his stories, several of the other men in the village had arrived through the back door of the house to join us. Some were obviously too old to be porters anymore and others were still a little too young. On the other hand some of the men who had joined us tonight will be coming up the mountain with us as porters.

All the men in the room had a story to tell.

There was Agus, the man with the very round face and wearing a white shirt. He had only recently retired from being a porter for many years. He would have carried many tonnes of gear up and down the mountain in his time.

There was Bambang the man with the long pointy face with the bumble bee yellow and blue top who was going to be one of our porters this trip, but he looked as if he should be retiring by now. Obviously he still needed the money.

There was the young guy in his late twenties wearing the bright royal blue shirt on top of a black tee shirt and faded jeans. His name was Lianty. He will be our assistant guide. He seemed pretty normal and quiet compared to everyone else. Nice to know there was one sane man taking us up the mountain!

There was Sulung the old man with the deeply wrinkled long pointed face. He was wearing a dark green woolly hat far too large for his head and with a small pom pom at the top. He wore a very baggy unironed white shirt several sizes too big and totally non-matching black tracksuit pants with yellow stripes up the length of his legs. This was the worst case of dress sense I had seen in a long time. He was obviously long retired from climbing the mountain, but he sure had a few stories to tell – or rather unintelligibly mutter through his toothless mouth. He went around the group introducing himself to each person in his very friendly murmur.

There was Guntur the man with the puffy face and khaki green tee shirt who was single and had showed clear signs of mental health issues as he was talking to himself a lot as if there was someone there. Richard would later tell me this man’s wife to be had died suddenly and unexpectedly on the way to their wedding ceremony. That had severely affected him mentally for the rest of his life. That explained why he was talking to himself so much tonight. He was actually talking to his wife as if she was still alive. He always did that. I don’t know whether he could genuinely sense her presence, or whether he was in a state of perpetual shock and denial. Without access to proper psychiatric help up here in this remote village, no one will ever know.

Sapinggi getting another bottle of rice wine through the window
Sapinggi getting another bottle of rice wine through the window

There was Muda, the young guy in the blue singlet and baggy cream shorts who wasn’t quite old enough to go up the mountain yet. He was nearly ready though, and as part of his training, he will be taking us on the village tour tomorrow morning. He picked up the guitar and started leading everyone in song, playing contemporary songs that perhaps Richard had taught him. We danced away the night, as Sapinggi got up every so often and reached through the window for another bottle of home brewed rice wine supplied by the women of the village. There were women and children outside peering through the windows. It appeared in this culture they were not allowed to join in with the festivities with the foreigners.

Sapinggi and Lianti celebrating
Sapinggi and Lianty celebrating

Richard would have a go on the guitar whilst the Muda the young guitarist would use a couple of plastic water bottles as drums and a couple of knives as drumsticks. Even Sapinggi had a go on the guitar. They were all very good and obviously musically inclined.

Finally the celebrating stopped. We had to call it a night as tomorrow will be the final preparations before the climb. We left the house and staggered in the darkness back towards our hut. Fortunately it wasn’t raining, so perhaps there may be a chance of seeing the mountain tomorrow morning.

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16 May 2010


Kiau Nulu



1500m ASL


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