A tough overnight walk through the jungle to the peak of Mount Trusmadi in Borneo, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, via the Mannan trail from Sinua.
I’d booked the Trusmadi (or Trus Madi) hike during our two-week family holiday in Borneo. As the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, it seemed a good alternative to Mt Kinabalu (which I’d climbed twice on previous trips). Although considerably less high at 2,642m (in comparison to Kinabalu at 4,052m), it’s considered a tougher climb (I’ve added my comparison of Kinabalu and Trusmadi at the end.) The plan was to do the shorter 2 day / 1 night Wayaan Kaingaran route which is accessed from Tambunan… but a few days before the hike, our tour guide said “I’ve got good news and bad news about your Trusmadi hike”…
…turns out the access road from Tambunan to the start of the Trusmadi hike was closed due to a recent landslide (I think that was the bad news!). The good news was that I could still go, but would have to take a longer and harder Wayaan Mannan route that starts from the small village of Sinua, and it would now be a 3 day / 2 night trek.
It also meant a much longer journey to the start of the trail near Sinua. Getting to the start point took just under seven hours by road from Kota Kinabalu, including a lunch stop and coffee break, as I was transferred between three different cars for the trip.
The final stretch of road, which was only constructed about 30 years ago, provides the first view of Trusmadi in the distance.
Camp 1 at Sinua is our destination for today: there’s a small bunkhouse and a larger dormitory with rows of hammocks. Soon there will also be one more up-market “cabin” to cater for the increasing tourism market and interest on the Trusmadi trek. I’ve got the bunkhouse to myself – two other groups had booked the shorter trail, but decided not to do the longer option. Compared to Kinabalu where 100+ people are on the mountain every day, having an entire mountain to myself is a new and decidedly more pleasant experience 🙂
Sinua (Camp 1) to Camp 2 – 7.4km
The Trusmadi trek starts the next day at 7:30am, up to Camp 2. We’re dropped off 1km down the road where the trail starts – “we” being my guide Sam, Melda the cook, Deo the assistant and myself. It’s a slightly larger entourage than I expected: I would have been happy with two-minute noodles for dinner, but I’m not complaining about having three cooked meals a day. It explains why the Trusmadi hike is more expensive than Kinabalu, where there is a permanent “camp” on the mountain.
The path crosses a river on a well-constructed bridge as we head towards the Trusmadi forest reserve.
The next crossing of the same river is not quite so civilised, as we take our shoes off, wade across… and put on our leech socks for the first section of the path.
We’re following an old logging road for most of the way to Camp 2, so it’s not too steep. But there are a LOT of leeches as we climb up through the jungle. My cheap leech socks seem to be working, but every time I stop I need to remove another set of hopeful leeches from my shoes.
The old road – it’s more of a track in places – gets progressively steeper. There’s a few creek crossings, as well as ferns, orchids and a few flowering plants. The guide tells me that one orchid that we spot (bottom right) is worth USD$5,000 in Europe.
After about 6.5km we reach an overgrown clearing, which marks the end of the old logging road. The last 800m to Camp 2 is a preview of the rest of the way to to the peak – a very narrow and rough track carved through the jungle. It’s much slower going, and feels more like an obstacle course than a track.
We reach Camp 2 at around 11am – it’s taken us about 3.5 hours to cover the 7.4km. From our starting point at Camp 1, we’ve also ascended from about 680m elevation to 1750m – which means we’ve done more than half of the vertical distance. It’s a nice camp which we have to ourselves, although capacity is about 30 people plus guides and cooks. It’s a but overcast and there’s some rain, but for a few short periods when the clouds part, there’s a view to the east over the surrounding mountains and forest.
To the north-east there are occasional glimpses of Trusmadi – although most of the time, it’s hidden in the swirling clouds and mist.
It’s an early dinner (three different dishes cooked over the camp fire – I feel very spoilt!) and a few cups of tea by the fire before an early night. It’s pretty chilly at this altitude (I’m given a spare sleeping bag, or it would be very cold) and it starts raining heavily. I go to bed with a degree of trepidation about whether the rain will clear…
Camp 2 to the Summit – 4.2km
There’s no photos for this section, because it was dark. We leave camp at 1am for the summit – it’s rained all night, but stops just before we set out. I hope it clears in time for sunrise, so the effort of the climb will be rewarded by a great view!
It’s a tough climb, both because the track is steep, and because it’s very rough and muddy. There are some sections where you try and avoid stepping into foot-deep mud, many sections where you’re negotiating huge roots and occasionally a rope to help where the track is nearly vertical! The other “highlight” of this approach versus the other routes, is that there are in fact three peaks. To reach the Trusmadi summit, you must first traverse two smaller peaks along the ridge.
We reach the summit at 4am, a bit too early. Actually, way too early. Rather than wait at the true summit (2,624m), we continue a bit further down the mountain (along the Tambunan trail) to Jiran Point. Here there is a five metre observation tower – and also a very small shelter that gives us a bit of protection from the cold as we wait for the sun to rise. I’m glad we wait – I’m getting pretty cold and almost suggest that we head back down the mountain to get out of the wind. But eventually the sun emerges, above a thick layer of cloud. In the distance, rising above the clouds, is Mount Kinabalu about 40km to the north.
It’s a relatively short walk back to the true summit. The view isn’t as good as it is from the observation tower, but there’s still an unobstructed view of Kinabalu in the distance.
Trusmadi Summit back to Camp 1 – 11.6km
From the summit, it’s back the same way down… Near the summit I can now see a wide range of unique flora and fauna, including the nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant. Found only at a specific elevation on Mount Trusmadi (between 2200m and the summit at 2642m), its name is derived from the Latin words macro (large) and phylla (leaves).
There’s a few more glimpses of Trusmadi through breaks in the canopy.
It’s less tiring but not a lot easier going down, as the slippery and muddy track requires constant attention.
The steepest section is between the “third” (main) Trusmadi peak and the second peak: after the initial descent from the summit there’s a steep climb, with a few sections aided by rope.
Other parts are less steep, but still require careful navigation using exposed tree roots for support.
It takes us about 2.5 hours to reach Camp 2, and we have short break for our second breakfast (our first breakfast having been around midnight, before we set off for the summit).
From Camp 2, another two hours takes us back to Camp 1. This is easy walking after the previous section of the walk down to Camp 2 – but after heavy rain on the previous day, the leeches are out in force. I decide not to bother with my leech socks (which I’d bought for $1.50 a few days ago) and continue with my normal hiking socks and long pants. I think I must have removed at least 50 of the little bastards from my shoes and socks. After we reach the base of the mountain just before midday, I remove my socks and change into clean pant. I discover that 14 leeches have successfully latched onto various parts of my ankles and feet!
Leeches aside, it’s been one of my best hikes in Malaysia. Varied and challenging terrain, a great view at the top and a feeling of adventure that you don’t get on many of the more popular walks and summits.
Kinabalu versus Trusmadi
It’s not really a fair comparison, as apart from geographic proximity they are very different mountains. If you can, do both – but if you’ve limited time and have to pick? I’d go for Trusmadi, by a slim margin!
Elevation: Kinabalu is the clear winner for bragging rights at 4,095m altitude, compared to Trusmadi at 2,642m. Although if you compare the vertical distance hiked, they are fairly similar with 2,200m elevation gain for Kinabalu (you start much higher) compared to about 2000m for Trusmadi (if you do the route from Sinua). The shorter trails from Api Api and Tambunan have a lesser elevation gain.
Difficulty: Trusmadi has been described as harder than Kinabalu, and the trail is definitely a lot tougher. The altitude of Kinabalu does make a difference, and descending the mountain’s thousands of steps means you’ll feel your legs for a few days. But Trusmadi (at least if you take the longer of the trails) is more challenging, both in the length of the trail, steepness and the fact it’s largely an undeveloped jungle track.
Flora & Fauna: you’re unlikely to see much wildlife (unless you count leeches) on either walk, although if you’re patient there is a lot of birdlife at Trusmadi. Both mountains offer orchids, ferns and pitcher plants – Trusmadi has the advantage of being home to the huge nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant, which is found in abundance near the peak.
Solitude: Trusmadi wins by a mile… pick the right weekend or go during the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the mountain to yourself. Especially if you go for one of the longer routes. By comparison, you’ll need to book well ahead for Kinabalu, and you’ll be walking up the mountain in a long line of people.
Views: The landscape as you climb Kinabalu is more varied, as you go from jungle to the exposed and rocky summit. There’s the same risk with both peaks that the only thing you see is cloud, if you’re unlucky with the weather. They both offer outstanding views from the top – you don’t really notice the significant difference in height from the top, and both peaks will rise above any low cloud cover.
Cost: I was surprised by how much more expensive it was to do Trusmadi when researching the walk: I paid around RM2150 / USD$540 x2 (as there’s a minimum of two people) for the 2D/1N version, including transport from Kota Kinabalu. By comparison Mt Kinabalu is around RM1500 / USD$380 for a foreigner, and promotional rates are sometimes available. One of the reasons for the difference is that Kinabalu has a permanent camp at Laban Rata with staff who stay there in shifts, while on Trusmadi there’s no permanent camp. A cook and assistant walked with us up to Camp 2, carrying all the supplies we needed. It may be possible to do Trusmadi without a guide (you still need to book a permit), and you could also negotiate a rate for just a guide if you organise and carry your own food.
In summary, Trusmadi feels more remote and challenging but be prepared for leeches and mud. If you’re not used to hiking or don’t want to rough it too much, Kinabalu would be the best pick.
|Location||The Mannan trail starts near Kampung Sinua, in the Keningau District.|
|Distance||7.4km on Day 1 and 15.8km on Day 2.|
|Grade||Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with some ropes). Total elevation gain ~2000m|
|Season/s||All year, but best to avoid wet season (Nov – March).|
|GPS route||View route and export to KML format:
Day 1 – Camp 1 (Sinua) to Camp 2
Day 2 – Camp 2 to Trusmadi summit and back to Camp 1