Walking with ghosts
Mahen Bala treks the incredible salt trail in Sabah through pristine jungle (leeches!), on paths that have been used by generations of villagers from the interior as their only way to get to the outside world. Follow his footsteps with this guide
The salt trails are an ancient web of interconnecting trails, linking multiple villages in different parts of the Crocker Range National Park, Sabah. In the distant past, villagers from the interior relied on these nodes to reach the tamus (markets) on the west coast where they would trade jungle produce for salt and other essentials. In more recent times, the trails are still used by farmers and villagers, but only one trail is open for tourists, a 36km route between Tikolod and Inobong Sub-station.
Day 1 Kota Kinabalu to Malungung Post
From the breezy city of Kota Kinabalu, transport can be arranged to transfer you directly to the starting point. The journey curves over mountains, pristine jungles, and if you’re lucky, a thick blanket of mist that hovers over the Crocker Range. It takes about an hour to arrive at the Malungung Control Post, where the Sabah Park Ranger’s office is located. Take the night off to settle down and soak in the environment as a preview of what to expect over the following days. This is also a great time to re-evaluate the weight of your bag, and hire a porter if you need to. Burdening your back with a heavy load has a better chance of causing injury than earning you bragging rights.
Day 2 Malungung to Kg Kionop (6-11 hours)
Start your day with a good breakfast, because you’ll burn the calories off within the first hour. This is when the real challenge begins. It’s best to get your feet wet right from the start as you will be crossing multiple rivers later on. If you don’t have a walking stick, inform your guide and he’ll find you one, which will probably be stronger and more practical than the ones sold in shops. After a short walk, it’s an uphill battle for the next two hours and then a steep descent for about three hours. The trail cuts across streams of boulders covered in moss, what used to be a contributing river. The route hugs the river until the final crossing before reaching Kg Kionop.
Kg Kionop was once a large settlement. The main priorities for the villagers along the salt trail are education and healthcare, both of which are easier to access in larger settlements beyond the boundaries of the national park. Today, all that’s left in Kionop is an old couple living in a large slanted wooden house, and a small chapel a short distance away. This is where visitors usually spend the night.
Day 3 Kg Kionop to Kg Buayan (3-5 hours)
The path out of Kionop is relatively flat. The first hour is a cool trek through a sliver of a trail, barely noticeable as it winds around small hills, over slippery stones and small streams. The trail then passes through patches of orchards, so don’t be shy to greet the local farmers resting in small wooden huts. See if you can spot the guava, pineapple, rambutan and even durian trees all along the way.
The last leg is riddled with multiple river crossings, some of which are wide enough that it can be difficult to find the trail on the opposite bank. Keep close to your guide and take your time as you waddle across the river. When you’ve reached the hanging bridge, that’s when you’ve arrived in Kg Buayan.
Kg Buayan is home to about 300 people, mostly Catholics, who speak both Dusun and Malay. Over the years, access has gotten better with the construction of logging roads by the state government. There’s only one primary school here, so youths have to venture out to Penampang to attend secondary school.
Day 4 Kg Buayan to Kg Terian (3-5 hours)
The trail out of Buayan starts with paddy fields and orchards, before resuming through the jungle. The trail is relatively easy, with a mix of flat terrain and steep ascends. Once you start walking through someone’s orchard again, you know you’ve arrived. The final few hundred metres down to the village can be very challenging, especially on a rainy day. The highlight of Kg Terian is the river, where you will likely spend most of your time. In the evenings, feel free to walk around the village and get the kids to show you their school, which overlooks the village. In case of an emergency, the village is connected to a nearby town by road.
Day 5 Kg Terian to Inobong Sub-station (5-7 hours)
The first hour out of Terian is critical. Ideally the trek should begin before the sun rises to reduce exposure. Once the sun is up, the trail is hot and dusty due to land clearing for agriculture. After a series of short ascends, the trail resumes on relatively flat terrain before reaching a hut.
From here onwards there are two peaks to traverse, at a height of about 800m above sea level. The biggest challenge with the final day isn’t so much the trek itself, but the lack of water. Each person should carry at least two litres of water. There are no river crossings. Once you reach the peak of Mt Kebambangan, marked by a triangular metal structure, it’s a long way down, which can be tough for those with weak knees. The key here is to take your time and not to rush, especially at the last leg where the steps are dug into slippery clay. At the end of the journey, Sabah Parks, or Taman-Taman
Sabah, prepares a simple certificate with a cross-section of the entire trail and date of completion. Inobong Sub-station boasts a breathtaking panoramic view of Kota Kinabalu and the coast, so it’s the perfect time to switch on your smart phones and start sharing.