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

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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.

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