In the Malaysian part of Borneo there is a state called Sabah, known as the land beneath the wind. Within Sabah there is a district called Ranau, and within the district of Ranau lies a small, quiet village called Bongkud.
Set in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, Bongkud is a scenic village with a small population, still majorly reliant on agriculture and labour to sustain themselves. In recent years they have had the support of volunteers on expeditions with Camps International, a company I feel extremely proud and grateful to lead for, who have installed vital infrastructure and educational aid to improve the quality of life for locals, and given employment to many too. I have been to Bongkud on two of my three trips to Borneo with ‘Camps’ so far.
On the outskirts of the village, about a 500m walk from the Camp Bongkud facility, lies a hill known simply to locals as Bongkud Hill, or Bukit Bongkud in Malaysian. Standing at about 620m ASL, making it a mountain by UK technicalities, it is an imposing feature visible from anywhere in the village. It is coated in a sea of green ferns and rubber trees from bottom to top.
From below, Bongkud Hill looks stunning. However, an expedition wouldn’t be an expedition without going on adventures, so it is a Camps tradition that groups staying in Bongkud summit the hill at dawn at least once during their stay. As a Leader I’ve been fortunate enough to hike up there five or six times now – in 2016 I joined other groups each morning whilst my team remained asleep so I could recce it and get some exercise each morning before our own team ascent, and in 2018 I got up there with another team I was leading. I acquired a bit of a reputation for pushing my groups to do it early – leaving camp at 5am meant a much higher chance of catching the 6am sunrise from the top than the usual 5.30-6am schedule but this paid dividends when the teams witnessed why we’d done so.
The views are glorious from the moment you step outside the village centre. Within 20m of ascent, the misty morning valleys come into view to the right hand side. After a few hundred metres the path steepens to a sharp left turn up an even steeper earthen and muddy set of cut steps that eventually lead you to the top.
As you near the top you step onto a wide, shallow-gradient ridgeline that eventually leads to a viewing area. In 2016 this was a dead end – a small wooden shelter marking the summit – but now it’s been cut back, providing ample space for groups to enjoy the view or even for vehicles to access it via a new gravel road on the other side.
Following the typical ascent route Mt. Kinabalu is visible to the left, its jagged rocky shape often encased in cloud or mist, and to the right is an endless expanse of jungle valleys and rises with morning mist rolling through them.
Once at the top, groups often take half an hour to celebrate, catch their breath and photograph views like this:
But hidden within this magnificent scene lies a dark and little-known history of suffering that all Camps Leaders and Camp Borneo staff try to educate their teams about. It is something not taught in school history lessons. The rest of the world, unless they have visited Borneo or stumbled upon it for themselves, remains completely unaware despite it being branded the single worst atrocity to happen to Australian forces in history.
In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the Second World War, 2345 Australian and British POWs were marched from their POW Camp in the city of Sandakan, on Borneo’s east coast, inland to Ranau 250km away. The series of three major marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches and were conducted when the Japanese believed allied forces were closing in on Sandakan.
These marches were an event of extreme suffering. Prisoners were tortured or murdered for the sheer sake of it. They were barely fed or provided any water. Those who fell too weak, or refused to continue, were shot or bayoneted on the spot. By the end only six men survived to tell the tale, having made their escape and reported on the atrocities. It was too late and logistically impractical for allied forces to conduct a rescue of anybody still out there.
The Sandakan death marches passed through the village of Bongkud en route to Ranau, and local elders still remember them happening. Any local who attempted to help the POWs, even by the simplest act of providing food or water, was met with the same fate as the POWs.
The Australian survivors spoke very differently of the scenery around Bongkud than I have in this article. They said that the sight of Mt. Kinabalu reminded them they were in an inescapable hell and, with every misty morning, they would question whether it would be their last day alive.
Today Bongkud could not be any more peaceful. It is a calm, friendly place where the sight of expedition teams puts a beaming smile on the face of every local. Local children and teens play football on the village pitch, or volleyball on any of the many courts. There is a thriving market once a week in the village centre and fresh fruit grows in abundance in every garden. But it is vitally important to remember how fortunate we are and to remain grateful that we live in a different time where we can enjoy the place for its peace and joy rather than the suffering that so many once would have associated it with.
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