The Salt Trail in Sabah’s Crocker Range Mountains, is a series of jungle paths used by villagers to get to coastal towns, where they traded fresh produce for salt.
Today, there is some form of road linking most of the villages. But there are some villages remaining in the interior that are only reachable by several hours hiking through winding jungle paths, and crossing rivers, which swell and eb with prevailing rains.
Over the last 4 days I have been on a recce for Downbelow (and info quest for SabahBah.com) to see what the Salt Trails are all about.
The path starts at the Sabah Park’s Inobong Station, which is still fairly close to the city – about 30 minutes form the centre of Kota Kinabalu.
Driving up to the facility on Wednesday, the seriously steep last mile gave us a taste of what awaited on the Salt Trail itself.
According to the map, the length of the Salt Trail we were about to embark, is about 34km, but having walked it I suspect it’s potentially much further (or does it only feel that way?).
Check out the bottom of the post for a Google Map with a few GPS plotted points and the path as well as I could connect it.
The group I was with consisted of myself and 2 female colleagues from the office, so assembled to see how a diverse range of fitness levels would fair.
Salt Trail Day 1
We were high up on the ridges of the Crocker Range Mountains for most of the first day, and walked mostly uphill, although on average the path was undulating.
The vegetation, although lush, was sparse compared to what we would encounter later on. Lots of grassy type foliage on this part of the trial.
Early on, especially the nearly vertical start to the path, the girls struggled – I struggled too, but more because we were walking so slowly. My longs legs have to go at a certain minimum pace otherwise it’s an effort to go slower. Luckily, there are several rest stops along the way, which were liberally used.
On Salt Trail Day 1 we didn’t cross any rivers until near the village, which is already the end of Day 1.
The 1st overnight stop, and the only actual village we saw this time on the Salt Trail, Kampung Terian, was finally sighted after 8 hours of walking. When I next did it, we passed through another village on Day 2, which we avoided this time because of the swollen rivers.
After we saw Kampung Terian for the first time, we still had to cross 2 rivers by bridge to get there only 30 minutes later, and just before dark.
Here, we spent the night, got fed and replenished our water. The water is boiled on an open fire, which gave it had very distinct burnt-wood taste, which became very unpleasant towards the end of the next day. Tip: rehydration salts, or a bit of fruit juice, will smooth the edge of this taste.
Salt Trail Day 2
Leaving the village was via an uphill exit, but the vegetation was markedly different.
It turns from sparse jungle atop the mountain ridges, to lush greenery as we dipped in and out of the valleys. Not quite primary rain rain forest though, as all these hills have likely been deforested many times over the recent decades.
Salt Trail Day 2 is the longest walk at 13km.
I previously questioned the distances, but since learned the Sabah Parks peeps have impressive GPS gear. I’ve also since learned that my phone’s GPS is rubbish under jungle canopies.
We passed a second ranger station, Kampung Buayan, where there is a 2nd village nearby, but on the other side of the river to where we were – and thus we didn’t see it this time.
Usually the trail goes through the village, after which you cross a very wide portion of the normally shallow river. If it rained, however, this very wide part of the river becomes fast flowing, and very dangerous, and thus has to be avoided – as we did on this occassion.
Day 2 of the Salt Trail ended at an abandoned church in what was formerly Kampung Kionab. Apparently the villagers moved closer to infrastructure, and the structure now serves as Salt Trail accommodations.
It still has cooking facilities, a place to shower and even a fairly modern toilet, which was installed by a NGO during a project some years ago.
This day on the Salt Trails was an historic occasion for me. I encountered something I’ve never encountered in all my many years in Sabah: leeches. To be fair, I haven’t spent all that much time in the jungle either, but still.
2 things help against leeches – leech socks, obviously, and if you do get them on you, hand sanitiser gets rid of them almost instantly.
Salt Trail Day 3
I woke up stiff from sleeping on the floor and only thin foam mattress, which may or may not have helped, but shook it soon after. Day 3 had 11km in store for us. A hard 11km, as it turned out.
We started almost immediately with 4 or 5 successive river crossings at points where the river wasn’t very wide, but, due to the rain, were raging.
We walked along or near the river for the first hour and half of the morning, where it was dark green tropical jungle and clear rivers. We then reached an embankment, and for the next 2 hours it was nothing but uphill.
The rains returned, and by the time we reached the other side of the ridge we were on, it was a muddy, slippery trail down to the river again. Treacherous at best.
Eventually, after walking in what seemed like night (because the jungle canopy was so thick), we reached the final rest stop – Kampung Melungung, the Sabah Parks pit stop near Tambunan.
The hot chicken soup we had there was supremely well received.
Salt Trail Day 4
We started off late as we had to time our arrival at the edge of the jungle to coincide with our transport’s arrival.
It took about 90 minutes to get out of the jungle proper onto a severely eroded, unsealed road. After another hour we made it onto a sealed road, and then past enough of the landslides on both sides to the village of Kampung Tikolod, where our adventure concluded.
I did the trail again a month later with an actual adventure group. It was less rainy on the walk itself, but had rained much more before.
The net result was that the rivers were lower and hence our path slightly different. Also, what was muddy on this trip was fairly dry on the next trip, but all the rain before had made for a leech party, and they were out in full force.
I had learned my lesson though, and were well prepared with leech socks, tucked in shirts and a bottle of hand sanitiser. All of which were employed to keep them at bay.
I also managed to collect a few GPS points, but couldn’t trace the entire trail because the jungle canopy is impenetrable in places. Besides, I couldn’t get spare batteries or a wind-up charger or a powerbank, so had to pace my battery use to last for 5 days.
But here’s the result: