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Perspectives: Semi-Retired Naisu on Life as a Guide of Mount Kinabalu

(written by Kevin Loh, supported by Rachel Chee and translations by Lauren Peng)

The Guides of Kinabalu project team embarked on a trip from 17-20 May 2018 to interview the guides of Mount Kinabalu, learning more about their backgrounds and lives. Below is a conversation with ex-guide, Naisu.


Fifteen minutes ago, the park was packed with climbers from all over the world along with their respective guides. But by mid-morning, Kinabalu basecamp was quiet. Crickets and cicadas made up most of the noise by then. Victor, our driver and former guide, took us to a village populated by various guides: Kampung Tudangan, about 28 kilometers or a 45 minute drive from the park. Victor didn’t know where they lived exactly, but we were hoping to get lucky.


Out of nowhere, Victor slammed the brakes and pointed at one of the homes. “He used to be a guide”, Victor said in his native Bahasa language. I peered out the opposite window. An older looking gentleman was doing carpentering work out in the sun, with a family sitting inside nearby. We called the gentleman over and asked if we could interview him on his life as a guide, to which he ecstatically agreed. He ran back to consult the family, likely his client, and returned immediately. He squeezed into the car, bringing us back to his own home about two minutes down the road.


Once we reached his house, we began the interview. He furnished us with stories of his old life as a guide. The manner in which he mused over his past suggested his heart longed to return to the daily grind.


Naisu, 52, started his career as a mountain guide when he was 28 years old. However, he had to take a break in 2016 due to health reasons and is hoping to return once he improves. Currently, he does farming, fish rearing, and carpentering work to earn some income for his family.


Out of his six children, two sons and his daughter are guides and a porter (those who carry climbers’ backpacks up and down the mountain) respectively.

When asked if his wife complained when he is away at the mountain, he replied that she was more worried than anything- especially when he did not message her regularly on his whereabouts.               



(Translated from Bahasa)

What was your greatest achievement?

There were many. However, the greatest moment was when I could carry a man who was taller and weighed heavier than me down the mountains.

What is one lesson you learned as a mountain guide?

A hiker can be in control of everything in his everyday life. However, at the mountain, he has no control and must leave it to the mountain guide. This is a lesson of ‘Humility’.


What qualities must a mountain guide have?

Responsibility and good discipline. A good mountain guide is responsible for the safety of his hikers up and down the mountain, whoever they may be (guides are put on duty based on roster allocation).


Do you think there is any difference between a male and female Mountain guide? Can hikers choose one over the other?

There is no difference as they all undergo the same training and test. Hikers cannot choose their mountain guides as the guides are allocated to hikers according to their duty roster.


How did your hikers react when you told them that they could not hike up to the summit due to weather conditions?

They were more disappointed than angry after they understood the reasons.

What happened to your health after 16 years of mountain guiding?

When I brought hikers up to the mountains, I could only eat when the hikers stopped for their meals. There were some hikers who did not need to stop for their meals and as such I could not stop to eat. If I did, they would complain that I was not doing a good job. So, after some time, I developed gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). Added with lack of rest, my overall health was affected and the doctors ordered me to stop my job until my health improved.


What is the difference between guiding in 2000 and 2016?

The biggest difference is the trek up the mountains has changed. Before was easier. Now, it is longer and steeper which explains the many stairs being built. Stairs are not good for the knees, especially when climbing down the mountains.


What kind of hikers do you encounter?

All sorts. Some are ‘malas’ (lazy) down the group and no sense of time discipline. Some are ‘bising’ (noisy/loud), and some overconfident, who tend to wander around on their own and not listen to their guides.meaning they are always finding excuses to stop to take photos or walk slowly which slows

What did you miss most now?

I miss climbing Mount Kinabalu.

How many times have you climbed?

More than 1000 times. However, I have not participated in a Climb-a-thon competition.

What do guides do when they reach Pana Laban rest area?

We cook our own dinner with rice and vegetables we brought up and sleep by 8:00pm in a room for all guides. We wake up by 1.30am the next morning.

Are there ‘rules’ or ‘superstitions’ a hiker needs to know or prepare for a hike?

Naisu: Believe it or not, there are mountain spirits. So, we must respect our speech and actions when climbing. I have also witnessed with my own eyes some hair-standing moments.


As Naisu returned to continue carpentering, I turned back to his home. He could easily stay retired, but it was evident from our conversation that he found a strong sense of fulfilment in his old tasks. His climbing days? Far from over.

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