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Conquering Mount Kinabalu

Kinabalu Park, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo)

By Ewan Lynch/Borneo Expedition

Kinabalu Mountain Covering 754 square kilometres, Kinabalu Park is one of the greatest attractions of Sabah, East Malaysia. Within its boundaries are found the lowland rainforest of the tropical zone as its lower level, the montane oaks and fig trees, the rhododendron shrubs and wild berries of the temperate zone at its medium level, and the conifers and other alpine-like associations of the summit zone at its upper level. Where else in the world can you find a complete climatic succession such as this, compacted in one small area? It is no wonder that a good number of its visitors are nature lovers eager to study, record and enjoy its richly varied natural resources.

The Park also has this 'away-from-it-all' cool serenity that offers a break from daily routine. Mount Kinabalu, the summit of Borneo stands in ever-changing grandeur. Looming huge and dark in the light of dawn, it gradually appears in its full splendour revealing its numerous rugged peaks and waterfalls, only to be quickly hidden again behind a cloudy shroud billowing upward from the lowland forest. Some evenings one can get lucky when the mountain remains in full view a washed in warm sunset hues.

At its present height of 4,101 meters (13,455 feet) Mt. Kinabalu is still rising at approximately 5 mm per year. The landslides on its slopes and rock debris beneath its peaks are evidence of its still-continuing movement. Nature's powerful forces have produced a scenic location of remarkable beauty. The gradual evolutionary process has also resulted in fauna and flora, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Journey

Bulbophyllum lowii, a Kinabalu orchid We left our hostel back in Kota Kinabalu at about seven in the morning for the bus which took Gary, Kirsteen and Kathleen to Sepilok, and the three of us to the Park. The journey only cost $10 each and we reached the park by half past nine. With very little food inside us (not very wise) and after the accommodation, insurance and our guide - 'Victor' - had been organised, we started our climb to the rest house "Laban Rata". The mountain really did look very big, we had to bend backwards to see the full extent of the task ahead, quite literally!

We began near the park's HQ on the mountain's lower slopes (about 1800m above sea-level), the track was a fairly gradual and simple walk along a muddy undulating path through towering trees of the rainforest. The trail starts to get difficult at about two and a half thousand meters, where tree roots form a series of steps. Suddenly the mountain climb had transformed itself into an elaborate three hundred storey climb with an out of order lift! Our pace was not quite that of the Hong Kong Gurkas who managed to get up and down the mountain in a time of two hours, thirty-five minutes. We caught a glimpse of the Low pitcher plant, Sally and Andrew managed to photograph this unusual looking plant - I was more concerned with the loud shrilling of birds overhead. Collecting water at the various shelter points nearly replenished that lost through sweat on these lower slopes, little be known to us the complete contrast in conditions that we would face fifteen hours on.

We climbed still steeper over a patch of ultra basic rocky outcrop and orange-coloured soil where the plant life changes to Southern Pine and once past this we climbed over another series of steps made this time from outcropping rocks. At this point the mountain was in full view but photo taking was continually hampered by clouds obscuring the peak. It was nearly three o'clock when we arrived 3300 metres up at the "overnight" rest house where we were fed and watered before preparing ourselves for the very arduous two and a half hour final ascent to the summit. We watched the sunset and the most amazing lightning flashes that filled the sky, at about the same level (or what seemed level) with us many miles to the south-west. It was then that Andrew and I realised tonight was going to be rough going - the temperature had dropped, clouds were rolling in and we had no waterproofs!

Summit at midnight

Going to bed at eight o'clock in the freezing temperatures (there was no heating in our hut) was a little uncomfortable, and as we all tried to wrap ourselves in extra clothes, sleeping bags (or two) we were trying to forget that we had to get up around two in the morning to begin the final stage of the climb. Victor was waiting for us as we surfaced at two-thirty. Andrew and I dressed in many layers of clothes and made waterproof tops from bin-liners as the rain continued to fall steadily and conditions were not pleasant. Despite the weather, we continued on the dark, slippy, two and a half kilometres climb to reach the summit before sunrise.

Bulbophyllum lowii, a Kinabalu orchid The first half an hour was both physically and mentally exhausting (the climb simply seemed never-ending), the next hour was worse as the gradient got more steep and difficult, then for the last hour we could see the torches of other climbers all the way to the top and we knew the end was near. There was a rope from the rest house to the top should climbers need it and it came in very useful at times, it was such a relief when we reached the top - like making it to the roof of the world, we could see most of northern and western Sabah. Although it was even more freezing at the top, we were so enthralled to have achieved this climb everything paled into insignificance. Many photos were taken by the fifty-odd people up there that morning at six when the sun rose - even if the sunrise was not too spectacular (cloud problems again).

Poring Hot Springs

Our descent was far more rapid than the 8 hours it had taken us to climb up, taking a mere three and a half hours to reach the bottom. Our knees had taken a bit of pounding by midday and relief turned to joy as we were then off to Poring Hot Springs (which lies within Kinabalu Park at its lowest elevation)- a small, peaceful resort where rest and relaxation were the orders of the day. Here they have many hot baths and a cool pool in which to bathe, there was a swaying treetop canopy walkway and some people are fortunate enough to sight the world's largest flower, Rafflesia. Unfortunately the Rafflesia were not in bloom (wrong time of year), and we spent so long bathing, we didn't have time to walk along the walkway. We chanced a (30 minute) taxi from Poring to a small village which cost us an extortionate (Malaysian standards) RM 15 and from the village we had a slightly more comfortable and affordable two hour journey back to Kota Kinabalu (RM 10).

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Photos (from top): Kinabalu mountain; Bulbophyllum lowii, a Kinabalu orchid; Laban Rata, your oasis on the mountain - © WILDBORNEO.net

 

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