Many visitors to Borneo assume Mt Kinabalu is a volcano, but the mountain is actually a huge granite dome that rose from the depths below some nine million years ago. In geological terms Mt Kinabalu is still young. Little erosion has occurred on the exposed granite rock faces around the summit, though the effects of glaciers that used to cover much of the mountain can be detected by striations on the rock. There's no longer a snowline and the glaciers have disappeared, but at times ice forms in the rock pools near the summit.
The Day the Mountain Shook
On 5 June 2015, at 7.15am, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale struck Mt Kinabalu. It was until then a glorious morning, the sky a rich blue, the mountain teeming with trekkers. Massive landslides and huge rockfalls followed. Even one of the famous 'Donkey's Ears' rock formations snapped off. The strongest quake to affect Malaysia since 1976, it lasted 30 seconds and tragically took the lives of 18 people, many of them students from Singapore. There were 137 people stranded on the mountain but later rescued. That first evening alone three massive aftershocks were felt, and by 23 June, 90 had been felt as far away as Kota Kinabalu.
The 15-million-year-old mountain's name is derived from the Kadazan Dusun tribe's phrase 'Aki Nabalu', meaning the resting place of the souls of the departed. The Kadazan Dusun consider it a sacred temple and believe the earthquake was caused by 'Aki' (the mountain's protectors), who were enraged at the loutish behaviour of 10 Westerners (who allegedly stripped, urinated and insulted their guide, and two of their cohort even managed to have sex on their ascent of the mountain) on 30 May.
The trail from Timpohon to Laban Rata reopened to climbers in September 2015, with business as usual, and the trail from Laban Rata to the summit reopened on 1 December.
Flora & Fauna of Mt Kinabalu
Mt Kinabalu is a botanical paradise, designated a Centre of Plant Diversity as well as a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site. The altitudinal range of habitats supports a wide range of flora, and over half the species growing above 900m are unique to the area.
Among the more spectacular flowers are orchids, rhododendrons and the insectivorous nepenthes (pitcher plant). Around park headquarters, there's dipterocarp rainforest. Creepers, ferns and orchids cling to the trunks and branches of forest giants, while fungi feed on the forest floor. Between 900m and 1800m there are oaks, laurels and chestnuts, while higher up there's dense rhododendron forest. On the windswept slopes above Laban Rata, vegetation is stunted, with sayat-sayat a common shrub. The mountain's uppermost slopes are bare of plant life.
Deer and monkeys are no longer common around park headquarters, but you can see squirrels, including the handsome Prevost's squirrel and the mountain ground squirrel. Tree shrews can sometimes be seen raiding rubbish bins. Common birds are Bornean treepies, fantails, bulbuls, sunbirds and laughing thrushes, while birds seen only at higher altitudes are the Kinabalu friendly warbler, the mountain blackeye and the mountain blackbird. Other wildlife includes colourful butterflies and the huge green moon moth.