The Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo is probably not what comes to mind when thinking of alpine highs -- but topographically Mount Kinabalu is one of the most prominent peaks in the world. Soaring up from sea level to 4,095m, Kinabalu makes Borneo the planet’s third highest island after Hawaii and New Guinea.
And it is not simply height that distinguishes Mount Kinabalu; its slopes and peaks are also a biological treasure trove. With distinct climatic zones across an altitude range of 500m to 4,095m and a pronounced variation of soils, Kinabalu is among the richest habitats for plant life anywhere on earth. More than 5,000 species of plants have been identified here (more than Europe and North America – minus tropical Mexico - combined), and many cannot be found anywhere else. Additionally, 326 bird species and 100 mammals inhabit the mountain’s slopes.
Outside the protected and Unesco World Heritage-listed area of Kinabalu National Park, much of Borneo’s forest has been logged, developed or replaced by palm-oil plantations. Kinabalu’s intact habitat makes the walk from the steamy rainforests to alpine meadows not only an inspiring physical challenge, but a privileged journey through one of nature’s last Edens.
Kinabalu’s lower slopes offer walks under a dense rainforest canopy, with tall hardwoods, tangled fruiting figs, palms, bamboo and giant tree ferns arching above. The forest floor is covered by the largest mosses on earth, and the mountainsides host more than 608 species of ferns, exceeding the number of species found on the entire African mainland.
As you walk, sniff the wind for the parasitic rafflesia plant whose giant flowers – though rarely seen as it only blooms for three to five days a year – measure up to one metre in diameter and smell of rotting flesh. You may spot the bright orange billed and vociferous Rhinoceros Hornbill in the forest canopy above or see Müller's Bornean gibbon swinging from tree to tree, and very occasionally, walkers may catch a glimpse of the “forest person” (as the name translates) -- the ochre-pelted, highly endangered orangutan.
As the route to the summit climbs, lowland rainforest gives way to temperate montane and coniferous forests (1,300 to 2,100m). Here, the trees become increasingly smaller in stature, and many are deciduous. It is on this part of the mountain that the startling variety of species from different vegetation zones becomes clear. There are rhododendrons from the Himalayan zone, Sino-European oaks and chestnuts, and eucalyptus and tea tree typical of Australasian vegetation.
As walkers gain altitude they enter the domain of carnivorous pitcher plants, which have a modified leaf for trapping, drowning and digesting insects. Five species of these are unique to Kinabalu, including the startling Nepenthes rajah – the world’s largest insect-devouring pitcher plant. This extraordinary species attracts insects with nectar, lets them slide down a slippery rim into a pool of fluid where they are digested and absorbed. Some plants have so much fluid – up to two and a half litres - that they can even drown mice and rats.
These forests are habitat for foraging squirrels and wild pigs, and also two of Kinabalu’s unusual endemic animals – the grey-blue giant earthworm that grows up to 70cm long, and coral-hued giant red leech, both of which often appear on the surface of the earth during a downpour.
Into the clouds
Walking in the clouds has a certain kind of magic; mists swirl through a gnarled fairyland of miniature trees, thickly swathed with mosses, lichens and liverworts. Rhododendrons abound in Kinabalu’s cloud forests (2,200m to 3,300m), flowering profusely in garish clusters of red, white, yellow and pink -- five species of them endemic to this mountain alone.
From this region upwards, orchids become more profuse. Kinabalu hosts an astounding 800 species, including the exquisitely ornate Paphiopedilum genus. The trackside forest is also home to wild begonia, giant yellow buttercups and wild raspberries.
A night’s rest can be found at the high refuge of Laban Rata (3,272m), which provides beds and meals. From here, the trek to the summit traditionally starts at 3 or 4 am to arrive for sunrise.
Kinabalu is one of the youngest non-volcanic mountains in the world, aged a mere 15 million years. This young, glacier-scoured geology is visible as you approach the summit, which culminates in a crown of bare, wild granite spires that have yet to show age. Here, bonsai pines, rhododendrons and rare orchids tuck into crevices between otherwise naked rocks. Where the barest covering of soil has formed, there are grassy meadows bright with wildflowers like gentians, potentillas and eyebrights.
When you finally reach the rocky apex, breathing hard in the high-altitude air, the summit panoramas are inspiring, as is the achievement of making it here. But perhaps the greatest inspiration for climbing this mountain is that it is a journey through vibrant, abundant and infinitely varied life – and for that Kinabalu is unequalled.