Gunung Kinabalu is the pride of Sabah, the focal point of the national park and probably the most magnificent sight in Borneo. In recognition of this, the park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000 - a first for Malaysia. Although Gunung Kinabalu has foothills, its dramatic rockfaces, with cloud swirling around them, loom starkly out of the jungle. The view from the top is unsurpassed and on a clear day you can see the shadow of the mountain in the South China Sea, over 50 km away - Mantanani Island is a great spot to see the mountain and its shadow from a different perspective. Even if you're not planning on climbing Gunung Kinabalu itself, it's well worth spending a few days exploring the park, one of the most biodiverse areas in Borneo.
Best time to visit
The average rainfall is 400 cm a year, with an average temperature of 20°C at Park HQ but at Panar Laban it can drop below freezing at night. With the wind chill factor on the summit, it feels very cold. The best time to climb Gunung Kinabalu is in the dry season between March and April when views are clearest. The worst time has traditionally been November to December during the monsoon, although wet or dry periods can occur at any time of the year. Avoid weekends, school and public holidays if possible.
The park is occasionally closed to climbers.
The climb has become extremely popular in the last few years and it is worth booking a slot as early as possible.
A thick jacket is recommended, but at the very least you should have a light waterproof or windcheater to beat the wind chill on the summit. You can hire jackets from Laban Rata but you need to book ahead as there are limited numbers. Carry a dry sweater and socks in your backpack and change just before you get to the peak - if it's raining the damp chill is worse than the actual cold. There are small shops at Park HQ and Laban Rata that sell gloves, hats, raincoats, torches and food for the climb (but it's cheaper if you stock up in KK). It is also best to bring a sweater or thick shirts; the shops in Wisma Merdeka sell cheap woollies. Walking boots are recommended, but not essential; many people climb the mountain in trainers. Stock up on food, chocolate and drinking water in KK the day before. Essential items include a torch, toilet paper, water bottle, plasters, headache pills and suntan lotion. A hat is good for guarding against the sun and the cold. Lockers are available at the Park HQ reception office. Sleeping bags are provided free of charge in the
; essential for a good night's sleep. The resthouse also has hot-water showers, but soap and towels are not provided. Some of the rooms are well heated, cheaper ones leave you to freeze.
Hiring a guide is compulsory. Guides and porters should be reserved at least a day in advance at the Park HQ. On the morning of your climb, go to the HQ and a guide will be assigned to you. A group of you can hire a taxi, book dorm accommodation and share a guide for the climb for slightly less per person than a tour, including all the fees. If you are doing it by yourselves it is best to get to the park a day in advance, and stay at Park HQ to get up early for the first part of the climb to Laban Rata. Alternatively, you can get up at 0600 in KK and try and arrive at the Park HQ before 0900 to be sure of finding a guide.
If you are desperate to go, short of time and have been informed that there is no accommodation available on the mountain in the next few days (as can happen during busy periods such as school holidays), it might still be worth turning up in person to enquire, but be aware that some hardy enthusiasts have spent nights sleeping on cold floors waiting for a spot. A shuttle bus to the park leaves from the Sutera Harbour in KK in the morning and will drop you outside Park HQ. You may still be able to pick up a guide if you are there before 1000, although you will be unlikely to find anyone else to share with; the climb should begin around 1100, allowing enough time to reach Laban Rata. Reports suggest that beds/mattresses up the mountain can sometimes be found if someone turns up in person. This method should be an absolute last resort, and it is by no means guaranteed to work. If things don't work out, accommodation will probably be available at Park HQ, or there are a number of good places within 2 km of the park.
These located a short walk from the main Ranau-KK road, and all the accommodation and restaurants are within 15 minutes' walk from the main compound. There is a shop next to the Park HQ that has good books on the mountain and its flora and fauna. Slide and film shows are held in the mini-theatre in the administration building, while naturalists give escorted trail walks every morning. The museum displays information on local flora and fauna, beetles and foot-long stick insects.
A small colour pamphlet,
Mount Kinabalu/A Guide to the Summit Trail
, published by Sabah Parks, are a good guide to the wildlife and the trail itself. Most treks are well used and are easy walks, but the
is a good three- to four-hour trek up to where it joins the summit trail and is very steep and slippery in places; not advised as a solo trip. There is a daily guided trail walk from the park administration building. This is a gentle walk with a knowledgeable guide, although the number of participants tends to be large. The climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu is not something that should be undertaken lightly. It can be perishingly cold on the summit and altitude sickness is a problem. Some points of the trail are steep and require adequate footware. Changeable weather conditions add to the hazards.
In the first written mention of the mountain, in 1769, Captain Alexander Dalrymple of the East India Company, wrote from his ship in the South China Sea: “Though perhaps not the highest mountain in the world, it is of immense height.” During the Second World War Kinabalu was used as a navigational aid by Allied bombers - one of whom was quoted as saying “That thing must be near as high as Mount Everest”. It's not, but at 4095 m, Gunung Kinabalu is the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. It is not the highest mountain in Southeast Asia: peaks in Northern Myanmar (Hkakabo Razi) and the Indonesian province of Papua (Puncak Jaya, Gunung Trikora and Gunung Mandala) are all higher, placing Kinabalu fifth on the list - a fact rarely reflected in the Malaysian school geography syllabus.
There are a number of theories about the derivation of its name. The most convincing is the corruption of the Kadazan Aki Nabulu, 'the revered place of the spirits'. For the Kadazan, the mountain is sacred as they consider it to be the last resting place of the dead and the summit was believed to be inhabited by their ghosts. In the past the Kadazan are said to have carried out human sacrifices on Mount Kinabalu, carrying their captives to the summit in bamboo cages, where they would be speared to death. The Kadazan guides still perform an annual sacrifice to appease the spirits. Today they make do with chickens, eggs, cigars, betel nuts and rice on the rock plateau below the Panar Laban rockface.
The Chinese also lay claim to a theory. According to this legend, a Chinese prince arrived on the shores of northern Borneo and went in search of a huge pearl on the top of the mountain, which was guarded by a dragon. He duly slew the dragon, grabbed the pearl and married a beautiful Kadazan girl. After a while he grew homesick and took the boat back to China, promising his wife that he would return. She climbed the mountain every day for years on end to watch for her husband's boat. He never came and in desperation and depression, she lay down and died and was turned to stone. The mountain was then christened China Balu, or Chinaman's widow.
In 1851, Sir Hugh Low, the British colonial secretary in Labuan, made the first unsuccessful attempt at the summit. Seven years later he returned with Spencer St John, the British consul in Brunei. Low's feet were in bad shape after the long walk to the base of the mountain, so St John went on without him, with a handful of reluctant Kadazan porters. He made it to the top of the conical southern peak, but was “mortified to find that the most westerly [peak] and another to the east appeared higher than where I sat.” He retreated and returned three months later with Low, but again failed to reach the summit, now called Low's Peak (standing at 4095 m above sea level). It remained unconquered for another 30 years. The first to reach the summit was John Whitehead, a zoologist, in 1888. Whitehead spent several months on the mountain collecting birds and mammals and many of the more spectacular species bear either Low's or Whitehead's name. More scientists followed and then a trickle of tourists, but it was not until 1964, when Kinabalu Park (encompassing 75,000 ha) was gazetted, that the 8.5-km trail to the summit was opened. Today the mountain attracts 200,000 visitors a year. Although the majority are day visitors who do not climb the peak, the number of climbers is steadily increasing, with at least 30,000 making the attempt each year.
Flora and fauna
In plan, the top of the mountain is U-shaped, with bare rock plateaux. Several peaks stand proud of these plateaux, around the edge of the U; the space between the western and eastern arms is the spectacular gully known as Low's Gully. No one has ever scaled its precipitous walls, nor has anyone climbed the Northern Ridge (an extension of the eastern arm) from the back of the mountain. From Low's Peak, the eastern peaks, just 1.5 km away, look within easy reach. As John Briggs points out in his book
, “It seems so close, yet it is one of the most difficult places to get to in the whole of Borneo”.
The range of climatic zones on the mountain has led to the incredible diversity of plant and animal life. Kinabalu Park is the meeting point of plants from Asia and Australasia. There are thought to be more than 1200 species of orchid alone and this does not include the
innumerable mosses, ferns and fungi. These flowering plants of Kinabalu are said to represent
more than half the families of flowering plants in the world. Within the space of 3 km, the
vegetation changes from lowland tropical rainforest to alpine meadow and cloud forest. The
jungle reaches up to 1300 m; above that, to a height of 1800 m, is the lower montane zone,
dominated by 60 species of oak and chestnut; above 2000 m is the upper montane zone with true cloud forest, orchids, rhododendrons and pitcher plants. Above 2600 m, growing among
the crags and crevices of the summit rock plateau are gnarled tea trees (
) and stunted rhododendrons. Above 3300 m, the soil disappears, leaving only club mosses, sedges and Low's buttercups (
), which are alpine meadow flowers.
Among the most unusual of Kinabalu's flora is the world's largest flower, the rust-coloured rafflesia . It can usually only be found in the section of the park closest to Poring Hot Springs. Rafflesia are hard to find as they only flower for a couple of weeks between August and December.
Kinabalu is also famous for the carnivorous pitcher plants, which grow to varying sizes on the mountain. A detailed guide to the pitcher plants of Kinabalu can be bought in the shop at Park HQ. Nine different species have been recorded on Kinabalu. The largest is the giant Rajah Brooke's pitcher plant; Spencer St John claimed to have found one of these containing a drowned rat floating in four litres of water. Insects are attracted by the scent and, when they settle on the lip of the plant, they cannot maintain a foothold on the waxy, ribbed surface. At the base of the pitcher is an enzymic fluid which digests the 'catch'.
Rhododendrons line the trail throughout the mossy forest (there are 29 species in the park), especially above the Paka Cave area. One of the most beautiful is the copper-leafed rhododendron, with orange flowers and leaves with coppery scales underneath. There are an estimated 1000 species of orchid in the park, along with 621 species of fern and 52 palm species.
It is difficult to see wildlife on the climb to the summit as the trail is well used, although tree shrews and squirrels are common on the lower trails. There are, however, more than 100 species of mammal living in the park. The Kinabalu summit rats, which are always on cue to welcome climbers to Low's Peak at dawn, and nocturnal ferret badgers are the only true montane mammals in Sabah. As the trees thin with altitude, it is often possible to see tree shrews and squirrels, of which there are more than 28 species in the park. Large mammals, such as flying lemurs, red-leaf monkeys, wild pigs, orang-utan and deer, are lowland forest dwellers. Nocturnal species include the slow loris (
) and the mischievous-looking bug-eyed tarsier (
). If heading to Kinabalu specifically to spot wildlife, then the longer, less visited Mesilau Trail is almost certainly a more productive option.
More than half of Borneo's 518 species of bird have also been recorded in Kinabalu Park, but the variety of species decreases with height. Two of the species living above 2500 m are endemic to the mountain: the Kinabalu friendly warbler and the Kinabalu mountain blackbird.
More than 61 species of frog and toad and 100 species of reptile live here. Perhaps the most interesting frog in residence is the horned frog, which can be impossible to spot thanks to its mastery of camouflage. The giant toad is common at lower altitudes; it's covered with warts, which are poisonous glands. When disturbed, these squirt a stinking, toxic liquid. Other frogs found in the park include the big-headed leaf-litter frog, whose head is bigger than the rest of its body, and the green stream shrub frog, who has a magnificent metallic green body, but is deadly if swallowed by any predator.
The famous flying tree snake has been seen in the park. It spreads its skin flaps, which act as a parachute when the snake leaps blindly from one tree to another.
There are nearly 30 species of fish in the park's rivers, including the unusual Borneo sucker fish (
), which attaches itself to rocks in fast- flowing streams. One Sabah Parks publication likens them to 'underwater cows', grazing on algae as they move slowly over the rocks.
Walkers and climbers are more likely to come across the park's abundant insect life than anything else. Examples include pill millipedes, rhinoceros beetles, the emerald green and turquoise jewel beetles, stick insects, 'flying peapods', cicadas, and a vast array of moths (including the giant atlas moth) and butterflies (including the magnificent emerald green and black Rajah Brooke's birdwing).
The climb to the summit and back should take two days; four to six hours from Park HQ at 1585 m to the
(3550 m) on the first day. It is three hours to the summit for dawn on the second day, returning to the Park HQ at around 1200 hours on the second day.
Note There is a slightly tougher walk starting from Mesilau which takes two to three hours longer to get to Laban Rata, but which has far less tourists; the guide fee is slightly higher on this route.
(iron road), www.mountaintorq.com,
opened in 2007 and is also the world's highest. It is still relatively quiet with three possible routes taking between two to five hours to complete. The trail uses fixed rungs, rails, cables and stemples wrapped around the north face of the mountain. This slightly hair-raising adventure provides an experience akin to mountain climbing and a chance to see parts of the mountain usually never experienced by most visitors. The trail starts at Panar Laban Rock Face (3300 m) and reaches its highest point at 3800 m.
Gurkha soldiers and others have made it to the summit and back in well under three hours. For the really keen, or foolhardy, depending on your perspective, there is also the annual Kinabalu Climbathon (www.climbathon.sabahtourism.com) held in early October. Having said that the climb to the top requires no special skills, the death of a British teenage girl on the mountain in 2001 highlights the hazards of climbing an unfamiliar mountain where changes in the weather can be sudden and dramatic. Keep to the trails and keep your group together.
A minibus for 12 people can take groups from headquarters to the power station at 1829 m where the trail starts. It is a 25-minute walk from the power station to the first shelter. The trail splits in two soon afterwards, the left goes to the radio station and the helipad and the right towards the summit. The next stop is
Layang Layang staff headquarters
(with drinking water, cooking facilities and accommodation), also known as
(2621 m). There is one more shelter,
at 2942 m, about 45 minutes from Carson's Camp, before the stop at the path to
, which is
really just an overhanging rock by a stream. Paka is a 10-minute detour to the left, where Low and St John made their camps.
From the cave/fifth shelter the vegetation thins out and it is a steep climb to
- which includes the well-equipped
- affording magnificent views at sunset and in the early morning. The name Panar Laban is derived from Kadazan words meaning Place of Sacrifice: early explorers
had to make a sacrifice here to appease the spirits and this ritual is still performed by the Kadazan once a year.
(3810 m) hut - named after the ubiquitous shrubby tea tree - is an hour further on, above the Panar Laban rockface. Most climbers reach Panar Laban (or the other huts) in the early afternoon in order to rest up for a 0300 start the next morning to reach the summit by sunrise. This second part of the trail - 3 km long - is more demanding technically, but the trail is well laid out with regular resting points every 500 m. Ladders, handrails and ropes are provided for the steeper parts (essential in the wet, as the granite slabs can be very slippery). The final 1 km has no hand rails or ropes but is less steep. The first two hours after dawn are the most likely to be cloud free. For enthusiasts interested in alternative routes to the summit, John Briggs's
provides a detailed guide to the climb.
Situated behind the park administration building, this landscaped garden has species from the mid-levels of the mountain, which have been planted in natural surroundings.
Mesilau Nature Resort
This rainforest resort nestles at the foot of Mount Kinabalu at 2000 m. The main attractions are the cool climate and the superb views up the mountain and across the plains toward Ranau and the sea. It is possible to scale the peaks of the mountain using the resort as a base, providing an alternative route to Low's Peak. Taking this new trail, one would join the main trail at Layang Layang. Alternatively, there are a number of walks to be made around the reserve in this secluded location.
Poring lies 43 km from Gunung Kinabalu Park HQ and is part of the national park. The
were installed during the Japanese occupation of the Second World War for the jungle-weary Japanese troops. There are individual concrete pools that can fit two people, with taps for hot- and cold-spring mineral water; once in your bath you are in complete privacy. However, many visitors now complain that the water is no longer hot, more like lukewarm. The springs are on the other side of the Mamut River from the entrance, over a suspension bridge. They are a fantastic antidote to tiredness after a tough climb up Gunung Kinabalu. There is also a cold-water rock pool. The pools are in a beautiful garden setting of hibiscus and other tropical flowers, trees and thousands of butterflies. There are some quite luxurious private cabin baths available and also large baths which hold up to eight people. The de luxe cabins have lounge areas and jacuzzis. The Kadazans named the area Poring after the towering bamboos of that name nearby.
at Poring is a rope walkway 35 m above the ground, which provides a monkey's-eye view of the jungle; springy but quite safe. The entrance is five minutes' walk from the hot springs and the canopy walkway is 15 minutes' walk from the entrance. The canopy walkway at Danum Valley is far more exciting. If the weather is clear at Ranau, it is generally safe to assume that the canopy walk will also be clear.
are only about 10 minutes' walk from Poring and swimming is possible here. Follow the trail further up the hill and after 15 minutes you come to bat caves; a large overhanging boulder provides shelter and a home for the bats.
trail takes 90 minutes one way, is uphill, but worth it. There is another hard, 90-minute trail to
(inhabited by what seems to be a truly stupendous number of bats) and a waterfall. The
was established close to the springs by a Japanese-backed firm in 1992 and is very educational in the descriptions of butterflies and other insects.
There is also an information centre, a rafflesia centre, orchid centre, aviary and tropical garden at Poring. It is better not to visit the hot springs at the weekend or on public holidays if you want to relax in a peaceful atmosphere. Minibuses to the springs leave Park HQ at 0900, 1300, 1600; alternatively, flag down a bus/minibus to Ranau on the main road a two-minute walk from HQ and take a taxi from there to Poring.
Ranau and Kundasang
The Ranau plateau, surrounding the Kinabalu massif, is one of the richest farming areas in Sabah and much of the forest not in the park has now been devastated by market gardeners. Even within the national park's boundaries, on the lower slopes of Mount Kinabalu itself, shifting cultivators have clear-felled tracts of jungle and planted their patches. More than 1000 ha are now planted out with spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli and tomatoes, supplying much of Borneo.
Kundasang and Ranau are unremarkable towns a few kilometres apart; the latter is bigger. The
, behind Kundasang, which unfortunately looks like Colditz, is in memory of those who died in the death march in the Second World War. The walled gardens represent the national gardens of Borneo, Australia and the UK.
are southwest of Ranau. Both are rarely climbed. Mentapok, 1581 m, can be reached in 1½ days from Kampong Mireru, a village at the base of the mountain. A logging track provides easy access halfway up the south side of the mountain. Monkobo is most easily climbed from the northwest, a logging track from Telupid goes up to 900 m and from here it is a two-hour trek to the top. It is advisable to take guides, organized from Ranau or one of the nearby villages.
Some 17 km on the road to Sandakan is the
the only organic tea farm in Borneo and offering a range of activities other than just sitting back with a cuppa and admiring the views. They offer a variety of packages including a rainforest adventure, where tourists sleep in a bamboo forest and swim in the Sapayon River before learning some survival cooking techniques. More genteel activities include tea tree planting and a factory visit. There is also some good accommodation available here.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF