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BORNEO'S MOUNT KINABALU

Climb rain forests to the clouds

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

If you’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu in Sabah Province, Malaysian Borneo, under the impression that you were heroically scaling the highest peak in Southeast Asia, I have bad news.

Mount Kinabalu

You weren’t.

Some killjoys have discovered that Mount Puncak Jaya in Irian Jaya is just a bit higher.

This said, the second-highest mountain in Southeast Asia is still one of the few places where snow falls in the tropical east. And when it comes to plants, Mount Kinabalu really leaves the competition standing.

According to the World Conservation Union, for example, the typical farm plot of an indigenous Southeast Asian rain-forest dweller contains more than 100 species of plants and animals that provide food. To put that in perspective, all the food in your average American supermarket derives from only about 80 species.

Although much of Sabah has been logged or cleared for palm oil cultivation, the magnificent rain forests of Mount Kinabalu have been left intact.

Pitcher plant

The total protected area covers 750 sq. km, with the mountain as the principle focus of the Kinabalu National Park. Last year UNESCO declared it Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.

Deservedly.

Botanically speaking, Mount Kinabalu is a 4,101-meter-high masterpiece. The area contains between 5,000 and 6,000 species of vascular plants, 1,000 species of orchids, 621 species of ferns, 30 species of wild ginger, 29 species of rhododendron and two species of Rafflesia, the world’s largest (and smelliest) flower. Some of the pitcher plants here get so large that they can drown and digest rats.

Orangutan

Animal life similarly is profuse, ranging from orangutans to flying lizards.

Insects abound and are not just disconcertingly large but often well-camouflaged. Pigafetta, who accompanied Magellan’s fleet on the first circumnavigation of the globe, visited Sabah in 1521 and was sorely amazed by the trees “making leaves which, when they fall, are alive and walk.” Ambulatory sticks 15 cm long, strolling bark and ambling flowers — all of them insects.

There are also 61 species of frogs, 326 species of birds, 800 species of butterflies and 21 species of bats. In short, by the numbers, Kinabalu is a knockout.

Kinabalu is also the sort of mountain that one can climb without having to purchase lots of weird gear. Or, dare I say it, without being life-threateningly adventurous. Or even particularly fit.

The Lonely Planet guide goes so far as to describe it as “one of the easiest mountains in the world to climb.”

It really depends on how you do it.

Orchid

Mount Kinabalu lies three hours by bus or minibus from the international airport gateway city of Kota Kinabalu (known to some as KK).

KK, formerly known as Jesselton, doesn’t have much character, but that’s not really its fault. The original settlement was totally destroyed by the British to deprive the invading Japanese army of a base. It was also repeatedly burned by pirates prior to its occupation by the British North Borneo Company. Indeed it was torched so often that at one time it was known as Api Api, meaning “Fire! Fire!”

KK now has risen from the ashes. It is clean, coastal and rather functional, an excellent place to arrive by air, organize tours, eat some good food and recover from jet lag before getting on with your heroic Mount Kinabalu conquering expedition.

Several intriguing day excursions might distract, most obviously a jaunt by boat to Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. TARNP, despite being a hideous acronym, is a very pleasant group of off-shore islands only a few zooming minutes’ boat ride from the city center. Some claim the beaches to be the best in Sabah.

There are a number of seductive resorts, the biggest and boldest being the Sutera Harbour resort. This establishment is pure indulgent luxury. If you feel you deserve to spoil yourself, then this is the place.

Don’t miss the train. Earlier this month, a renamed and restored steam locomotive — the classic British Vulcan 15 — was let loose on the North Borneo Railway. Pulling five colonial period carriages, offering “tiffin” lunch boxes (the Imperial British version of Japanese bento), the teak-bedecked Vulcan offers all the ambience of the Orient Express as well as spectacular views of forests, gorges and gleaming paddy fields.

Mount Kinabalu is considered by the local Kadazan people to be holy. The spirits of the dead, it is believed, reside in the mists that cloak the summit.

The trail to the top is roughly 8.5 km and starts at an altitude of 1,900 meters. It can be climbed in two hours and 53 minutes and there’s a sign erected to remind you of the fact on the trail head. Most people, though, take two days and stop off en route at either mountain huts or a simple rest house.

Day one is fun, particularly if you’ve had the foresight to hire a guy to carry your backpack. Day two is where the suffering can start.

It is obligatory to take a guide on the ascent. The guides are knowledgeable. They are also stubbornly, madly, obsessively insistent that you get out of your warm bed at 2 a.m. in order to reach the peak in time to see sunrise.

“If you don’t mind pulling yourself by a rope up a granite rock face while trying to hold your torch in the dark, freezing in the predawn cold, then queuing up with other climbers to stand on the summit, follow your guide’s advice,” laconically notes Wendy Hutton, longtime Sabah resident and guidebook author.

Alternatively, set off at 5 a.m. so that by the time you reach the rock face you no longer need a torch and have both hands free for the rope. When you get there all the other climbers will have left.

Sound sensible?

Another Kinabalu attraction is Poring, which is noteworthy for its thermal springs. This is the ideal spot to soak away all the kinks, strains, bruises and aches that one has accumulated on one’s recent adventure.