Borneo 1985: A hike up Gunung Kinabalu



Malaysia 1984-85 
On our first evening in Gunung Kinabalu National Park, the cloud cover lifted, revealing the highest mountain on Borneo, Gunung Kinabalu (4,094 metres), surrounded by white wads of cloud. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Early one morning, in pouring rain, I and my companions, Jette Wistoft, Niels Peter Andreasen, Ulrikka Gernes, and Vagn Lundbye, leave Sandakan, travelling in an old wreck of a bus, which has a very hard time climbing up the muddy roads. After driving about a hundred kilometres, the rain ceases, only to be replaced by huge clouds of dust, raised by trucks, driving the opposite way. Naturally, in this old wreck of a bus, several of the window panes are missing.

Suddenly the bus starts reeling. A rear tyre has had a puncture, which is not so strange, as most of the tread is missing. The spare tyre, too, is almost devoid of tread, but luckily the crew is able to borrow a spare wheel from a bypassing bus. Now we can continue our journey, but soon an ominous rattling sound can be heard from beneath the bus. As it turns out, a metal box, holding the batteries, has fallen off, but, to our immense relief, the batteries are still attached to the wires. The crew members bring the batteries into the bus and re-connect the wires. Frame connection is obtained by unscrewing a bolt in one of the seats, place the wire, and replace the bolt. This arrangement works fine, and we arrive in the town of Ranau without further mishap.


Wildlife in a highland rainforest
After lunch, the nice bus crew offers to drive us up a side road, free of charge, to the Gunung Kinabalu National Park entrance gate. Here we pay our entry fee, continuing on foot to the Fellowship Hostel, where we are going to stay for three days. The national park takes its name from the highest mountain on Borneo, Gunung Kinabalu (4,094 m). Normally, this mountain is hidden in clouds, but this evening the cloud cover lifts, and the entire beautiful mountain is revealed, surrounded by white wads of cloud, resembling cotton balls.

Only a limited number of persons can climb Gunung Kinabalu at any one time, as you are only allowed to spend the night in huts, containing a limited number of beds. We have booked a three-day hike, beginning three days after our arrival. Meanwhile, we want to explore the wildlife in the rainforest around the park headquarters.

In this forest, sunlight penetrates the dense foliage in beautiful pencils. A large number of trees and bushes grow here, e.g. different oak species (Quercus) and two species of rhododendron, the yellow R. retivenium and the pink R. brookeanum (by some authorities regarded as a subspecies of the widespread R. javanicum). Lianas are ubiquitous, among these Aeschynanthus speciosus, of the gloxinia family (Gesneriaceae), with beautiful red flowers, by some called ‘lipstick flowers’, due to the shape of the developing flower buds, emerging among the sepals. Hidden among the vegetation on the forest floor, we observe two red-necked keelbacks (Natrix subminiata) – a completely harmless species.

Birdlife is abundant in the forest, and we observe e.g. grey-chinned minivet (Pericrocotus solaris), Whitehead’s broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi), black-faced cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae), pied triller (Lalage nigra), and Bornean whistler (Pachycephala hypoxantha). A Bornean green magpie (Cissa jefferyi), which has caught an enormous moth, is struggling with it for quite some time before managing to swallow it. In the evening, several large-tailed nightjars (Caprimulgus macrurus) fly around a couple of lamps at the headquarters, hunting insects.

Mammals are not often observed here, although two species of squirrel are fairly common. One is the tiny tufted pygmy squirrel (Exilisciurus whiteheadii), which is easily identified by its long, white ear-tufts, while the other is the larger Jentink‘s squirrel (Sundasciurus jentinkii).



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Sunlight penetrates the dense foliage in beautiful pencils. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Malaysia 1984-85 
Malaysia 1984-85
In the forest, we found two species of rhododendron, the pink R. brookeanum and the yellow R. retivenium. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Malaysia 1984-85
Lianas were ubiquitous in the forest, among these the beautiful Aeschynanthus speciosus of the gloxinia family, Gesneriaceae. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Hidden among the vegetation on the forest floor, we saw two red-necked keelbacks (Natrix subminiata), a harmless species. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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A large number of bird species live around the park headquarters, one of the more common species being black-faced cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Giant pitcher plants
The morning comes, when we start our hike up the mountain. It is compulsory to hire a guide, but the dull, young guy, who accompanies us, isn’t of much use, displaying a complete lack of interest in his work. Also, his English is quite faulty.

The trail is very steep, so we must often take a break to catch our breath. The slopes along the trail are covered in ferns and mosses, and a balsam species, Impatiens kinabaluensis, is common in more humid areas. Wildlife is quite scarce. We observe very few animals, among them chestnut-crested yuhina (Yuhina everetti) and a single pygmy squirrel.

Along a ridge, at an altitude of c. 2,500 metres, the forest is much lower than around the headquarters, many of the trees shaped by the wind. The most common species are Leptospermum recurvum, of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), and Rhododendron ericoides, with red, funnel-shaped flowers and tiny leaves, which resemble those of the European crowberry (Empetrum nigrum).

In this area, we find many Nepenthes villosa, a very large and beautiful species of pitcher plant. These plants are carnivorous. Each leaf ends in a tendril, which forms a funnel-shaped pitcher. The inside edge along the pitcher is very smooth, often causing insects and other small animals, which walk along the edge, to slide into the pitcher. The pitcher holds a fluid, containing enzymes that dissolve the outer chitin layer of the animals, after which the plant is able to utilize nutrients from the soft inner tissue. On the inside of the pitcher, along the edge, is a row of stiff, down-pointing hairs, which prevent prey from escaping. Most species of pitcher plants have an umbrella-like structure, covering the pitcher, to prevent the fluid inside from being diluted by rain water. (Read more about carnivorous plants on this website, see Plants: Flesh-eating plants.)

At this altitude, we find several species of orchids and lilies, but only a few of them are in bloom. At one of the resting points along the trail, a Bornean mountain squirrel (Dremomys everettii), and rats of various species, e.g. the endemic summit rat (Rattus baluensis), are busy investigating numerous piles of garbage, scattered all over the place.



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The trail was very steep, and we often had to take a break to catch our breath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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A balsam species, Impatiens kinabaluensis, was common in more humid areas along the trail. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Rhododendron ericoides has red, funnel-shaped flowers and tiny leaves, reminiscent of the crowberry (Empetrum nigrum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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A large hybrid pitcher plant, Nepenthes x kinabaluensis (N. villosa x N. rajah). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Along the edge on the inside of the pitcher on pitcher plants is a row of stiff, down-pointing hairs, which prevent prey from escaping, here on Nepenthes villosa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Altitude sickness
On our way up the trail, we often meet the same people at intervals, among these a merry group of young Malaysians, whose motto is: ”Just walk slow and steady – slow and steady!” We are now close to Panar Laban, a cluster of huts at an altitude of c. 3,300 metres. One of these huts is home to several soldiers, who are busy listening to blaring music, delivered by a transistor radio. The area around the hut is a mess of stinking garbage. We hurry on to another hut to have a rest. In a swampy area, we find several flowering plants, e.g. Lowe’s buttercup (Ranunculus lowii) and Bornean cinquefoil (Potentilla borneensis). We have a fantastic view over the surrounding mountains, around which clouds come and go. Birdlife in this area is completely dominated by a small, green bird, the mountain blackeye (Chlorocharis emiliae), whose melodious song we enjoy far more than the soldiers’ music.

We have made a grave mistake by reserving beds in a hut, which is situated at an even higher altitude, around 3,600 metres. Some of us start showing symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, caused by lack of oxygen in your body. I am dizzy and suffer from headache. At this altitude, the air contains just three quarters the amount of oxygen as at sea-level. The last bit of the trail before the hut at Sayat-Sayat (sayat is the local name of Leptospermum) is very steep indeed, and we must cling to ropes, tied to metal rings, which have been attached to the naked rock wall. Flowers in this area are small and humble, e.g. Bornean eyebright (Euphrasia borneensis) and mountain trachymene (Trachymene saniculifolia).

The last 100 metres, before we reach the hut, is a true torment for me. As it turns out, the hut is very small, with just 10 beds, and a tiny kitchen, containing a few pots and pans, and two kerosene stoves. My companions commence to cook our evening meal: rice with yellow peas and Swedish meatballs. However, I have absolutely no appetite and creep into my sleeping bag without eating. It is cold, and the door cannot be closed completely, causing a draught to add to the cold. Despite being exhausted, I’m not able to fall asleep. Throughout the night, rats patter about, and suddenly Niels starts up, maintaining that he saw a huge orangutan, weeping tears of kerosene down the mountain side.



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From Panar Laban, at an altitude of c. 3,300 metres, we had a fantastic view over the surrounding mountains, around which clouds came and went. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Around Sayat-Sayat, at c. 3,600 metres altitude, the landscape is dominated by naked, grey rocks, where a few bushes have managed to sprout in cracks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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The last bit of the trail before the hut at Sayat-Sayat we had to cling to ropes, tied to metal rings, which had been attached to the naked rock wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Foggy at the peak
Finally, we fall asleep, but are awoken around 4 o’clock, when people from the huts at Panar Laban are passing our hut on their way towards the peak, where they hope to be able to enjoy the sunrise. We awake our guide, who starts up, saying: ”Go up now?” – In fact, it was his job to awake us, not the other way around!

It is rather cloudy this morning, and as we gain in altitude, the cloud cover thickens. For me, walking up this steep section of the trail is very tough indeed, as I am exhausted, having had almost no food for about 20 hours. At dawn we pass a cluster of rocks, bearing vivid names like Donkey’s Ears, Ugly Sister, and St. John’s Peak. We are now close to the peak proper, and I’m near a breakdown. A dense fog has enveloped the peak, where a small group of freezing people huddle together. Niels is almost buried in his sleeping bag, and when we join him, he produces a bottle of homemade apple liqueur from his backpack, grinning widely. A few swigs bring a welcome heat into our freezing bodies. As we are sitting here, who appear out of the fog? Slow and steady! A hearty reunion, followed by more apple liqueur swigs.

For several hours, we wait for the fog to lift, but in vain. A few times, we are able to glimpse a few weirdly shaped rocks, distorted by the fog, far away. Finally, we give up and start our hike back to Sayat-Sayat, where we take a short rest before going down to the huts at Panar Laban. Our guide urges us to hurry up, as he is of the opinion that it will soon begin to rain. We have hardly reached our goal, before heavy rain starts falling, continuing throughout the night.

Around 6 A.M., the rain ceases, and the sun appears. Running down the steep rocks, which were completely dry the previous day, are numerous broad streams, formed by the night’s rain. Over the forest, we can admire the most beautiful double rainbow, glowing through an almost unreal reddish light – a sight which is by far worth all our efforts.



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Finally reaching the peak, we waited for several hours for the fog to lift, but in vain. From left Ulrikka, Niels, Jette, and Vagn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Malaysia 1984-85 
We could admire the most gorgeous double rainbow over the forest, glowing through an almost unreal reddish light. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised October 2017)