Travel everywhere. And go everywhere immediately. If you don’t, you never know what you may miss out on. Those are my learnings from climbing Gunung Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo.
I climbed Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu) way back in 2007. At the time you were free to climb the mountain more or less as you liked.
Fast forward to 2017 and hikers no longer enjoy such freedoms. A full-time guide is now mandatory, and there is a limit of 140 hikers per day on the trail.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand and respect the decision to limit hiker numbers. And having the guide present will curtail the actions of wayward tourists, which is in the park’s best interest.
I’m just glad that I went at a time when tourist numbers were low and these conditions weren’t deemed necessary.
Gunung Kinabalu, at 4,095 metres elevation, is the tallest mountain on the island of Borneo. The mountain is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity (it has UNESCO World Heritage status).
There are 300+ bird species in the park, and more than 100 mammal species, including the orang utan.
Most impressive of all is the 5,000 to 6,000 plant species the park contains, which is more than that of Europe and North America combined (there is a caveat to this statement, but it is too insignificant to mention here. 🙂 )
And many of the plant species are endemic to Gunung Kinabalu (i.e. they occur nowhere else on Earth). Of the 600 fern species on the mountain, 50 are endemic. Of the 13 species of pitcher plant, five are endemic.
Gunung Kinabalu is a relatively young mountain. It was formed by volcanic activity approximately ten million years ago, and it’s still growing at 5mm a year.
From afar it appears a mountain range, rather than your typical conical volcano, with a wide, knobbly, flat top.
But it soars above the surrounding landscape, and, despite being a mere 4,095 metres tall, it is the 20th most prominent mountain in the world (click here to learn what this means).
Climbing Gunung Kinabalu
The hike is done over two days (you used to be able to climb as a day trip but as of 2015 this option is no longer available).
Day One starts at Kinabalu Park entrance (1,866 metres elevation). The latest you can commence the hike is 10:30 a.m.
The track is essentially a long, slow, gradual climb, becoming incrementally steeper as the day progresses. There is no shortage of lush wet forest to admire.
Make sure you keep an eye out for the pitcher plants.
Pitcher plants are carnivorous, with a specially developed leaf that acts as a pitfall trap. The pitcher is full of sticky digestive fluid, and when insects fall inside, they become stuck, cannot escape, eventually die, and are slowly absorbed by the plant.
Gunung Kinabalu is home a species of pitcher plant known as Nepenthes rajah. It is the largest pitcher plant in the world.
It’s so large – it grows to 40cm in height, and 20cm in width – that it even is even known to trap small mammals, frogs, lizards, and birds.
Night One is spent in a hiker’s huts at Laban Rata (3,270 metres elevation). There are 140 beds available for tourists – hence the daily limit.
Day Two begins at 2 a.m. It’s a two to four hour climb to the summit. Which means if you set off at 2 a.m., as I did, and you complete the climb in two hours, as I did, then you will arrive at the summit at 4 a.m.
A two hour wait before sunrise.
The hike to the summit is extraordinary. You cross vast granite shelves, which, if you are climbing in the middle of the night, all by yourself, and you pull so far ahead of the other hikers that you can no longer see any torchlight but your own, then you’ll feel like you’re exploring the surface of the moon. This is an experience I will never forget.
I arrived at the summit.
I was there on my own; it was pitch black, and there was still a long way to go till dawn.
It was cold at the top; I cooled down rapidly.
I’d brought along just a light jacket and a beanie. I scrounged around in my daypack and found a pair of winter woolly socks which I sank my hands into and used as gloves.
I was still cold.
Time passed incredibly slowly. Eventually a few other hikers began to arrive. Some joined me sitting quietly in the dark; others set about taking endless photos of themselves.
And, finally, the sun came up.
Sunrise brought with it heat, but also a sea of cloud; a gossamer veil suddenly draped over the lush jungle of Borneo.
Gunung Kinabalu wasn’t daunted. It defied the cloud; the only geography to do so.
We enjoyed an hour of sun on the summit. Then, at 7 a.m., it was time to descend.
Practical information and how to reach Gunung Kinabalu:
The easiest way to reach Gunung Kinabalu is to fly to Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah, Malaysia, and to make your way overland to the Kinabalu Park entrance. Public buses heading to the city of Sandakan pass the park entrance. Trip time is 1 – 2 hours. More transport info here.
With a limit of 140 hikers per day, Kinabalu Park suggests booking at least three months ahead to avoid disappointment. A park entry fee, a climbing permit, travel insurance, and a guide are mandatory.