The mountain is located on the east Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Mysterious and moody, but always a magnificent sight, Mt Kinabalu has captured the imagination of locals and explorers for centuries.
Cloaked in swirling mists, puffy clouds, golden sunsets and rich flora and fauna, the mountain is ever-changing in its sights and sounds.
Mt Kinabalu and its surrounding Park has a very wide range of habitats, from rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and heath on the higher elevations.
In 2000, Mt Kinabalu was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List to preserve and protect its natural heritage. It has also been designated as a Centre of Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia.
Kinabalu’s name is a mystery. The most popular view derives it from the Kadazan words, Aki Nabalu, meaning ‘the revered place of the dead’. The local Kadazan people believe that spirits dwell on the mountain top. According to another folklore, the name Kinabalu actually means Cina Balu which translates into ‘Chinese widow’. Legend goes that a Chinese prince ascended the mountain in search of a huge pearl guarded by a ferocious dragon. After his successful conquest, he married a Kadazan woman. But he soon abandoned her and returned to China. Heartbroken, his wife wandered to the mountains to mourn. There, she turned into stone.
As there is no record of local people climbing Mt Kinabalu, the first honor goes to Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial officer from Labuan, who reached the summit plateau in 1851. However, he did not scale the highest peak, believing that “the highest point is inaccessible to any but winged animals” In honor of his journey, a peak, along with a mile-deep gully, a pitcher plant and a rhododendron were named after him.
The custom of leaving a signed and dated letter in a bottle at the top of the mountain gives a history of the early climbers. In 1858, Sir Hugh Low made a second expedition to Kinabalu with his friend Spencer St John. The highest peak was finally conquered by John Whitehead and his intrepid Kadazan porters in 1888. Whitehead also made the first zoological collection of the mountain’s animals.
In 1910, English botanist Lilian Gibbs became the first woman to scale Kinabalu. Along the way, she collected over a thousand botanical specimens for the British Museum. In the same year, Mt Kinabalu’s first tourist made the ascent, describing the trip as “purely a vacational ramble”.
The Kadazan people – Sabah’s largest indigeneous community – still live on Mt Kinabalu’s flanks. Traditionally, they practiced shifting cultivation, chopping down forest to plant rice and other vegetables. Gradually, permanent terraced farm plots are replacing shifting agriculture to help slow soil erosion and preserve the natural forest. Many Kadazans now work as rangers and guides for Kinabalu Park.
Mt Kinabalu is located at the high point of the Crocker Range that runs almost from the northern tip of Borneo to its centre. The foundations of Kinabalu were set some 15 million years ago during the Pilocene period when a huge ball of molten rock was forced beneath the Crocker Range, hardening into a granite mound. Kinabalu itself was formed barely 10 million years ago when huge plugs of granite forced their way through crumpled layers of sandstone and shale. During the ice age some 100,000 years ago, glaciers began wearing away the summit plateau. Today, Mt Kinabalu is still growing at a rate of 5mm a year. It is one of the youngest non-volcanic mountains in the world. At its top, a 1.5km-deep gorge splits the mountain down the middle, separating the two arms of the eastern and western summit plateaus 1km apart.
Mt Kinabalu has one of the richest and most diversified fauna and flora in the world. This is all thanks to a wide climatic range (from tropical rainforest in the lowlands to temperate climate at high altitudes), heavy rainfall and diversity of rocks and soils. Many plant and animal species are endemic to Kinabalu and not found anywhere else in the world. More than half of the world’s flowering plants can be found here.
The world’s largest pitcher plant, the intriguing Nepenthes Rajah, grows in the Park. There are also 700 species of orchids, 600 species of ferns and over 24 species of Rhododendrons (one of the most spectacular flowers on Mt Kinabalu). One can also find bamboos, mosses, oak trees and figs among the 6000 plant species growing here.
Altitudinal zones are used to classify the common plant types on Kinabalu. Up to 1200m, lowland rainforest dominates the landscape. In the lower montane zone from 1200-2200m, plants more typical of temperate regions are common. Here, tree are shorter and ferns are abundant. The upper montane forest lies between 2200-3300m where the trees are stunted and covered in mosses – hence the name ‘the mossy forest’. The sub-alpine zone starts from 2200m and goes all the way to the summit where grassy meadow-like vegetation dominates.
Of the many mammals on Mt Kinabalu, black shrews, Kinabalu shrews and Thomas’ pygmy squirrels are endemic to the mountain. Kinabalu is home to over half of Borneo’s 518 bird species. Of the 29 species of birds unique to Borneo, 17 are found in the mountain. These include the red-breasted tree partridge and crimson-headed wood partridge. A common sight on the summit is the mountain blackbird. There are also numerous species of moths, small reptiles, insects and spiders endemic to Mt Kinabalu.