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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
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  Mount Kinabalu National Park  
    ... revered abode of the dead  

The dramatic 4101 metre peak of Mount Kinabalu rises from the lowlands of Borneo.


Having recently acquired UNESCO World Heritage status, Mount Kinabalu is now firmly on the world map. Botanists, zoologists, and more recently ecologists, have known for centuries that this most famous mountain of Borneo is utterly unique. First climbed in 1851 by Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator, its name 'Aki Nabalu' means 'revered abode of the dead' in the local Dusun tongue. 

Sir Hugh never made the true summit though, that honour being held by the zoologist John Whitehead who, in 1888, collected birds and mammals on the mountain's slopes and climbed to the true summit called 'Low's Peak'. Now, the summit trail is walked by thousands of climbers each year.

The Mountain


Jagged peaks dominate the summit. The twin peaks at left are the 'Donkey's Ears'.

  'Cloud Forest' occurs in  the Lower Montane and Upper Montane Zones  

At 4101 metres Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Southeast Asia (excluding New Guinea), and one of the youngest, having been formed in the last few million years. Its core is formed of hard, silica-rich igneous rocks (mainly granite and granodiorite), however there are significant ultramafic zones (i.e. rock formations low in silica content). The resistance of these rock types to weathering has given rise to a dramatic summit dominated by a series of treacherous, jagged peaks carved during the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. 

The mountain is still rising at a geologically rapid rate of 5mm per year, and this has resulted in steep slopes and deep gullies. To the east lies Low's Gully, a nightmarish mile-deep ravine in which, in 1994, an 18-strong British Army team, well-prepared for jungle training, became hopelessly stranded for a month.

Botanical Diversity




Epiphytic gingers (Hedichium cylindricum.), flowering herbaceous
 plants, forest fruits, Medinilla speciosa


The forces of recent evolutionary divergence, abundance of microhabitats, altitude effects, soil variability and the location of Mount Kinabalu at the heart of the botanically diverse Malesian region have conspired to produce incredible botanical diversity. For the naturalist this is the most remarkable of Mount Kinabalu's attractions. 

Though the lowland rainforests have the highest diversity, the higher zones (montane, subalpine) have a high degree of endemism. For example, it is estimated that 4000 species of vascular plants are to be found on the mountain of which some 400 are to be found nowhere else on the planet.

The eminent botanist, E.J.H. Corner, identified that many plant and tree species or genera in the higher, temperate zones of Mount Kinabalu are isolated examples of groups generally more common in other countries such as New Guinea, China, Vietnam and Australia.

Floristic Zonation

Floristic Zone Elevation  
Lowland Forest Up to 1200m  
Lower Montane 1200m to 2000/2350m  
Upper Montane 2000/2350m to 2600/2800m  
Subalpine 2600/2800m to 3400m  
Alpine 3400m to summit  

The distribution of flora on the mountain is a classic example of altitude and temperature-related zonation. From the warm lowland rainforests to the near-freezing alpine conditions at the summit, each zone is characterised by a quite different assemblage of plant species. Dr. Kanehiro Kitayama, a Japanese ecologist, concluded that there were broadly four floristic zones (see table) largely dictated by the temperature gradient. For each 100 metre rise in altitude there is a 0.55 degree centigrade fall in mean temperature i.e. a 22.5 degree fall from sea-level to the summit.


Cool mountain water feeds  this moss-filled tributary  to the Liwagu River

Lowland Forests

As with much of Borneo, the Lowland Forest below 1200 metres is dominated by the climax tropical vegetation comprising Dipterocarps (at least 40 species), Figs, Rattans, the Eugenia genus and Lianas. These forests are best viewed near the Poring Hot Springs, where accommodation is available and well marked trails wind through the forest.


Montane Forests

Mosses, orchids, fungi and ferns abound in the stream gullies of the Montane Forest  

Peaty soils with high organic and water content characterise the Montane Forests, which are dominated by Oaks, Conifers, Myrtle, and shrubs of the tea family. In addition there are 22 species of Cyathea tree-fern. This zone is referred to as 'cloud forest'; at times the cool humidity is so high that condensation occurs on leaves, and there is a constant drip of moisture onto the forest floor.

Visitors to the National Park who prefer to remain at the park headquarters (elevation 1500 metres) and not climb the summit have the opportunity to stroll along well-marked trails within the Lower Montane Zone. The most rewarding paths follow the boulder-filled gullies which carry cool mountain waters to the Liwagu River. There, the constant moist conditions are ideal for an abundance of ferns, mosses, orchids and fungi to flourish. The ferns are particularly abundant, with over 600 species present of which 50 are endemic.

Occasional flashes of colour punctuate the intense greenery, revealing the presence of exotic epiphytic gingers (there are over 30 species of ginger here), bright orange forest fruits or delicate flowering herbs. When in flower, hundreds of orchid species (over 750) advertise their presence with an astounding diversity of form. Numerous species of rhododendron are also to be found.

Subalpine Zone


Left : Villose Pitcher Plant Nepenthes villosa
 Right : Kinabalu Pitcher Plant Nepenthes x kinabaluensis


 Dominated by species of the Leptospermum, Tristaniopsis, Dacrydium and Gymnostoma genera, the trees in the Subalpine Zone are stunted and gnarled. Here Pitcher Plants are easily found, and these are especially abundant on the soils associated with ultramafic rocks. There are around 30 species of Pitcher Plant in Borneo, of which half occur on Mount Kinabalu. Many are endemic to the mountain including Nepenthes burbidgeae, N. edwarsiana and N. villosa. The 'king' of the Pitcher Plants, Nepenthes rajah, is to be found here. This species, named after James Brooke, the 'White Rajah' of Sarawak, is the largest in the world. Its pitcher can hold up to 3.5 litres of water when filled, and there are a number of documented cases of drowned rats being found inside !

Alpine Zone

The Alpine Zone is that area above the tree-line, where only small herbs and stunted shrubs are to be found, though some larger species cling to life at higher altitudes in sheltered gullies and ravines. The absence of trees indicates that during extreme conditions ground frost may occur at night. 

The summit is dominated by bare rock carved by many millennia of weathering, and huge boulders, split from the mountain by night-time temperature changes. Here the only plant life is delicate lichens sheltering in nooks and crannies.
Indigo Flycatcher
Eumyias indigo
  Bornean Whistler
Pachycephala hypoxantha
Garrulax mitratus
  Malaysian Treepie
Dendrocitta occipitalis

Birds of a feather ... flock together

New arrivals at the park headquarters might wonder where Borneo's famed birdlife is hiding.  The forest initially seems quiet and devoid of birds. Patience, however, will be rewarded when flocks of mixed species swoop down from the upper canopy to feed in the lower canopy. These are the famous 'bird-waves' in which a diverse range of species act in unison to flush out insects and other prey. The bird photographer, having waiting patiently with his camera and tripod for hours, suddenly has roving bands of Flycatchers, Whistlers, Tailorbirds, Warblers and Fantails chaotically feeding a few yards from where he stands. 

Other birds commonly found include White-eyes, Yuhinas and Drongos.  Near the Visitor Centre the Chestnut-capped Laughing-thrush may be found and, on occasion, the beautiful Malaysian Treepie. Rarely seen, however, are the ground-dwelling birds such as the Crimson-headed and Red-breasted Partridges.  Hornbills, including the Rhinoceros Hornbill, may be seen gliding above the forest canopy.


Reptiles, Amphibians, Mammals

Lying hidden from most visitors are the other vertebrate species, most of which are nocturnal.  The mammals tend to inhabit the Lowland Forest, such as the Clouded Leopard, Leopard Cat, Sun Bear, Pangolin, Slow Loris,  civets, porcupines, mousedeer as well as various leaf-monkeys and macaques.  Rarer species include the Ferret-badger and the Lesser Gymnure.

The reptile and amphibian enthusiast, however, can enjoy rewarding night walks searching for, amongst others, the Kinabalu Angle-toed Gecko, the Mountain Litter Frog and the bizarre looking Borneo Anglehead Agamid.  Keep an eye open too for nocturnal snakes including Schmidt's Reed Snake which makes its home at the same elevation as the park headquarters. 

Now that Mount Kinabalu's biological diversity is so well recognised perhaps this famed peak should be changed from 'Revered Abode of the Dead' to 'Revered Abode of the Living'.

References : Wong K.M. & Chan C.L., 1997. Mount Kinabalu, Borneo's Magic Mountain. Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn. Bhd.
R.F. Inger & Tan F.L., 1996. The Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles in Sabah. Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn. Bhd.
Phillipps A. & Lamb A., 1996. Pitcher Plants of Borneo. Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn. Bhd.
Lim K.S., 1994. The World's Richest Montane Forests. Article in Volume 2 No. 4 of Nature Watch. Nature Society (Singapore).
Thanks to :

Steve & Dianne Owad-Jones for organising my trip, taking the shots of Pitcher Plants and last, but not least, being such great company.