Conquering Kinabalu (May 31 – June 8 1993)

Nature News, Sept – Oct 1993

Chua Ee Kiam


Shifting clouds were trying to smother the lofty peaks of Mount Kinabalu as I viewed the summit from the park grounds. Were we crazy to want to scale the South-east Asia’s highest peak? Each of us in the group of about 14 had compelling and sane reasons. None were intimidated by the awesome and formidable heights.

At the vantage point of Low’s peak (a misnomer at 4,101m), we stood braving the cold (3° C), the moon still visible as the sun’s amber rays burst over the horizon. Before we started the ascent, we learnt that the mountains belonged to nobody, but the spirits. It certainly commanded the greatest respect.

The boulder terrain during the trek upwards to the Morris Poris river on the first day was unexpected. As none of us had any experience in rock climbing, we clumsily grappled with the searing granite and plodded through the swift waters, often in danger of being swept away. As we sought moments of peace in the chilly waters, I wondered if this part of the trip was more difficult than the climb itself. Perhaps it was a prelude to the main event.

Team spirit was evident as each offered another a helping hand. The day also tested our agility to the limit as we had to balance gingerly on fallen trees over ravines. Exploring the rainforest at tree-top level during the canopy walk at Poring was in interesting change. The lowland primary forest is also a site for the Rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower in the world. We soaked ourselves in the invigorating hot sulphur baths. The nature trails in the park grounds were lined with oak and chestnut trees. Trilobite larvae were very common.

The nearby landscaped Mountain Gardens had examples of the plants found in the wild. After a grueling assault to the summit, our spirits were a little deflated as the supposedly splendid view was marred by clouds. John was the fittest in our group, had the stamina and courage to conquer the less attempted peaks as well – the South Peak and Ugly Sisters.

It rained on both the days we were on the mountain. The camera crew was hopelessly drenched but nevertheless had some exciting shots. At the summit, water cascaded down the bare granite in the treacherous torrents as we waited for the storm to abate.

Botanists and photographers on the climb found a paradise carpeted with pitcher plants like the Nepenthes villosa and Nepenthes rajah, rhododendrons, wild orchids, ferns, mosses and liverworts. A large brick-red flattened worm that looks like a giant leech was seen swallowing another worm. Birds like the Mountain Blackeyes, wild raspberries, hanging lichen, and the gnarled bonsai-like trees of the cloud forest were an amazing contrast to the lowland forests we knew.

After coming down from the mountain, we rode on a diesel train to the Padas river for a white-water rafting adventure. The turbulent waters seemed to overwhelm our rafts. I remembered Alice screaming her head off, only to have a gulp of the Padas mineral water. We never had enough of the tumultuous waves.

Mount Kinabalu and its vast parks will remain a revered place. I looked up at the mountain, its peaks hidden within amorphous clouds. How did I ever manage to conquer her- was it myself or was it with the help of the spirits? As I turned my back on her, I knew I had to return – some day to pay tribute to the spirits.

(This trip was the beginning of the love affair with Sabah).

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