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The Journey

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Timpohon Gate

The journey of conquering Mount Kinabalu begins at Timpohon Gate (1,866 metres). Altitudes range from 1,981 at the first rest stop to over 4,000 metres at the peak. The climb can be challenging and strenuous.

You may choose to hike or drive the 5.5 kilometres from Park Headquarters to Timpohon Gate. An alternative and slower route passes through oak forests along the scenic Mempening and Bukit Ular trails. Most climbers leave Park Headquarters before 8.00am, taking the road to Timpohon Gate.

Pondok Kandis

Leaving the oak chestnuts forests of the lower montane zone, you arrive at the first trail shelter at 1,981 metres. From here, you are treated to spectacular views of the coast. At this level, several of Kinabalu's 26 Rhododendron species catch the eye, in shades ranging from white to scarlet.

Leptospermum flavescens greet visitors as they enter the realm of pink flowered Rhododendron rugosum and gnarled trees draped in trailing club mosses and pale green-grey lichens. This shelter is within the tree cloud forest. At this altitude, Kinabalu is often shrouded in clouds and mists. The soil layer is thin, resulting in stunted trees covered in gold and green mosses. Orchids and Rhododendrons grow in abundance, while pitcher plants live the edge of the trail. Of note is Nepenthes Villosa, the highest growing member of the pitcher plant family.

Small mammals and birds are seen along the trail. Squirrels including long nosed, horse tailed and pygmy species and several varieties of bats may be spotted.

Pondok Ubah

The second shelter is reached at 2,081 metres at the threshold to the Upper Montane Zone. The forest is still lush but gets progressively mossy at this level. Tree ferns and climbing bamboos dominate. As the soil layer thins, trees are stunted, reaching only a height of about six metres. Upper branches are covered by growths of pale green Usnea lichen.

This is also a zone known for its orchids and carnivorous plants with intricately serrated pitchers, including the tall
Nepenthes Villosa and one of the most unusual Nepenthes Lowii. 10 out of 36 species of pitcher plants found in Borneo have been recorded on Kinabalu. Of these 5 are found nowhere else.

Seventeen species of rats and mice inhabit the slopes of Mount Kianbalu. These are perhaps the least elusive of the mammals which include mouse deer, barking deer and bearded pigs. Nocturnal creatures include the slow loris and tarsier. The variety of birds decreases with the increase in altitude. Only a few species can be spotted at higher levels, notably warblers and mountain blackbirds.

Pondok Lowoii

More Rhodendrons take over the trail near the third shelter at Pondok Lowii, still within the upper montane forest. The dominant species in Rhododendron Lowii. This has broad leaves and sports yellow flowers. Unlike other varieties, it matures into a small tree instead of a shrub.

As the trail contours around a ridge, a secondary trail to the left leads to a radio station while another climbs steeply up to the Layang Layang TV station.

The thicker, more mossy forest is dominated by luxuriant tree ferns midst long spiky shoots of climbing bamboo. Shrubs of golden yellow Rhododendron Retivenium dominate the trail but are soon replaced by small trees of pinky yellow Rhododendron Lowii at higher levels. 24 of the 50 Rhododendron species recorded in Sabah are found on Kinabalu.

Pondok Mempening

At 2,515 metres, the fourth shelter offers vistas of wild Begonia, Rhodendron, orchids ferns, and pitcher plants. The
largest moss in the world, Dawsonia grows up to a metre high. Several of Kinabalu's 715 fern species are found here.

Look out for birds, squirrels, and tree shrews. Being agile and active by day, these are probably the most obvious of
Kinabalu's animals. Mammals here are generally small and inconspicuous. Larger species are either nocturnal or shy away from visitors. Many are also tree top dwellers. Most are found in lowland rainforest, with only about ten percent at higher altitudes.

Of the 17 or more species of birds on Kinabalu, most reside at lower altitudes except the Mountain Blackeye a small, dark olive song bird spotted even at the highest altitudes. It has yellow cheeks and a narrow ring of black feathers around each eye. Fruit bats, lizards, skinks, geckos and other small reptiles may be seen but again like the scores of spiders and insects on Kinabalu, they are not very obvious.

Pondok Layang Layang

A small thin hut serving as a temporary shelter stands on an open exposed ridge at 2,702 metres. Layang-Layang was formerly known as Carson's Camp. The vegetation changes dramatically, where the trail crosses the orange-cinnamon ultramafic soil. Ultramafic forests cover about 16% of the park.

The soil here supports only distinct and mostly endemic species as it is low in phosphates but high in iron, silica and metals harmful to most plants. Unusual species that thrive here include pitchers like Nepenthese Villosa and Nepenthes Rajah.

The forest becomes progressively shorter and much more open. Several plant species including Leptospermum and Dacrydium gibbsiae - a conifer unique to Kinabalu share dominance with orchids and the insect eating pitcher plants. Kinabalu has 9 species of pitcher plants. Flushed in maroon and pink, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Nepenthes Rajah, for example, can contain 4 litres of liquid and are capable of drowning full grown rats that count among its victims.

Pondok Villosa

This shelter is perched on top of an open rocky patch at 2,690 metres. From this level, the forest becomes more stunted. Young orange leaves of the Haviland Oak (Lithocarpus Havilandii) a species endemic to Kinabalu contrast with the grey of Leptospermum and the green Dacrydium and Celery Pine (Phyllocladus Hypophyllus). The strange gnarled forms of Leptospernum and Dacrydium lend a fairy tale ambience to the landscape.

The mountain towers above the trail which is lined by flowering Rhododendrons and the sparkling white flowers of Schima Brevifolia shrubs. The sunshine yellow flowers of Rhodendron Lowii are a common sight between 2,700 to 3,200 metres. Few other species can survive the higher altitude and the poor soil condition. Kinabalu's Rhododendron Ericoides is found no where else in the world. A five minute side trail leads to a helipad at 3,050 metres. Mountain views from here are spectacular.

Pondok Paka

At 3,080 metres, Pondok Paka is reached. This shelter is close to a large overhanging rock beside a small stream called the Paka Cave. It lies in the heart of a bird watcher's paradise but some climbers may experience slight breathing problems as air starts to thin at this level.

Apart from birds and mountain tree shrews, ferret badgers are often sighted. The badgers feed on earthworms that are abundant in the soil on the river banks. Look out for the rare giant Kinabalu leech which appears during pouring rain. It is bright orange red in colour and grows up to 30 centimetres long. Unlike blood sucking leeches, it feeds on earthworms.

Vegetation is again lush as the ultramafic soil zone ends just after 3,050 metres. Tall trees, draped in thick moss, return. 60 percent of ground cover at this level comprises orchids, the dominant species being the purple and white flowered Eria Grandis. Both epiphytic and ground orchids greet climbers at this elevation.

The Peaks

The spectacular Low's Gully divides Mount Kinabalu into its Western and Eastern Plateaux. There are several trails leading to lesser peaks besides Low's Peak. These are very tough routes and intending climbers must obtain written permission from the Park Authorities for any exploration outside the conventional trails. Experienced guides are compulsory.

Western Summit Plateau
Attractions include South Peak (3,921 metres) and St John's Peak (4,090 metres). Both may be climbed in half a day but are recommended only for more experienced climbers. St John's is particularly tricky. Other major peaks are Ugly Sisters (4,086 metres), Alexandra (3,998 metres) and Victoria (4,090 metres).

The terrain on Western Plateau is rocky but smooth, showing the effects of glaciations. The trail calls for use of ropes to negotiate the challenging climb.

20 minutes from Low's Peak is a small shelter known as the Gurkha hut. Perched on smooth rock at 3,839 metres above sea level, this stop-over is for seasoned climbers who wish to spend more time on the plateau and are fully equipped to do so on their own.

Low's Gully

Low's Gully is one of Kinabalu's most dramatic features. At 16 kilometres deep, it was considered inaccessible. Attempts to penetrate the gully either upwards or downwards were all in vain.

It was only in 1998 that a joint Malaysian- British party finally succeeded. They completed their descent which included scaling down vertical cliffs at the head of the gully from Commando Couldron. The feat was possible largely on account of dry weather brought about by the El-Nino. The drought rendered the trail less tricky.

Since then, owing to the dangerous nature of the trail, no new attempts have been permitted by Sabah Parks.

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