The perfect trip: Borneo
The ascent is usually split over two days. Day one involves a six-hour trek from the park entrance at 1,866m to the resthouse at Laban Rata at 3,262m, followed by a three-hour climb to the top at 4,095m the following dawn. Along the way, the trail passes through distinct habitats, from steamy rainforest to montane meadow to rocky plateau. Some sections are steeply stepped; others wind their way through a jumble of rocky slabs and knotted roots. Beyond Laban Rata, the trail disappears altogether as it ascends sharply towards Kinabalu’s apex, and climbers are forced to rely on a series of fixed ropes hammered into the granite. While the views from the summit are spectacular, it’s Kinabalu’s natural diversity that makes it memorable: pitcher plants and orchids bloom alongside the trail, including many species found nowhere else in Borneo. Little wonder the mountain has been protected as a Unesco World Heritage site since 2000.
‘Kinabalu has many moods,’ notes Edwin, clambering onto the crest of Low’s Peak as the first rays of dawn break at the summit. ‘Some days it helps all the way to the top. Other days you can feel it telling you to turn back. It’s best to listen to the mountain.’
He turns to watch the rising sun, as ribbons of mist swirl around the mountainside, and Kinabalu’s towers light up like signal beacons. ‘Today, I think the mountain is happy we came,’ he says.
Maliau Basin: Best for a lost world
‘There’s one thing you learn in the jungle,’ says nature guide Allen Patrick, as he leads the way along a trail edged by ferns and soaring trees. ‘It’s never quiet.’ He cocks an ear to listen to the cacophony of sounds: screeching birds, humming crickets and whooping gibbons, underpinned by the constant chainsaw buzz of insects. A hooting call rings out, descending into a throaty cackle that sounds eerily close to a human laugh. It’s a helmeted hornbill, Allen explains, one of eight hornbill species found in the Maliau Basin. ‘Some people call them the joker of the jungle. It’s a good name.’
Located 30 miles north of the Indonesian border, the Maliau Basin is known as Sabah’s ‘lost world’ for a reason. A vast river basin encircled by a nearly impenetrable ring of rock, it contains some of the largest remaining tracts of virgin jungle in Borneo. The basin was only discovered by chance in 1947, when a British pilot almost crashed into its rim, but the first organised scientific expedition to the area wasn’t until 1988.
The scientists were amazed by what they found. This expanse of jungle harbours an estimated 240,000 species – two-fifths of all the animals, plants and insects found in Borneo. It’s one of the world’s great cradles of biodiversity, and is home to some of its rarest species: Malayan sunbears, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and the Sumatran rhino. Giant flying squirrels and red leaf monkeys caper through the trees; rare lichens and rafflesia flowers bloom on the forest floor; hidden rivers and waterfalls flow through the jungle, past agathis and seraya trees as tall as seven-storey buildings.
Even today, only around half of the basin has been explored; remarkably, fewer than 2,000 people are thought to have set foot inside the basin’s rim. And on an island where the rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, Maliau has become a potent symbol of the need for Borneo to preserve its natural heritage while there’s time. ‘It’s important that we look after Maliau,’ Allen muses, as he leads the way across a bridge suspended high in the jungle canopy. Dappled light rains down and colourful birds flit through the tree tops. ‘I don’t know anywhere else quite like this.’