Borneo’s Kinabalu Is Unspoiled Eden


Poetic as well as mysterious, the name “Ki-na-ba-lu” dances in the ear like a band of pixies reveling to welcome the sun. But as the local Kadazan legend goes, this Borneo mountain really serves as a final refuge for the erring souls of the tribe’s departed spirits who couldn’t find more congenial quarters even in heaven.

As to its being mysterious, it has a long way to go before becoming a common household name. The highest peak in Southeast Asia, towering to a breathtaking 4,101 meters or close to 13,500 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s location on Borneo’s northwest coast has helped keep it as a terra incognita for the average tourist.

Borneo once gained evil repute as a headhunters’ jungly turf, where a suitor had to prove his virility by earning umpteen human trophies before a fair maiden would surrender.

This sort of negative image dampens tourism a bit, especially after it has become indelibly etched in words and pictures by travel writers stalking catchy headlines.


Sad to say, Borneo has changed. No more headhunters, but a gentle bunch of people such as the Kadazans near Mt. Kinabalu, the Malays, the Chinese and other ethnic groups who greet strangers with a warm smile rather than a sharp kris (the local knife).

Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, this Malaysian territory’s name, sports many more computer analysts and stylishly dressed executives than orangutans on the loose, and jets from Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Singapore land every day in its modern airport.

But most of Borneo’s wilderness has resisted change. As it has done for 1 1/2 million years, Mt. Kinabalu’s ragged crest still soars among the clouds a mere two hours’ drive from the bustling capital on the South China Sea.

Shiny taxis and buses whisk visitors to the site along an excellent road that twists and turns through spectacular vistas. Chances are that the driver will speak enough English to answer most questions, and perhaps even offer intriguing tidbits of folklore. But mostly, he’ll talk about his beloved mountain.


The ideal ground base for a visit to Mt. Kinabalu is the Hotel Perkasa. At an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), it overlooks a verdant hill and the village of Kundasang. One can luxuriate in bed with breakfast, watching the mountain’s summit slowly emerge from its misty nightcap, or jump outside the warm covers before dawn and head toward the Kinabalu Park headquarters, a few minutes’ drive from the hotel.

Huts at Various Altitudes

The center runs smoothly and provides clean chalets or huts at various altitudes, naturalist-guided tours and sundry conveniences. Queries can be directed to Sabah Parks, P.O. Box 626, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Mt. Kinabalu offers limpid streams and gurgling cascades, valleys for picnics and a well-maintained network of trails suitable for anyone who can manage a staircase without puffing.


The park is an unspoiled territory for anyone curious about animals and plants most often discovered in a zoo.

Strange as it may seem on a jungle-covered island, mosquitoes are relatively rare. Kinabalu’s flora and fauna have been described by scientists as “overwhelmingly rich.” How can one do justice in anything short of a botanist’s dictionary to more than 1,000 varieties of orchids, ranging from the size of a flea to a six-foot-long truss! No fewer than 26 rhododendron varieties have been recorded here, six of which are not found elsewhere.

As to the nine different pitcher-plant nepenthes, their name evolved from the cup-like structures at the tip of the leaves that act as traps to feed each carnivorous beauty. The largest species known is the Rajah; only growing in Kinabalu Park, it can contain up to four pints of rain water. Once in a while a small rodent falls into the nepenthe potion and gets quickly digested.

The park also shelters another oddity, the reddish Rafflesia. Flaunting a three-foot-wide corolla, the flower easily rates as the largest on earth. Its scent, however, isn’t exactly enchanting. Endowed with such an imposing girth, the Rafflesia had to discourage grazers; thus, it smells somewhat like rotting flesh.


As fascinating as the plant world might be, it still can’t compete with the fun of inspecting the greenery for hard-to-see insects or animals.

One of the most unusual critters must be the trilobite beetle, which looks as if it has just crawled up from an ancient sea floor. Exotic moths and butterflies flit all over, some larger than a hummingbird. Bird species number more than 300, including the chattering minlas , as they’re called in Borneo, rather than mynahs. And there are honey bears, red leaf monkeys and also the gibbons.

Although it would be possible to catch sight of an orangutan, these huge apes are more likely to grin for the camera in their own Sepilok farm a few hours’ drive from Kinabalu Park. The orangutan (“green man” in Malaysian) now belongs to the endangered list and has been given a sanctuary to live and reproduce in peace, but visitors are welcome there.

Another animal rarely met on the vast network of trails is the emerald pit viper, a dangerous but shy beast who hides in the hollow of a jungle tree. There might be, however, a white-toothed shrew lurking behind a bunch of orchids, or one of the hurry-scurry Bornel squirrels such as the tufted pygmy.


As for the mountain giant rat, one sort of hopes it stays in its den, wherever that is. Then there is the summit rat, who surely must belong to the species that has won the Kinabalu rat race. There are also lemurs who fly, pigs that sprout a beard, deer (with the poetic name of kijang ) who bark and the banteng, a weird animal straight out of Ripley’s “Believe it or not.”

Shy and Wild

The banteng represents a curious cross between sundry wild and domestic cattle; it wears white spats and can be easily recognized from the rear because of a matching white patch on its tubby derriere. Fortunately, its shyness keeps it away from the trails and only mysterious tracks might reveal its passage.

As to smaller animals such as frogs, one might easily miss some of the Borneo croakers, looking so much like the wood on which they perch that they are invisible except when suddenly jumping.


As for the Kinabalu visitor, he or she might feel like a break back in the civilized Perkasa Hotel. Take a shower, make a phone call or have a drink at the Kuvangha cocktail lounge while Mt. Kinabalu disappears behind its nightly curtain of clouds, like a prima donna when the show is over.

The adventuresome can try tapai , a brew that kicks like the famous one-horned white rhino of Borneo. This concoction also occasions some epic drinking contests at Harvest Festival times in mid-May.

There are Malaysian satays on the menu, a sort of kebab cooked on mini-bamboo skewers and served with Allidin sauce, which were created by Frankie Goh, the hotel’s manager. There are Chinese dishes, Western-style food or a fruity dessert with the exotic name of ice kachang.

For those who have had their fill of nature’s wonders, the hotel offers a tennis court, volleyball, other sports and a game called Snake and Ladder.


Shopping in the Kadazan village tamus (markets) nearby for coiled brass bangles and anklets, or delicately woven baskets, can provide hours of fun. An occasional buffalo will meander through the stalls, grabbing an eggplant or a giant radish for a munchie.

At festival time, cowboys race across a polo field with their long bamboo cattle sticks, or lovely dancers in their native costumes gyrate in rhythm with the gongs. And for those who just like to take it easy, a chartered helicopter can fly you up to the Mt. Kinabalu summit for a couple of good pictures.

Sabah has many other attractions, but the handsome mountain reigns supreme over all. Either visible and magnificent, its presence can always be felt. It protects its people from raging winds or malevolent typhoons, and its coolness defuses an equatorial sun that might otherwise scorch the lovely valleys and plains.

Mt. Kinabalu offers the nature lover who dares to stray from the beaten tourist track a still-unspoiled Eden definitely worth a detour.


About 2.28 Malaysian dollars equal $1 U.S. You get good value for your dollars in Sabah, a modern, efficiently-run state.

For Kota Kinabalu accommodations and the two-hour drive to Mt. Kinabalu, a recommended agency is Sri Pelancungan Hornbill Sdn Travel, Block L, Lot 5-6, Sinsuran Complex, Mail Bag 112, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. Manager Tom Willie will promptly reply in English to any query, and make reliable arrangements for U.S. visitors.

Perkasa Hotel’s manager, Frankie Goh, will also quickly process any reservation request. Average room rates: $34 U.S. single, $41 U.S. double, $73 U.S. suite. Hotel Perkasa, Kundasang, Sabah, Malaysia.

Mt. Kinabalu Park offers accommodations, either deluxe or rustic, at various mountain levels. Rates range from $2 U.S. at the youth hostel to $26.75 U.S. for two persons sharing a cabin (25% discount on weekdays). Meals are served at the clubhouse and also at the canteen. A climber’s permit (about $7 U.S.) is required if you plan to go to the top. Special helicopter charters can be arranged at park headquarters.


For information and reservations, write to Director, Mt. Kinabalu Park City Headquarters, P.O. Box 626, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.