Rising at 4,095m (13,436ft), Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The mountain is located on the east Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Mysterious and moody, but always a magnificent sight, Mt Kinabalu has captured the imagination of locals and explorers for centuries. Cloaked in swirling mists, puffy clouds, golden sunsets and rich flora and fauna, the mountain is ever-changing in its sights and sounds.
Mt Kinabalu and its surrounding Park has a very wide range of habitats, from rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and heath on the higher elevations. In 2000, Mt Kinabalu was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List to preserve and protect its natural heritage. It has also been designated as a Centre of Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia.
Kinabalu’s name is a mystery. The most popular view derives it from the Kadazan words, Aki Nabalu, meaning ‘the revered place of the dead’. The local Kadazan people believe that spirits dwell on the mountain top. According to another folklore, the name Kinabalu actually means Cina Balu which translates into ‘Chinese widow’. Legend goes that a Chinese prince ascended the mountain in search of a huge pearl guarded by a ferocious dragon. After his successful conquest, he married a Kadazan woman. But he soon abandoned her and returned to China. Heartbroken, his wife wandered to the mountains to mourn. There, she turned into stone.
As there is no record of local people climbing Mt Kinabalu, the first honor goes to Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial officer from Labuan, who reached the summit plateau in 1851. However, he did not scale the highest peak, believing that “the highest point is inaccessible to any but winged animals” In honor of his journey, a peak, along with a mile-deep gully, a pitcher plant and a rhododendron were named after him.
The custom of leaving a signed and dated letter in a bottle at the top of the mountain gives a history of the early climbers. In 1858, Sir Hugh Low made a second expedition to Kinabalu with his friend Spencer St John. The highest peak was finally conquered by John Whitehead and his intrepid Kadazan porters in 1888. Whitehead also made the first zoological collection of the mountain’s animals.
In 1910, English botanist Lilian Gibbs became the first woman to scale Kinabalu. Along the way, she collected over a thousand botanical specimens for the British Museum. In the same year, Mt Kinabalu’s first tourist made the ascent, describing the trip as “purely a vacational ramble”.
Many of the mountain’s early explorers reported that their Kadazan guides performed religious ceremonies upon reaching the summit. Low wrote that his guide carried an assortment of charms, pieces of wood, human teeth and other paraphernalia weighing three kilograms up to the summit. Whitehead recorded the slaughter of one white chicken. These ceremonies were performed to appease the spirits of the mountain. Today, the ceremony is still conducted annually by the Park’s Kadazan guides. Seven chickens and eggs as well as cigars, betel nuts, sirrih leaves, lime and rice are sacrificed and later enjoyed by the guides.
The local people
The Kadazan people - Sabah’s largest indigeneous community - still live on Mt Kinabalu’s flanks. Traditionally, they practiced shifting cultivation, chopping down forest to plant rice and other vegetables. Gradually, permanent terraced farm plots are replacing shifting agriculture to help slow soil erosion and preserve the natural forest. Many Kadazans now work as rangers and guides for Kinabalu Park.