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Kinabalu; One Tall Mountain

(I got back exactly one month ago and I’m not done blogging.  So, the post is long and tardy because I arrived home with only two weeks to recoup AND get myself to California for work. Enjoy!)

After several forays, I still couldn’t fathom the Englishmen ascending as they did. In my mind native Borneans scaling the slopes unaided seems more likely, but soft-soled limeys, no matter how driven by natural history, was something else. Spenser St. John, an adventurous British dignitary, wouldn’t really have much reason to spin a yarn and if he did, this would have been a poor use of embellishment: “we waited till the 15th for a vessel, which we expected would bring us a supply of shoes, but as it did not arrive we started.” The first Europeans to summit the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, were barefoot.

Roaming the lower reaches of Mt. Kinabalu National Park, I couldn’t help but dwell on the first successful ascent in 1858. I also couldn’t forget how sore I was from a 16km day on already laid trails. And I hadn’t reached the summit. Hugh Low, the other explorer, then colonial treasurer to the British Colony of Labuan, was so worn by the terrain that his descent was in a makeshift stretcher. On that climb, he didn’t make the final ascent. Two months later however, he and St. John make a second successful attempt.

Gunung (Bahasa for Mountain) Kinabalu, is the sort of place that exhales stories. From legends of the widow of a Chinese Prince to natural history misnomers like reporting mice decomposing inside pitcher plants, there is plenty to dwell on. Aside from status as the 20th tallest topographic mountain in the world, bald pate of granite batholith frequently peeking above the clouds, Kinabalu holds highly unique ecosystems. While there are a few other mountains in Borneo that hold similar habitats, none are as extensive, hold such exquisite endemism, or to my benefit, are as accessible. You’ll recall me waxing poet about tropical mountains in my post several months ago when I visited Doi Inthanon National Park in Thailand. Kinabalu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, (something Malayans can’t help but flaunt), holds nearly 5,000 species of plants, over three hundred birds, and a fair share of mammals.

Sam, my companion for several weeks, and I had explored for a couple days at the beginning of his time in Borneo and I had sagely not worried myself with seeing every possible endemic bird. I just came back later (and still missed many). At the beginning of a three day period, I was entirely optimistic that I’d be able to scoop up at least 8 new species of birds. I also wanted to see more Nepenthes, a tropical genus of pitcher plant, of which 16 species grow on the mountain. Sam and I saw the widespread Nepenthes tentaculata and endemic to the mountain, burbidgeae. Hesitantly, I meditated on the unlikely event of partial desiccation of my person and belongings. I was mostly successful with my list of wants.

I’d initially felt like people exaggerate Kinabalu until I’d read up on the ecology, exploring a slice for myself. Fine, it does top out at an impressive 13,435 feet (4,095 meters), but I’m from the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got similarly elevated Mt. Rainier on our back 40. It has snow and it’s a volcano (don’t miss my unabashed tone of pride). Several other mountains of good height exist in Borneo, but I suppose none with quite the countenance of a tabletop peak of granite. Yet, I suspect that many people don’t get to see the peak because by eight or nine in the morning it’s socked in with clouds. Only my first morning out of five provided a full view of the peak.

My guesthouse had many of the more common birds you find on the mountain from the garrulous Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (Garrulax mitratus), gregarious Chestnut-crested Yuhina (Staphida everetti), Bornean Leafbird (Chloropsis kinabaluensis), and the suitably corvid Bornean Treepie (Dendrocitta cinerascens). I also found a group of the bald fronted, Bare-headed Laughingthrush (Garrulax calvus) and a lone Sunda Laughingthrush (Garrulax palliatus). Walking out to the main road to the mountain entrance I stumbled upon the endemic Sunda Cuckooshrike (Coracina larvata), nearly eating it on slick concrete in my enthusiasm.

For the non-birders I know this listing doesn’t really mean much. A poor comparison: trying to find ingredients to something you are baking at a small grocery store. You know you may not find every ingredient and not all are necessary, some merely nice accoutrements. Finding major ingredients is of the utmost with a few of the more ephemeral additives bonuses. I’d already gotten some of the exotic ingredients previously, including endemic Whitehead’s Trogon (Harpactes whiteheadi).

A fun pair of women from my guesthouse who were also there to explore the mountain, similarly couldn’t stomach the extraordinarily exorbitant cost of actually reaching the summit. For a while we walked together, but to get the photos I wanted and to see the more scarce birds, I need solitude. Almost as soon as I left them I encountered a flock with a few of the common but endemic Bornean Whistler (Pachycephala hypoxantha).

And then I didn’t see anything for an hour. Then I glimpsed a White-crowned Forktail (Enicurus leschenaulti). And then I didn’t see any birds for another hour. Then it started to rain.

I’m not exaggerating.

Stubbornly I endured and as I was squelching down a trail, something near my foot moved. The misty mountain, of damp path and chilly precipitation, didn’t wreak havok on my nerves like walking in the serpentine lowlands, but I still started. As it turns out, for once, there was actually something to jump from (usually it’s just a leaf I kicked or a branch attached to me that I ineffectually flail at). People who spend time in the rainforest, those who haven’t grown up there, most certainly feign machismo if they move unconcernedly. My curiosity typically stays flight, there is some freaky shit out there. Flight still takes precedence over fight.

Thankfully and immensely preferable to not seeing birds, I’d stumbled upon a snake doing its best to swallow a bulky frog that looked much too large. There was little doubt it would succeed. This tiny snake, a dappled brown streak of a thing, looked as if it had gotten a little carried away in interspecific necking. The fat, helpless frog’s eyes bulged out of the corners of the snake’s mouth. I still haven’t identified either species, yet as silly as it may sound, seeing something like this stands out more than seeing Proboscis Monkeys. It was awesome. Unfortunately I ruined the moment. I stumbled, the snake leg go, retreated, and the frog sat there stupidly and bloodied. I’m not sure if it was just stunned or the serpent had been venomous, but it still had enough umph to stand tall and attempt to warn me off with feigned bulk.

I suspect my reaction to this small, naturally commonplace encounter firmly labels me a naturalist more than a birder. Sure, I was willing to tromp countless hours, wet and cold in search of a bird like the Bornean Stubtail (Urosphena whiteheadi); a diminutive, dull bird, I saw and is a sought-after endemic. Yet the strongest impression from that afternoon was from a snake eating a frog. Who needs labels? I still get frantically overenthusiastic over birds.

Furthering this absurdist’s identity crisis, was the excessive diversity of insects at my guest house. I’d been reading excerpts from the journals of various European explorers in Borneo and an idol, Alfred Russel Wallace, had expressed similar thoughts. On dark, wet nights he collected extreme amounts of moths attracted by a light.

“On good nights I was able to capture from a hundred to two hundred and fifty moths, and these comprised on each occasion from half to two-thirds that number of distinct species.” He continues that, “it thus appears that on twenty-six nights I collected 1,386 moths but that more than 800 of them were collected on four very wet and dark nights.”

Any outside surface adjacent to light was swarmed with countless moths, flys, beetles, etc. For fun I counted at least 78, to the undiscerning eye, different species of moth. Not to mention gigantic long-horn beetles, a leaf insect that flew into my face, and katydids en mass. I stayed up two hours later than planned taking photos of the variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. I’d never been quite this blown away by insects but the more I pay attention, the more I realize they are as worthy of crazed devotion as any vertebrate.

As I mentioned before, rain was putting a damper on my explorations. Normally I have little issue with getting wet, but again from following various explorers, I learned something. Unless you have to, don’t go out in the rain. You won’t really dry off.

That said, I couldn’t let low lying clouds scare me off the chase. A solid slip on slick cement, camera first, gave me heart tremors and seemed an ill omen for my last day at the park, but I still managed to make it up a trail without true accident. Unfortunately, my optimism didn’t hold water, drips began to reach me through dense canopy within minutes. It abated long enough for me to simultaneously spot a Bornean Whistling Thrush (Myophonus borneensis) and scare it off, having a whirling tantrum over a biting fly circling my head. The rain continued a steady luge down broad leaves and the back of my shirt lasting the rest of the day. It was only 10:30 AM.

Sodden within minutes, I gave up and began my tromp back. Just when I’d decided Borneo had foiled me again, a weasel tried to run up my leg.

I later learned this rascal was a Malayan Weasel (Mustela nudipes). This white-headed mammal, the size of a Black-footed Ferret, came at me from the undergrowth on the side of the road. It didn’t seem aggressive, but I wasn’t really going to test my luck, creating a weasel baffling buffer with my umbrella. I’d opted out of rabies vaccination. This boisterous character took ginger leaps through the wet forest floor, disappearing into holes, reappearing several meters away, slithered up gracile saplings, and crossed the road several times without looking. All within a few feet of me. Obviously busy hunting, it periodically investigated my tentative squeaks, seeing if I could get his or her attention. Neither of us cared that we were soaked.

After what felt like an extremely charmed hour watching this naïve little mustelid, I tired of dodging traffic and moved on. Reviewing my camera’s capture times, I was there less than 10 minutes. Rain and the fact that I was standing on the side of the main road up and down the mountain kept me from taking proper photos. No matter, because the impression, like all the others from this misty massif, is permanent.


  1. This has been my favorite of your travel posts, and it’s entirely due to the weasels and moths and frog-swallowing snakes! Birds? Who needs birds?

    • Brendan

      Thanks! I’m glad my adventures were fun for others too!

  2. This is an absolutely stunning piece of photo-journalism -or is it the reverse? In any case, it is over the top!

  3. Pingback: A (Photographic) Year in Review « Wingtrip

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