I am not a mountaineer. In fact, I’m not particularly athletic. But when I found myself traveling around the island of Borneo, I could not resist an attempt at climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and the centerpiece of Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site.
Mount Kinabalu has been attracting explorers for over a hundred years because of its incredible biodiversity—many of the plants and animals on the mountain are found nowhere else on Earth. The 5.2-mile trail to the summit of Low’s Peak passes through the mountain’s various ecosystems, allowing hikers to see everything from the dense jungle below to the bare rock-face at the top.
Although it is possible to summit in one day, it is definitely worth spending a night at the Laban Rata base camp. By staying overnight, visitors have a chance to hike to the summit for sunrise on their second day. They can also take time to admire the flora and fauna–and on this trail it’s worth going slowly.
When I hiked Kinabalu earlier this year, we started out at 8 a.m. and made slow progress, stopping every few minutes to look at plants and animals. Wild orchids hung from the trees and sprouted from the forest floor. About an hour into the hike, I heard rustling in the trees and came face-to-face with the elusive red leaf monkeys. I also caught glimpses of resplendent birds, from scarlet red trogons to iridescent sunbirds. Kinabalu is also famous for its pitcher plants – carnivorous plants that trap insects in their pitcher-like leaves. Nepenthes rajah–the “king” of the pitcher plants–is the largest species in the world and is only found around Kinabalu. It can hold up to 3.5 liters of water, and rats have even been found drowned in its bowl.
Higher up the mountain, we passed out of the dense jungle, and the character of the forest shifted. Bizarre gymnosperms grew among the gnarly, stunted trees coated in red lichen. In the backdrop of this alien landscape, the spires of Kinabalu peaked out from the clouds.
From that point on the ascent was swift, and we reached the Laban Rata base camp around 3 p.m. I was expecting hard, cold bunks, and some fried rice. Instead, I was greeted with a warm dining hall filled with weary hikers and a full buffet line. I watched sunset from the lodge’s porch with a hot chocolate warming my hands and headed to bed as soon as darkness fell. We would have “supper” at 2 a.m. to prepare for the scramble to Low’s Peak for dawn.
I got out of bed in the freezing dark. Donning a headlamp and a woolen cap, I started to climb up an interminable staircase behind my guide. We eventually reached a rope, which led us to the summit and helped us over some steep rock faces. In the darkness, the headlamps of other hikers twinkled in the distance, reminding us how far we still had to go.
After some tricky climbing, the trail flattened out and I began the race to the top. The sky began to lighten just as I made the final scramble. Perched on a boulder, I watched the cloud-filled valley turn magenta, blue, and gold. For a few seconds, the low-lying sun cast the shadow of the peak on the clouds behind us. As I watched, I heard other hikers murmuring their amazement in their respective languages. From French to Japanese to Russian, I understood what they were saying by the tone of their voices.
The Kinabalu summit trail turned out to be one of the best hikes I have ever taken. It was not just the spectacular sunrise—it was the entire length of the trail. During my travels in this region, I’ve heard backpackers dismiss Kinabalu because of its popularity. They prefer trekking in Laos or Myanmar, where the crowds are thin and the trips maintain that elusive “authenticity.” Although I generally gravitate toward solo wilderness experiences, there was something magical about hiking up in the dark with dozens of strangers, all bent on the same destination. In a time when people seem to be falling out of touch with nature, it is nice to be reminded that there are others who want to get up at 2am just to see the sunrise.
Tips for Hikers: Book spots on the Kinabalu Trail early as they often fill up months in advance. It is also worth spending a few extra days in the park to explore the huge system of trails and to acclimate to the altitude. For great budget accommodation, I recommend Mile 36 Lodge located just outside of the park.
To follow more of Gabby’s adventures, check out her website.