Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Borneo, it reaches 4.095 metres and its peak rises high above the canopy of the rainforest around it. It’s one of the richest nature reserves in the world.

Mount Kinabalu, Kinabalu for short, is the only mountain between the Himalayas and the volcanoes of Java and Papua New Guinea. It’s a special place with numerous interesting plants, including large carnivorous pitcher plants, as well as the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. You can climb Mount Kinabalu, even if you’re not an experienced mountain climber.

Een bekerplant op Mount Kinabalu.
A pitcher plant on Mount Kinabalu. Corno van den Berg

Kinabalu is an impressive mountain, it is part of the Crocker mountain range in Borneo and the local people refer to it as Gunung Kinabalu. It’s a weird lump in the undulating landscape, reaching high above the metres-high rainforest of Borneo. It’s beloved by tourists, not just because you can climb it, but because of its awesome surroundings.

The locals think that Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South-East Asia, but it’s not. That’s the Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, which is much taller with 5.881 metres. There are actually many peaks higher than Kinabalu in the Himalayas, but Malaysians don’t consider Myanmar to be part of South-East Asia, though officially it is.

Het ruige landschap op de top van Mount Kinabalu.
The rugged landscape at the top of Mount Kinabalu. Corno van den Berg

Due to its location there are different kinds of climates on the mountain, accomodating a huge variety of plants. Botanists have counted more than 4.000 plant species here, to date. These include many orchids, and dozens of carnivorous pitcher plants, which are endemic (only grow here), as are many other plants here.

Kinabalu and its surrounding mountain range is one of the richest natural areas in the world, boasting 326 kinds of birds and more than 100 mammals call this place home. It’s an incredible wealth that belongs to a natural treasure such as Borneo.

For a long time people believe that Mount Kinabalu was an extinguished volcano, but recent research has disproven this. The mountain is made up of granite, formed by the solidifying of magma about 15 million years ago. The force of the magma created the granite and pushed the whole mountain up, there was no volcanic eruption or activity.

De wandeling naar boven kan in de regen plaats hebben.
It can rain during your climb to the top. Corno van den Berg

Walking around this area will amaze you, you walk out of the jungle and past the tree line to see the granite in all its glory, and if you’re here in the early morning, you could be lucky enough to watch the sunrise from the mountain top.

Mount Kinabalu is a ‘tourist mountain’ which means you can reach its peak without having any climbing experience, but this doesn’t mean it’s an easy ascent. It takes two days to rise up around 2.200 metres (and back), come rain or shine – or both.

The first day you can walk from 1.866 metres altitude to Laban Rata, where a few mountain huts sit at 3.272 metres altitude. It’s a trail comprising wooden bridges, hewn staircases and steep tracks. Most people take four to six hours to complete it.

Of course it also depends on your fitness levels and how long you pause to take photos of the orchids and pitcher plants. Then after a few hours’ rest and a meal you head off again around 3 in the morning to the mountain top, known as Low’s Peak. It’s at 4.095 metres and you can watch the sunrise around 6 am, weather permitting.

Het eerste daglicht valt over de rotsen van Mount Kinabalu.
First light streams across the rocks of Mount Kinabalu. Corno van den Berg

When you’ve seen the first rays of sun you return to have some breakfast in the mountain hut. The big question is: how fit are you? Because the record for the round trip (yes, both ways!) is two hours and forty-five minutes, and the oldest person to have ever done the trek was a ninety-two-year-old woman.

If you’re fit and have good stamina you can do it, and you’ll enjoy it. Make sure you bring a head torch or hand torch. For many people this is the highlight of their trip to Borneo.

De weg terug in de vroege morgen.
Heading back down in the early morning. Corno van den Berg

Best time:

The best time here is when it’s driest in Asia, generally between January to late April. The average rainfall is around 100 mm then, though you can still get drenched any time of the year.

Be aware!

Some tourists underestimate the climb to the peak of Mount Kinabalu, please keep in mind that lots of climbing and clambering is required.

Make sure you bring warm clothes and a torch for when you head off on the second day in the dark. Food is provided in lunch boxes, and hot food is served in the mountain huts. Some say that Laban Rata Resthouse is the best.

Soms moet je via een touw klimmen en ook weer afdalen.
Sometimes you have to use a rope to climb up, and also back down. Corno van den Berg

You can suffer from altitude sickness from 3.000 metres, so it’s possible to experience it on this hike. If you get a headache, head back down and see if you improve. If not, you might need medical assistance or medication.

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