Kinabalu via Timpohon Day 1 - To Laban Rata

Kinabalu Index

Ferns Abound!

We made our way to Timpohon Gate (elevation : 1866m) with perfect weather that morning, and sat in the shuttle van satiated after a heavy breakfast from Balsam Cafe. With both a packed lunch and our climbing permits in hand, we went to the counter to sign-in before we set off down the trail. By then, it was 09:10. The very wide 'trail' was more of a stairwell through the jungle than an actual trail. It began with a short descent to the tiny Carson Waterfall, before beginning a long ascent to Laban Rata (elevation : 3272m), which was 1350 metres higher up and 6 kilometres further along the trail. Starting at Timpohon Gate meant that we were to completely skip one of the four 'floristic zones' that Kinabalu Park had to offer--the 'Lowland Dipterocarp Forest', which lies below elevations of around 1200m. Instead, we were flung straight into the second zone, that of the 'Lower Montane Forest', roughly situated between the elevations of 1200m to 2200m.

The trail was fringed with ferns of all shapes and sizes. Towering tree ferns (Cyathea spp.) and their huge doubly pinnate leaves created tunnels over us, whilst the tightly-coiled croziers, or fiddleheads, atop the stalks of emerging fronds were scattered around on the sides of the trail below us. These fiddleheads are coiled to protect their tender tips, but slowly uncurl themselves as the frond hardens and toughens in a process that is referred to as circinate vernation. The huge leaves of the primitive fern Dipteris conjugata were ubiquitous here, whereas other ferns like Cheiropleuria bicuspis were few and far between. Over 600 species of ferns including 22 species of Cyathea tree-fern--50 of which are endemic--can be found here in Kinabalu Park.

A tree fern

A tree fern (Cyathea sp.) beside the trail

circinate vernation

Examples of circinate vernation

Lower Montane Forests

The higher elevations and the high humidity of the lower montane forests create conditions that are perfect for the development of peat. This is because the amount of partially decayed organic matter is highest when the temperatures are sufficiently high for plant growth, but are too low to sustain the microbial activity that helps the organic material break down. These conditions tend to also be ideal for epiphytes such as liverworts and mosses such as peat moss (Sphagnum junghuhnianum), which carpeted absolutely everything in some sections of this trail. This moss actually comprises of two layers: the upper layer which you see at the top is live-growing moss cover, whilst the layers that lie beneath are known as sphagnum peat moss, and are composed of decaying organic matter. Peat moss is acidic and very absorbent which makes it both an anti-bacterial agent as well as a fungicide. This moss was apparently even used as a dressing for wounds during both World Wars!

The long stalks of giant hairy-cap moss (Dawsonia superba) also were ubiquitous on the trail. This moss is very common in the area and can grow to as tall as half a metre, making it one of the tallest mosses in the world. Unlike other mosses, Dawsonia mosses have a conduction system that is similar to that of vascular plants, and this is what allows it to achieve such great heights. The conduction systems are not the same however, as they evolved independently through convergent evolution. Most mosses require water for sexual reproduction, as the sperm requires a unbroken layer of water to be able to swim to the eggs to fertilize them. In the case of Dawsonia mosses however, their height makes this impossible. The sperm are instead dispersed when rain drops fall onto the gametophores and splash onto the forest floor.

Sphagnum moss (Sphagnum junghuhnianum)

Giant hairy-cap moss (Dawsonia superba)

Dipteris conjugata

Cheiropleuria bicuspis

Kinabalu balsam flower (Impatiens platyphylla)

Wild raspberries (Rubus lineatus)

Rhododendron rugosum

Leptospermum recurvum

Vaccinium stapfianum

Cyrtandra clarkei

Showy melastome (Medinilla speciosa)

Starviolet (Hedyotis pulchella)

Necklace orchids (Coelogyne papillosa)

Schima brevifolia

Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.)

Dacrydium gibbsiae

Slideshow of the flora of Mount Kinabalu

Next : Part 2 - Upper Montane Forests

Upper Montane Forests

We passed 'Ubah Hut' (elevation : 2081m) approximately 40 minutes in, and continued to make our way almost directly north. A kilometre further up, the trail swerved to the right as it made its way to 'Lowii Hut' (elevation : 2267m), and past the junction for the smaller path that continued north towards Kemborongoh Tower. Shoots of Gibbs's bamboo (Bambusa gibbsiae) lined the sides of the trail here, as did small Kinabalu balsam flowers (Impatiens platyphylla) that added tiny splashes of purple to the otherwise overpowering green of the forest. The brightest and the most vibrant flowers however were the ubiquitous rhododendrons, which appeared as splashes of yellow, white, and pink.

We had now entered the 'Upper Montane Forest', which lies at elevations of around 2200m to 3300m. As we ascended the slopes of the mountain, the trees became shorter and more stunted and the flowers began to shrink. Although the diversity of the fauna decreases with this rise in elevation, the endemism drastically increases. Rhododendrons thrive in this zone--26 species can be found in Kinabalu Park, 5 of which are endemic. The most common rhododendrons that you may encounter here are the large yellow flowers of Rhododendron lowii and the pink flowers of Rhododendron rugosum, both of which have flowers that have the very obvious bell-shape that is characteristic of rhododendrons. As you ascend further, however, you may notice an increase in the number of shrub-like rhododendrons, with the endemic rough-leaved rhododendron (Rhododendron ericoides) being found all the way to the summit of Mount Kinabalu (elevation : 4095m).

By now, the low clouds had crept in and a heavy mist had descended, leaving eerie silhouettes of twisted branches grasping towards the sky. We passed 'Mempening Hut' (elevation : 2516m) at 11:15, and began to make our way north once again as the trail curved almost imperceptibly to the left. The trail in this area was made up of yellowy ultramafic rocks, which have a very low silica content but are rich in minerals. As the colour of the trail changed, so did the fauna that surrounded it. Sayat Sayat (Leptospermum recurvum) trees, that were twisted and had been bent by the strong winds, and Southern pine trees (Dacrydium gibbsiae) had completely taken over. Sayat Sayat are one of the few plants that are able to tolerate the toxicity of the ultramafic soil. Its white flowers, alongside the equally white Schima brevifolia flowers, can be found at the sides of this trail.

Not too long after, 'Layang-layang Hut' (elevation : 2702m) appeared suddenly just after a sharp turn. This hut used to be known as 'Carson’s Camp' and is where the Timpohon trail meets the (now closed) Mesilau trail. The hut is about two-thirds of the way from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata, and is where almost everyone stops for their lunch break. As a result, the hut has attracted swarms of Borneo black-banded squirrels (Callosciurus orestes) that scamper about in search for food. Several far-less-daring red-breasted (rufous) Borneo thrushes (Turdus poliocephalus seebohmi), referred to as Luhui tana in the Dusun language, would watch on from the sides waiting for an opportunity to swoop in and grab a morsel.

Bornean mountain ground squirrel

Borneo black-banded squirrel (Callosciurus orestes)

LNT LogoFeeding wildlife is ultimately harmful to their well-being. Once animals such as birds and squirrels begin to depend on food from human sources, their behaviour becomes altered and they are exposed to dangers such as vehicles (when near roads), other predators, and sometimes even amongst themselves as the chances of infighting increase. These animals not only become a nuisance to hikers but also can be vectors for dangerous diseases. Without human food, wildlife will have to forage for food from their natural environment, food which is almost always more nutritious for them. To put it simply, just do not feed the wildlife, no matter how cute they may be!

Next : Part 3 - Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

We continued on from 'Layang-layang Hut' (elevation : 2702m) after a fairly long lunch break of almost 40 minutes, and passed enticing wild raspberries (Rubus lineatus) at the sides of the trail. The area was more exposed now, and we were starting to see more and more sky. Tiny yet enchanting mountain trachymenes (Trachymene saniculifolia) began to make their appearance, and seeing them reminded me of Nepal as they look remarkably similar to Stellera chamaejasme, a perennial plant that is often seen around the Annapurna Circuit. Mountain trachymenes, like the rough-leaved rhododendrons (Rhododendron ericoides), can also be found all the way up to the summit of Mount Kinabalu (elevation : 4095m).

mountain trachymene flower

The various flowering stages of the mountain trachymene flower (Trachymene saniculifolia)

Kinabalu Park has thirteen different species of pitcher plants, four of which are endemic, namely, Nepenthes rajah , Nepenthes villosa , Nepenthes edwardsiana , and Nepenthes burbidgeae . There were a fair number of Nepenthes villosa found at this elevation, which is how the next hut a little further up the trail, got its name. This pitcher plant is easily recognisable from the intricate rings that can be seen on its peristome, and tends to be one of the few that are found higher up on the mountain as it is able to grow at higher elevations than other pitcher plants are able to. Locally, it is sometimes referred to as Kung Kuanga. Alfred Russel Wallace, in his book 'The Malay Archipelago', described the pitcher plants of Malaysia as:

"The wonderful Pitcher-plants, forming the genus Nepenthes of botanists, here reach their greatest development. Every mountain-top abounds with them, running along the ground, or climbing over shrubs and stunted trees; their elegant pitchers hanging in every direction. Some of these are long and slender, resembling in form the beautiful Philippine lace-sponge (Euplectella), which has now become so common; others are broad and short. Their colours are green, variously tinted and mottled with red or purple. The finest yet known were obtained on the summit of Kini-balou, in North-west Borneo. One of the broad sort, Nepenthes rajah, will hold two quarts of water in its pitcher. Another, Nepenthes Edwardsiania, has a narrow pitcher twenty inches long; while the plant itself grows to a length of twenty feet."

Alfred Russel Wallace
Further down the mountain however, the small cups of the fringed pitcher plant (Nepenthes tentaculata) are more often seen as their creeping vines wind their way up and around the branches of other plants. Unlike most other species of pitcher plants, the fringed pitcher plant is not an epiphyte, but grows terrestrially instead. This pitcher plant is one of the most common in Borneo and, because it is so widely distributed, comes in a large variety of colours and patterns.

Fringed pitcher plant

Fringed pitcher plant (Nepenthes tentaculata)

Villose pitcher plants

Villose pitcher plants (Nepenthes villosa). The intricate rings can clearly be seen on their peristomes

'Villosa Hut' (elevation : 2960m) is located almost 5km into the trail. Once again, the twisted trees of southern pine (Dacrydium gibbsiae) and sayat-sayat (Leptospermum recurvum) dominate the sides of the trail. After the hut, the trail ascends to the top of a rocky rise that normally affords you decent views of the peak. However, by the time we arrived at the rise, the clouds had completely shrouded the mountain and the only thing I could see was a blank white canvas in front of me.

Ultramafic rocks

Ultramafic rocks make up the trail

Next : Part 4 - The 2015 Earthquake

The 2015 Earthquake

After a while the mist began to part, offering us occasional glimpses of the rockface on the left that used to be lightly topped with vegetation. The 2015 earthquake had shaken free a lot of the loose debris and vegetation, leaving the rockface looking clean and polished. There were sections further up the trail before 'Sayat Sayat Hut' (elevation : 3668m) that were better examples of the extent of the devastation. The 5.9 magnitude earthquake occurred on the 5th of June 2015, and it not only stranded groups of hikers on the peak, but the subsequent rockfalls, landslides, and the damage that was done to the via ferrata installations ended up killing 18 people, including hikers and mountain guides. One of the prominent structures, the Donkey Ear's Peak (elevation : 4048m) was also severely damaged. Furthermore, the alternative trail to Timpohon, which is called Mesilau, is no longer accessible due to the earthquake.

Rockfall trails can be seen in the top right, and rubble heaps in the lower right of the image.
Hover your cursor over the image above to see the condition of the rockface back in 2011.

Laban Rata (elevation : 3272m) was located approximately a kilometre up the trail from 'Villosa Hut' (elevation : 2960m), and it took us about 40 minutes to get there. Along the way we passed 'Paka Hut' (elevation : 3080m), which was a shelter that was named after the Paka Cave that was located just nearby. The cave is basically a large overhanging rock that is located right next to a stream, which, at least before the Laban Rata lodges were built, functioned as a campsite for hikers that needed to acclimatise before making the summit push the following day. After Paka Hut, the trail entered the montane forest once again before reaching Laban Rata not too long after.

Leptospermum recurvum trees (tea trees) that have been twisted by the wind and are draped in fruticose lichen (Usnea spp.)

Laban Rata (elevation : 3272m) is a relatively large collection of lodges and huts that is located very close to the Mount Kinabalu treeline. Its elevation and location at the edge of the granite rockface makes Laban Rata an ideal place for acclimatisation. Dinnertime at the Laban Rata Guesthouse is from 16:30 to 19:30, but please bear in mind that they do not include water. Instead, water is sold at the horrific price of MYR5 for a jug of hot water, MYR7 for a small bottle of mineral water, and MYR14 for a larger 1.5l bottle. Fortunately, I tend to carry more water than I need as there have been a few times in the past where things have gone wrong and I have been caught severely low on water. Potable water is also very useful for flushing debris out of wounds in an emergency. I also carry either a water filter or a steripen, and use them in combination with water treatment tablets.

After dinner, we were strongly encouraged to get as much rest as we possibly could as the morning wake-up call was to be at 01:30!

Sunset from Laban Rata

Sunset from Laban Rata

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Download file: Mount Kinabalu Timpohon - Day 1.gpx

Next : Day 2 - Low's Peak

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