The jagged peaks of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah shelters one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. More species of plants and animals can be found on these steep slopes than in Europe and North America combined, many of them uniquely evolved to survive the harsh conditions and metal-heavy soils of the mountain.
Including a durian species that grows on the mountain slopes as high as 4,500 feet (1300 meters) and tastes like cherry chocolate rum cake.
Jess and I arrived mid-afternoon at the headquarters of Mount Kinabalu park in a creaking, laboring van that got winded as it crawled up the windy mountain road from Kota Kinabalu.
The weather was cool, and the mountain was obscured by a shifting swirl of clouds. I had goosebumps for the first time in over a year and I was glad I’d thought to buy a hat and sweater in Kota Kinabalu.
Our plan was to go up and down Mount Kinabalu in one day (like these folks), avoiding the bank-breaking cost of staying the night on the mountain in a 480 RM per night dormitory. Jess is a teacher in Myanmar, and I’m, well, a durian fanatic, so neither one of us had the funds the overnight package.
We also hoped to find Durio Kinabaluensis, a wild durian endemic to the Crocker Range. It was originally found somewhere on the mountain in the early 1930’s by a woman named Mary Strong Clemens. I’d seen Kinabaluensis before, in Kipandi, but at the time it wasn’t ripe and I didn’t get to taste it.
Somehow going straight to the durian’s mother mountain made looking for the durian feel more epic. I imagined Mary hiking up and down the steep grades in her modest pantaloons, a pioneer in a time when it was believed a woman’s uterus could fall out from over-exertion.
|Mount Kinabalu at dawn|
We stayed the night directly across the street from the park headquarters in a tiny guesthouse where the mountain guides slept with no Wifi or hot water. When I peaked out in the crisp and clear morning, the craggy peaks of the mountain shone gold in slanted light.
But unfortunately we woudn’t be visiting them.
When we went to the park office to buy our permit (15 RM entry and 10 RM conservation fee) and hire a guide (128 RM), we learned the one-day climbing pass had been revoked in August. The woman at the desk couldn’t explain why.
Some tour companies are still offering the one-day hike on their websites, but it’s unclear whether or not you can actually get the permit from the National Park. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to find out.
Our only choice was to dig into our pockets to stay the night on the mountain, or climb by ourselves to the 4 km point.
We opted to do the hike by ourselves, which would free up the rest of the afternoon to hunt for Kinabaluensis and visit nearby Ranau. So with feigned cheerfulness (and choked disappointment) we hopped in the van that goes to the trail head with all the hikers starting their climb to the peak.
It was a beautiful morning.
|Jess the Yogini|
Ropes of roots crawled across the trail, slick with moss and lichen. The air was cool and crisp, the fern fronds dripping with dew.
As we went up and up, I couldn’t stop thinking of Oregon. As the clouds rolled in and the mountain was obscured by mist, a comfortable blanket of greyness blurred the vertical lines of tree trunks and softened the colors into pastels.
It was so like the temperate rainforest of my home.
Except in Oregon we have only about 40 species of ferns. Here there are over 600.
The majority of the trail is wooden steps pounded into slick sandstone mud that is obviously washing away. We went up and up and up, panting in the humid air and removing layers of clothing.
Mary Clemens Strong must have had some impressive calves.
|Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel|
When we stopped for breakfast, these little ground squirrels moved in. They had zeroed in on the bananas we’d brought.
One dragged away two of Jess’s bananas, still attached at the stem, and when I paused to watch, laughing, another nabbed the banana out of my fingers.
I wished we’d brought some durian to share with them. They’d have gone nuts. I wondered if they’d ever eaten the durians growing somewhere on the mountain.
|Kinabalu Balsam (Impatiens platyphylla)|
Botanists love Mount Kinabalu area because here, plants won.
There are way, way more plants here than animals.
Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 different species of plants live in Mount Kinabalu Park, not including the weird tiny things like mosses and liverworts and mushrooms. With temperatures ranging from steamy jungle at the base of the mountain to freezing grasslands at the top, the mountain supports an incredible diversity of plant life.
A botanist could crawl around completely absorbed by the weirdness for years.
Just look at these things. I thought durian was a spiky menace – these pitcher plants are actually carnivorous.
We found the pitcher plants behind the shelter at Layang Layang, the point where we had to turn around. It had taken us about 2 hours to climb the 4 km, and in that time period the mountain had disappeared behind thick clouds and the mist was forming a drizzle that turned into rain and we slipped down the mossy stairs.
Just like Oregon. Except Oregon doesn’t have a native durian. Oh yeeaaah.
|It’s cold but there’s durian|
We may not have made it to the top of Mount Kinabalu, but we found Durio kinabaluensis at a small vegetable and fruit stand across the road from the turn-off for the Kinabalu Lodge.
We’d spied durian from the window on the bus ride there. Hungry and disappointed after our attempt at getting permits to climb the mountain, we walked down the hill from the park headquarters to warm ourselves with a hearty durian feast.
But I’d never seen, and certainly never tasted, a durian like them.
Each seed was tiny, wrapped in a thin coat of incredibly sweet flesh with the consistency of a soft cheese.
Many of the seeds were partway exposed, without enough flesh to completely cover them.
Still, we popped whole seeds in our mouths and greedily sucked, because Durio kinabaluensis is delicious.
Jess went “oooooh -mmmmm” on her first bite, a high-pitch exclamation of surprise and delight that she only makes when something is really, really darn good.
Because she usually tastes something first (I’m still busy snapping photos), her exclamation makes the anticipation even better.
We demolished the entire pile, and then to the alarm of the vendor, we added a few of these grey-fleshed and bitter kampungs to sate our appetite.
Kinabaluensis was like a cherry flavored lolly pop – enjoyably sweet, but not exactly filling if you’re hungry.
We couldn’t decide what it tasted like. At last, we settled on chocolate-cherry-rum cake. Extremely sweet with a hint of earthy chocolate and an alcoholic kick.
When we had finished, the vendor asked us if we felt dizzy or hot. We didn’t. And to be honest, any added “heatiness” would have been a blessing in this weather. It was cold, and the first time I’ve eaten wild durians wearing a hat and coat!
So while we didn’t get to see the top of Mount Kinabalu, we did get to taste part of what makes this area so special.