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petes blog borneoFrom the moment you can spot the “Land below the Wind” (Sabah Malaysia) something tells you the rich tapestry that hugs the mighty Crocker Range will unveil many secrets. These tropical mountains hug the coast southward as far as the eye can see.

Agnes Keith famously wrote about what the seafarers had called The Land below the Wind. The phrase described the land below the typhoon belt “Sabah”.  As my plane banked, the majestic Gunung Kinabulu (Mt Kinabulu 4095m) rose from the ocean and started a journey that would change my life for ever. It was June 2009 and my discovery of Borneo had begun.

The capital Kota Kinabulu formally Jesselton is a welcoming sight after the two and a half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. On approaching the new airport,  lines of coconut palms adorn the coast and the bamboo framed nets for catching anchovies are etched into the scenery. It was a different sight in 1945 after the Allied forces recaptured Jesselton, unfortunately most of the city was levelled in the process.

After settling into our hotel and absorbing the local hospitality I was anxious to explore so booked a day trip to Kliaas wetlands. Waking early the next morning the two hour drive south took me past market stalls selling all types of fish some fresh but mostly dried. Coconuts, the green dwarf (more milk) and common tall coconut were piled up like hundreds of bowling balls on roadside stalls. Each area on the way had its market speciality including the nursery area of Papa. It was quite refreshing to see so many nurseries growing a wide range of plants. The normal bougainvillea colors, orchids, bamboos and frangipani, hydrangea, loropetalums  from China and Brugmanseas from South America. Stalls with big prickly fruit like Durian merah (durio kutejensis) will knock your socks off, but hold your nose and enjoy the rich creamy flesh. Called the king of fruit throughout tropical Asia. Also wild durians with red flesh from the mountainous area of Ranau (durio graveolens) for those who truly need a challenge.  I tried orange fruited durians (durio oxleyanus) in Kuala Penyu town which were delicious (try the market).  Interestingly this part of Sabah has some oil palms but the area is not over run with them like most of Borneo.

As we near Klias wetlands my guide points out many sago palms (metxylon sagu). The sago pudding your grandmother made you most probably originated from the native sagu palm trees of Kuala Penyu and district. Every year Pesta Rumbiais  is a festival which  celebrates the sagu palm.   Ambuyat is  the starch of the sagu which offers an alternative staple food (carbohydrate), to the Bisayas and Kaduzan (Dusan Tatana) people.  The van stops and we walk down a rickety boardwalk over swampy ground. After we are marshalled into small boats an enchanting boat ride takes us along the Klias river. Macaque monkeys amuse us until the true stars appear. Proboscis monkeys are really, really long nosed and have some very human behaviours and lack modesty. The young males seem to play in large groups and are great athletes. The reserve either side of the river and connected wetlands hosts liana vines, mangroves and tropical trees many of which are fruiting. The monkeys giveaway the location of fruiting durian, palms, tarap and mata Kuching. The day ends with a great Malaysian buffet and a night cruise on the Klias with hundreds of fire flies.

Peter Teese BorneoEarly the next day we drive through the foothills up to the base of Mt Kinabulu. Now the plants become the stars. The rainfall is very high here and you could set your watch for a 4pm rain deluge most days. Diptercarp trees and other forest giants are common and get taller as we climb in altitude toward the Kinabulu National Park. Oak relatives lithocarpus havilandii are evergreen forest trees that are common in the park especially from Mesilou entrance. There are in excess of 5000 species of vascular plants in Kinabula park. Orchids, rhododendrons, oaks, hollys, begonia, are all represented by many species. Vireya or Tropical Rhododendrons are well represented in Kinabulu Park, within an easy walk of park headquarters. Rhododendron lowii was quite common on the slopes leading up the mountain trail to Laban Rata and underscored the trees with beautiful flashes of yellow to orange bells . A native,  Cananga odorata Ylang Ylang is one of the more famous trees for its scent, used in perfumes and oils. Perhaps the most intriguing plants must be the nepenthes popularly known as the tropical Pitcher Plants or Monkey Cups. There are over 140 species many of which can only be found in Borneo and some endemic to Gunung Kinabulu. As you climb Gunung Kinabulu,  you will be rewarded with many encounters   of Nepenthes.  Some are quite dark,  others  have bright colors or stripes. They appeared more prevalent near steep banks or where the parks staff had cut out paths for walkers.  Also found on  steep banks or drained valleys. Figs are seen at the same altitude. At about 5pm we stopped at Laban Rata Lodge,  the trees  becoming much shorter at this altitude. This afforded great views of the surrounding valleys, villages, mountains and the mighty Crocker range to the south.

At 2am in the morning we made our assent by head torchlights. This was a great idea due to the uneven ground and very steep rocky slippery terrain. A rope followed the path for large parts of the track; presumably the wind gusts could blow you into the valley at times. We reached the summit at sunrise much elated and gasping for air, which was a tad thin at 4095m. There was much excitement as this was a childhood dream; I read a small book about Mt Kinabulu as a child and had dreamt about this moment. My general fear of heights was temporarily overwhelmed by being part of such a beautiful and spiritual place. Local legend abounds about this mountain. Apparently a Prince from China had fallen in love with a local girl and they had married and had a family. The Prince was homesick and had to attend to responsibilities in China. He vowed to return as soon as possible to be with his love. Sadly his parents had other plans on his return to China and had already committed their son to a Chinese girl back home in China. The local Kadasun Dusan girl so smitten was she that she climbed the mountain daily to see if she could see her love returning from the mountain vantage. Finally she passed away  exhausted from her endeavours. The spirits of Mt Kinabulu turned her to stone (St Johns Peak) in honour of her love and dedication. It is said by locals that Mt Kinabulu was so named, respectfully, by their Kampung (village) as it means Chinese Widow.

I will not be forgiven if I don’t mention the many amazing Slipper Orchids Paphiopedilum which proliferate in the higher rockier slopes. There is also a Dacrydium gibbsiae (rare conifer) and in excess of 600 fern species. In fact this area UNESCO has registered as World Heritage status. The high level of endemism in this area is quite remarkable (i.e.: species found only in this park, nowhere else). Wildlife lovers will enjoy the 100 mammals and twitchers will enjoy the 326  bird species.      Borneo is like an enchanted forest, their friendly people,  rich cultural diversity,  strong family values and natural connection to all things around them,  inspires.  These people walked hand in hand with Aussie and British Troops during the Second World War.  Sandakan to Ranau 1942-1945  is famously known as the Death Marches.

At the base of Gunung Kinabulu is Kundasung with its tapestry of vegetable gardens,  farms and amazing market stalls with cooler climate plants and produce.  Be sure to visit Kundasung war memorial on the Mesilou entrance road. Also the last POW camp at Ranau taking the road back to Keningou a few kilometres. Also the memorials at Sandakan and Labuan Island. These places reinforce the strong connection between Sabah and Australia’s people and histories.

Jacaranda mimosaefolia White Christmas

Jacaranda mimosaefolia White Christmas Jacaranda
mimosaefolia 'White Christmas'

Michelia x Starbright

michelia x Starbright Michelia 
X Starbright'

Ficus dammaropsis

Ficus dammaropsis Ficus

Australian Rhododendron SocietyThe Ferny Creek Horticultural SocietyGarden Plant Conservation Association of Australia Inc.International Oak SocietyIPPS AustraliaThe Waite ArboretumNursery and Garden Industry VictoriaNursery and Garden Industry Australia

Peter Teese

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