Sabah highlands fling
Kinabalu Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the nearby valley of Kundasang enchant Rizauddin Ibrahim with their flora and fauna
THE sight of Mount Kinabalu in its whole massif from Pekan Nabalu is simply majestic. It’s a nice welcome to this small town after a long winding drive in our rented car, on the mountain road from the capital, Kota Kinabalu.
Pekan Nabalu, the small town known for its long wooden shops and rows of open air stalls that sell knick-knacks, crafts and local products, is located in the highland region dubbed Sabah Highlands or that slightly overrated title of Borneo Highlands, home to the majestic mountain.
That evening we arrive at Kinabalu Park and check in into our lodging at Liwagu Suite, a loft unit that has a balcony overlooking the vegetation. It’s cold mountain climate as Kinabalu Park is located at a 1,500-metre elevation.
Our exploration of the Sabah Highlands starts with Kinabalu Park as it is right at our doorstep. Our expectations are high as the park is a Unesco World Heritage Site. And we are not disappointed.
First, there’s lively birdlife. We even can closely observe chestnut-hooded laughing thrush, as it sings and frolics in trees near our balcony. Kinabalu Park is a renowned spot for birdwatching and this is confirmed with the number of birdwatchers we meet during our stroll at the park. They make a majority of park visitors; they’re easily identified with their binoculars, telescopes and long-lens cameras, and their habit of constantly staring into treetops.
We then head to the Natural History Gallery. It is a museum on the nature, geology and ethnography of the region surrounding Mount Kinabalu. What we like most is the diorama display of stuffed animals in the nature section. While in the geology section, the exhibits include rocks of various colours and textures, as well as tools and musical instruments made from bamboo and rattan in the ethnography section. For the wealth of information provided, it is worth a visit as an introduction to Kinabalu Park.
Strolling around the park, we cannot help but notice a plethora of flowering plants. Either planted as ornaments or wild, the temperate climate makes for an abundance of flowering plants.
Part of eight interconnecting trail networks, the Silau Silau Trail is quite easy to hike. It has boardwalks to ease the hike. We trek into the lower montane forest where trees are covered with lichen and mosses. The entire length of the Silau Silau Trail is 3,057 metres but we don’t hike through it all. Instead, we detour into the connecting Botanical Garden Trail, a loop trail with plenty of flowering plants along it.
One of the main reasons people visit the park is to climb Mount Kinabalu. For these climbers, they will head to Timpohon Gate, which is the main entry to the trail. It is located 4km further inside the park. There stands the Timpohon Hut, where climbers’ departures and arrivals are recorded.
Above the hut is a viewing deck that provides a view of Mount Kinabalu’s western ridge. When we lounge on the deck, squirrels appear from the bushes. Endemic to this mountain region, the Bornean blackhanded squirrel has habituated itself to being fed by humans and are eagerly expecting some morsels from us.
The next day we drive out to Kundasang, 6km from the park. Situated in a highland valley, Kundasang is known for its vegetable farms. Vegetable cultivation is thriving here due to the cooler highland climate.
We visit its famous fruits and vegetable market located along the main road of Jalan Ranau-Tamparuli. Apart from vegetables, there are strawberries and colourful orchids, chrysanthemums and poinsettiasin pots for sale. There are also pots of pitcher plants.
To get closer to the vegetable farms, we leave the town and drive on Kundasang Kauluan Road and later onto Cinta Mata Mesilou Road. It is a scenic route with views of vegetable farms on hillyterrain.
After 6km, we come to Desa Cattle Dairy Farm. The view changes into grass meadow with grazing black-and-white cows. The view on this highland plateau of Mesilau has being dubbed little New Zealand. In fact, the cows, the Holstein Frasier breed, are imported from New Zealand as they are suited for temperate mountain climes.
The farm covers 199 hectares. Apart from the view, visitors cantake part in various activities. Milking is at 3pm daily but we miss it. Nonetheless, we manage to watch the milk being packed, through a glass window at the cafeteria lounge which also offers refreshments and light meals, especially dairy productslike yogurt, icecream and gelato.
In the next building, which is the pen that houses the calves and goats, visitors canbottle-feed the calves and feed the goats. It is an experience that any kid will love.
Back in Kundasang, we visit Kundasang War Memorial, built to commemorate the Australian and British soldiers, also the native people who helped them. They died on a forcedmarch from Sandakan to Ranau by the Japanese during World War 2. It came to be known as the Sandakan Death Marches.
The memorial, which stands ona hill overlooking the Kundasang Valley and Mount Kinabalu,consists of four gardens.
Australian Garden, English
Rose Garden and Borneo Garden represent the home countries of the victims. The biggest garden, Contemplation Garden, which is perched on the memorial’s highest point, is a pergola deck with ponds and rows of columns. The marble wall panels of the pergola are inscribed with the names of the victims.
Today, we take a longer drive, about 42km, to visit Sabah Tea Garden, a tea plantation that produces the famous Sabah Tea.
Covering an area of 2,480ha at 692m elevation, lush greenery greets us. There is a small section of the plantation where visitors can walk through the tea shrubs. From the visitors centre, we follow a downhill path and come closer to the Camelia Sinesis shrubs, i.e. tea trees.
As the day gets hotter, we lounge in the restaurant, enjoying the view of the plantation. But our tea adventure is not yet over. There is a long list of interesting tea-based dishes — pancakes, scones and waffles. We order all of them for brunch.
Just a short drive away from Sabah Tea Garden is Kampung Luanti Baru which is known for its natural fish spa — Tagal Sungai Moroli Fish Spa. It is a fish spa experience like non-other. Not like those tiny fishes in the tanks offered by fish spas in the malls, the village’s spa treatment has big freshwater fish which can weigh up to 3kg to do the job in the cold, refreshing river!
But a visit to this village is more than about fish spas. It is more to witness and laud the traditional conservation method done by villagers in preserving the fish. Called tagal (means enforced fishing), the method is done in the clear waters of Sungai Morali that meanders through Kampung Luanti Village. The ban is only lifted on specific dates of the year and at the certain portions of the river.
Thanks to the tagal practice, the fish breeds in large numbers. They become so tame that people can wade into the river to experience the massage sensation by letting the fish nibble away dead skin on their feet. It is a little ticklish.
Next, we drive 20km to Poring Hot Springs. On the way there, we see a banner announcing “Rafflesia Blooming Now!” erected at the roadside. Are we lucky to chance upon this opportunity to see a rafflesia in bloom, even at a fee of RM10 each?
It is Rafflesia kethii, the biggest Rafflesia species in Sabah. Whatever the species, seeing it is rare opportunity for most people. This is because this parasitic plant, which has no stems, leaves and roots, can only grow in certain conditions.It only blooms for two or three days before it decomposes.
We then carry on to Poring Hot Springs. Unlike Kinabalu Park and the area around it, the spring is in the lowlands. But it is not the cold mountain climate that people are here for. They are here for its sulphuric hot springs. Imitating the Japanese onsen, the hot sulphuric water is channelled into a series of tiled bathtubs.
Poring is a Kadazandusun word which
refers to a certain type of bamboo. Perhaps it is the bamboo grove in the Bamboo Garden which is located along the path to the spring and pool area. Obviously, each stalk of bamboo is bigger than the usual type.
Other than hot springs, this nature reservehas attractions like a butterfly aviary, orchid garden, canopy walkway and a trail to waterfalls. As we spent too much time on the rafflesia excursion, we only have time to linger around the hot springs and pool area.
But Poring Hot Springs is enough to complete our short fling in the Sabah Highlands, before we head back to the city to catch our flight home.
The chestnut-hooded laughing thrush. Pan and the Sab
ncakes, scones d waffles at e restaurant in bah Tea Garden. The Holstein Frasier cow breed in the Desa Dairy Cattle Farm in Kundasang. A path through the tea shrubs in the tea plantation of Sabah Tea Garden.
Visitors enjoying fish massage on their feet in Sungai Moroli at Kampung Luanti Baru.
Refflesia kethii in bloom at Poring.
Strawberries and vegetables on sale at Kundasang Market.
Flowers in pots and pitcher plants at Kundasang Market.