17 September 2018

Kota Kinabalu (East Malaysia) - Supersized Nature at Kinabalu Park

Date of Exploration: 11 August 2018

The island of Borneo is home to some of the most bewildering giants of the botanical world and a visit to Kinabalu Park in Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, East Malaysia) is a best bet to meet with these rare, endangered and supersized creations of nature.

I visited Kinabalu Park as part of a guided day tour and my inner tree-hugger went all eager beaver at the possibility of sighting the endemic floral giants that are found nowhere else on earth!

Palm leaves under sunshine in Kinabalu Park
Kinabalu Park is reputably THE place to see the world's largest lady slipper orchid, pitcher plant, terrestrial flower and giant insects. With some luck of course.
Sprawling over 740 square kilometers, Kinabalu Park is bigger than the size of Singapore (which measures 710 square kilometers at present)! Its vast geology spans the lowlands to the highlands, creating various distinctive habitats including swamp forest, tropical rainforest, hill forest, montane forest, sub-alpine forest and alpine meadow.

At an elevation of 1,500m above sea level, Kinabalu Park contains the prime conditions for a tropical montane forest to thrive with lush undergrowth and coniferous canopy. The cool middle forestry zone with a tropical climate is very attractive for the proliferation of plant life, which is why the estimation of the number of plants species found at Kinabalu Park counts at a mind-blowing 6,000!

Kinabalu Park entrance
A trip to Kota Kinabalu would not be complete without a visit to Kinabalu Park to enjoy its green gifts.

The park is located about a 2-hour drive from downtown Kota Kinabalu (KK) where most hotels are. Getting here via public transport can be quite a challenge to navigate for visitors, so it is better to visit the park in the following ways:

1. Join a Packaged Land Tour - there are numerous land tour operators that you can book from in downtown Kota Kinabalu or your hotel. The tour usually lasts 8 hours and takes you to various attractions with Kinabalu Park being one of them.

2. Get a Private Tour - you can also book a car or van with a driver and guide to take you around privately so that you can explore at your own pace. A comprehensive 8-hour day trip itinerary could cover Tamparuli Suspension Bridge, Pekan Nabalu, Kinabalu Park, Desa Dairy Farm and Poring Hot Spring. Grab is available in KK so you can also book a Grab and negotiate a price for a day trip. But the thing with Grab drivers is that they may not be effective tour guides or know their way.

Kinabalu Park is veined with several roads and hiking trails. Most packaged tours would just take you to the Botanical Garden in the park, let you have a short stroll and leave for the next attraction. If budget and time allow, opt for a private guided tour instead so that you get to spend more time at the park and trek the Silau-Silau Trail.
Kinabalu Park's Botanical Garden

The Instagram way to appreciate Kinabalu Park is its Botanical Garden, where a curation of the locale's unique flora species provides an opportunity to meet the botanical residents without leaving a sighting to chance. However, depending on the season, you may or may not see them in their full glory.

Kinabalu Park, Botanical Garden
From a carpark where we were dropped off, it's a short walk to the entrance of Kinabalu Park Botanical Garden. An entry fee of RM5.00 is charged for foreigners.

Landscaping at the Botanical Garden is pretty light. Except for a few open air nurseries, paved walkways and bridges, everything else is left untouched and rustic. When you come to a spider-webbed 'tent' like this, pay close attention to the plants in it as it serves as a living gallery of the forest's gems.

Medinilla Magnifica, Rose Grape, Malaysian Orchid, Pink Lantern, Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu
A plant that greeted my visit with plenty was the Medinilla Magnifica, also known as Pink Lantern, Malaysian Orchid, Chandelier Plant, and Rose Grape. The little fruits, when ripe, turn purplish and can be eaten. I didn't try but I was told it tastes sour. So I guess this is what sour grapes look like. LOL.

Medinilla Magnifica, Rose Grape, Malaysian orchid, Pink Lantern, Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu
A flower of the Medinilla Magnifica in bloom.

An unfurling fern and orchid spray in blossom. Different flowering plants come into bloom at varying conditions of the year.

This spray is like a march of little orchids. It is estimated that over 1,000 species of orchids reside at the park.

The minuscule thing on the top left hand corner is actually a tiny orchid! So lucky to see the last one before it withers.

Open stomach... Asia is home to around 240 species of carnivorous pitcher plants and 10% can be found at Kinabalu Park.

Lightning Blue Damselfly
Spotted a lightning blue damselfly. As it flies, it looks like a hovering needle.

No idea what fly this is but it's HUGE! I shot this with a compact camera, didn't even need a DSLR with macro lens to see the nightmarish details!

My mission at Kinabalu Park was to hunt down the 3 native floral giants - the largest lady slipper orchid - Rothschild's Orchid; the largest pitcher plant - Nepenthes Rajah; and the largest flower - Rafflesia arnoldii. I was hoping to see them in the wild so I was surprised to meet 2 of these giants, unceremoniously, behind a fence. That's not me but one of the nicest and wittiest persons I've travelled with.

There's good reason why these plants are behind fences. They are extremely rare in the wild and a sighting is almost always not guaranteed.

Rothschild's Orchid, Lady Slipper Orchid
Cultivating these rare slipper orchids allows visitors to see them. I am lucky to come at a time that they are in full bloom.

Rothschild's Orchid, Lady Slipper Orchid, Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Not only is the Rothschild's Orchid the biggest in the genus of lady slipper orchids (the flower stalk can grow up to 1m in height), it is also the most expensive. A plant can cost up to RM30,000 in the black market! Why is it so expensive? First of all, it is rare as it needs very specific conditions to grow. Secondly, it could take up to 15 years for a flower to bloom. Because of its price, it is also called the "Gold of Kinabalu".

Nepenthes Rajah, Pitcher Plant, Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia
The other giant is this... the largest carnivorous pitcher plant species in the world. Its pod can grow up to a whopping 40cm in height and 21cm in diameter!

Nepenthes Rajah, Pitcher Plant, Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia
Called Nepenthes Rajah, its biggest cup is capable of holding 4 litres of digestive fluid. It has been found to drown and 'eat' a rat and small mammals. A savage plant devouring animals... Yikes!
The third flora giant is the Rafflesia flower but we weren't in luck to meet one. Growing up to 1m in diameter, the endangered parasitic floral species is the largest flower on earth and again, striking 4D is easier than seeing one.

The bloom lasts only 2 to 5 days before it starts to decompose and the flower cannot be transplanted or artificially cultivated so sightings depends a lot on the cosmos being on your side. Hopefully I'll get to see and smell its famed rotting corpse stench one day.

Go beyond Kinabalu Park's Botanical Garden and into the tropical wilderness to experience the tranquility of nature.
After a rather underwhelming experience of meeting the floral giants from afar, we went on the Silau-Silau Trail for some light trekking. Because of the park's cooler temperatures in the mid-twenties range, it is very comfortable for walking.

"Silau" apparently means "glare" or "spotlight". So I guess the trail is placing the best experience of Kota Kinabalu's natural gifts on a pedestal with this trek/hike.

Silau-Silau Trail is a relatively easy trek with a built path.

Then it gets a little tough with quite some steps climbing while passing through gushing creeks...

... and navigating some parts where the path has been reclaimed by nature. But overall, the trail can be completed by anyone with no major mobility issues.

Our guide Yamin (who insists I call him "Young Man") gave us a crash course on the significance and traditional usage of some of the plants by the local tribes during our trek.

This is the bamboo species used to make blow pipes for hunting by the local forest tribes. I'm surprised by how smooth it is with almost no leaf

Thorns and spikes we came across during the trek. Mother Nature knows S&M.

Look up and look down during the trek to be in awe of the majesty of aged woods as well as the silent struggle for life happening below.

The botanical version of a zombie... it is dead yet alive. Some people are like that too.

Nature imitating nature... spotted an obscure plant with leaves that look like a green butterfly! Amazing.

I survived the Silau-Silau Trail! Which took about 30 minutes to complete starting from the Botanical Garden. It is an easy trail and at the end of it, there's a restaurant nearby to fuel and freshen up. And yes, cover up for a trek to avoid insect bites and cuts from plants. It's cool at the park anyway so playing dress up won't hurt.

It was a brief centering with nature at Kinabalu Park for me. But it was an encounter to remember as I got face-time with the giants of several flora families as well as other interesting plants. Plus I got to step foot on the ancient rainforest terrains and work out my glutes.

I came out rejuvenated.

This post has been made possible by Malindo Air, which flies daily from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, and Sabah Tourism.

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