If you dash headlong up and down Gunung Kinabalu and then depart, as many visitors do, you’ll miss out on many of the national park’s riches. Its diverse terrains have spawned an incredible variety of plants and animals, and you are far more likely to appreciate them by walking some of the lower trails (see Around the park headquarters) at a leisurely pace.
Around a third of the park’s area is covered by lowland dipterocarp forest, characterized by massive, buttressed trees and allowing only sparse growth at ground level. The world’s largest flower, the parasitic – and elusive – Rafflesia, occasionally blooms in the lowland forest. Between 900m and 1800m, you’ll come across the oaks, chestnuts, ferns and mosses (including the Dawsonia – the world’s tallest moss) of the montane forest.
Higher up (1800–2600m), the cloudforest supports a huge range of flowering plants: around a thousand orchids and 26 varieties of rhododendron have been identified, including Low’s rhododendron with its enormous yellow flowers. The hanging lichen that drapes across branches of stunted trees lends a magical feel to the landscape at this height. It’s at this altitude, too, that you’re most likely to see the park’s most famous plants – its nine species of insectivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes) whose cups secrete a nectar that first attracts insects and then drowns them, as they are unable to escape up the slippery sides of the pitcher.
Higher still, above 2600m, only the most tenacious plantlife can survive – like the agonizingly gnarled sayat-sayat tree, and the heath rhododendron found only on Mount Kinabalu – while beyond 3300m, soil gives way to granite. Here, grasses, sedges and the elegant blooms of Low’s buttercup are all that flourish.
Although orang-utans, Bornean gibbons and tarsiers are among mammals that dwell in the park, you’re unlikely to see anything more exotic than squirrels, rats and tree shrews, or conceivably a mouse deer or a bearded pig if you’re lucky. The higher reaches of Gunung Kinabalu boast two types of birds seen nowhere else in the world – the Kinabalu friendly warbler and Kinabalu mountain blackbird. Lower down, look out for hornbills and eagles, as well as the Malaysian tree pie, identifiable by its foot-long tail. You’re bound to see plenty of insects: butterflies and moths flit through the trees, while the forest floor is home to creatures like the trilobite beetle, whose orange-and-black armour-plating lends it a fearsome aspect.