KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — Poetic as well as mysterious, the name "Ki-na-ba-lu" dances in the ear like a band of pixies reveling to welcome the sun. But as the local Kadazan legend goes, this Borneo mountain really serves as a final refuge for the erring souls of the tribe's departed spirits who couldn't find more congenial quarters even in heaven.
As to its being mysterious, it has a long way to go before becoming a common household name. The highest peak in Southeast Asia, towering to a breathtaking 4,101 meters or close to 13,500 feet, Mt. Kinabalu's location on Borneo's northwest coast has helped keep it as a terra incognita for the average tourist.
Borneo once gained evil repute as a headhunters' jungly turf, where a suitor had to prove his virility by earning umpteen human trophies before a fair maiden would surrender.
This sort of negative image dampens tourism a bit, especially after it has become indelibly etched in words and pictures by travel writers stalking catchy headlines.
Sad to say, Borneo has changed. No more headhunters, but a gentle bunch of people such as the Kadazans near Mt. Kinabalu, the Malays, the Chinese and other ethnic groups who greet strangers with a warm smile rather than a sharp kris (the local knife).
Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, this Malaysian territory's name, sports many more computer analysts and stylishly dressed executives than orangutans on the loose, and jets from Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Singapore land every day in its modern airport.
But most of Borneo's wilderness has resisted change. As it has done for 1 1/2 million years, Mt. Kinabalu's ragged crest still soars among the clouds a mere two hours' drive from the bustling capital on the South China Sea.
Shiny taxis and buses whisk visitors to the site along an excellent road that twists and turns through spectacular vistas. Chances are that the driver will speak enough English to answer most questions, and perhaps even offer intriguing tidbits of folklore. But mostly, he'll talk about his beloved mountain.
The ideal ground base for a visit to Mt. Kinabalu is the Hotel Perkasa. At an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), it overlooks a verdant hill and the village of Kundasang. One can luxuriate in bed with breakfast, watching the mountain's summit slowly emerge from its misty nightcap, or jump outside the warm covers before dawn and head toward the Kinabalu Park headquarters, a few minutes' drive from the hotel.
Huts at Various Altitudes
The center runs smoothly and provides clean chalets or huts at various altitudes, naturalist-guided tours and sundry conveniences. Queries can be directed to Sabah Parks, P.O. Box 626, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
Mt. Kinabalu offers limpid streams and gurgling cascades, valleys for picnics and a well-maintained network of trails suitable for anyone who can manage a staircase without puffing.
The park is an unspoiled territory for anyone curious about animals and plants most often discovered in a zoo.
Strange as it may seem on a jungle-covered island, mosquitoes are relatively rare. Kinabalu's flora and fauna have been described by scientists as "overwhelmingly rich." How can one do justice in anything short of a botanist's dictionary to more than 1,000 varieties of orchids, ranging from the size of a flea to a six-foot-long truss! No fewer than 26 rhododendron varieties have been recorded here, six of which are not found elsewhere.
As to the nine different pitcher-plant nepenthes, their name evolved from the cup-like structures at the tip of the leaves that act as traps to feed each carnivorous beauty. The largest species known is the Rajah; only growing in Kinabalu Park, it can contain up to four pints of rain water. Once in a while a small rodent falls into the nepenthe potion and gets quickly digested.
The park also shelters another oddity, the reddish Rafflesia. Flaunting a three-foot-wide corolla, the flower easily rates as the largest on earth. Its scent, however, isn't exactly enchanting. Endowed with such an imposing girth, the Rafflesia had to discourage grazers; thus, it smells somewhat like rotting flesh.
As fascinating as the plant world might be, it still can't compete with the fun of inspecting the greenery for hard-to-see insects or animals.
One of the most unusual critters must be the trilobite beetle, which looks as if it has just crawled up from an ancient sea floor. Exotic moths and butterflies flit all over, some larger than a hummingbird. Bird species number more than 300, including the chattering minlas , as they're called in Borneo, rather than mynahs. And there are honey bears, red leaf monkeys and also the gibbons.