JARS v46n1 - Vireyas in the Wild on Mt. Kinabalu

Vireyas in the Wild on Mt. Kinabalu
Clarice Clark
Puyallup, Washington

A trip to see rhododendrons growing in the wild need not be a grueling expedition entailing suffering and sacrifice. The island of Borneo, an Asian destination, has five star hotels, delicious food and Vireya rhododendrons. Though Malaysia became independent from the British in 1963, English is still compulsory and widely spoken in the cities. Package tours can be arranged through travel agencies specializing in so called "soft adventures", or travels for the somewhat daring who are willing to tread off the well beaten path.

In September 1991, my husband and I took a two week vacation to Sabah, a state of the country of Malaysia, located on the north tip of the island of Borneo. We chose September because it is the height of the turtle nesting season, since besides looking for Vireyas, we wanted to go scuba diving for a week on a small island off the coast.

Sabah map

Epitome of Tropical

Located just a few degrees north of the equator, Sabah is the epitome of "tropical" with lush rainforest, coral reefs and Mt. Kinabalu, the highest snow free mountain in Southeast Asia at 13,455 feet. After our diving trip, we flew back to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah where our trek to see Vireyas in the wild was to begin in earnest.

We were met at the airport by our tour operator and transferred to the Hyatt for a luxurious overnight. During the night, there was a torrential downpour, even though this is the "dry" season, which left four feet of water on some roads. Our tour operator met us in a modern air conditioned mini van as promised, though a few hours late, and attempted to drive us up to the mountain as scheduled, but the road to the park was impassable. Our driver filled the day with lunch and a visit to the State Museum and arranged our additional overnight back in the city. We had planned to spend the night at the park headquarters at 5,100 feet to begin the acclimatization to the altitude before our climb. The mountain is surrounded by a national park, with a modern visitor's center with restaurants, chalet style accommodations and the headquarters for climbers. Instead, we drove to park headquarters the next day (about a two hour drive), picked up our guide and began our ascent at about 9 a.m.

Hybrids in Profusion

At about 6,000 feet, we encountered what appeared to be R. crassifolium , a distinctive and easily recognized species because the main vein is raised on the top of the leaf, giving the impression that the leaf is upside down. However, the flowers, which I expected to be pink or red, were curiously orange, and the underside of the leaf was a rich coppery bronze reminiscent of R. fallacinum . Could this be a natural hybrid?

It would turn out that Mt. Kinabalu was covered with a mindboggling assortment of hybrids, which was one of the most frustrating aspects of this trip. Not only did I not have my portable electron microscope along to examine the scales, but our guide insisted on making the rest house before dark! We had reservations to spend the night at 11,000 feet and we had 3½ miles to go, so my botanizing was severely constrained. I not only had 25 species of Rhododendron to look at, but the mountain was also covered with over 1,000 species of orchids, three species of Nepenthes - the insect eating pitcher plants, 40 species of oaks and 450 species of ferns, including the spectacular Cyathea (tree fern). Thank goodness the trail was steep, so I had an excuse to go slowly.

The weather on the way up was perfect - about 70 degrees F and sunny - and we were comfortable in cotton pants and shirts. We were very fortunate to have as a fellow traveler a travel agent who spoke very good English and could communicate with our guide. I was also fortunate to have a copy of Rhododendrons of Sabah by G. Argent, A. Lamb, A. Phillips and S. Collenette, an indispensable guide published by the Sabah Parks, with excellent color photographs.

Glimpse of R. lowii

By the time we reached Carson's camp at 8,700 feet, we had seen R. cuneifolium (syn: R. quadrasianum var. cuneifolium ), growing as an epiphyte, R. fallacinum , often 6 feet tall, and a single specimen of R. stenophyllum , the widely cultivated sub-shrub with very narrow leaves and relatively large flowers. Here we stopped for a box lunch, provided by the park cafeteria. It was just above this altitude that we were treated to our first glimpse of R. lowii , with magnificent heads of large peachy yellow blooms. This is a formidable plant as much as 20 feet tall, with thick leaves and a truss with as many as 15 flowers, each up to four inches across. It is supposed to be scented, but all the flowers I saw were well above my head, or well off the trail and I wasn't able to get close. In fact, you rarely get off the trail since it is so steep that to take one step over is to plunge about three feet down. The guides are trained to discourage cutting, picking and bushwhacking in general, as this is a national park with thousands of visitors each years. A high quality zoom lens is indispensable.

On the way up, we saw R. rugosum , R. rugosum var. laeve with its purplish pink flowers, and what was probably R. x coriifolium ( R. buxifolium x R. rugosum ) with flowers of a purple shade usually found only in Halloween costumes. Just before the rest house, R. ericoides with its pendulous red flowers usually in singles or pairs was growing along the trail in mats and low bushes perhaps two feet tall. It was about 3:30 p.m. when we reached the Laban Rata rest house. The low clouds were beginning to blow across the peak, and the temperature was dropping. We were only too glad to get out of the wind and have a hot cup of tea. As we sat and realized how tired we felt at 11,000 feet, a rainstorm swept the rocky slopes and completely obscured the mountaintop. We were shown to our room, typical of the four bunk bed accommodations, which was clean and had a heater, pillows and linens. By the time we had a shower, changed to dry clothes and ate dinner, it was time to turn in. Most of the other visitors were planning to climb to the top and had to get up at 3 a.m. to walk the next two miles in time to see the sunrise. The three of us told our guide he could sleep in, as we would not attempt the summit in the rain and blowing wind.

Hiking on Mt. Kinabalu
Author (foreground), fellow traveler
and R. retivenium over head, 8,600 feet.
Photo by Clarice Clark

Down Mt. Kinabalu

We did rise early to explore the immediate area of the guesthouse, looking for R. buxifolium , which begins growing just about this elevation and is found to within a few hundred feet of the summit peak. We were not able to find any in flower or fruit, and, indeed, most of the plants at the lower part of its range are quite tall and part of the forest canopy of Leptospermum , putting our goals well out of reach.

After breakfast, it was time to start down, as we were to be met by our van and driver at 12:30 p.m. On the way down, we saw many more flowers, as we were in the position to look down on the vegetation. Golden trusses of R. retivenium hung overhead out of reach of my nose, my valuable ally in detecting hybrids between it and R. lowii . The clouds were so thick, it was almost a misty rain, and even photography was very difficult. It was about 50 degrees F but warmed up as we dropped into the mossy forest and lower elevation. During the rainy season, October to February, you should expect rain - but warm rain - every day. With only two chocolate stops, we made it back to the van on time, and we whisked down to the park cafeteria for a hot lunch and a chance to see the adjacent botanical garden. There is a well labeled exhibit here, as well as miles of easier nature trails for the not so adventurous, daily guided walks with the ecologists and a slide program. I would recommend at least two nights at the headquarters, where spouses and friends not climbing the mountain would find plenty to do. There is a nearby hot springs and canopy walk. I would also recommend hiring a porter for older folks, since you must carry your own personal effects for spending the overnight. With lunch, cameras, etc., your daypack can get heavy. Porters will carry up to 20 kilos - about 40 pounds - and you can split the very reasonable cost with another hiker.

R. lowii
R. lowii , 10,000 feet
Photo by Clarice Clark

Invaluable Insights

Is it worth sore knees for two days? If you are interested in horticulture, it is an invaluable insight into the natural conditions that tropical rhododendrons prefer and that must be simulated in cultivation if you are to be a successful grower. Many are epiphytic and demand abundant rainfall - the average annual rainfall for Park Headquarters is 2,500 millimeters, almost 100 inches! The rainy season is the peak bloom season for the orchids, but March would be drier and one of the best months for seeing the rhododendrons in bloom. If you're interested in a "different" vacation and like eating lobster and exotic fruits, then anytime you have the time is a good time to go on a soft adventure to Borneo.


1.  Allow plenty of time to plan your trip. Six months is not unrealistic. Make sure you have a valid passport.

2.  Allow plenty of time to be flexible in your itinerary. Streets flood; clutches go out. Plan a day to catch up.

3.  Ladies: Wean yourself from your purse. Buy a nylon "belly bag" or fanny pack and get used to wearing it before you go.

4.  Take plenty of fast film. Rainforests can be dim, and you may not be able to find the film you want.

5.  Do your homework - read up on your destination. Lonely Planet Guidebooks are a terrific series of travel survival books, trekking guides and phrasebooks.

Clarice Clark, a member of the Tacoma Chapter and a member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation for the past 10 years, is a landscaper and land surveyor. She was recently an envoy of the Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, to evaluate the proposed site for the West China Center for Conservation of Rare Plants. She also accompanied Warren Berg on his 1990 trip to China.