Blog for 2009-06-29

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Our final rest stop at Kota Kinabalu came to a close this morning, when we packed all of our belongings for a final stretch of excursions, starting with this day's destination: Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in southeast Asia (between the Himalayas and New Zealand). There was something of a finality of going through the motions, reorganizing clothing, and deciding what could be left behind at the hotel. We won't be back there until the end of the program, when we will tidy up everything that we will be putting together in Maliau (along with our focal taxon projects) and present our findings. Despite the fact that we will not be anywhere near the 'civilized' life of the city for the next three weeks, the overall mood was tinged with excitement as we piled back onto a bus on our way up to one of the most unique and biodiverse locations on the entire island of Borneo.

Lying northeast of where we were staying, we were able to catch glances of the mountain on our way up to it. Our leisurely approach upward allowed plenty of time for anticipation to brew, or for a quick nap; due to the steep terrain leading up to the mountain, our journey was of a fair length. It took us the majority of the morning to make it all of the way up to the location of the park headquarters!

Tony at the beginning of our endeavour.
After a nice lunch break and a chance to move into the Grace Hostel on the mountainside, it was back into action for Biodiversity of Borneo 2009. We met one of the world's experts on Bornean orchids, Tony Lamb, and he took us on an intriguing hike through lower montane forests on the mountainside; a lot of us viewed this hike as a chance to get geared up for the three days on Mount Kinabalu, and we certainly could use as many opportunities to warm up as we can get! Tony took a great amount of time explaining many of the interesting oddities of the different plant taxa that grow here along the way. Pine trees that have broad leaves rather than needles? Giant mosses? A relative of the giant flower Rafflesia?
A relative of Rafflesia that acts as a parasite on oak roots.
All here, all for our observation, as well as the occasional photo-op. The cool, misted air was a nice and notable change from the heavy Kota Kinabalu heat, and a fair number of us got chilled as the hike went onward. It was at about the time that the hike ended, as evening slowly approached, that we had our first encounter with one of the interesting cycles of Kinabalu, the late-afternoon rainstorm! Apparently, during this time of the year, the mountain (at least the side that we were on) experiences near-daily rains as the day draws to a close; in our experience as a group on the mountain, this was certainly the case.

After a lovely meal hosted by the buffet-style dining room it was back to our hostel, and a chance to hear Tony discuss some of his experiences as a researcher, as well as to illustrate some of the high diversity of plant life on the mountain. This included a rousing discussion of the strange group of flowers, Rafflesia, that parasitize certain groups of woody climbing vines, smell of rotting meat, and whose blooms can be meters wide! Rafflesia are a good example of an organism that is well-received by tourists and is printed on t-shirts and postcards for being 'charismatic'. The irony, as Tony was able to explain, was that we know almost nothing about its actual reproductive cycle! Despite the fact that we know how they are pollinated, we know little about how they manage to persist in the rainforest or infect a new host plant.

The rain pressed on well into the night, and after dashing between our hostel and the dining room for dinner, many of us went to sleep quite quickly. It was our chance to save up as much energy as possible for the next day's certain challenges, with the hopes that the weather, as well as the mountain itself, would be cooperative as we began the long trek to the summit.