Tahan Zero: The End of the Beginning

Mountain-climbing is not easy. It involves a lot of blood, sweat and tears (the latter sometimes to your backpack). It involves many weekends of training. Early mornings. Rice-laden backpacks. Endless staircases. Endless slopes. Coordinating schedules. Planning. Liaising. Poring over logistics over and over again. And that’s before you even cross the Causeway.

Once you’re actually in the mountain, you are issued another can of worms, along with another kettle of fish. Mountain-climbing is bleary 5-am mornings after a restless night in your tent, shivering from the cold and being eaten by tiny biting insects the tent mesh couldn’t keep out. It is pulling on wet, rank, muddy socks still squelchy from yesterday’s river crossings.  It is long, twelve-hour days walking through humid rainforests. It is wriggling leeches you either endure, or flick off. It is raging currents and slippery rocks. It is biscuits for lunch. It is Alpen yoghurt bars being the best thing in the world. It is going on, knowing that in the three hours between this checkpoint and the next there are going to be more uphills, and then downhills, which ultimately entail even more uphills later…

Mountain-climbing is endurance, really.

And if the purpose of your climb goes by the name of Tahan (‘endure’ in Malay), which takes an average of seven days to traverse, endurance can take on entirely new significances altogether.

Origin Stories: Cannot also must Can

We came from a CCA in Catholic Junior College known as ODAC, or the Outdoor Adventure Club, which had been started under the guidance of a very crazy and caring teacher known as Mr Isaac Lim. We were its twelfth batch, and our lifeblood, for better or for worse, was mountains. We went on expeditions to climb mountains during the March, June and November holidays. These were gruelling affairs, meant to push us to the very limits. Because an expedition, according to CJC ODAC, was a long journey with clear objectives that are difficult to achieve, adventurous in nature and rich in learning. That meant long treks, mud, rain, cold were all par for the course.

School mornings would often find us on the CJC track, running what Mr Lim called fundamental runs: at best pace, this entailed twenty rounds around the 330m track until 7.30am. You had ten minutes to change out and make it to assembly at 7.40am. “Cannot also must can” is a line in our ODAC song (yes, as a bona fide cult, we mandatorily have a song celebrating what we do).

In other words, CJC ODAC was endurance too, really.

But if you are lucky enough to have deep fundamentals hammered into you, and then have shit thrown at you and your batchmates afterwards, and then have the endurance to go on, what you get sometimes is a very fertile bedrock to grow rich and meaningful friendships upon. I was lucky enough find some of these friends in CJC ODAC – people I have known for seven years now. They are comrades whom I’ve ascended windswept volcanoes, shared glowy sunrises, and faced bitter arguments with.

In CJC ODAC, we were raised on stories of Gunung Tahan. Friends and acquaintances who realised we climbed mountains would almost always ask if we had ever climbed Tahan. Full of leeches, they would intone. Dense, primeval jungle, millions of years old. Great trees. The legendary four-step waterfall. Elephant graveyards. Ridgelines. River crossings. Very, very tough. And don’t forget the leeches…

Some of us continued climbing mountains occasionally after our JC ODAC days. We’d been all over peninsular Malaysia. In one memorable instance several of us had summited six volcanoes in East Java over the course of a week. And yet, Tahan would actually be the first time we had been in the jungle for more than a day –to clumsily borrow military analogies our climbs were more blitzes than sieges: light, fast affairs with minimum provisions and logistics, up and down the mountain in a day or so; what legendary mountaineers described as the “alpine style” of climbing. Practically speaking it was a faster and more uncomplicated way to climb mountains.

Tahan did not allow us such a luxury. Situated deep in the Taman Negara National Park, and rising to a lordly 2187m, the fastest route to the summit of this venerable mountain involved at least a night in the jungle – the fastest route down would actually take longer.

In the end, we settled on doing the traverse route, which involved going up the mountain one way (via Kuala Juram), and descending down it another (exiting at Kuala Tahan).

In all it was a 90 kilometre journey up and down numerous ridgelines, more than ten rivers – and two thousand, one hundred and eighty-seven metres into the sky.

Outdoor adventure? It didn’t get more adventurous than this, as far as mountains went.

Tip of the Spear: Finally Mountainous

We meet on the rainy Sunday afternoon of 17 July, at the Woodlands Checkpoint. After more than six months of training, planning and coordinating, it felt surreal to finally be here. Tahan had always been a distant fiction; in recent months, as we started thinking through the logistics of climbing a six/seven-day mountain, the faraway mountain had at last attained some semblance of reality – but it still felt strange to realise that the 14-16kg loads in our backpacks were finally being put to tangible use – not just training weights. It was a full, real load of food, shelter, clothes, and other mountain essentials.

We met at about 4.30pm. Crossing the Causeway was, for once, a mercifully smooth affair that took less than ten minutes in actual travelling time. We have a relaxed dinner at City Square Mall in Johor Bahru, and everyone orders a sugary drink except Shawn, who will later spend the next five days in the jungle regretting this choice.

“Shucks man…soya bean with gula melaka…I should have ordered it when I had the chance,” – Shawn groaning to Vincent as we climb over (another) fallen tree on Day Two.

After Hong Taa helps to offload some of the extra rice and carrots I had brought in my kiasu-ness, and after we manage to grab a few of the ridiculously fragrant rotiboys they sell at JB Sentral (we buy TEN because YOLO), we board the twelve-hour train that would take us to our starting point: the quiet town of Merapoh.

7.01pm: I’m surprised when the train actually leaves on time. By then we are already settled into our sleeper bunks. If you aren’t a fussy princess, the KTM sleeper bunks can be a surprisingly pleasant experience: clean (or at least, clean-smelling and clean-feeling) white sheets, soft cushion mattresses and very credible air-conditioning meant that I was actually able to sleep on Night Zero – something I rarely do on the eve of expeditions, thanks to a personal cocktail of anxiety, excitement, anticipation, and a perennial inability to sleep in new environments easily.

We set our watches for 6am, afraid that we would miss our stop, which was supposed to come at 7am. Watching how our train behaved for the first hour of its journey convinced us that Malaysian trains have a bad habit of sneaking up on their stations unannounced, pausing for a moment unannounced, and then chugging off unannounced. We were loathe to lose Day One to a stupid case of oversleep or oversight!

The night on our Tahan Express passed rather uneventfully, except when I woke up shivering. The train certainly had very good air-con. In a bad dream, Jared goes “HO HO HO” in the bunk bed below me. Sleep comes intermittently for all of us, as we continually woke up to check and check that we had not missed our stop.

In the end, a very kindly train conductor actually strolls over to wake us up…and also to tell us that our Merapoh endpoint had been delayed by half an hour. We finally pull into Merapoh at 7.30am – having actually woken at 6.00am all ready to jump out the train with our backpacks.

And so we arrive in Merapoh early on a quiet Monday morning. Limestone cliffs and hills rise up all around us, garlanded in dense jungle and wreathed in early morning mist. Merapoh itself feels like it has barely woken up.

 

The only shop open for our final breakfast in civilisation quickly runs out of nasi lemak, in the face of seven nervous, hungry mouths from Singapore. Mei Xuan orders her standard limau panas – hot lime juice, a coffeeshop beverage you seem to only find outside of Singapore.

At 8.30am we load up onto a truck that we had arranged to pick us up. A 15-minute ride brings us to the Sungei Relau Ranger Station, where we go through registration formalities involving a (seemingly) thorough inspection of our backpacks: how many batteries, plastic bags, plastic bottles, stoves, pieces of clothing, socks you carry with you at the start must match later at the end. The park ranger dutifully records all our stuff, a comprehensive process that takes nearly an hour for just seven people, and greatly aided thanks to Vincent’s job as our team translator. After that we are given a quick briefing on the dos and don’ts when in the rainforest. I remember feeling a little surprised at how little there was to say – we were going to be in an ancient primary rainforest! For six days! How could rules, regulations and safety briefings take no more than fifteen minutes! But there was no need to really belabour the point: respect the rainforest, and listen to your guide. That was all it boiled down to, really.

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Stand by Backpack: Inspection before we actually go off

9.55am: Then we packed up, and loaded up onto the truck again. A quick 20-minute journey from Sungei Relau takes us to Kuala Juram, the starting point of our long, long trek. On hindsight I realise it was to be the last time we would be on four wheels for the next few days. From Kuala Juram onwards, we are literally and symbolically on our own two feet. For the next five or six days, barring any dire emergencies, we were effectively on our own: with only our wits, our supplies, our mental strength, and the steady, capable hands of our mountain-guide to take us through the ancient rainforest, up to the roof of peninsular Malaysia, and down across rushing rivers, interminable descents and creaky ladders lashed to granite rockfaces.

Atan, our mountain-guide, introduces himself to us, and briefs us quickly on the day’s checkpoints: three in total, but four if we were fast enough. We do our final checks, put on or take off our footwear, and then take the obligatory photo at the startpoint, fully convinced we would not be so cheery or smiley at the other end of the tunnel.

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After so many months of meticulous planning and coordination, held together by Eliza’s steady and methodical leadership, we were finally here. The beginning had finally ended. It was time to see if we could really tahan Tahan.

At 10.42am on 18th July 2016, with our backpacks up, we step into the steamy rainforests of Pahang, and begin our ascent up Gunung Tahan.

(The above, and following, are word-strung, narrative accounts of CJC ODAC Batch 12’s 2016 Tahan expedition. If you would like simply to get the bones and main points of our trip – practical details and specific checkpoint timings which would help you in planning your own Tahan journey, please email or message me!)    

 

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