Tahan I: At the Top We Fly

“You can wear slippers or sandals for today’s climb.”

There were a lot of river crossings, Vincent translated for Atan our mountain-guide, so it didn’t make sense to wet your feet on just the first day. We exchanged looks of disbelief and puzzlement. Sandals? This went against everything we had been taught. We’d also been told gory stories of errant tree stumps or roots impaling the exposed, careless foot. For the seasoned guide, sure. But for the unwieldy Singaporean climber…Sandals?

And yet, old memories of trudging through the jungle in soaked, slimy shoes, of pulling on wet socks the next day, gave us pause – but not for too long. We only had a few minutes to decide.

We were at Kuala Juram, the jump-off point into a seven/six day trek into peninsular Malaysia’s tallest mountain, Gunung Tahan. And in ten minutes, we would have to begin this adventure into the deep jungle. This was a difficult decision to make – and in the end, we all decided (perhaps too quickly) that wet shoes and wet socks were a thing to be avoided as much as possible. Atan’s matter-of-fact confidence that today’s climb could be done in slippers –plus the fact that he was in a pair of flip-flops himself – made all of us unpack our sandals.

I hadn’t packed any sandals, just a pair of flip-flops. In a fit of economy I’d concluded that sandals were unnecessary loads if you were only going to wear them at the campsite at the end of the day, when everything had been pitched and set up. I hadn’t expected to cross a river in them! I was wrong. By the end of Day One, we had crossed nine rivers and streams, and climbed a total height of 565m. The geographical definition of a mountain is usually any natural feature with a height over 610m. We’d almost scaled a mountain on Day One. In sandals. Without being impaled or bitten or stung. Don’t try this at home kids. (Admittedly, if you’re a kid, you shouldn’t try climbing Tahan yet either…)

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Tales of a survivor: Me in flip-flops. (Amanda’s photos) 

Day One: Slippers, Streams and Japanese Curry

1042hr – After the obligatory picture-taking, we are off. Atan, who has yet to have a sense of what we are like as mountain-trekkers, estimates it will take us six hours to arrive at Kem Kor, the target campsite for today. Earlier, he had received a rude shock at the Merapoh station:

Atan: Is this your first time (climbing a mountain)?

            Vincent (thinking that Atan was asking if it was our first time climbing Tahan): Yes!

            Atan’s expression: wtf first time climb mountain come and climb TAHAN?!?

The misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, and we all had a good laugh. Now though, it was time to show that this was not our first mountain, through our pace and actions.

A previous Secretary Report from SMUX Adventurers had logged about four hours from Kuala Juram to Kem Kor. Atan estimated we would take six. As we started off – a strange sight in backpacks and sandals – we wondered if the years away from the mountains, the nearly half-decade we had spent out of ODAC, had taken its toll on us. Had we become the rusty, old and fat seniors who didn’t know what they were taking on?

1045 – River/Stream 1. Less than five minutes into the trek, we reach our first river crossing of the day. On hindsight, the shallow, ankle- to calf-deep waters make “river” a dramatic description of this brief crossing. But we would not know this until Day Four, when we forded mightier rivers full of strong currents and slippery rocks.

1055 – Stream 2. Ankle deep, slight current. After this, a moderate, undulating track that is quite slippery with leaves and mud.

1133-1139 – Stream 3. Slight current. Calf deep. Some slippery rocks. At the end of the crossing, we find Atan searching frantically for something. Vincent translates that Atan has dropped his identification card, and has anyone seen it along the way. Seven pairs of eyes say no, so Atan tells us to carry on first, he would rendezvous with us at KUALA LUIS, the first checkpoint of today’s trek, about half an hour’s walk away.

We carry on, as Atan turns back and searches for his IC on the jungle path we had just come from. Would you turn back and try to search for your IC or passport, if you had dropped it in this humid tangle? We mull over the question as we continued walking to Kuala Luis, along rolling, but generally flat terrain. Towering Johannestijsmannia palms about 1.5times our heights accompany us along this stretch, their fan-like leaves sprawling outward like so many emerald explosions.

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Forest giant: Johannestijmannia palm. Shawn for scale (Amanda’s photos)

1205-1212 – KUALA LUIS is just across Stream 4, which has a length of white rope to help you cross. But the current here is so gentle, and the stream bottom sandy enough that I cross over in my bare feet, carrying my slippers in my hands. Atan still has not returned, so we decide to have lunch here while waiting for him.

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Crossing the stream to Kuala Luis

1220-1240 – Amanda wins the honour of acquiring the first leech of the expedition at this crossing, as we settle down for lunch: two bananas, and Hershey cookies. We finish our meagre lunch, and then wait impatiently for Atan to return, eager to carry on. We were already sweaty, muddy and wet at this point – but nowhere near tired yet.

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The first leech of the expedition. (Picture from Amanda’s gorgeous photos)
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Lunch rally: Amanda briefs us and gives a pep talk.

1250 – Atan returns. We learn that he had gone all the way back to KUALA JURAM to find his IC. This is a distance that had taken us about 50minutes – our guide had covered twice that distance (there and back) in slightly more than an hour. Quietly marvelling, we set off again.

1300 – Stream 5, a very small stream.

1313 – Stream 6. Slightly bigger than Stream 5.

1343 – Stream 7

1350-1405 – LATA LUIS (558m). A wide, open campsite which we rest a little longer at. At this point, morale is quite high. We had arrived here in good time, matching the pace that a younger, fitter SMUX had previously set. We had reached this checkpoint relatively early too – which meant we likely could push beyond KEM KOR to PERMATANG, a checkpoint one hour away.

1410 – Stream 8. Interspersed with big, mossy green rocks which are a little slippery.

1414 – “Lata” denoted “waterfall” in Bahasa – and a few minutes’ walk past this campsite fulfilled the promise of that name. We snapped a quick group picture, and then carried on.

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Quick snap at Lata Luis. (Shawn’s photos)

1450 – Stream 9 is a slow, pebbly stream. It isn’t very deep, but enough to get your feet wet.

1457-1510 – KEM KOR. Atan had estimated we reach here at about 1642, six hours. SMUX had taken about four hours to reach this checkpoint. Hearteningly, this batch of twenty-four year olds had taken about four hours too.  The only difference was that we were going to push one checkpoint further, since we were so early. It was an hour’s trek to Permatang, and 3pm was too early to cook dinner – why not?

And yet, as we would later find out, it was this one-hour advantage that would snowball as the days progressed, making the difference between a six-day walk and a five-day push to the finish. Achieving PERMATANG on Day One meant we would summit Tahan comfortably on Day Two.

1500 – The rain-forest starts behaving like one, and begins to rain.

1600 – PERMATANG is situated on a terraced ridgeline, with space for one tent on each ‘step’ of the ridge. Atan leads us off the track, down a muddy slope, where the path opens up onto a wider, muddier campsite. There is a slight incline on this ground, but we are closer to the waterpoint, and there is space enough to set up a cooking area as well.

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Tahan’s Kitchen: Preparing dinner on Day One

PERMATANG is our home for the day, and we start pitching our tents and shelters. After observing Atan set up his shelter at one corner of our campsite, we quickly decide to emulate his triangular basha design, instead of the sloped, one-sided roof we had been so used to setting up. It turns out to be one of the best, and timeliest decisions on this expedition: at 1700, just as we begin setting up portable stoves to cook under the basha, it begins raining. Ferociously. The kind that beats and drums down, reminding you of cats and dogs. Shawn, Jared and Amanda are caught in the boys’ and girls’ tent respectively – and just in time discover that the tents are leaking…everyone else, stuck under the basha, is mortified, but their quick patches, using duct tape, hold up. These patches continue holding up – all the way until we return to Singapore nearly a week later.

Eventually, the furious shower subsides. By this time, dinner has been cooked. What is dinner, on our first night in the jungle? Dinner is rice with Japanese curry, baby carrots, and baby potatoes. Yes, you can eat richly on the mountains too, if you are creative enough. Japanese Curry will go on to become one of the top-rated dinners of our few nights in the jungle. It is a an instant hit. Typing this at 3am in the morning, I am still hungry just thinking back on that steaming hot rice and that thick, luscious curry…

In total, we spent 6hours and 42minutes climbing on Day One, ascending to a height of 874m, with a vertical gain of 565m. And all this, in slippers. Tomorrow though: we would all don our full climbing attire – “action gear”, if you wanted to be dramatic, for the push to the summit of Gunung Tahan.

Day Two: Summit Day

0530 – The day begins early for us. The boys, all four of us crammed into our 4-men tent with our backpacks, have slept fitfully. Jared and I discovered that sleeping on the side can be a very cold experience. For the second night in a row I woke up shivering, this time to the sound of pouring rain outside. Despite the cold and condensation, our tent kept us wonderfully dry through the night. We wake up creakily, and start to dismantle (‘strike’) the tents, while the girls take out the stoves and start boiling water for the Milo.

Breakfast this morning is red-bean buns and milo. These are simple things I don’t normally eat for breakfast, unless I am in a hurry. I prefer my nasi lemak, or my wanton mee – but on the mountain every piece of food becomes precious.     

Slowly, but with a surprising amount of ‘surely’ despite the early hour, we eat breakfast, pack up our things. Waking up early also means we do not have to rush so much. By 720, all our tents, stoves, and even the basha has been stowed away. The breakfast has been distributed to each of our seven stomachs.

Amanda proudly shows off the one piece of barang she has not kept away yet to our bleary group.

“Look,” she announces, whirling the purple cloth the girls had used to mop up the inside of our tent. “I’m spin-drying it.”

Over the course of the next few days, Amanda also tries valiantly to dry her pastel-coloured socks in the heavy damp of the rainforest.

After one final sortie to the water-point down a slippery slope (the most luxurious and secretive of all the water-points at all our campsites, in my opinion, since it is a clear, cold little spring that pours into a little bowl-pool), we throw on our backpacks, and climb back up the slope to the main track.

0740 – After a quick briefing by Atan on the day’s trek – estimated to take about eight to nine hours, we set off. Day Two begins with little comment. It is a quiet morning, still patiently grey as the sun begins to rise, and paint the jungle in dappled shades of gold. Our first main checkpoint, KUBANG, is three impossible hours away.

0822-0828 – Water break

0900-0908 – Water break. It’s quite surprising now to realise we took such long water breaks at the start. Near the end of our trek, unless we were at a checkpoint, our breaks took no more than two to three minutes: enough time just to pull our bottles out, take a sip, and then carry on.

0932-1002KUBANG. Three hours, like six months, seem impossibly distant, but every small step whittled the distance away. The gradient is generally uphill, with ropes along the way to help us in the ascent. The ground underfoot has gotten less muddy, as we move higher up, and away from open water bodies. Kubang is a sprawling campsite – actually two campsites, the second quite some distance down an overgrown path. The water point is a small, muddy stream even further down. It takes Shawn, Vincent and I almost fifteen minutes to make the journey there, refill the water, and then come back up the winding, slippery path. After dropping chlorinated aquatabs into our stream water, we carry on to our next checkpoint – BELUMUT, an hour away.

Three weeks ago, we had climbed a mountain in Kluang, Johor, called Mount Belumut, as part of a training trip. I’m secretly disappointed nobody tries to makes a joke or even a witty remark about us climbing Belumut again – but then again, by this point we have spent three hours on slippery, muddy mountain paths…so another sweaty hour to the next checkpoint is truly no joke.

“Belumut” translates to “moss” in Bahasa. From KUBANG to BELUMUT (the Tahan checkpoint, not the Kluang mountain), the vegetation actually begins to change before one’s very eyes. Wide, wet leaves on the ground, dark, loamy soil slowly gives way to more reddish soil held together by paler roots and furry, olive moss. The ground has gotten even drier. It doesn’t squelch when we walk anymore. I feel like we see more moss along this stretch than we saw at the hotter, more humid climes of Gunung Belumut.

10381058 BLUMUT (Belumut) Suddenly: a dramatic break in the trees, as if a giant had gouged a hole in the forest canopy. And then we are abruptly at checkpoint BLUMUT, squinting in an unexpected bath of late morning sunlight. There are hills, blue-green with distance opposite us, their heads in the clouds.

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Group photo at Checkpoint Blumut

Atan points into the distance. There are streaks of dirty white along the flanks of some hills.

The summit is in that direction, he says, and that’s the way up.

We are three hours, and three hundred vertical metres from our next checkpoint, BONSAI. 

And so began what we all agreed was one of the most difficult three hours of this expedition. There is no respite, and we keep going up. You climb a steep, nearly vertical rockface. You pull yourself up using tree roots and branches as leverage. Sometimes you have to wriggle up. Most times the effort is as much mental as well as physical: you have to stop at an impossible slope, and try to figure out how exactly you are going to continue: do I put my hand on that root, and then use my leg to leverage myself up…or should I pull on this branch? How do I use the least amount of energy so that I can save my aching quads for later…You’re sweaty and muddy, and there’s a sixteen-kg backpack on your back.

Your whole shirt is soaked. Your shoes are soaked. You can hear your blood pounding in your ears, and feel your heart pumping in your chest. You are breathless. No, it isn’t love: it’s your exhausted carcass trying to cope with the trauma of continuously climbing up and up and up. Respite? Yes, okay, have a three-minute break. Done? Let’s go. Up and another slope. Here, here’s another mound of mud and trees, vaulting impossibly into the sky. Follow your friends up – there, those blobs of orange backpacks in front of you. Just. Keep. Going. Your breath and body has been cut ragged upon the ten thousand serrated mud-steps of the ascent.

I’m sitting here in my room on a cool Thursday afternoon typing this. You’re somewhere across the globe, comfortable and dry, reading this off your screen. There is no way to convey what three continuous hours of climbing feels like. The sense of weary resignation in your heart. Your stomach is a frightened restless dog that is growling ever louder, because your breakfast had been at 6am. The itching thirst in your dry, jagged throat. The sticky wet between your toes. The hot, swelling drench of your straining legs. It’s three hours of that you’re reading in a few sentences.

1334-1412 – BONSAI. The last stretch is one desperate uphill climb – and then suddenly I can see Jared, our frontman, and he has put down his backpack. Atan too has put his backpack down. Unbelievably, we have arrived at Bonsai. Everyone is weak with hunger and exertion. But it’s finally LUNCHTIME.

And the food team, with foresight, had planned a lavish lunch: canned tuna with bread and cucumber. After three difficult hours, it is the best tuna sandwich I have ever eaten in my life. I am so hungry I even volunteer to eat the edges of the long Japanese cucumber Shawn has brought, which nobody else seems to want. Everyone is quiet, exhausted, and ravenous. We share about a litre of Pocari Sweat isotonic mix around. Shawn takes out two sticks of yoghurt-coated Alpen energy bars, which is eagerly shared around. The last time we were this urgently hungry was in JC, I think.

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Lunchbreak at Bonsai.

As we eat, we also observe Atan, inconspicuous at a corner of the small clearing. Astonishingly he has taken out a tiny butane stove, and is quietly cooking a mess tin of Maggi mee. Tuna bread is good – but in our state we can’t take our eyes off our guide, innocuously slurping up his noodles…

1412 -Time is a strange thing on the mountains. Three hours can crawl incredibly slowly when you are trudging up another knoll. Thirty minutes can flash by in a blur when you are savouring a respite from a bruising climb.  All too soon, we have to pack up and carry on.

Our next checkpoint is about 1.5 hours away, at BOTAK. As we carry on, the landscape again morphs. True to BONSAI’s name the vegetation along this phase of the climb slowly transits into that of the upper montane forest: wizened trees with pale branches, shrub-like plants, all with waxy dry leaves.

But whereas ‘bonsai’ refers to a stunted tree manicured by the hands of men, here on the mountainside it is the altitude and the harsh winds which shape and mould the nature of the vegetation.

Soon, first in intermittent gaps, and then in bigger interregnums, we glimpse the blue sky, and wider patches of the world we have climbed up from. The going is now more gradual. Occasionally, there is even a cool wind that blows past us. The landscape opens up, the vegetation gives away – and then we are suddenly rewarded with breathtaking views of the hills and ridgelines we had traversed the whole morning. Our pace suddenly slows at this point – but only because the cameras are out! Time to take pictures! It’s a moment of jubilant celebration after such a demoralising slog uphill all morning, with no end in sight. The open landscape sprawling into the distance, and our team spreading out all across the mountain path, is a wonderful photo moment.

You know all those Wanderlust posts? With quirky, pretentious calligraphy and quotes from lengthy classical texts taken out of context, overlaid on them? We were walking through these very backgrounds. Except we were sweaty, exhausted, smelly and wet. That’s the part everyone forgets about mountain-climbing. We see the photos at the summit and talk about wanting to “live life to the fullest” and “carpe diem” – well living life to the fullest also entails the courage and the conviction to endure through hours and days of shit and storm and slope to reach the top, too.

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Okay, rant over. We break out from tree cover, and into cloud-level. There are great herds of clouds in the distance, their creamy plumage still pristine, framed by a sapphire blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Below, the jungle sprawls out in every direction, green and green until it is duck-egg blue with distance. I realise with a start that I have probably never seen such uninterrupted jungle in my life, a million shades of foliage as far as the eye can behold. As a city boy and a pretend nature-lover, there is a quiet gladness in my heart at the stunning sight.

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Top of the world feeling

1535-1540– BOTAK The trail from BONSAI to BOTAK is not particularly difficult, a gentle incline punctuated by occasionally steep slopes. By now we are 1943m above sea level. The gorgeous views make this part a very enjoyable walk too, although the ground has become sodden with puddles again. All around, the landscape is still unravelling. 

Soon, we begin to see cute little carnivorous pitcher plants the size of our fingers; underfoot, our shoes begin to grip granite, the bones of the mountain, instead of mud.

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Open mouths: Pitcher plants in upper montane vegetation (Amanda’s photos)

BOTAK is, like its name, a bare open patch padded surprisingly with grass (at such an altitude!). With its rocks and lawn-like grass, BOTAK puts me in mind more of a Chinese garden more than a mountain campsite. There was even a chuckling stream that bubbled with tea-coloured water just at the side of the camp. No need for steep descents or long walks for water! What a pleasant place to sleep over – except that we had more lofty real estate ambitions today.

After taking many pictures pointing vaguely into the distance (cos that’s what one must always do, when confronted with a Horizon), we put our backpacks up, and carry on, after just five minutes of rest.

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High hopes: Pointy picture at Checkpoint BOTAK

The summit is there, Atan nods at the top of the knoll that dominates Botak.

Jared laughs and says our feelings will probably cheated. Atan probably means the summit is beyond this hill.

Jared is right. The summit is nearly another hour’s painstaking walk away. The nearer something is, the more painfully distant it becomes. Time works differently in the mountains. The last stretch is a difficult, teasing push that extends on and on.

 Little hills keep popping as you try to navigate a puddle-dotted landscape, or climb up steep granite inclines. You know these can’t be the summit, but like the perennial search for True Love you can’t help wondering if latest hill on the horizon that just appeared is The One. Yet like the search for love, The One often comes when you have given up on hoping, at the most unexpected instance.

In the distance, Jared, our front man, goes up a grassy, windswept slope, and disappears behind a grove of trees. After a while he reappears, without his backpack. Even from so far away, I can hear him singing our nonsensical ODAC summit song, and telling us to hurry up, hurry up.

Contentedly and wearily, we smile, and trudge up this last slope. The moment is surreal. But we are here. We are at the summit of Gunung Tahan. The peak that had dominated our imaginations for the past six months. We had climbed, and climbed, and now, we had, unbelievably, reached the top of the world.

What were you doing at 4.45pm on Tuesday 19th July, 2016?

At 4.45pm on Tuesday, 19th July, after six years of dreaming, six months of training, plotting and planning; and two days of difficult climbing, we arrived: 2187m in the sky, atop the highest mountain in peninsular Malaysia.

As we climb and climb, and at the top we fly
Let the world go on below us, we are lost in time”

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