“Wow,” exclaims Shawn,
“it’s like we’re walking into lemon tea.”
It’s the fourth, and longest day of our expedition to summit Gunung Tahan (translated literally as Mount Endurance in Bahasa Melayu). We had already summitted the mountain on the second day of our climb – but there would be four days of walking through dense, virtually primeval rainforest before we returned to civilization again.
It is only 1030am in the morning, but in the past three hours since we started our trek, we have already descended nearly a vertical kilometre from Wray’s Camp the previous night. (You can read the morning’s adventure and schedule here). We are sticky, sweaty, and in all likelihood, very smelly. But four days inside the jungle, that is beginning to be the least of your concerns.
After three hours of descending through the undergrowth, we are finally at more-or-less flat ground. The faces of my friends are grim and gaunt. They look a little like how I feel inside. But there’s also a part of me that’s almost excited at the prospect of crossing rivers. It was the kind of adventure thing I’d grown up reading about. And no, not just one little stream which you could boast about later. No – Tahan today promised at least eight rivers, and
some most of them promised to be crawling with leeches. Yes, it made all of us groan, because we knew how disgusting leeches were. But one year ago, sticky and sweaty and hungry, I was already gleefully wondering how I would tell this story.
And I shall try to tell the story with as little drama as possible. One of the dangers of adventure is an obscenely swollen ego, and turning into a dreadfully dull bore locked in the past. But today, indulge me a bit. I want to tell you about the time we crossed eight rivers and couldn’t stop thinking of iced lemon tea.
1035 River Crossing 1
Five minutes walk from the flat, sandy (and leechy) campsite of Kuala Teku, we descend heavily into our first river of the day. There are huge, submerged (and probably rotting) logs on the river bank, and many times we nearly fall completely into the cold, tea-coloured water. Straight off, the water comes up to our thighs. At many times in the crossing, it will come up to our waists.
1035 – 1045 – We take only ten minutes to cross this river. As you sit here reading this, ten minutes feels like a little stroll in the park, or a piece of cake. The time it takes for you to queue up and make an order at Starbucks. But ten minutes trying to cross this river involved an underwater ballet of sorts, testing every step before you put your weight down, even as currents tugged and bumped and jostled you along. Every foot you put forward is, at best, an intelligent gamble; at worst a clumsy, unsupported freefall, face-first into the water due to slippery rocks underfoot. Atan, our mountain guide, crossed the first river casually. And then just as casually, he put his pack down and walked over to the clumsy, Singaporeans who were splashing and squawking in the water with his characteristic calm and sangfroid.
And yet this first crossing was but a preview of what was to come. We step onto the other bank a little shaken, but flushed with excitement and refreshed. In our years of climbing, we had crossed a few rivers – but few rarely came to waist-level; much less had such exuberant underwater currents pulling at our whole bodies. In contrast to the sweltering, suffocating heat and humidity of the rainforest, the fierce, gurgling iciness of the river is a welcome shock and relief…
(don’t think about the leeches swimming around in that brownish-crimson soup. Just don’t. Not yet)
In most parts, the water is calf to waist deep. The current is moderate, and you have to push against it slightly, but it is nothing very scary. Not yet.
1045-1155: The next hour or so is arguably the most difficult segment of the entire day. . The terrain is atrocious. An obstacle comes up every few minutes of walking cautiously over slippery, slippery rocks. To make things interesting, the obstruction is always either a huge, slimy rock you have no choice but to hug or climb, or a gargantuan, rotting log which falls to a million mouldy bits the moment you put your weight on it. Slippery rocks, rotting bamboo branches and vegetation reduces us to a ragged silence for most of this stretch.
“Don’t trust the bamboo!”, becomes the mantra for the day.
1.5 hours climbing on dependable, sturdy ground that doesn’t make you fall down every few steps became a luxury we came to appreciate on this day. In my weariness and frustration at the constant slips and falls I took on this stretch, it was not difficult to imagine that the mountain, the river, the rainforest had all assumed some form of elemental personality; that they were all quite literally pulling my leg.
1155: Arrive at River Bank 2
By the time Atan places his pack down calmly, and announces that this is where we will make our next river crossing, our eyes are all glazed with exhaustion. We have long abandoned all hope of a crossing any time soon. Ten more hours, is the mantra we tell ourselves, to prevent the premature growth of unnecessary expectations. We take a longer break here, stunned into exhaustion by how difficult the
waltz walk across slippery, bad terrain has been.
1210-1218: Crossing of River 2
The distance from one bank to the other is no more than ten to fifteen metres, but the current here is very strong, and the water comes to waist level. Shawn and Mei Xuan are swept off their feet, and pushed down the river a few metres before they steady themselves. In contrast to the bruising trek from River 1 to 2, the next crossing is only five minutes’ walk away, across sandy, pebbly ground.
1223-1240: Crossing of River 3
This crossing is a little more picturesque, and the water comes up first to ankles, and then to the waist. At many points we have to pause to hug the underwater rocks for some semblance of control, because the currents are hurtling past so fiercely. The currents are not as strong as River 2, but it is still quite a tough crossing.
We are still shaken by the 1 hour+ walk across slippery, rotten terrain, but our guide assures us that is largely over. The ground and vegetation returns to the more familiar (and suddenly more enjoyable) press of the tropical rainforest.
1255-1305: Crossing of River 4
The current in this river is just as strong as in previous rivers, but it is an easier crossing, because the water is not so deep here. Twenty minutes to River 5 and 6, Vincent translates for us.
1320-1338: Crossing of Rivers 5 & 6
We come to Rivers 5 and 6 after about 15 minutes of walking.
River 5 is ankle deep, a relief after the jostling ferocity of the previous crossings. It is almost a stream here. The trail to this crossing is lined with bamboos (“don’t trust them!”) – and leeches. We see many of them wriggling on the leaf-strewn ground.
River 6 is a dramatic, spacious and shallow crossing. We decide to have our lunch at the opposite bank. After the trying ordeal of the previous rivers, the shallow, easy current here makes us laugh with relief.
Reaching the other shore. As you can see, the river here has subsided to an ankle level. The rocks are easier to see, and thus, avoid too.
Atan reaches the other bank first. The river here is so placid that he doesn’t bother coming over to help us at all anymore. Serenely, he takes out his lunch, and eats his nasi contemplatively, as the silly Singaporeans squawk and splash with relief on this relatively easier river-crossing.
Lunch by the river. Sounds romantic? Yes, of course, but it’s not for everyone. Your trekking shoes (and socks and feet) are being soaked by the tea-coloured river. You’re sitting on uneven rock just centimetres from the cold water. You’re sweaty and slimy. Lunch? Digestive biscuits, a few sweets, and a few energy bars, washed down by icy, tannin-tinged water. It’s a special kind of romantic, for a special group of people.
And then, of course, the whole time you’re sitting there is time for the leeches in the river and the undergrowth to home in on your heat and carbon dioxide signals…
We eat in a tired, exultant mood, joking and laughing. One thing CJC ODAC teaches you about climbing mountains is that when tired, you sing songs, talk and laugh and joke. Anything to distract yourself from the powerful engine that is your mind, to channel its energy to keep going. When the body is uncomfortable, the mind begins to think in all sorts of strange and discouraging ways. When you sing or laugh or smile, you’re in effect faking it until you make it – but also spreading light (rather than poison) to the rest of your team.
And no one in our motley crew did that better than Shawn, who more or less laughed and chattered his way all across the Tahan traverse. It was no different by this riverside. In a moment of inspiration, and curious about what people had said about Khong Guan biscuits, Shawn dips his biscuits directly into the river.
Would it become a sponge cake?
It did….sort of. After a few moments of astonishment, we all try it for ourselves, hungry for novelty…and simply hungry. This is the moment for ingenuity and innovation. Eliza proudly brandishes her Life Straw, a thick, straw which filters out any impurities even as you suck the water up. Don’t understand how to operate it? No problem:
1400: Setting Off Again
After this demonstration of innovation and technology, we pack up reluctantly and creakily. There’s still a long way to go, and squatting on sharp, uneven rocks by a leechy river bank can only be appealing for so long. We pack up the trash remnants our lunch into ziploc bags, hoist up our backpacks again, and steel ourselves for more to come.
There are two more rivers to cross before we arrive at the next major campsite, KUALA PUTEH. And then from PUTEH, there is Gunung Rajah, a whole other mountain to climb, before we can arrive at our endpoint for the day, Checkpoint TENGAH. We had descended nearly 800m this morning; we had cross six rivers. But ahead lay two more crossings – and a 700m ascent up Gunung Rajah, or the Mountain King, rendered literally.
1505-1510 Crossing of River 7
The current is strong here, and the river is waist deep. The last river crossing before we arrive at KUALA PUTEH is about ten minutes away. It was hard to believe we were near the end of our long day. Somewhat near the end, anyway.
1525-1535 Crossing of River 8
Again, the crossing is waist deep, and the current is strong, perhaps one of the strongest on this long, difficult day. Despite the cold, rushing waters, we are hot, thirsty and exhausted. Our backpack straps cut into us. Our feet are soggy, leech-riddled and leech-bitten. There are dead leeches in our socks, our shoes, and, as I discovered later, in my pants as well. Despite the occasional attempts we make at conversation, at keeping smiles on our faces and our thoughts at bay, we have reached a point where mud and sweat and dirt and blood are greeted with mild, blank indifference. Just keep going lor.
We greet the last river crossing with glazed eyes, too tired to feel real relief, knowing there was also a 700m ascent still left to go.
By now, everyone is exhausted. We decide to take a longer break. Five hours ago, elated at having reached KUALA TEKU campsite, we had been excited and curious at the novelty of river crossings. Now, as we crawled out of the other end of that damp, soggy tunnel, our curiosity is more than satisfied. Soaking in fierce, surging currents is wonderful after trudging through muddy, humid rainforests. But one thing about muddy, humid rainforests is that nothing ever dries. And so the wonderful soak your feet and shoes had a few minutes ago? It’s turned into the slippery, slimy feeling between your toes, squelching and squelching away between your shoes. Your shoes are sodden. Your socks are sticky. Your clothes cling to your skin. Your backpack is biting into your shoulders. You don’t know if that thing sliding down between your thighs is just a water droplet, or a leech…These are the things pictures cannot capture. Mountain-trekking is a lovely experience – but you also need to endure the mud and the blood and the stink and the sweat. And there’s plenty to go around.
1535 Arrival at Kuala Puteh
We wriggle up the shallow banks onto Kuala Puteh, and agree to take a longer break. A part of me wants to camp here for the evening, wants to not confront the Mountain King, wants to postpone it to another day, when I’m less muddy and tired and weary. I mumble some noises to that effect, but thankfully, my friends are made of sterner stuff, although their faces are just as grim as I feel inside.
We wander around the flat, muddy campsite. Some of us go back to the river to refill our bottles. Later, we find a small stream further inside the forest, with clear, cold water. A monstrous Golden Orb spider the size of an open palm sits placidly in its web, impervious to our ‘WOW’s and ‘OMYGAWD’s. Brilliantly coloured butterflies fuss over our salty, smelly backpacks, bright flashes of green and gold and blue.
We rest, dazed and sticky, talking in low voices for a full half an hour. It’s almost 4pm, and Atan estimates another three hours before we arrive at TENGAH. That’s three hours up and down a peak 400 metres high, through dense rainforest, before we arrive. It will be dark by the time we arrive, if we decide to push on. But it will mean a much shorter last day the next day. More crucially, it will mean a last day the next day.
1605: Begin Gunung Rajah Ascent
And so, at 4.05pm, as the late afternoon light slants down on us, and flashes in a thousand blinding shards on the river’s surface, and despite our incredible exhaustion, we throw our backups upon our shoulders again, and decide to go forth to meet Gunung Rajah, the Mountain King.
One hour later, we stop for a short break. Three minutes – just enough to take out our bottles for a quick sip of water, to distract from the ache in our arms and legs and back and the slime in our shoes; but not long enough to break the momentum. It often astonishes me when I look back how brief our breaks are, but even three minutes is enough to refresh us enough to keep going. One hour to the summit of Gunung Rajah, Atan says.
1703 The Ascent Continues
The going the past hour has been tough. We’d thought the rain-forest would go easy on us, after having crossed eight rivers. But Mother Nature is rarely a sentimental grandmother that coddles you just because you think you’ve “worked hard”. No, not at all. The ascent up this Mountain King is a seemingly endless series of unforgiving undulations. As we ascend further along Rajah’s flanks, more and more fallen trees block our path, and we are forced to clamber up, or wriggle under the bodies of these great titans. Sometimes their trunks are thicker, wider, than we are tall.
As more and more of these collapsed giants block our paths, we start to remember another mountain in our batch mythology: Gunung Liang, the most difficult mountain we’d confronted in our JC days.
Unprepared for the patience and mental endurance required to climb muddy Malaysian mountains, Gunung Liang had broken my batch. And one of the reasons had been the sheer amount of fallen trees and biting insects and slippery mud on that mountain’s flanks. The sheer number of fallen trees we had to climb over/under, plus the lateness of the hour, coupled with the exhaustion of our bodies, was beginning to resemble our Liang ascent so many years ago in a very disquieting way.
The Mountain King wears a crown of fallen trees, and like little ants on his brow, we scrambled over these slowly but surely. Atan tells us a great storm had blown this way several months ago, ripping down plenty of these forest giants. I marveled at the kind of elemental power needed to rip such great trees from their roots.
1803 Gunung Rajah Summit
Almost down to the minute, Atan predicts our arrival on the summit of Gunung Rajah. The peak of the Mountain King is a break in the rainforest cover. No trees nor shrubs shroud this summit. Instead, we clamber up a final, fern-encrusted path, scrambling up with a kind of elated exhaustion.
After eight rivers and a painful, punishing ascent, we’d pushed ourselves onto the last significant summit of the day. No, we’d not conquered the rainforest.
But by a combination of patience, trust, mental fortitude, and the quiet audacity to simply keep going, we had conquered our weaknesses: our fears, our failings, and our physical exhaustion.
But more than that, we had done it together. We had done it as a team, sharing the load of our tents, our meals, our fears and our shortcomings. We watched for each other, lent a hand when it was needed, a smile when that was needed even more. Lame jokes, bad puns and small talk about each other’s lives don’t count for much on their own – but when you’re trying to fight sheer grossness and ache in the relentless trek, the steady buzz of a friend’s questions and stories can be the only thing that keeps you going, and going and going, and going some more – until you have crossed eight scary rivers, until you have climbed another scary mountain.
We tell stories for many reasons. We draw from unstable, uncertain memory to weave half-remembered narratives together. Stories remind us of our past selves; they tell about a brighter time, offering a circle of light we can draw around, against the cloudy darkness of tide and time.
You may think I’m telling this story as a boast. But really, it is a story of the ODAC family. Each of us individually are capable of great things. In CJC, we had great runners, ASEAN scholars, award-winning leaders. But it was only because we decided to climb this mountain together, that we were able to come so far. I tell this story as a reminder of what we once were, and what we still are, and what I hope we will still be.
ODAC family, that’s where we belong
So tough, so fit, and evermore so strong
With our mental strength, strive on till the end
Always go for best, never go for less
1815-1921 Trek from RAJAH SUMMIT to TENGAH CAMPSITE. Despite the rumblings of thunder, the rain mercifully holds off. We are tired, but relieved and happy to have more or less “made it”. All that remains is a descent to our campsite for the evening, which Atan assures us is not a difficult last leg to today’s arduous journey.
The descent is gentle, generally flat with a downhill pattern. Tengah Campsite is situated on a Rajah ridgeline, along the sinuous shoulders of the Mountain King.
1921 Arrive at TENGAH
Down to the very minute Atan had estimated, we arrive in failing half-light, just as how we had started the day, an event that felt like it had happened decades ago. We had been in almost constant, continuous motion since 7am this morning. We had literally gone up hills and mountains, crossed rivers, been bitten by leeches and mosquitoes, for more than twelve hours.
We quickly get to work setting up our tents, and the basha tent under which we will cook our dinner. The rumbling thunder has gotten even more insistent, and our prayers seem to be the only thing keeping the massing thunderclouds at bay.
2023 Evening Programme
By this time we are comfortably (or, as comfortably as you can get in the middle of a rainforest after having slopped through rivers and mud the whole day, and the three days before that) settled in, quietly cooking dinner and laughing at the exploits of the day.
We cook dinner first, following our original programme, planned and distributed in Singapore before we had started our climb. Premix Hainanese Chicken Rice, curry chicken, Cherry Tomatoes, cucumber and Campbell soup sounds like a strange combination. But after a long day, it is the best thing we put into our mouths. There in the abject darkness of the rainforest, as a driving squall washes over our campsite, terrible in its sudden intensity, we huddle over a lantern, over laughter, over a feast we all share in the making of.
…then we realise we have a lot of food, and we don’t want to carry all this extra load. And so, because we are trapped under the basha anyway….we decide to cook SUPPER. What is supper? Supper is delicious. Supper is a mountain-load of pasta with Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise with cucumber and cherry tomatoes. And chilli flakes. And Milo to wash it all down. At first, we wolf it all down greedily. By the end, we are groaning and complaining about how much we have overcooked.
2400 Lights Out
Rained in and cooking happily and eating greedily, we don’t go to bed until the rain stops sometime near midnight, the fullest we have been in the days, the most exhausted we have been in years – but also perhaps the most satisfied and content as well.
Others say we’re crazy,
But we say we’re so lucky.