Sunday, February 02, 2014

Sailing the Spirit Boat

"(Be a man!) You must be swift as a coursing river
(Be a man!) With all the force of a great typhoon
(Be a man!) With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!"

I'll Make a Man Out of You (1998)
by David Zippel and Matthew Wilder

Still one of the manliest songs ever written.

Mount Santubong
The daunting visage of Mount Santubong. Picture taken on 28th December, 2011.

On the first day of the Lunar New Year this year, a day which the Chinese people customarily sit around with family members that you don't talk to on any other day of the year, chew snacks incessantly like cows chewing cud and haemorrhage money to children in red packets, I decided to do something a little different - I decided to try and make my way to the top of Mount Santubong located a half hour's drive outside of Kuching.

Santubong or si-antu-ubong apparently means "spirit boat" in Iban, the language of the indigenous inhabitants of this region and it was here where the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace independently developed the theory of evolution through natural selection. Even his first paper on the subject, On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species (1855) is commonly known as the Sarawak law paper. Basically, Sarawak was to Wallace what the Galápagos Islands were to Darwin (the English scientist, not my baby son who was named after him).

This is actually my second attempt, having tried and failed a month ago in December. Two years of Housemanship have um, domesticated my body so much that I was struck by waves of nausea within the first hour of my maiden expedition. Besides, it also started raining heavily before I even reached the first waterfall on the summit trek, so I was relieved to be forced to turn back. Eff Why Eye, there are two trails in the national park, the "jungle trek" and the "summit trek" - the former is a leisurely loop through the rainforest at the base of the mountain while the latter takes you to the pinnacle of the sawtooth peak - if you dare. Anyway, I accidentally followed a false trail on the way down and spent about an hour lost in the undergrowth wading through thorny, spiny vegetation. I eventually navigated my way out by downloading a compass app into my smartphone.
14 Map of Trail
The purple arrows denote my failed first attempt. The yellow arrows plot our intended route this time.

So, I started training again; doing crunches, push-ups and running up stairs in the past few weeks. This time around, I was joined by Ashraf (one of the two legal witnesses of my marriage to Cheryl). He had never trekked Santubong and was interested in doing it with me. He is also something a long-distance runner and I was nervous about embarrassing myself in front of him, but thought it was wise to have a fellow medical practitioner tagging along should I get a coronary event from the exertion or something.

We started our trek at 8:10 AM from the Green Paradise Seafood Restaurant (as opposed to taking the shorter Bukit Puteri trail) and the little boy who took us to the beginning of the trail mistakenly sent us out on the jungle trek instead of the summit trek. We only realised this when we were already halfway through so we had no choice but to complete it before we even gotten started on the summit trek around nine o'clock. I'd like very much to tramp all the way back to the starting point to rearrange that kid's internal organs but we already wasted enough time.

01 Suspension Bridge
The suspension bridge on the jungle trek.

02 Waterfall at Suspension Bridge
The waterfall and rock pool that the suspension bridge crosses over.

The summit trek immediately proved itself to be far more challenging than the jungle trek. One of the things that many experienced hikers say is "Don't underestimate Santubong" and that became the watchword for our climb, one we kept repeating to each other ad nauseam when we got winded, lost our balance or stepped into a puddle. It's easy to misjudge how difficult Santubong is since the peak is only a modest 810 metres high. You see, the trail does not make a steady upward trajectory to the top but instead dips and rises dramatically along the way. It is heavily crisscrossed by gnarly tree roots that are constantly trying to catch your feet and trip you. The perpetually damp and mossy rocks littering the trail are also incredibly slippery and there's no safe way to step on them without slipping and breaking something important. If those aren't challenging enough, the air beneath the canopy is humid and oppressive. You would quickly sweat litres and dehydrate. It's like Mirkwood down there in the undergrowth, if you ken what I'm saying.

And rumour has it that the latter half of the trek is almost vertical most of the way. A lot of people said that it is a more difficult climb than even Mount Kinabalu, which at 4,095 metres is 5 times higher than Mount Santubong. In fact, people regularly throw in the towel before reaching the top and Santubong police deputy officer-in-charge Sergeant Major Rosli Deris said that climbers frequently fail to make their way back down the mountain as well, necessitating rescue.

03 Arbomancy
It's interesting to see how some of those helper ropes were tethered.

04 Waterfall
The waterfall on the summit trek.

05 Marching Ants
Heh, looks like I'm not the only guy with a large belly on this mountain.

There are allegedly hornbills and proboscis monkeys living in Santubong but we did not encounter any. Instead, we came across a lot of dark coloured termites marching in upsettingly large columns along the trail. When we spotted an especially big termite parade skittering across a fallen tree, I tried to photograph it. The pointed snout on the heads of the soldiers indicated that they are a species belonging to the Nasutitermitinae subfamily of termites (the snouts are called nasus). They were out in strength foraging in the late morning but when we returned in the evening, they have all disappeared. I also noted that their mounds were confined to the ground on the forest floor. My best guess is that they belong to the genus Hospitalitermes - the very morphologically similar Lacessititermes termites build arboreal nests. Anyway, these jungle-dwelling termites aren't pests and they ignore man-made structures, preferring to feed on lichen, dead leaves, fallen branches and twigs, and other plant materials.

Well, excuse me for the impromptu entomology lecture. I have a condition.

Nasutitermitinae 2
The horned soldiers are typically smaller than the more corpulent workers in this subfamily.

Nasutitermitinae 1
They are frequently (and understandably) mistaken for ants.

When I got up to continue the trek, I slipped and body-slammed the log, instantly pancaking and sending thousands of them to the Great Termite Mound in the sky (sorry). It hurt so bad I thought I had broken a rib.

We finally arrived at View Point 1 where the Bukit Putri trail joins the official summit trek at about 10:00 AM. There we encountered a large group of local college students who were making their way down. Apparently, they have started their ascent at 5:30 PM yesterday and reached the summit at 10:00 PM where they camped. The trek is tough enough in daylight and these people did it at night! We noticed that half the group were girls and that immediately inflamed our machismo, spurring us onward in defense of our manly prides. We cannot fail now! Girls did it! In the dark!

The trek between View Point 1 to View Point 3 is a discouraging, monotonous upward crawl inclined at somewhere between 45 to 60°, commanding frequent rests. We couldn't help noticing that the water we brought with us (about 2 litres each) was starting to dwindle in volume. We were also encountering more vertical sections of the trek that could not be surmounted (at least by us two schmucks) without the help of rope ladders that the park rangers have installed along the trail. Needless to say, we were making very slow progress. On the up side, the tree roots that were trying to murder us most of the way earlier were now proving to be invaluable footholds and handholds and I often find myself favouring them over the rope ladders.

06 Rope Ladder
Certainly not for those with a fear of heights.

06 Scenery
View of the Sarawak River from either View Point 2 or 3. It's hard to keep track.

We saw that some treehuggers have placed laminated posters on the way pestering trekkers to sign an online petition to stop the building of a cable car system to ease access to the top of the mountain. At this point in the slog, both Ashraf and I, fatigued and dehydrated, were lustily thinking, "Fuck that noise! Just build the damn cable car! Build it NOW!"

Between View Point 3 and View Point 4, one of Ashraf's legs (right, I think) was struck by crippling cramps and he was forced to stop. I could literally see his thigh muscles spasming as he sat there clutching himself in agony. He had been playing futsal the night before and reckoned that he was short on electrolytes. He said that even his sweat no longer tasted salty. We were faced with a difficult choice at this juncture. Either we turn back now and make our painful way back to base camp with our tails between our legs, or we press on knowing that every step we take forward meant an extra step we have to take on the way back.

Staring wistfully at the trail before us, I said to Ashraf,

"You know what? I think I can make it. You stay here and eat the remainder of your chocolate. I will come back for you later." I swear I could hear Freddie Mercury singing Don't Stop Me Now in my head right then in that moment.

I quickly made it to View Point 4 on my lonesome. The leg of the journey to View Point 5 was no longer a trek but a no-nonsense climb of numerous 90° rock faces from ledge to ledge all the way up. Right before reaching View Point 5, I ran into two girls heading down who told me that I was only about half-an-hour away from the summit. I noticed that one of them made the climb wearing a pair of jeans. I can't fail now!

"I'm a shooting star leaping through the skies
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity
I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva!
I'm gonna go go go
There's no stopping me!"

"I'm burning through the sky, yeah!
Two hundred degrees
That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit!
I'm trav'ling at the speed of light!
I wanna make a supersonic man out of you!"

07 Scenery
The scenery from View Point 5 of the Damai Golf and Country Club and its beach.

08 Shipwreck
A shipwreck.

I realised that the climb was getting easier and easier the higher I went. It was chillier up there with comforting zephyrs coming at me from the sea. Since it was rope ladders for the most part, I could give my poor tortured legs some rest while my upper body and trunk started pulling their own weight. The trail between View Point 5 and the summit featured a valley where I begrudgingly conceded some altitude before facing more vertical climbs (3 to 20 metres apiece) up and over the rocky mountain face, each one threatening to render me quadriplegic should I falter and fall. This was it. This was where I prove my worth. Daddy's going to make you proud, Darwin (my kid, not the English naturalist)!

At 12:30 PM, I summited Mount Santubong.

A sign at the top claimed that it took me more than 3 kilometres of hard climb to reach the top. The view from the Santubong summit was amazing - shadow of clouds floating lazily over the blue-green South China Sea with waves which gently caress the coastline of Damai. It had been raining rather ceaselessly for the past few months so I was glad that the weather remained congenial the whole time with no mists to impede the scenery.

09 Scenery
Cloud shadows over the South China Sea.

10 Panorama
A panoramic shot of the view from the summit.

About 1:00 PM, Ashraf surprised me by turning up at the summit. Some of the climbers have given him some of their extra water on their way down and since the final bits were less punishing on the legs, he managed to claw his way to the top. "I crawled up here on my hands, elbows and at one point, even my face," he said.

We made our way to the other side of the summit where they have built a small hut for the park's visitors. Two young adult males were already there, smoking cigarettes.

13 Defilers
Cigarette addicts.

What the fuck, people of Kuching? You people smoke in every coffee shop, at every mall entrance, in your hospital, in public parks, at the riverfront, and even in front of pregnant women, babies and young children. Now, I climbed 4 hours up a fucking mountain and I still couldn't get fresh air here?!

They were also playing loud pop music from their cellphones and at one point, sang along to Christina Perri's Jar of Hearts, I shit you not. It didn't ruin the whole experience for me but it certainly dialed my dopamine high from conquering Santubong down a notch.

12 Scenery
The view from the other side of the summit.

Due to their offensive presence, we didn't stick around too long and at 1:40 PM, we started our descent from Santubong's summit. If anything, going down was even more grueling than the journey up no thanks to our now overworked limbs and our stupid lack of foresight to bring lunch (and enough fluids) with us. It was also more perilous because we were forced to go ass first most of the way due to the sheerness of the rocks. Since we parked my car at the Green Paradise Seafood Restaurant where we started off, we had to take the long trail back as well. Ashraf was so dried out near the end that he risked taking a drink from the waterfall. They looked crystal clear but he said that they tasted "rooty". We'll see if he develops leptospirosis in the next few days.

At 5:45 PM, our ordeal finally ended. It was a triumphant moment for both of us. I summited Mount Santubong with a severely out-of-shape body after only a few weeks of training while he did it with a painful cramp in one leg. Besides, both of us only slept about 4 hours during the previous night and we took the long way up (and down) plus we accidentally did an hour-long jungle trek before we started the ascent. What we achieved was nothing less than heroic.

11 Panorama
Another panorama from the summit. My camera seemed to have done a less than perfect job stitching it together.

I was going to try and summit the gentler Mount Singai (which is just a little more than 500 metres in height) in Bau the next day but I overslept. I am also stiff all over and it is agony for me to even negotiate my way around the house. I hope I will make a full recovery by this Wednesday when I leave for Laos with the missus.

Adventure is out there!

P.S. I went and watch the remake of RoboCop starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson after dinner that night (which Ashraf was not up for). The movie was surprisingly good.

Made Santubong his bitch,
k0k s3n w4i

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