Tuesday, April 01, 2014

To the Edge of Sarawak at Penrissen's Peak

"Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion."

Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination (2008)
by Robert Mcfarlane

On the 23rd of March, in wee-est hours of the morning, I set out from my hotel room, abandoning my sleeping wife and baby boy to their dreams. I intended to climb Mount Penrissen that morning. The outdoor activities guy who mans a desk in the lobby of the Clubhouse told me a day before that if I start the hike from Hole 13, I can make it up in just two hours while the descent would only take an hour. It sounded like a piece of fairy cake. Normally, you are not allowed to attempt the hike on your own and you are suppose to engage one of the guides employed by the resort - but I pooh-poohed all that, lied about me being an "experienced hiker" and asked him to show me the trail on a map instead. He did one better and gave me a photocopy of the resort's map detailing all the established trails. He was letting me do the trek solo on the sly! I suspect that he wasn't feeling up to scrambling up that damn mountain for the umpteenth time in service of yet another fat tourist.

Red was ascent. Blue was descent.

The peak of Penrissen clocks in at 1,329 metres in height, which dwarfs Santubong's 810 metres, but while the summit trail of Santubong starts at near sea level, you are already at about 1,000 metres up to Penrissen if you begin your climb from the Kalimantan viewpoint - which was the route I chose.

Kalimantan Border View of Penrissen
View of Penrissen shrouded in mist. Picture taken the day before in the afternoon.

On my request, the outdoor activities director have unlocked one of their mountain bikes for my use free of charge because I was a guest there, but I ultimately decided to leave it behind because the road to the Kalimantan viewpoint (where I was starting from) is all uphill. Also, it was raining, darker out than Snyder's Superman reboot, and the thick mist looked like it might be harbouring dangerous extradimensional creatures from Stephen King's imagination - so I was forced to hang back in the lobby to wait for a more auspicious beginning. I would end up leaving at seven instead of six as originally planned.

Oh, since the trek was so short, I had little more than some overnight vegetarian samosa (which I had sent to my room the night before in prep) and a cup of tea for breakfast before setting out. I also brought no water and no food with me. As you may have already realised, this reads exactly like a set-up for a disaster story, and you are right.

Penrissen Trek Forest Trail
The early part of the trail from the Kalimantan viewpoint.

I neither believe in gods nor ghosts, but even I have to admit that wandering into a forest before the sun is up while highland mists were still weaving between old growth trees can really give someone the heebie-jeebies. It felt as if behind the endless tree trunks and vapour, some unspeakable ancient Lovecraftian horror was breathing slowly and heavily in anticipation. It was probably a kind of predator anxiety, a throwback to the sort of dangers my cave-dwelling ancestors face back in the Pleistocene. The ground was fertile with the scent of rot and life, and before long my pant legs were wet with dew - so I detached them. You see, I was wearing convertibles because I was already married and have no need to impress anybody.

It wasn't long before I started feeling odd ticklish sensations on my calves punctuated by barely perceptible pricking pains. I looked down and lo! An army of slimy leeches have latched on to my bare shins and were feeding merrily away!

Penrissen Trek Leeches
Still better vampires than Twilight's.

I identified two species of leeches which were breakfasting on my limbs but I might be wrong as I am no expert on leeches (just a meal for them). There were the shorter, dark-brown "limatok" or brown leeches (Haemadipsa zeylanica) which have a painless bite, and the nastier, bigger and more colourful "limatang" or tiger leeches (Haemadipsa picta) which have stinging bites.

Like frogs, the presence of leeches in an ecosystem is an indicator of its health and judging from the number of these vampiric worms sucking gleefully on my legs, I'd say the forest of Penrissen was too healthy for my health. I read that one should never salt or burn a feeding leech off one's skin for fear of making them regurgitate their stomach content (and all of its cornucopia of gut bacteria) into the wound so I scraped then off with my fingernails.

Leech in Bottle
I happened to have some specimen jars in my satchel so I took one of them prisoner for further questioning.

Anyway, I got lost on my way to where the Hole 13 and Kalimantan viewpoint trails meet due to some a confusing trail marker. Someone had erected a large "X" along the trail I was following using two thin intersecting sticks to warn trekkers from progressing. It took me some time blundering around the marker trying to look for the right trail before I decided to just ignore it and proceed. As it turned out, the marker was a dud!

Penrissen Trek Ladders
Aluminium ladders bridging the hardest hurdles.

The ascent portion of my trek was unexpectedly hard. The trail up, while very clearly marked, barely existed any longer. The horizontal two-by-fours that they have fixed along the steeper parts were mostly detached from their anchor points and in various stages of disintegrating into wood pulp from the constant damp. The annelid-rich dirt was looser than a Kolkata whore and segments of the trail have been turned over by mini-landslides. Some trees have fallen right across the trail along with the sliding terrain and at one point, I had to climb over the corpse of a tree that was wider than a family car. Naturally, I had begun using my hands as much as I've been using my feet, which I find distasteful because I could see countless leeches extending their body out of the soil and waving their anterior suckers in the air, waiting to latch on to my exposed fingers and palms.

Of course, the invertebrate biodiversity that Penrissen has to offer isn't limited to just leeches. I had also come across (and accidentally touched) a myriad of caterpillars, spiders, and millipedes. The mountain was teeming with legless and too-many-legged critters of all sizes and description.

I saw a few of these dangerous looking bright orange snails...

Penrissen Trek Orange Snail
I couldn't identify it. Gastropods is not one of my strong points.

... this hairy caterpillar floating down at me from above, using its hirsute bristles like a parachute...

Penrissen Trek Furry Caterpillar
I also couldn't identify this.

... and this giant pill millipede, which one can easily get confused with the very morphologically similar woodlouse (or pillbugs). I can only narrow it down to the order Sphaerotheriida based on geography alone. I have also seen photographs of the exact same creature on the web - all taken in Borneo - but no one could reliably pinpoint which species this fella belongs to.

Penrissen Trek Pill Bug
A thousand feet? I don't even have half of a hundred!

One of the surest ways to distinguish pill millipedes from pillbugs is to turn it over and look at the legs. Pillbugs, like all isopods, have one pair of legs per body segment while pill millipedes have two. Pillbugs also have only 11 body segments (most of them small and cramped up at the tail end) while pill millipedes have 12 to 13 segments with a large shield like posterior segment. This is a very cool example of convergent evolution where some specimens from two entirely different subphyla that live and feed in very similar conditions evolve very similar adaptations.

Speaking of millipedes, I encountered this evil-looking orange-legged beastie hanging out on one of the aluminium ladders.

Penrissen Trek Orange Legs Millipede
Camouflage fail.

It gave me quite a fright initially because it resembled a centipede but upon closer inspection, it has two pairs of legs per body segment so it was most assuredly the less scary of the two myriapods. Centipedes have one pair per seg.

This ghostly pipsqueak here is also a millipede.

Penrissen Trek White Millipede
See? Two pairs of legs per segment.

And there were entire too many of these enormous tractor millipedes.

Penrissen Trek Another Huge Polydesmid Milipede
Some of its legs broke off. I wonder how that happened.

Penrissen Trek Huge Milipede
The smaller size and lighter colouration might mean it is a juvenile?

They are also known as "flat-backed millipedes" and belong to the order Polydesmida. They are characterised by the horizontal keel-like projections sticking from either side of each body segment called "paranota" (singular: paranotum). I have looked at many pictures of polydesmids online but I have yet to come across one that displays a single dorsal stripe like the ones I've seen on my hike.

Apparently, hundreds of new species are discovered every time some scientists make an expedition to Borneo and this region is recognised as one of the richest, most under-explored and most bio-diverse places on the planet. Surely, I must have came across or stepped on a new species or two by now in all my hikes. Anyway, if you have gotten suitably itchy from all that bug talk, let's go back to the story of my hike proper.

It was nice that the temperature remained lowish all the way up but the humidity still made me sweat like a Christian in the Colosseum. It wasn't long before I started kicking myself in the ass for thinking that I can go climb a mountain without carrying any water with me.

Penrissen Trek Long Ladder
The tallest ladder on the trail. You can only see half of its length here.

At one point, I had to walk over a narrow ridge flanked only by crude rotten handrails. The view on both sides was obstructed by mist (maybe clouds) so it was a rather ethereal experience. I couldn't see it but I know there were deadly drops on either side of me.

Penrissen Trek Precarious Ridge
Stitched photograph of the precarious ridge. Click to see large copy.

There were no springs, streams or falls I could quench my thirst at until I got pretty near the top. I was walking under a mossy, ferny overhang which was dripping shower-like from all the condensed dewdrops up top. I plucked a large leaf off a nearby shrub, rinsed it and collected mouthfuls of the cold, crystal clear fluid. I can't describe it beyond saying that it tasted green.

Penrissen Trek Mountain Dew Overhang
Real Mountain Dew.

It felt great washing my face with it though.

After moving on from my all-natural water dispenser, I rounded a corner and in just a few moments, I suddenly found myself on terra plana. There were no immediate signs or marker but I knew I've reached the plateau on the summit of Penrissen.

Penrissen Trek Overgrown Summit
How creepy it would be if I were to hear a voice call my name at this point?

Aside from the sighs of the wind and the whirr of insects, it was silent and watchful. The trail up there had almost been thoroughly reclaimed by shrubs and ferns. It didn't look like someone came this way in recent months. I guess the patrons that the Borneo Highlands Resort cater to aren't the sort to usually grapple with vines and wrestle with mud to get to a top of a mountain.

A couple of minutes later, after trampling some plant life flat, I came to a small clearing at the edge of the peak.

Penrissen Trek Summit Vertical Stitch
Note: the arrow is actually pointing in the direction of where I came from.

There was no hut or shelter, or helpful signage there. The only landmark there was a solitary block of stone standing in middle of the clearing.

On one side, it reads,


Penrissen Trek Summit Malaysia Side
I thought it should say "Sarawak" first, then "Malaysia". It's only proper.

And on the other side, facing outward to the blinding white infinity, it was engraved,


Penrissen Trek Summit Indonesia Side
Fun fact: Do you know that "Kalimantan" refers to the whole island of Borneo in Indonesian?

It was a borderstone marking the boundary between Sarawak and West Kalimantan! The image of Mandy Moore straddling the state line between North Carolina and Virginia in A Walk to Remember came unbidden to my mind, but I wasn't about to get all giggly about being in two places at once.

I did however, piss across the border onto Indonesian soil while standing in Malaysia.

After tiring of seeing nothing but shifting mist for 15 minutes, I began my descent. I managed to reached the top in the stipulated 2 hours from Hole 13 so I expect that the outdoor activities director's prognostication of a one hour descent would be accurate as well.

Not so. The climb down was a butt-clenching experience. Everything was as wet and slippery, which is far bigger problem downwards than upwards. I must have slipped a dozen times, planting my hands and ass into the mushy dirt. I also didn't want to risk twisting or breaking something so I took extra care with every step I took - which didn't do me a lot of good. There are some sections of the trail that wouldn't hold no matter how gingerly I lay my feet on them. Footholds crumble. Vines and branches I hold on to come to pieces in my hands. Entire sections of the ground slid downhill with me surfing on them.

I realised that I wouldn't be able to make it back to the Clubhouse by noon - when I was suppose to check out - so I called the reception and asked, pretty please, if they can allow me to check out late. They said okay. I knew most of their rooms are empty so I didn't expect that they would give me hardship over it anyway. I also knew I would be too late to get my complimentary breakfast but what can one do? You win some, you lose some.

Penrissen Trek Hole 13 Panorama Closer
Panorama of the forest surrounding the Penrissen peak from the fairway of Hole 13. Most of mountain hidden in mist.

Two hours later, I found myself on the green of Hole 13, all mucky and thankful to be alive. After discreetly checking my unmentionables for leeches, I walked the 2 kilometres back to the Clubhouse where Cheryl and Darwin were having their lunch (they already had breakfast).

"I suppose I'm far too late for breakfast?" I asked the waitress of the vegetarian Annah Rais Café. She said she'd check with the kitchen and before I could say "breakfast of champions", she laid a luscious spread of jam, butter, tea, assorted small cakes, beans, tomato, hash brown and two eggs before me.

Penrissen Trek Late Breakfast
An ovo-lacto vegetarian spread, but a spread nonetheless.

I practically licked the plate clean before heading back to our room to shower. I discovered two more leeches in the process, one in my shoe and the other sucking merrily at the back of my thigh through a tiny hole in my pants. Whatever it was in the saliva of these damn bloodsuckers, I'm getting a reaction to it. The puncture sites are still itching more than a week later.

I know I'm not about to climb Penrissen again in a hurry.

P.S. If you can identify some of the bugs in my pictures, I'd be really grateful if you drop me a comment and tell me.

RELATED POST: Surprise Weekend at the Borneo Highlands Resort.

Stood in one country
while urinating on another,
k0k s3n w4i


SarawakTravel STB said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your blog and great pictures as well :-) .../michael

adam adams said...


Anonymous said...

'looser than a Kolkata whore'? ummh now that could mean one or two or all three things -
A. a provocative sound bite;
B. you examined a Kolkata whore as part of your attachment duties in India when she turned up for STD checkup. Your gloved fingers were threading water in the Pacific Ocean;
3. You consummated a latent fantasy with a Kolkata whore so you are writing from a memory of a scary experience of weightlessness.

k0k s3n w4i said...

SarawakTravel STB: Thanks! I just started on a series of travelogues for Sarawak.

adam adams: That I am.

Anonymous: I meant "loose" in the figurative sense of the word.