Saturday, May 31, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past: A Review

"Please Charles, we need you to... hope again."

Charles Xavier to his past self in
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

This review will spoil everything in the movie.

Days of Future Past Poster Charles
JamesMcAvoy superimposed over Patrick Stewart.

The Wolverine notwithstanding, has it really been three years already since the last X-Men film? I was never a fan of the Brian Singer original movies and re-watching them in preparation of X-Men: Days of Future Past certainly didn't help their case. The CGI was dated and some of the dialogues in them were painful to endure (every time Halle Berry opens her mouth, I want to extend my adamantium claws and poke my ears out).

Then X-Men: First Class came along and for the first time, I feel invested in this franchise. I was especially enamoured by Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Erik Lehnsherr which was so sympathetic that I found myself more persuaded by his cause than Charles Xavier's. The Magneto of Singer's film was almost cacklingly, moustache-twirling villainous.

So, when I heard that Bryan Singer will be back to direct Days of Future Past instead of First Class helmer Matthew Vaughn, I was apprehensive. And to some measure, my fears were confirmed. Aside from a particularly tense confrontation scene between Erik and Charles on a private jet, young Magneto seems to have inherited the Cartoon Villainy Syndrome that the old Magneto displayed in the older films, and is now committed to doing evil beyond all sense and reason. His attempt to kill Raven/Mystique? His blatant show of might and attempt on Nixon and Trask's lives at the unveiling of the Sentinel prototypes at the White House? Whatever goodwill that Fassbender's Magneto won from me in First Class, they all dissipated in Days of Future Past.

But it wasn't all bad. As a matter of fact, I am finding it difficult to decide if I liked First Class or Days of Future Past more.

If First Class was Magneto's film, Days of Future Past is Professor X's. Never minding the logic of a serum that temporarily reconnects his severed spinal cord while suppressing his telepathic powers portrayed with heroin addiction imagery, we see a young Charles Xavier who have given himself up to alcoholism and despair. We see him broken, hiding away from all the ambient anguish surrounding him. Erik expressed disbelief when he found out that Charles would give up his powers just to be able to walk - but the truth is, that's not the real reason why he is taking the serum. He said he was broken. He's like a mutant Jesus who can no longer bear the weight of all of mutant-kind's suffering.

The keystone that holds the entire movie together, I feel, is this scene when McAvoy Charles reached back into the past through Logan's mind to talk to his older future Patrick Stewart self,

Young Charles: So this what becomes of us. Eric was right. Humanity does this to us.
Old Charles: Not if we show them a better past.
Young Charles: You still believe?
Old Charles: Just because someone stumbles and loses their way, it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. Sometimes we need a little help.
Young Charles: I’m not the man I was. I open my mind and it almost overwhelms me.
Old Charles: You’re afraid, and Cerebro knows it.
Young Charles: In all those voices… so much pain.
Old Charles: It’s not their pain you’re afraid of - it’s yours. And frightening as it can be their pain will make you stronger if you allow yourself to feel it. Embrace it. It will make you more powerful than you ever imagined. It’s the greatest gift we have that can bear pain without breaking, and it’s born from the most human power: Hope. Please Charles, we need you to... hope again.

I don't know if it was because of the momentous performance from the two thesps but it is not at all cheesy or Hallmark-ey. Old Charles' allusion to stumbling and losing one's way is incredibly potent. I is one of forgiveness. It speaks to both Raven's wayward ways and to Young Charles' despair. Maybe I need some time to let my feelings settle but right now, I think that this is one of the greatest scenes I have ever seen in cinema.

And this is something that filmmakers making superhero films must understand. It is not the huge action setpieces or lavish CGI that makes the film. It's not the slavish adherence to the source material. It is not the novelty of yet another iconic supervillain brought to the largeness of life on screen - as seen in some franchises trying to cram as many supervillains in their movies as they can. The focus of antagonism in Days of Future Past was a human scientist named Bolivar Trask who conceived the Sentinel Program that will lead to the near extinction of mutants (and apparently humans) in the future. Peter Dinklage was amazing in the role but he was essentially a walking talking McGuffin. He didn't matter. What made this film work is the complex interplay between the characters we have come to know and love from First Class. I care about the relationships between Charles, Erik and Raven. I care about what's happening to them. It didn't matter that Charles' and Raven's relationship is a fabrication of the movie franchise and didn't exist in the comics. That's why Raven's and Charles' redemptive arcs worked so well.

Speaking of Peter Dinklage, I must commend on the casting choice. Bolivar Trask is not a little person in the comics and I don't think even the comic fans minded the choice. And it is amazing how no one even alluded to or joked about his stature throughout the course of the film! If Michael Bay made this, he would have milked this for all it is worth.

Of course, all of my highbrow ideas about comic book film adaptations aside, two action sequences stand out in my mind. The first was the cold open where the Sentinels attacked a cadre of La Résistance mutants in the apocalyptic future. We were shown just how formidable they are as they brutally and efficiently slaughtered all of the mutants in the sequence. We were introduced to Blink (played by Fan Bing Bing) who has the power to cast pink teleportation portals which she used synergistically with her other teammates in combat, making for incredibly kinetic fights. I'm a huge, huge fan of the Portal games, and when Fan Blink Blink used a trick commonly used in the games to make impossibly long gravity-aided jumps to turn Colossus into a mutant missile, I wanted to nerd-punch the air. That slo-mo scene where she spatially displaced a Sentinel but was killed when the killbot reached back through the portal with its pointy limb to stab her was also fantastic - I had my heart beating in my throat the whole time. I hope they would hire whoever it was who choreographed these Blink scenes to work on adapting the Portal films!

Days of Future Past Poster Blink
Fan Blink Blink.

We were also introduced to Shadowcat's/Kitty Pryde's ability to project a person's consciousness into the past, a nod to the fact that it was her who travelled back in time to be the agent of change in the comics. Given the fact that Wolverine was laughably impotent in the film (and in one crucial turning point in the movie, was incapacitated by his PTSD) and was practically an audience insert, I don't see why it was so important to place him front and centre. Being a massive fan of Ellen Page myself, I felt that Days of Future Past would have been better served if we followed her instead! Yes, yes, I know she wouldn't have been born in the 1970's but I'm sure that if they are willing to just randomly change mutant abilities in service of the plot, I can't see why they couldn't have made this work somehow.

The second most memorable action sequence is of course the now-internet-famous Quicksilver's prison-breaking Magneto out of a metal-less prison deep under the Pentagon where guards were equipped with plastic guns and clear-plastic batons that are reminiscent of something you can buy at a sex shop. And it was hilarious and glorious!

Days of Future Past Quicksilver
Evan Peters as Pietro Peter Maximoff AKA Quicksilver.

Earlier versions of the script feature Juggernaut in place of the speedster mutant and we can all agree that we have quite enough of seeing indestructible men barrelling through walls in superhero movies to last us a lifetime after Man of Steel. While it was upbeat and hilarious throughout, the centrepiece of the sequence was when Quicksilver single-handedly defeated a dozen cops who had Charles, Erik and Logan surrounded in the conveniently round kitchen by making them punch themselves and pistol-whip one another (bearing in mind that force is a product of mass and acceleration, a little nudge from Quicksilver at superspeed packs quite a wallop) before circling back to displace the trajectory of the bullets heading towards our heroes. And it was all set to the dulcet tune of Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle. There's also a nod to the fact that Magneto is actually Quicksilver's biological dad in a funny elevator exchange between the two.

A note on how the film ended: The special mode of time travel it uses where only a person's consciousness go back in time to their younger body will prevent the creation of alternate timelines, but it didn't make sense that Future Wolverine's memories would be be reinstated in the new Sentinel-free future because that Wolverine would never have existed. And when he snapped back into his future body, what to the the Past Wolverine's consciousness who lived very differently from 1973 to present? Was that extinguished? Of course, by "resetting" the timeline, Bryan Singer essentially cancelled all the events in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Or to put it more pithily, Bryan Singer sent Wolverine back in time to make sure Brett Ratner never happened.

So yeah, I liked the film in spite of all its shortcomings because there's really a lot to love in it. The post-credits stinger at the end featured a shrimpy pale blue-lipped kid assembling a pyramid in the desert while a throng of worshippers chant "En Sabah Nur" in the background (which is Apocalypse's true name). That is a very unimpressive looking Apocalypse if you ask me, but I suppose X-Men: Apocalypse will recast him. With that, I think that is all that I can say about X-Men: Days of Future Past.

P.S. Xavier's theme (Hope) from the soundtrack was incredibly potent. I am quite addicted to it now.

Can hope again,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Malaysian Pork Choc Controversy

"O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship. He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah . But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful."

Verses 172 to 173, Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow), Al-Qur'an

Malaysia, aside from having the recent distinction of being that country which lost a commercial jumbo jet in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is also a country with a Muslim majority populace and the shadow of Islam looms over all aspects of Malaysian life, regardless whether one believes in Islam or not. For example, many concerts by international artistes were protested by fundamentalist Muslims in this country and several of them were outright called off - the most famous being Ke$ha's last minute cancellation of her show in October last year. Affecting me personally is how I can no longer enjoy my favourite instant ramen after they changed the recipe of its condiments to cater to the halal market, destroying its awesome flavour in the process.

halal malaysia label
The Malaysian halal label.

Speaking of "halal" (حلال), the Arabic word basically means "permissible" in Arabic and a significant part of the concept focuses on the dietary restrictions of Muslims - much like the kosher laws of Judaism. There are a variety of comestibles that Muslims are not suppose to consume and according to the Qur'anic verses 2:173, 5:3, 5:90, and 6:12, the list includes,
  • Pork
  • Blood
  • Animals slaughtered in the name of anyone or anything beside Allah, including anything offered or sacrificed to an idolatrous altar, saint or divine personages that are not Allah.
  • Carrion or carcasses of dead animal
  • Food over which Allah's name was not pronounced
  • Intoxicants, including alcohol
  • Animals that have been strangled, beaten (to death), killed by a fall, gored (to death), or savaged by a beast of prey (unless finished off by a human)

As with every other aspect of Islam, it is a Serious Business™. I mean, they have prosecuted two hapless bloggers for daring to invite Muslims to break their fast on bak-kut-teh during Ramadan last year in a tasteless if harmless captioned photo! If the mere idea of eating pork inflames them so much, imagine the outrage they will display when some products of a brand of famous chocolate bars that are ubiquitous in Malaysia were found to contain pork in them - which totally happened a few days ago.

Porcine DNA Cadbury KKM Statement
The Malaysian Ministry of Health's official press statement.

Okay, for those who are unable to read Malay, the gist of it is that the Ministry of Health's Food Safety and Quality division blew the whistle on two batches of products from the British multinational confectionery company, Cadbury, after DNA testing found porcine DNA in them. One was designated Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut and the other is Cadbury Dairy Milk Roast Almond (their batch numbers given in the statement above). The Ministry also said that all halal certification issues still lies in the purview of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM).

The rest of the statement is a very thoughtful (but strangely out of place) review of the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past film and how our Minister of Health really enjoyed James McAvoy's performance as young Charles Xavier and hopes that he will reprise his role in X-Men: Apocalypse. That's like totally the truth, bro.

Cadbury Porcine DNA
The media statement from JAKIM.

In direct response to the Ministry of Health's published statement, Dato' Haji Othman Mustapha, Director General of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), officially suspended the halal certification for the Cadbury products in question. He also said that investigations will be launched to find out how these goddamn pigs mysteriously turned up in chocolate.

One possibility is that industrial food packaging sometimes uses lubricants and stabilisers known as stearates, which are made from derivatives of animal products (including swine).

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health will do more DNA testing on more of Cadbury's products to see how deeply the contamination runs. I don't know about you but I find it amusing that entire labs are performing DNA tests on junk food.

And now that we are on the subject of labs,

Porcine DNA Cadbury
The lab report.

The above report basically states that a sample (here labelled as milk chocolate with hazelnut from Ca[d]bury) that was sent to the National Public Health Lab on the 27th of February, 2014 was found to contain porcine DNA.

As this issue only came to public light on May 24, it meant that the Muslims of Malaysia have been unwittingly putting dirty, disgusting, super-haram chocolate-covered pork into their bodies while the Ministry of Health sat quietly on this information for almost 3 whole months! It says right in the report that the sample was analysed on the day of receipt, so yeah.

Now, I think that Malaysian Muslims would - to a substantial degree - put their trusts in the halal label because it helps them differentiate halal food from the haram ones. I wonder how much trust they still invest in that label now in light of this issue. They knew the chocolates were not halal since February after all.

Of course, a further question one might ask is, how much guarantee does the halal label even offer in the first place? Just look back to the list of non-halal food I have provided earlier. Are any tests performed on food to look for blood contaminants? Is it even possible to avoid absolute contamination of blood in meat products during their preparation? How would they know if the ingredients contained in any food was consecrated in the name of Allah, or that it had not been offered or sacrificed to any kafir idols, deities or saints? How can they tell the difference between carrion meat or slaughtered meat? Are there magical lab tests that can tell you if a particular piece of meat come from an animal that was strangled, beaten, gored, fallen from great height or killed by a predator?

Presumably, they don't test food for DNA of other animals so it is possible that Cadbury's chocolate bars also contain the remains of a dead alcoholic buffalo which died when it committed suicide to escape its gambling debts by leaping off the roof of a Cadbury factory into a tub of chocolate, therefore making it technically as haram as pork. You don't know that they don't. You don't know if any products bearing the halal label in the market don't, is my point.

It was not explicitly stated in any of the recent news articles covering this story but they probably detected the porcine DNA via a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), looking specifically for genetic sequences that are unique to Sus sp. and are not found in any other animals. This raises a profound philosophical issue in my mind.

If exclusively porcine DNA is non-halal, what about DNA sequences and genes that pigs share with human beings? As with all other mammals, pigs share a lot of common genetic heritage with human beings. Before the advent of recombinant DNA tech, we used porcine insulin to treat diabetics because it was only one amino acid removed from human insulin (compared to bovine insulin which is three amino acid removed). According to animal geneticist Lawrence Schook who mapped the pig genome, we are so similar to pigs that he claimed that he was able to take the human genome, "cut it into 173 puzzle pieces and rearranged it to make a pig." He added that, "Everything matches up perfectly. The pig is genetically very close to humans."

Does it then mean that the parts of our own DNA which are identical to pigs haram? To pose the reverse of this dilemma: are parts of porcine DNA therefore halal because the same genes are found in the human genome?

Hey, I am just glad I don't have to think about all these tough questions whenever I put anything into my mouth.

Contains porcine DNA,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Mismanagement of Alfred Russel Wallace's Heritage in Sarawak

"Professor Johnston often said that if you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree."

Timeline (1999) by Michael Crichton

42 Bukit Serumbu View from Below After Descent
Picture of Bukit Serumbu from Kampung Peninjau, after I descended from it.

Last month on April 13, I climbed Bukit Serumbu near the town of Siniawan in Bau. The local Bidayuhs call it Bung Muan while Sarawak's first White Rajah, James Brooke, have used it as a lookout point and have built a cottage at the 424 metres height of the mountain - giving the place its third name, Peninjau (which is the Malay word for "observer" or "surveyor"). Indeed, the modern villages that now fringe the foothills of Bukit Serumbu are called Kampung Peninjau Lama and Kampung Peninjau Baru.

That cottage that Brooke erected came to be known today as the Brooke Cottage and it was said that the original White Rajah have entertained guests there, including a certain British naturalist who would be later known (and then mostly forgotten) as the co-originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Here is an excerpt from Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869),

"On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke's invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air. It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits. We returned to Sarawak for Christmas (the second I had spent with Sir James Brooke), when all the Europeans both in the town and from the out-stations enjoyed the hospitality of the Rajah, who possessed in a pre-eminent degree the art of making every one around him comfortable and happy."

18 Bukit Serumbu Ngiroyan Raja (Rajah Cave)
The "cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage" mentioned in the excerpt.
The site is known as Rajah Cave or Ngiroyan Raja.
I could not locate the Renee Spring or Pool and fear that it must have dried up.

Wallace apparently enjoyed Brooke's hospitality and Sarawak so much that he would end up sticking around for 14 months, longer than any other place he visited in this region. In fact, Wallace's first published paper mentioning evolution, On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species (1855), was written when he was in Sarawak and the natural law he proposed in it would come to be referred to vernacularly as the "Sarawak Law". This foreshadowed the joint presentation of Darwin and Wallace's works three years later in 1858 in front of the Linnean Society of London, marking the official birth of evolution as a serious scientific theory.

I myself have looked for the site of Brooke Cottage in my visit there but that endeavour was met with disappointment when I found out that what remains of it was a nondescript clearing, completely unremarkable except for a small sign nailed to a tree that proclaims it to be the famous "Brooke Cottage site".

36 Bukit Serumbu Brooke's Cottage Site
The Brooke Cottage site.

The site was apparently lost to obscurity until its rediscovery in 1988 by the State Museum Department thanks to efforts by renowned zoologist, biologist and former Universiti Malaya lecturer Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the 5th Earl of Cranbrook (otherwise known as Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook) who said,

"The first one I discovered was Rajah Brooke’s bungalow in Matang. I have been looking for this one (Brooke’s Cottage in Bung Muan, Bukit Peninjau) for a long time. This had led me to visit Kampung Peninjau and from the visit, I discovered that the villagers here knew the way to the site."

Anyway, given its story, Bukit Serumbu should rightly be recognised as a location of  great historical import to both scientific inquiry and the people of Sarawak, and restoration efforts were finally announced in March 2012, to begin in earnest in June. According to project consultant Rangen Sangum, the first phase of the project will involve the construction of tourist information centre, car park, access road, Wallace Point and Brooke observation platform. It was estimated to cost RM1 million with a projected duration of 9 months to completion.

Now, before I climbed Bukit Serumbu on the 13th of April 2014, I visited Kampung Peninjau after my Mount Singai trek and found a wooden hut there that stands in for the tourist information centre. There was a laminated and yellowed notice pinned on its front,

45 Bukit Serumbu Rules Bukit Serumbu
Rules, schmules.

I followed the rules. I called up the contacts given in the week before I intended to make my climb, but found that most of the numbers were no longer operational. When I finally managed to get through to one of them, he said that he was no longer part of the committee and gave me his brother's digits, asking me to contact him instead. The bloke I finally talked to sounded clueless, but he had no objections to me making my climb.

When I turned up on the day of my trek, there was no one inside the wooden hut tourist information centre to collect my nominal entrance fee of RM5 (and since there was no one, I save RM50 in hiring a guide, which I didn't want anyway). The "access road" and "parking lot" that were supposed to be constructed in phase one of the restoration project were practically nonexistent. There were, however, a dirt road leading to the tourist information hut and an uneven dirt field nearby that looks hazardous to any vehicle that does not run on caterpillar tracks - so I opted to park my car by the roadside within the village instead. It took me about 5 minutes surveying the edges of the dirt field before I even found the start of the Wallace Trail. The "Wallace Point" and "Brooke observation platform" were nowhere to be seen at any stage of my trek as well and they were about a year overdue. Whatever that was present certainly did not look like it costed a million ringgit.

The second phase of the restoration project expected to cost between RM2 million and RM3 million would involve the construction of a ceremonial house, longhouses, an outdoor bath, and replica of the Brooke Cottage itself based on site survey data and written descriptions of the structure. As I've mentioned earlier, the only thing they have to show for this is a piece of paper wrapped in clear plastic and nailed to a tree marking the Brooke Cottage site.

I want to know who won the tender to run this restoration project. I want to know if funds were ever infused into it and if it was, where did all the money go?

01 Bukit Serumbu Signboard
According to this sign, the project is an initiative of the Sarawak Ministry of Tourism and Heritage, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), the Rajah Brooke Heritage Committee of Bung Muan, Peninjau and a 4th body that had been painted over. Funding was suppose to come from the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme.

I got a feeling that before long, the Wallace Trail and Brooke Cottage will be lost to the murky currents of time again.

RELATED POST: Retracing Wallace's Trail at Bukit Serumbu

Unhappy fan of Wallace,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Retracing Wallace's Trail at Bukit Serumbu

"But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction."

Alfred Russel Wallace

In a letter to his brother.

02 Bukit Serumbu Panorama from Below
Panorama of mist-shawled Bukit Serumbu from Kampung Peninjau.

I first heard about "Wallace Trail" from Ashraf who accompanied me on my hike up Mount Santubong earlier this year on the 31st of January and I had been intrigued by it ever since. A bit of Google-fu revealed to me that it lays on an elevated piece of real estate 446 to 488 metres high (depending on what source you use) that is called Bukit Serumbu, Bung Muan or Peninjau (depending on who you ask). It consists of a single massive lump of porphyry diorite rock with very little old growth forest covering it as it had been a site of habitation for the local Bidayuh since time immemorial. Knowing of its existence, of course, meant that I must climb it.

I started my hike at about 8:00 in the morning (13th of April) from its starting point in Kampung Peninjau armed with some energy bars, two large bottles of fluids and a simple diagram of the trail which I photographed at the front of the Visitors' Info Centre.

03 Bukit Serumbu Trail Map
They don't seem to be able to decide on whether to call it a Visitors Info Centre or a Tourist Info Centre.

06 Bukit Serumbu Skull Hut
The Bori Guna or "Skull Hut" is the first landmark you'll encounter. It appears to be some sort of local shrine.

The hazards of venturing into the wilderness at so early an hour included stepping stones along the trail that are still slippery with dew and pesky mosquitoes, but I enjoy taking a walk in a jungle when the cold of the previous night still lingers before it gets replaced by the malarial heat of Borneo. The trail was not very clearly marked, but someone seemed to have dropped pieces of scrap paper along it to mark their ascent - so followed the paper trail I did. Large boulders littered the path up, lots of them featuring uncannily smooth cracks and splits. One of these cleft rocks, the batu tikopog, is actually a feature of the trail.

11 Bukit Serumbu Batu Tikopog
Yeap, you are suppose to walk through the cleft. And you can see some of the paper scraps marking the trail in this picture.

12 Bukit Serumbu View at Batu Tikopog with Altocumulus
The view at batu tikopog. Note the altocumulus clouds in the sky.

In The Malay Archipelago (1869) by Alfred Russel Wallace, in his account of his time spent here at Bukit Serumbu, he wrote about dem rocks too,

"Huge boulders, as big as the houses themselves, rise among them, and hang over them in the most extraordinary manner. Every one is a picturesque object stained with lichens, and on the shady side covered with mosses, while the tops are generally more are less clothed with curious ferns and orchids."

The natural second leg of the trek after batu tikopog takes you through a gently-inclined walk through some bamboo grooves and it had to be the most pleasant part of the climb. Dry, rustly bamboo leaves carpeted the ground while rays of sunlight streamed in from between the bamboo trunks (or "stalks", since some Grammar/Botany Nazis will argue that bamboos are phylogenetically grass).

17 Bukit Serumbu Bamboo Trail
Through the bamboo groves.

Anyway, it would be amiss of me to not feature some of the faunae I encountered on my retracing of a famous naturalist's footsteps here on Serumbu. Here they are,

04 Bukit Serumbu Damselfly Vestalis amoena or Vestalis amaryllis
A frequently seen Vestalis sp. with and emerald body and shimmery blue wings.
Without a good, hard look at its anal appendages, I can't pinpoint the species.

05 Bukit Serumbu Gasteracantha arcuata
The horny ass of an orange, yellow and black curved spiny spider (Gasteracantha arcuata).

07 Bukit Serumbu Cookeina Sulcipes (Scarlet Cup Mushroom)
A cup-shaped Cookeina sp. mushroom from the Sarcoscyphaceae family of cup fungi.

08 Bukit Serumbu Polydesmid
A curled up polydesmid millipede.

09 Bukit Serumbu Polydesmid 2
Another millipede from the polydesmida order. This one was just taking a stroll through the leaf litter.

10 Bukit Serumbu Unidentified Spiny Grasshopper with Orange Back
A unidentified grey-green spiny grasshopper with an orange streak on its back.

13 Bukit Serumbu Bothrobelum rugosum 1
A Bothrobelum rugosum curled up in a defensive position like an armadillo.

14 Bukit Serumbu Bothrobelum rugosum 2
The B. rugosum is a pill millipede, of course.

15 Bukit Serumbu Bothrobelum rugosum 3
I have discussed about how one can distinguish pill millipedes
from pill bugs in my post about climbing Mount Penrissen.

16 Bukit Serumbu Bothrobelum rugosum 4
This B. rugosum is the same one in the previous picture.

21 Bukit Serumbu Toilets Male Euploea mulciber (Striped Blue Crow)
A rather battered looking male Striped Blue Crow (Euploea mulciber) on the ground.

24 Bukit Serumbu probably Malayan Six Ring (Ypthima fasciata torone)
A Straight-banded Fivering or Malayan Six Ring (Ypthima fasciata torone) perched on some greenery.

25 Bukit Serumbu Male Tanaecia iapis puseda (Horsfield's Baron)
A pretty scratched-up Horsfield's Baron (Tanaecia iapis) basking on a leaf.

The Rajah Cave or Ngiroyan Raja - which is more of a massive overhanging boulder than an actual cave - marks a sort of halfway point on the trail and it looks to be a frequently used camp site with bamboo pallets built beneath its shade.

18 Bukit Serumbu Ngiroyan Raja (Rajah Cave)
The Rajah Cave.

Right round a corner, the villagers have installed a couple of dirt basic privies complete with porcelain squat toilets planted right onto the ground. I did not try them out but I strongly suspect that there were no actual plumbing attached.

19 Bukit Serumbu Toilets Near Ngiroyan Raja (Rajah Cave)
A pair of privies. A couple of commodes. A twin of toilets.

20 Bukit Serumbu Squat Toilet Near Ngiroyan Raja (Rajah Cave)
Looks like the last bloke who went here had trouble digesting cellulose.

Almost immediately after that, the incline rose to a steeper 30 to 40° rope-assisted trudge, and I found myself missing my gloves which I left in my car at the base of the mountain. It was no more than a warm-up compared to what Mount Santubong has to offer, but it definitely topped Mount Serapi for a workout.

22 Bukit Serumbu Rope Ascent After Ngiroyan Raja
The trail after Rajah Cave.

23 Bukit Serumbu Lookout Point
A lookout point a short while before the top. Click to enlarge.

At about 11:00AM, I arrived at the well-shaded top ridge of Serumbu where I saw my very first wild pitcher plant in all my time in Borneo (though I would see millions more in my later trip to Bako National Park, but that's another post for another day). Maybe I haven't been observant or gone out enough, but I am a tad embarrassed by this gaping hole in my Bornean experience, having lived in Sarawak for two and a half years by now.

26 Bukit Serumbu Nepenthes ampullaria climbing cluster
A nest of Nepenthes ampullaria upper pitchers dangling from its climbing stems.

Pitcher plants are known to produce two types of pitchers - the lower and the upper pitchers - and apparently, the upper pitchers of the ampullaria are said to be extremely rare and had only been seen a few time. It was thought that they only produce them when they are placed under great environmental duress, so it was quite a cool sight. All the other pitchers I encountered after this were lower ones.

Nepenthes ampullaria is also quite morphologically distinct being urceolate or urn-shaped in appearance, so it is difficult to confuse with another member of the Nepenthes genus. Also, unlike other pitcher plants which have a stronger commitment to carnivory, ampullaria's diet consists of whatever it is that falls into its pots - dead leaves, faeces, the occasional animal, et cetera. You can see that in its reduced and reflexed lid that leave the pitcher's opening wide open. Their lids also have far reduced numbers of nectar glands (sometimes absent completely) which in other Nepenthes species play a crucial role in baiting insects.

Of course, they are by no means picky and insects do still fall in from time to time.

28 Bukit Serumbu Nepenthes ampullaria Inside Pitcher Cup
Dead mosquitoes inside a N. ampullaria's lower pitcher.

27 Bukit Serumbu Nepenthes ampullaria Single Pot
A single lower pitcher of N. ampullaria.

29 Bukit Serumbu Nepenthes ampullaria bud
A developing N. ampullaria lower pitcher.

Aside from the abundance of N. ampullaria pitchers, the path of the summit ridge was also practically covered every inch of the way by spider webs built by innumerable, tiny spiders so arachnophobes should stay the hell away from this place. Every step I took destroyed several of the tiny silken traps the spiders painstakingly wove onto the ground.

30 Bukit Serumbu Shiny Tiny Orb Weavers
Two unidentified spiders with metallic markings scurrying away from my huge, destructive feet.

44 Bukit Serumbu Unidentified Red Beetle
An unidentified tiny, shiny scarlet bug seen at the top of Mount Serumbu.

It wasn't long until I arrived at the base of an oblong boulder aimed at the sky over a precipitous cliffside on the southwest side of the mountain. The path sort of ended here, so I assumed that this must be the summit of Serumbu (though the lack of obvious signage left me with some doubt). Against my better judgment, I crawled up that huge stone to get a better view.

31 Bukit Serumbu Panorama of Peak Rock
The boulder at the end of the trail.

32 Bukit Serumbu Summit Rock
The groovy surface of the boulder.

33 Bukit Serumbu Panorama from Summit
The southwestern view from the maybe-summit of Bukit Serumbu.

34 Bukit Serumbu Summit Rock Slope Down
Climbing down is the hard part.

When I had enough of pretending to be Simba posing atop of my mini Pride Rock, I started scaling down from the monolith - noticing that the base of it also teeters at the edge of another drop. Should I slip on the descent, I would be riding on a one way train to Deadtown or Cripplesville. It didn't look like a place where my corpse would be discovered any time soon either.

Anyway, I evidently got down with my viscera still enclosed within my flabby corporeal self, more or less, or I wouldn't be blogging about this now.

After a quick lunch of some energy bars I packed with me on this outing, I began my leisurely walk down Bukit Serumbu. I was in no real hurry to go anywhere and I still have quite a lot of juice left in my camera's battery.

35 Bukit Serumbu Unidentified Bamboo Grasshopper
A brown grasshopper camouflaged against the dead bamboo leaf litter by the site of Brooke's Cottage (more on that in my next post)

38 Bukit Serumbu Male Lexias pardalis borneensis (Common Archduke)
A male Common Archduke (Lexias pardalis borneensis) resting on the forest floor.

37 Bukit Serumbu Female Lexias pardalis borneensis (Common Archduke)
The plainer and browner spotty female counterpart of the L. pardalis.

39 Bukit Serumbu Gasteracantha (looks like hasselti)
A spiny orb-weaver that looks very much like Hasselt's spiny spider (Gasteracantha hasselti).

40 Bukit Serumbu Gasteracantha (looks like hasselti) another angle
A close-up of the same G. hasselti.

41 Bukit Serumbu Xanthotaenia busiris
A less-than-pristine specimen of Xanthotaenia busiris or Yellow-banded Nymph.
Probably the Bornean burra subspecies.

About halfway down, I was treated to a familiar cacophony that I encountered previously at the Kubah National Park - the ear-splitting tymbalisation of jade-green cicadas (Dundubia vaginata). Like previously, they reached a crescendo at about 1:00PM but tried as I could, I was unable to approach one closely enough to photograph it. Of course, at the time I am writing this, I have already remedied that deficiency twice over: once on a repeat climb of Santubong and more recently, during my one week at the Mulu National Park. I will tell more in my forthcoming posts about those expeditions.

Even at my unhurried pace, I reached the base of the mountain after just two hours, and that includes the time I took poking around the historical site where the Brooke Cottage once stood. As with my trek up the mountain, I did not meet a single other trekker on my way down, which suits me just fine. I don't like people very much. As my past history with meeting people on mountain trails can attest, they tended to do stunningly selfish and inconsiderate things like smoke cigarettes in my presence without even asking me if I am okay with it. Did they think that I wasn't trekking for my own health? Or that I have no inclinations in enjoying the clean mountain air which I spend hours trying to access?

Still, I hope that the flow of pilgrims coming to Bukit Serumbu to retrace Wallace's steps would remain a trickle. It isn't everyday that one can claim an entire mountain of solitude for himself, you know.

RELATED POST: The Mismanagement of Alfred Russel Wallace's Heritage in Sarawak

Treading on natural history,
k0k s3n w4i