Song of the mystical Sarawak mountains

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Mount Selang and Mount Sendok as seen from Mount Serapi

Linda Lumayag hiked up three mystical mountains in Sarawak – and came away hoping that people and the state won’t compromise on protecting them.

Mountain hiking and trekking is not a new experience for me. I spent much of my childhood hiking, walking and meeting people on the way to and from my grandparents’ village farm.

Since moving to Sarawak more than two years ago, I tried exploring a few mountains near Kuching. August was a busy month for me when I planned to hike up Mount Serapi, Mount Singai and Mount Santubong within three weeks. These three exhilarating weeks in between work and family obligations brought me a great feeling of fulfilment.

Part of my agenda for living in Sarawak was to explore its breathtaking mountains, its dozens of rivers, unique longhouses and welcoming rural communities.

Mount Singai – a eureka moment

An amorphophallus hewittii (corpse flower) in full bloom

The first mountain I climbed was the sacred Mount Singai – home of the Bisingai people more than 400 years ago until they moved to the lowlands in the 1970s. This mountain is popular among local trekkers since it is just about 30km from Kuching.

Midway through the climb to the summit, you will see the facade of an old Christian church, built around 1885. In 1999 the Catholic Memorial and Pilgrimage Centre was opened to commemorate the significant contribution of this place to the lives of the Catholic communities, who now live around the foot of this sacred mountain.

While ascending the mountain, I passed by the 14 Stations of the Cross, which the Catholic faithful usually observe during the season of Lent. The first station is close to the foot of the mountain and the last station is at the location of the old church.

During my first climb in April last year, I was welcomed by the sight of the amorphophallus hewittii (corpse flower), which rarely blooms (photo above). It was my eureka moment because I knew it was not found just anywhere in Sarawak. You may see the flower this year but you will not find it in exactly the same location the next time.

During this visit, I met young Sarawakians attending a youth camp held at the Catholic pilgrimage centre, a popular place for retreats not only for Catholics. Basic amenities are available for both small and large contingents.

I decided to push my ascent further with a faint idea of what this mountain could offer me. It was not a busy Saturday, so only a handful were out enjoying the trek. Determined to reach the top of the 562-metre-high mountain, I relished the intermittent sounds of the birds, cicadas and other insects.

On my way up, I was charmed by bamboos, palms, ferns, mushrooms and big-bellied black ants.

Trekking Mount Singai may not be as challenging as the other mountains in Sarawak, but it gave me a sense of gratitude and wonder.

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Based on local studies, Mount Singai may have been a conducive habitat for various flora and fauna (table below).

Inhabitants of Mount Singai

Number Type
30 species Amphibians
19 species Reptiles (14 are endemic to Borneo)
26 species Birds (100); 11 families
22 species Mammals
10 species Butterflies (86)
1178 species Plants (from 69 families including ginger, ferns, aroids and other undergrowths)
150 groups Under-storey plants (for landscaping, of medicinal, timber and handicraft value)
131 trees 17 families, 23 genera
254 fruit trees (at the time of research in 2010/2014)

Source: Adapted from (1)”Stairway up a sacred mountain“, The Borneo Post, 2016 (2) Sayok, Alexander, Andrew Alek Tuen and Jongkar Grinang (2014). Singai Unveiled. The Institute of Biodiversity and Environment Conservation, Unimas. ISBN 978-967-5418-46-4.

Mount Serapi – a mystical experience

The entrance to Mount Serapi

Mount Serapi, rising 911m above sea level, is located within the Kubah National Park, 22km from Kuching. It is a popular destination for both local and international mountain climbers, bird enthusiasts, and, yes, frog lovers. This is perhaps one of the earliest mountain trails ever gazetted, judging from the presence of a state telecommunications telecom tower on the highest summit in Kuching.

Climbers have at least six trails to choose from depending on their interest. I followed what the guard suggested, taking the 5km climb to the top using the tarred road that would last for three hours or so. Although the climb is relatively easy as a trail shows the way, an hour of walking up a cemented road stressed my knees and legs.

What compensated for the pressure on my knees was the unexpected cacophony of sounds that grew louder as I continued my walk. I wanted to keep that moment in my mind when birds, insects and cicadas sang alternately at times and sometimes in unison.

Like Mount Singai, Mount Serapi produces a variety of natural, haunting and sometimes melodious sounds from the natural inhabitants of the jungle. Such an experience gave me a calming and soothing feeling that I wished would last forever. That soundscape uplifted me and reminded me of my own dependence on the forces of the natural world. My only regret was my ignorance of the inhabitants of the jungle I had just invaded.

The climb was steep and I almost felt like giving up. The last stretch of the mountain especially tested my physical endurance and patience. At one point, I wanted to finish the trek but then my legs and back signalled me to slow down.

The horizon from atop Mount Serapi was mystical. I gazed upon the two other mountains of Selang and Sendok (top photo) that form the three summits of the Matang Range, after three hours of gruelling walk. Clouds gently descended as if performing a dance for a new guest.

I lingered for a while until the rhythm of the falling rain chased me down the mountain as if telling me to head back.

Mount Santubong – gruelling but exciting

Mount Santubong from a distance

The third climb and the most exciting was the climb up Mount Santubong.

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Historically, Santubong village played an important economic role during the reign of the Brunei sultanate, long before the Brookes controlled Sarawak (Sanib 2003). Trading ships that anchored on this stretch of the South China Sea may have used Mount Santubong as their strategic point of reference to locate and to engage in trading with the locals.

This was not my first attempt at this mountain. I tried doing it last year but my lack of preparation got the better of me and I had to cut short the climb after running out of time.

For this second attempt, I started the journey early, brought a fistful of almonds, water, bananas and five pieces of local sweets.

The guard reminded trekkers that it would take at least four hours on the red trail to reach the 810-metre high summit.

Feeling excited and anxious, I quietly trekked from the easy level (graded 3-4) and then, after checkpoint 7, the difficult level (graded 7-9). Climbers have to pass 15 checkpoints to reach the rainforest-covered peak. A number of other groups were also climbing that day, and I hoped my stamina would sustain my longing to reach the top.

After more than two hours of a slow but steady trekking, fear strangely enveloped my whole being when I saw a long flight of vertical steel steps in front of me. If I wanted to go up, the only way to do so was to use the steel ladder as the mountain slopes were too steep.

Before this stage, I had relied on holding on to vines, tree roots, and stones to pull myself up. Now, I had to rely on the steel ladder – and the prospect of falling down during the vertical climb was real. I thought it was just two or three ladders only to see another one looming between the big rocks and hardwood trees.

My eyes focused on every step I made. I promised myself not to turn back and see how deep the dimpled ravine was. That was when I realised that to reach the top I had to rely fully on these artificial steps.

What I seriously loved about this climb was the near perfect landscape of tall hardwood meranti, belian, empili and other trees, intermixed with other jungle trees and palms that produce leaves and trunks of different hues and shapes that may turn luminous (perhaps) at night. I loved the butterflies, ants and bees greeting me as I catch my next breath.

One particular type of tree had green leaves that turn to red when they fall on the forest bed. I loved the old vines and roots which are convenient handles for trekkers like me to grasp on to rather than big knotted plastic ropes available.

Just when I was so tired and feeling down, I caught sight of an 82-year-old man from Brunei who quietly and calmly negotiated his way through the difficult terrain. My drooping spirit was surprisingly invigorated and again the excitement stirred within.

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After five hours, I finally reached the top and was greeted by a panoramic view of the Sarawak River far below as it meets the South China Sea.

Despite the dense vegetation and the breathtaking scenery on my way up, something was missing here. I waited for the special orchestra to be performed by birds, monkeys, cicadas and other insects. Where did these birds go? Why was the mountain so quiet? Would the legends of Mount Santubong and Mount Serapi remain a mystery?

Mystical but different

No doubt, the three mountains are scenic; each has a mystical but different character.

Mount Santubong was overwhelmingly silent as I trekked up the summit but I feasted my eyes on the forest bed especially when I was about to reach the top. I imagined the forest bed would be luminous at night. Would it behave when darkness fell? All types of moss grew on the ground, on the stones and on the tree barks, each a different hue of green. I did bring home samples of the red leaves, but strangely, the red leaves turned brown when I reached the foot of the mountain. I began to shiver.

Mount Serapi can be overwhelming for beginngers, especially when they hear the sounds it emits from within. I call this a “singing mountain”: songs come from different orchestras of birds, cicadas, frogs and insects. When frogs croak at night, especially before rainfall, the of the jungle sounds change. Do these singing jungle inhabitants listen to one anothers’ voices, I wondered.

Mount Singai holds a special place in my heart too. Though alone in my recent climb, I felt the energy vibrations enhanced by the singing cicadas that accompanied my every step as I trudged up and down the mountain.

Trail steps to the summit of Mount Singai

At one point, the sound was deafening and, as if to pick up the cue, I spoke aloud: “Yes, thank you for having me today; I will come back again.” And, right on cue, the cicadas stopped their rising buzz and the decibel level in the jungle fell.

The immense beauty of these mountains reminds us to protect them at all costs. I fervently hope that people and the state won’t compromise on protecting them. The songs that these three mountains sing, speak of humanity’s interconnectedness with the natural world. The mountains will cease to sing the melody of life if we fail to protect them.

Having just celebrated Malaysia Day, we should pause for a moment and give thanks to the God of these mountains for sharing their lives and resources with us human beings.

All photographs by Linda Lumayag

Linda A Lumayag is an academic in a local university. She deeply hopes to be a naturalist in the hereafter.

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Cee Tee

Beautiful Sarawak.