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Diana Chendai Ngadan joined WWF-Malaysia as a community engagement and education officer in January 2019 under Sarawak Conservation Programme. Currently, she is the forest and community officer. This former lecturer is not new to mountain climbing as she has scaled some i.e Jagoi, Singai, Santubong and Serapi which are about an hour’s drive from Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak state. Just a few months with the panda family, she had the opportunity to take on the highest mountain in Sarawak - Murud. In conjunction with International Mountain Day, she looks back to her trip with fond memories.
In May 2019, I joined my two other colleagues, Nazriman Wagiman and McKenzie Martin, to take part in a recce for the Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge III organized by the Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Highlands of Borneo (FORMADAT) to explore Mount Murud.
WWF-Malaysia supports FORMADAT’s efforts to make the Eco Challenge as the alliance’s signature ecotourism event to promote long-term conservation work in the highlands of Bario, Ba’ Kelalan and Long Semadoh, Sarawak; Long Pa’ Sia’, Sabah; and Long Bawan, Kalimantan. Ecotourism means responsible tourism that has low impact to the environment or conservation-focused and at the same time, sustains the well-being of local people.
Mount Murud is the highest mountain in Sarawak and it is a sandstone mountain that stands at 2,423m above sea level. It is situated between the boundaries of Miri and Limbang divisions, in the Maligan-Kelabit highlands. The mountain is also within the Pulong Tau National Park. Pulong Tau means “our forest” in the Kelabit and Lun Bawang languages, and this protected area boasts one of the last remnants of virgin tropical forests in Sarawak.
The climb to Mount Murud was probably the toughest hike in my life; a hike harder than Mount Kinabalu i.e. the highest mountain in South East Asia as some claimed. My adventure to Mount Murud started from Ba’ Kelalan - home to the Lun Bawang community of scenic villages between rolling hills and paddy fields. We travelled from Ba’ Kelalan to Lepo Bunga by a four-wheel drive on a former logging track for an hour. From Lepo Bunga onwards, we travelled on foot to the church camp. The trail from Lepo Bunga to Mount Murud church camp extends about 5km of tropical montane forests and rugged terrains that required us to walk on metal walkway, muddy trails, wooden trails, climb steep hills and descend on slippery tracks.
The forest smelled fresh and earthy. The first half of the trek was fantastic, except the muddy trails which were quite tricky. The heavy rain made it even more challenging. The hike got harder with most trails carpeted with slippery rocks and boulders. They were covered with moss, soft mud/soil and tricky roots with occasional sharp creepers that had fallen along the path.
I was trying very hard to control my heavy breathing and Nazriman who heard me, told me that my lips looked very pale. This was because as we went higher up the mountain, the air became thinner and colder. I have truly underestimated Mount Murud. I thought by running for half an hour three times a week would be sufficient to build up my stamina for this hike but I was wrong. On top of that, I just returned from a field trip where I had to walk around hilly pepper farms in Katibas. So, climbing a mountain should be a piece of cake for me, right?
I was amazed by our porters who could carry about 20kg each on their backs of our camping necessities, and the fact that they reached one of the rest points before us amazed me even more. They started trekking 30 minutes after the three of us embarked on the journey with our local guide Kading Sultan. All I could say to them was “Wah, cepatnya kamu orang. Kami yang start dulu pun kamu boleh kejar”.
(Wow, you guys are so fast. Although we started to hike first, you managed to catch up with us and arrived first). Kading said, “Kena cepat, dia orang mau masak bila sampai church camp nanti. Nanti gelap, tak nampak jalan. Bahaya.” (They have to be faster because they need to cook when they reach the church camp. When it gets dark, we cannot see our path. Dangerous). McKenzie, Nazriman and I just looked at each other worriedly and quickly tried our best to increase our pace.
Looking up, I felt the trees were like the height of skyscrapers and they covered most of the forest canopy. The forest trail is also famous for rare species of Lithophytic orchids and Nepenthes or pitcher plants. After five hours of trekking, we reached the holy ground known by the locals as Reked Meligan, around 6 p.m. We reached the church camp, located at 2,100m above sea level, an hour earlier than the average hiking time.
Tired with aches on my knees and back, nothing tastes better than hot piping food after a long hike. As night descended, we talked to each other and I remembered asking, “Why do I want to go through all this strenuous and difficult trek?” A wise man then replied with a short yet meaningful answer, “We go through all hardships because they help to build one’s character.” I guessed he was right. Being out of my comfort zone and venture into new discoveries have made me appreciate nature and our efforts to conserve forest and natural heritage even more.
It was very cold and raining the next morning. After a hearty breakfast, I was all charged up to conquer Mount Murud’s peak although my body’s muscles were screaming in pain from yesterday’s hike. I admired the montane forest and numerous pitcher plants as I trudged up along the rugged trail. They were indeed beautiful and perfect for computer’s wallpaper.
During the three-hour hike, I asked for frequent stops as I could not catch up with the guys, and my poor hiking companions were very obliging. My body was aching all over and I could hardly breathe as the air got thinner at higher altitude. I decided to call it quits and stop at a stream which is about an hour to the peak because I didn’t want to stall the others. McKenzie and Nazriman along with our guide made it to the top and they were elated. While waiting for them to descend and meet up at the stream, I’ve come to realize that I am an unfit city girl, “Hahaha!”
So, if given the opportunity to climb Mount Murud again, yes, I will go for it. The beauty and biodiversity that come with the trail gives so much of aesthetic value that I would love to see the montane forests again. Mountains in the highlands are water catchment areas that flow into rivers and provide life to people and all living things. Mountains also provide sustenance and cultural heritage to communities who live at the foothills and valleys. But if these mountains are altered e.g forests are cleared for large-scale development, or mass tourism is introduced, this may affect the locals who rely on the water catchments for clean drinking water and irrigation of their paddy fields. Other threats such as landslides and erosions may become more frequent, which can significantly impact the people who live below the mountains and also to the wildlife in the area. That is why we need to protect our mountains.
The next time, I will do my best to reach the peak. Climbing a mountain is tiring but I still do it during my leisure time because with all the grueling and exhausting hike, it is a satisfaction when you reach the top. At the same time, we can ponder and admire the efforts made by local people in keeping the area intact and pristine, and in healthy conditions that provide us the fresh air. Be a responsible hiker by keeping the trails clean and respect the nature that lives within the mountain. Happy International Mountain Day!