Now that pandemic-related movement restrictions, imposed since 2020, have been eased, people are once again enjoying outdoor leisure activities.
I was one of those who prayed hard for the restrictions to be lifted so that people could be free to go about their business.
Outdoor activities like walking and hiking around the neighbourhood do not demand too much from us, other than time, commitment and a free spirit.
Mountain climbing as a weekend ritual has become my obsession since I moved to Sarawak over five years ago.
My recent ascents brought me to two national parks: Mount Gading in Lundu and the Bako National Park in the Muara Tebas peninsula.
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I had climbed nearby mountains around Kuching since my arrival. Mount Singai was my first in 2018, and then Mount Serapi, Mount Santubong, Bung Jagoi and Bung Bratak, before the pandemic struck.
Mount Gading has been my obsession ever since Sarawak relaxed its movement restrictions. It is higher in elevation – 965m above sea level – than Mount Santubong (810m above sea level) and located about 35km from Kuching centre.
I had gone to Mount Gading twice, in 2018 and 2021, before my successful climb recently. The first attempt was aborted because of unpreparedness on my part and the unwillingness of my fellow climbers to push through the climb, especially as we did not have any tour guide.
But I tried. After a quick full view of the blooming rafflesia, I went up. My friends joined me until Waterfall 3, which is about 1,000m from the park headquarters.
After that, I was on my own, carefully taking a slow walk, not knowing how far I could go. All alone, I was surrounded by tall dipterocarp trees and big slippery stones on the trail. At first, I enjoyed the serenity and peace the forest afforded me.
But I suddenly realised I could not get help if there was an emergency, especially if there was no connectivity. The thought of sliding on the trail and hitting my head on those large stones filled me with dread.
I decided to turn back as soon as I reached Waterfall 7. By then I would have walked close to 2,000m already.
My second attempt was also aborted because the weather was unkind that day in 2021. The park staff only allowed us to view the giant rafflesia flower, which amazingly popped up along the trail.
Finally, on this last occasion, I was more prepared, and we were lucky to enjoy warm, sunny weather. I invited two friends to join me in my obsession to hike Mount Gading.
We left Kuching at 5.30am and reached Lundu town just when the market vendors were busy displaying greens, fruits, their fresh marine catch, and other forest products.
We bought crabs, shrimp and fish and requested my friend’s aunt to cook lunch. We promised to return at 2pm.
The Gading range has several peaks: Mount Lundu, the lowest; Mount Sebuloh, the next peak; Mount Perigi, the central peak; and Mount Gading on the eastern side.
This mountain range borders West Kalimantan. In fact, Lundu, where Mount Gading stands as its border, is a mixed community comprising Indonesians and Malaysians and this is most apparent at the local market.
Some vegetables and fruits come from the other side of the border – a practice that has been going on despite the official drawing of territorial lines.
For the uninitiated, all mountains are not the same. Mount Gading is primarily a dipterocarp forest, which means it houses a variety of tall timber trees and associated forest vegetation.
As a national park, it is home to highly sought after rafflesia flower. It also has amorphophallus titanum and fungi of different colours and shapes.
On the 3.8km stretch to the summit, the forest bed presents a plethora of caladium, creepers, vines and hard timber trees.
Up in the trees, one can hear the singing ‘do-fa-so-la’ birds and the orchestra of cicadas and crickets in the background.
An interesting presentation of stones and rocks of all sizes is most noticeable. This provides the clue that in ancient times, this mountain was once a host to a mighty river. Stones and rocks and the naturally landscaped waterfalls off the trails would attest to this.
Making stops on the way to the summit was more than just to catch my breath. Stopping to watch a falling leaf is an exhilarating experience that brings back childhood memories. Back then, my primary school chums would wait under the great acacia tree days before exam week, trying hard to catch a falling leaf – yes, for good luck, hoping to pass the exams with flying colours.
To stop is also to listen to the ‘do-fa-so-lah’ birds singing their melodious tune, which occasionally sounds melancholic.
A group of cicadas, which I thought only live in low and mid-altitude, trumpet out their deafening call to entertain me and my friends.
But my strides – and my stops – are rather cautious, simply because of my fear of snakes. Many have asked if I have seen large snakes in the forest. I’ve never encountered one, although I saw my co-trekker in Mount Singai shooing a big snake like getting rid of a naughty kitten.
My friend used to tell me that the big snakes are busy resting and molting, up in the trees, not on the ground. This has stuck in my consciousness since. And so, my slow walk after a fast stride is often influenced by my thought that snakes may just fall from the expansive forest canopy.
Often, I look up and scout for angling big snakes and imagine them curling up on me. Sometimes too much of this imagination of snakes triggers a host of false apparitions. Often, I imagine the corrugated, unpretentious flat-as-kuey tiaw noodles or round-as-bamboo vines to be anacondas and smiling pythons when viewed from a distance.
Mountain climbing should be a simple, unsophisticated leisure activity that does not incur too much expense.
One only needs a free spirit to walk through the forest and enjoy the best it offers.
Forest enthusiasts usually associate walking and trekking in the woods as ‘forest bathing’. It makes for a healthy lifestyle that hopefully persuades us to spend more time in the vastness of the forest, rather than pursuing a lifestyle of crass materialism that pushes us to consume products inimical to human health and wellbeing.
The pandemic also prompts us to ponder what is at stake when a health crisis knocks on our door. Pursuing a simple human leisure activity that is attuned to the natural world, rather than altering it, helps heal the disturbed landscape of human existence.
Walking aimlessly, trekking in silence and climbing gracefully, aware of our own frailties and flaws, helps liberate our minds from excessive material and earthly pursuits.
So Sarawak – my new ‘adopted’ homeland – is the best alternative place if we want to pursue a healthy lifestyle. Neighbourhood parks, hiking trails, national parks, hundreds of rivers and streams and waterfalls are more than enough to quench our thirst for anything natural.