Mount Santubong looms ahead of my morning commute every morning, as it has for a dozen years. I’ve skirted the base of the mountain countless times, on the way to Damai beach or Sultan Tengah’s tomb, but I’d never made it to the top. Not for lack of trying. Two years ago, my son, my father and I attempted the ascent from a distant trailhead late in the morning and had to turn back. This time, a party of six of us went bright and early to the straightest starting point to the top, Bukit Puteri.
The climb gets steep right from the get go. Maybe it’s for the best – If you aren’t in shape for the climb, you’ll find out right away. We were all first time climbers and didn’t expect the going to be as challenging as it was. After the first leg, a 40-minute hike, we were breathing heavy. “Lelah!” said Mahmud, our Syrian friend. “Don’t say ‘lelah‘, say ‘La ilaha ill Allah!‘” and off we went.
It was a very arduous climb for a bunch of middle-aged sedentary office workers like us. One of our friends had to turn back, while my spry 17-year-old son scrambled off ahead. That left me and Mahmud alone to keep putting one foot after another.
The first 30 minutes of stiff hiking gave way to two and a half hours of climbing ladders, grabbing ropes and clambering on hands and feet over rocks and criss-crossing roots. At one point Mahmud says to me the ligaments in his knee had been bothering him so he rubbed it with olive oil in the morning before heading out. I could only laugh at his foolishness. People from the Mediterranean, they think olive oil is good for everything. Everybody in Malaysia knows that’s not true: Coconut oil is good for everything!
The tropical rainforest continues to be a mystery to me. Hundreds of species, but the canopies tower far overhead. The random plaques nailed to the trees do little to help distinguish one anonymous gray trunk from another. And yet one plaque jumped out: Quercus somethingorother! A dear old oak tree. I had no idea oaks were present in the tropics, but come to find out not only are there five or six species found in Malaysia, the Oak genus is believed to originate in Southeast Asia! Oakland County, Michigan: you stand in Malaysia’s debt.
As we reached the peak, the woods opened to a rocky outcropping upon which was a steel plaque bearing the story of Datuk Merpati. It says here that Datuk Merpati was the founder of the Santubong settlement somewhere between the 10th and 14th centuries. Datuk Merpati – Lord Pigeon – could command frogs to plant rice for him, possessed a golden dragon and could travel from Santubong to Brunei in a single day! The stuff of legends, you scoff in disbelief. And yet you believe without hesitation that our present ruler can travel from Kuala Lumpur to Hawaii in a single day aboard a silver dragon, there to struggle in competition against his rival for the greater glory of the nation. What can Datuk Merpati say to that?
After all the huffing and puffing, reaching the top was anticlimactic. It is said on a clear day you can see all the way to the mountain range on the border with Kalimantan. But we climbed in the middle of two weeks of haze blowing in from the peat fires of Indonesia, the worst year for it in Kuching since 2007. I could barely see down the mountainside, much less out toward any panoramic view. Still worth it, we all agreed, and a good reason to come back again. The next target for The Paunchy Bunch is Mount Serapi, once the weather clears and our joints are well lubricated in coconut oil.