An old friend dropped by for Raya. After the usual pleasantries he disclosed his purpose: a side quest to Pulau Lakei, the final resting place of the fabled Datuk Hajji Ibrahim. Of course I said yes. Pulau Lakei! The lone island at the far tip of Bako peninsula. Reaching Bako National Park requires a boat ride from Kampung Bako; Pulau Lakei is half again as far as the park base camp. Pulau Lakei! We gathered under the dome of Masjid Jamek the next day and set off together.
Bakau, the Malay word for Mangrove, is where the small fishing village and enormous national park get their names. A variety of bakau species grow naturally along the coasts and river mouths of the area. One is used for pilings in building houses, a decent choice as long as the pilings are submerged below the water table. When the water table inevitably drops with development, bakau rots in the dry soil leading to serious structural problems in homes thus affected. Ask me how I know.
Bakau swamps also provide a number of ecosystem services to the area, like flood control, erosion protection and breeding ground for seafood like prawns. Species other than the house-piling variety are protected by law and so it was reassuring to see stands of them growing here and there as our boat pulled out of Kampung Bako and made its way to the bay. Before long, the chiseled cliffs of Bako National Park were rising up on our right.
The bay was calm. Within an hour we had wrapped around the outer edge of the bay, left the Park ferry boats behind and come upon a small island with a tall bluff to the seaward side. The bluff tapered down to the lee side where a well-weathered fishing boat anchored off shore marked the approach to a small beach. A decrepit set of wooden cabins, charred pier and collapsed signboard testified to a lack of visitors. The owner of the fishing boat was ashore resting and hailed us, but he hadn’t been off the beach and couldn’t tell us what to expect. Steep flights of overgrown stairs lead up the bluff. Up we went, stepping over the missing or spongy treads on the way.
There it was: The Maqam of Datuk Hajji Ibrahim, the hermit of Lakei.
Legend has it that Hajji Ibrahim was a local of the area who lived around 300 years ago. He was drawn to worship of Allah and so he withdrew to the island of Lakei for suluk, or seclusion from the world. There he lived, drawing sustenance from land and sea and fresh water from the river that flowed on the island. Yes, despite the small size of the island, it has a river that flows fresh year-round, and collects in a series of seven rocky pools on its way to the shore. The first and largest pool is known as Kolam Salamun, after the verse in Surah Ya Sin (Q36:58):
“Peace! A word from the Lord Most Merciful.”
Although it may not look it, the water was clear, fresh and tasty. The red-brown color comes from tannins leached out of the leaves that fall in the stream and is harmless. There at the head of the pool are a series of inscriptions said to have been carved into the rock by the very finger of Hajji Ibrahim, for along with his piety he is also said to have been blessed with tremendous strength. What he inscribed is perhaps more mysterious than how: the same theme repeated several times, in jawi, more a glyph or charm than a simple word or sentence. Some see “wapaq”. I see a long “HU” with smaller HU’s crossing it at a right angle, HU being a holy name of Allah describing His unknowable essence. The stream washes over the inscriptions before falling into the pool. In times gone by, local people would come to the pool to collect water for spiritual benefit or healing purposes.
Hajji Ibrahim was also said to have built a great boat himself out of wood on the island, perhaps on top of the cliffs, felling the trees with his great strength, fashioning them into useable timbers, and then sailing that boat alone across the high seas to Mecca to perform his Hajj. And Allah alone knows the truth of it.
The maqam was dilapidated but the yellow cloth, the Malay color of royalty, was fresh and clean. The head and foot of the grave were marked with cylinders of tree trunks rather than stone, wrapped in yellow cloth as well. After sweeping out the space, our party was just able to squeeze in and we took a moment to read Ya Sin for the soul buried there, for whatever the truth of the stories told about him today, he was surely one of God’s creatures and an ancestor of the people of the area who to this day preserve the faith upon which he lived and died.
Having paid our respects, we cast about the area. The leader of our party recalled a path to a lookout from years before but the trailhead was nowhere to be found. A fire had swept over the island some years ago, killing the nibong palms but stimulating the growth of great woody ferns that now choked our way. At last I found a set of flagstones leading in the general direction. Luckily one our party had thought to bring a parang, and so it fell to me to hack our way through the undergrowth. The effort was worth it! The trail emerged at the cliffs we had seen on our approach. We looked out over the South China Sea, across the bay to Mount Santubong resplendent in profile, and down the sheer face to the surf breaking on the rocks below.
A fork in the trail led to another ferny thicket, but time was not on our side. Leaving that for the next time, we returned to the beach for a saltwater wudu. After offering up our asr prayers we left Datuk Hajji Ibrahim and the Isle of Lakei in the golden light of the late afternoon.