Mount Murud, or Gunung Murud in Malay, is with its 2423m the highest mountain of Sarawak, situated in the Kelabit Highlands. It is reached the easiest from Ba’kelalan or Bario.
Despite being the highest mountain around and the trek to the summit being absolutely beautiful, it is not a very popular place amongst tourists which adds to the experience of hiking to the top. I have climbed many mountains but none compare to this one.
Gunung Murud is a holy mountain, a pilgrimage place since Pa Agong got his vision from God to build a church near the peak in 1975.
Day 1: January 8 2017
We started our trek from Buduk Nur, Ba’kelalan. Early in the morning, a bit later than planned because of the rain, we set out to the beginning of the trail that starts just at the end of the airstrip. Our bags packed with water, rice and noodles for a few days, a tent, sleeping bags and warm clothes for the cold nights ahead.
A red and white striped pipe sticking out of the ground signals the beginning of the path that bends to the left entering virgin forest. Only after a few minutes walk you found yourself surrounded by jungle, making it feel like the small village you just left behind feels like miles away. The trail is clear and well walked as it is still frequently used by the locals for hunting. Up until about a decade ago, before the building of the road, this was the starting point for the biyearly pilgrimage to Gunung Murud. With the road in place, most people start from Lapo Bunga, also known as “drop off point”, which we will be reaching the following day.
We walked the trail silently, making sure not to disturb the wildlife in the hope off getting a glimpse of it. We saw a few Macaques hiding away as we walked passed.
After two hours of walking we reached Natad Belaban. A known resting point by a huge tree that is no longer standing. (Belaban is the Lun Bawang for the tree species that once stood here). We put our bags down for a few minutes to re-hydrate and pull off the leeches that had attached themselves to our ankles. The day was still young and our energy levels still going strong so we set off again.
One hour of walking later we reached the second resting place called Natad Gurkha, named after the British battalion of Nepalese soldiers that used this place as a camp during the conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia following the formation of the Malaysian Republic in he early ’60s. It is also the place where the locals stopped the logging companies with a blockade somewhere in the 90’s to protect their water catchment area.
The consequences of the logging are still visible as the rest of the trail has been bulldozed away. Up til this point our trek had been fairly easy and the trail very clear but from here we were warned to be very careful not to loose the trail. Following a trail through the jungle can be easy enough, the difficulty lies in finding the trail when you are not on it. A clear path can be invisible if you are just a few meters away.
With our hand drawn map and clear instructions from the night before we set out for the final part of that days journey. We were told to follow the bulldozer track for a while to the left, then head down the ridge on the right. If we came across a stream, we head gone to much to the left but following that stream would lead us to approximately the same point as the trail would take us.
We set of on the bulldozed track and followed it for a good while until it was very unclear and we found ourselves on a steep slope. We were still following someone’s cuts but maybe that someone had lost the trail as well. Luckily we could already here the stream and before long we had climbed down to the softly flowing water. Plan B it was. Slowly we descended along with the water, hopping from stone to stone, sometimes climbing down fallen trunks or crossing over the banks. The stream was beautiful and probably easier to follow than an unused trail. We were told we would reach the road after about two hours but after that time , still no sign of a clearing. Going down a stream takes time though, the many obstacles on the way, although not difficult, will slow you down. After tree hours and with freshly harvested banana harts in our bags we finally reached the road. From there it was just a short walk following that road to Long Rebata, a small shelter next to the river and our home for the night.
The shelter was next to river, just of the road was just of the road where a bridge over the river is being built. It was still early in the afternoon so we had plenty of time to get settled in. We cleaned up the shelter a little bit, had a refreshing soak in the river, put up our tent and started a fire to heat up some water for coffee. As the sun went down we cooked the rice and vegetables we had received from our host back in the village along with the banana harts we had found along the way. After a long talk about the state of the world, one of those you can only have in front of an open fire, we crawled in our sleeping bags to let sleep take us to the next day.
Day 2: January 9 2017
The next morning we packed up and after a hearty breakfast of last nights leftovers we set of for the next part of our journey: a 2 hour walk on the road to Lapo Bunga. It was a steep journey but something amazing happened. A hornbill came to say hello, he landed in a tree just beside the road where we were and stayed long enough for us to have a good look at him. My wish for this journey had come true.
Behind the house at Lapo Bunga Starts the trail to Church camp. It is a beautiful trail through the forest and for us it was nice to get of the road. On this trail, you can start to see a change in the vegetation, the jungle is less dense and reminds of a European deciduous forest although it is still completely different. The trail is steep but many ladders, improvised out of tree trunks, and ropes helped us gain altitude rapidly. After about an hour ascending through the forest we arrived on top of the ridge at the beginning of “Joy Bridge” or “Jambatan Sukacita”.
The bridge was build as a walkway through the forest, it follows the ridge almost all the way to Church Camp which must make it a few kilometers long. Sadly, time and the wet climate have send this bridge into decay. Walking along this decrepit structure in a otherwise almost untouched jungle with no one else around gave me an other worldly feeling. All you hear are the birds and the insects and the realization that the closest people around are miles away makes this hike very special. The longer we walked, the more I understood why people have chosen this place to be a pilgrimage.
After two hours we reached our final destination for that day, Church Camp, also named Holy Ground or Reked Meligan. This place is truly from an other world. As we emerged from the forest, we saw the roofs shining in the sun light. I expected one church, maybe a few houses but what I saw was an entire village. Around a hundred small wooden houses where gathered in this open space in the middle of the forest. It was quiet, so quiet, completely deserted. The mist was rolling in.
Near the entrance there is a small stream, the source got dug up by the first prayer group who came up the mountain. It flows into a pool, here people get baptized during the pilgrimage. on the other side of the camp there is a church, big enough to house a few hundred people.
Some of the house are locked, some of them are open for people to stay in. We chose the guides and porters house to set up camp. One room with a fire place in the middle and enough space for our tent. that night we had a hard time keeping the fire going, the wood just wouldn’t keep the flame. With a lot of effort we did manage to cook our rice and veggies and have some coffee. The sound of the frogs in the wet underground sounded very human while the wind played around with the zinc sheet roofing making it sound like people where opening and closing doors. Let me just say I was happy I was not completely by myself in this place. Although, when I went out a bit later to go to the washroom I found the place had something very peaceful to it. The moon was almost full and the misty clouds had gone. All the houses were bathing in the moonlight while stars shimmered above my head. So serene, so peaceful.
Day 3: January 10 2017
After a cold night we woke up. This was going to be our summit day. We mixed the left-over rice from the day before with some noodles to properly fuel our legs for the task at hand. No packing up that morning because we will be returning for another night before we head all the way back. With our camp in a relatively decent state we started of in the direction of the church. Just after the last house before the church starts the trail that leads to the peak. It started out very muddy but before long the trail dried out again. We had been blessed with a few rainless days so far, not a single drop had fallen from the sky since the morning we had left. The going went easy, we started of downhill and my body had gotten used to the daily walking, not to mention my backpack was as light as a feather. The further we walked, the more beautiful the path became.
We walked through the forest for a good while, following a rocky and fairly dry riverbed. Left and right, up and down, everywhere I looked i could see pitcher plants decorating the trail: red, yellow, big, small, round, long, … all shapes and sizes. I have never seen anything like it.
The higher we went, the more the vegetation changed. It became shorter, an assortment of sturdy shrubs in stead of trees.When the trees become very few and far apart you have arrived in a place known as ‘Rock Garden’. Big boulders are scattered between the shrubs and pitcher plants. All of them have funny shapes and with a little imagination you can see all kinds of things in them. The place has such an immense natural beauty that it almost seems fake, made by men to look perfect but it is not made by men.
The weirdest thing about this mountain is that, just before you reach the top, you have to pass through a small patch of mossy forest again. Shrubs make place for old trees, crammed together, covered in moss. Only to disappear as fast they came and before you know it you are surrounded by the multicoloured shrubs again.
We had reached the summit.
Rain forest covered hills lay around us as far as the eye could see. We had reached our destination. Three days of hiking to take us to this stunning place. Our luck with the weather had not run out, although a little bit cloudy, the view was breath taking and the mist kept at a distance.
Descending back to Church Camp, we gathered firewood in the hope of making a better fire later that night, as much as I could fit in my bag. We picked up a nice pace and it only took us about three hours to get back to our camp. Nothing had changed, no hikers had joined, everything was still quiet and desolate. We enjoyed our last night on this amazing mountain with the last of the rice and veggies.
Day 4: January 10 2017
The alarm went of at five in the morning, it was still dark outside but we had a plan: watch the sunset from Batu Linanit, a smaller peak at about 40 minutes climb from Church Camp. Still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and armed with a gas stove, cups and coffee we set of in silence. There is something very peaceful about hiking in the dark. You just see the circle of light from your headlamp, it is like the world around does not exist. Just before down it get very quiet in the jungle; birds, insects, mammals, everything seems to be asleep. After the walk in a sleepy haze, we reached the top just as the first glow of the rising sun crept over the horizon. for the next hour we saw the world around us wake up as more light filled the sky.
After the sounds of the jungle had risen to their full volume there was nothing left for us to do then pack up and walk back to the Tropical Jungle Hide Out, our home.