Conquering Gunung Batu Putih

Saturday May 21, 2005

Conquering Gunung Batu Putih

Story & Pictures by Chan Ah Lak

Wow! This is rock climbing without any ropes!” gasped Silviane, a Swiss expatriate working in Penang.  

She had just scrambled up a four-storey high rock face with her heavy backpack and was about to reach Gunung Kak, the half-way campsite en route to the summit of Gunung Batu Putih. 

A rock face on Gunung Batu Putih.

Gunung Batu Putih, at 2,131m above sea level, is the eighth highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia. It is definitely on the “wish list” of those who want to conquer the country’s 10 highest peaks.  

Straddling the Perak-Pahang border, this mountain is accessed via the Kuala Woh Recreation Park, 10km from Tapah, on the Cameron Highlands road. After passing Kuala Woh Reservoir, the road ends at Kuala Woh Dam. From there, a narrow pedestrian bridge across Sungai Woh leads to an Orang Asli village. Our mountain guide was supposed to be waiting for us here, but he did not turn up! 

As we dithered there, four hikers from Kuala Lumpur turned up, and there was a familiar face among them. Sivam, who had previously hiked with some of us, said that he had been up this mountain a few years back and could probably remember the route . . . if we trusted him!  

So we joined up with his group, and, guide or no guide, we were soon on our way.  

The trail started behind the guardhouse of the Sungai Woh dam and ran parallel to the river. The sound of gushing water was soothing to some of us who had started our journey from home at 5am. Occasionally we got a glimpse of the roaring waters. After 40 minutes of easy hiking on the undulating riverbank, the trail led to a river crossing. We found Sungai Woh fast-flowing and the rocks, whether submerged or exposed, were slippery. The water level was up to our hips.  

The Begonia decora.

Soon after the river crossing we noticed a friendly brown dog following us. It looked well-fed and it must have come from the Orang Asli village. We tried to shoo him away, but he refused to budge and soon started walking ahead, as if to lead the way! We fondly nicknamed him Bobo. Could he be our mountain guide for the trip? 

We walked along a small tributary of Sungai Woh for 20 minutes. From then on it was a long uphill climb for about two hours before we reached a dried-up stream. Beautiful African violets (Didymorcarpus sp), a montane herb with trumpet-shaped flowers, dotted the banks as if to welcome us. We had reached high country!  

An hour later we crossed a stream with clear running water. The soggy banks of this little river were covered in a luxuriant blanket of more African violets and begonias, each trying to outdo the other in vying for our attention. Soon after, we heard the sound of running water. This stream would be our last water point until our halfway camp, another three hours away.  

The trail got steeper. Most of the time we walked on the ridge. Other than having to pick off a few leeches from our legs and clambering over several fallen tree trunks, the trail was mostly clear of obstacles, although there were thorny rattan creepers, stinging bees and such.  

The second obstacle after the river crossing was a vertical rock face with a long narrow ledge and a 2m wide void after that. Previous hikers managed to bridge this wide gap by lashing two small tree trunks together. We trod carefully because one false move would mean a 10m fall.  

The third obstacle was a four-storey high rock face just below the campsite at Gunung Kak. Fortunately the tree roots growing here allowed us to scramble up. Even Bobo managed to climb this far on his own.  

Gunung Batu Kak Campsite (1,440m

An African violet.

Five minutes after the last obstacle, we found ourselves on a flat narrow ledge, the peak of Gunung Batu Kak. On one side was the 80° rocky slope that we had just scrambled up. On the other side was a cliff wall dropping vertically for at least 200m into a valley. A few years back, one hiker went over this cliff and his body was never found despite an extensive search. So this place is definitely not a suitable camping site for sleepwalkers. There was space here for only five tents. 

Looming above was a ridge leading to the summit. One side of it was a vertical rock face, about 400m wide and 200m high, almost completely white. Gunung Batu Putih was probably named after this rockface.  

Most hikers choose not to camp as there is no source of water nearby, preferring The Cave, which has a small stream behind it. Our group had missed the junction to this campsite. Faced with no water to cook, Richard Low and two younger hikers took all our empty bottles and backtracked. They found a water source after an hour and saved the day! 

Mossy forest  

The trail continued up the ridge and several spurs. Two hours into the trail, at 1,660m, we came to the last water point. The source was a stream with crystal clear cold water, but getting to it required a 20-minute hike down a steep slippery slope. From then on, the mossy forest gradually took over. Pitcher plants, lipstick plants, ginger plants and epiphytic orchids grew in abundance.  

An attractive-looking root parasite.

What distinguishes Gunung Batu Putih from other mountains are the large colonies of root parasite of the Balanophora species. These red-coloured colonies grow freely on either side of the trail. Near the summit, the track became soggy and muddy. Two hours after the last water point, we found ourselves at the summit. Bobo was on hand to welcome the latecomers!  

We found the summit to be relatively flat and clear of vegetation. Later, a group of hikers from the Selangor branch of the Malaysian Nature Society arrived and set up tents too. So all available space was taken up.  

At 6pm the dark sky threatened to rain so we prepared dinner early. We brought enough food to spare, so Bobo received his guide fees too. After dinner, the weather deteriorated, and we retired to our tents. Since we were not sure about Bobo’s health and flea status no one wanted to share a tent with him. However, someone made a shelter for him from discarded plastic.  

Next morning, Bobo greeted us enthusiastically, being none the worse for wear after spending a night atop a cold mountain. After an early breakfast, we made our way down with Bobo in the lead. Six hours later, we arrived back at Sungei Woh. No one, not even Bobo, could resist the temptation of jumping into the water for a swim and washing up before heading home. 

On every mountain climbing trip we have been on, there has always been a particular character or episode that stands out. This particular climb will always be associated with Bobo, our doggy mountain guide. W 

The 10 highest mountains in Peninsular Malaysia:

  • Gunung Tahan (2,190m)
  • Gunung Korbu (2,183m)
  • Gunung Yong Belar (2,181m)
  • Gunung Gayong (2,173m)
  • Gunung Chamah (2,171m)
  • Gunung Yong Yap (2,168m)
  • Gunung Ulu Sepat (2,158m)
  • Gunung Batu Putih (2,131m)
  • Gunung Irau (2,110m)
  • Gunung Benom (2,107m)