Gunung Keriang in Kedah: A beautiful, lonely rock in a sea of padi fields


Photos By ARNOLD LOH

At the top of Gunung Keriang, overlooking a sea of padi fields.

GEOLOGICALLY, it seems almost an impossibility.

North of Alor Setar in Kedah, is a flatland that stretches across 50,000ha.

The plains go for 34km between Alor Setar and Kangar in Perlis, flat as a runway, carpeted with almost nothing but padi fields.

And on this vast flatness, there is just one mound: 217m tall, 1km long, 600m across, covering a land space of 60ha.

This mound – nothing more than a hillock although it is given the superlative name Gunung Keriang – has tens of caves large and small.

Hikers in a large cavern within a cave in Gunung Keriang.Hikers in a large cavern within a cave in Gunung Keriang.

And in those caves are millions of shards of crystals.

You can drive all around the hillock and just by looking from the roadside, you will be able to see dozens of cave entrances; it’s a good idea to have pair of binoculars at hand for a satisfying viewing while driving around.

Crystal hunter Mahadi Mat Akhir, 58, who lives at the foot of the hillock, has been exploring Gunung Keriang’s caves since he was a kid.

“When I was 15, during school holidays, I went in to look for guano (bat dung fertiliser) and a type of loose reddish earth that is the traditional fertiliser for padi fields,” he said.

The reddish earth is red ochre, known to be high in iron and phosphates.

“In 1994 (when he was 29), people came to our village wanting to buy crystals, so we started going into the caves to look for them,” he said.

Hikers posing for a photo at the entrance of a cave in Gunung Keriang.Hikers posing for a photo at the entrance of a cave in Gunung Keriang.

Geological studies since 1981 ascertained that Gunung Kerian is a 250-million-year-old rock formation that was likely an island aeons ago when the surrounding plains was a seabed.

Though mainly limestone, geologists estimated at least 10 types of mineral rocks in it.

Mahadi said the mineral rocks were still active and when they receive water, they turn ionic and crystals of many hues gradually spout out of them.

“They are things of natural beauty that people will pay to own,” he said.

Red ochre earth harvested from the caves of Gunung Keriang, traditionally a mineral fertiliser for padi fields.Red ochre earth harvested from the caves of Gunung Keriang, traditionally a mineral fertiliser for padi fields.

Most of the fist-sized rocks he brings down, displayed in a shack at the foot of the hillock near his home, are priced at RM50 to RM60.

But when rocks are larger, bristling with crystals and have pleasing shapes, the price shoots up to the hundreds and even thousands.

In 2014, he found a rock the size of a supermarket trolley that weighed over a tonne.

It took him weeks to unearth it by hand and bring it down to sea level.

It is full of opaque white quartz in their natural, crystalline, rectangular shapes that end in points which he would not sell for less than RM70,000.

When he is not crystal-hunting, Mahadi doubles as a hiking guide.

Mahadi getting a close look at the one-tonne crystalline rock he found in Gunung Keriang in 2014.Mahadi getting a close look at the one-tonne crystalline rock he found in Gunung Keriang in 2014.

Hundreds of Kedahans go for hikes at the periphery of Gunung Keriang every day, but when they want to explore its dozens of caves, they need a guide.

And yes, should a hiker exploring a cave chance upon a pretty crystal, Mahadi said guides usually let them extricate it and bring it home unless it is too large to manfully carry.

Mahadi said he was once in a team of five guides who led 110 university undergraduates to explore one of the deepest caves in the mound called Gua Terus, where you enter from one side and exit about 1km away at the other side.

“One undergraduate, overweight, badly sprained her ankle and could hardly walk. I was the sweeper guide and it was my job to bring her back down.

“I also once helped a pensioner who had severe heart palpitations while caving. He was sweating like crazy and incoherent. I was so afraid he would die but I did bring him down. He later told us he had two heart surgeries,” Mahadi reminisced.

Now, when he meets people who want to explore Gunung Keriang, Mahadi always asks: Do you have heart problems? Diabetes? Hypertension?

“For caving and hiking, this place is not for beginners. It is not tall at all, and it’s beautiful and cold if you get into the caves. But there are many sheer faces to climb that need full body strength.

“You should be fit before coming here,” stressed Mahadi who, despite almost reaching senior citizenship, is a sinewy man with nary an inch of fat on him.

Those looking for guides on this adventure can send a Whatsapp message to Mahadi at 017-581 7845 and remember to text in Bahasa Malaysia.

Pang snaking through tight tunnels in a cave in Gunung Keriang.Pang snaking through tight tunnels in a cave in Gunung Keriang.

Pang Zheng Yao, 35, a dance instructor and member of the group Bukit Mertajam Happy Hikers entered Gua Terus recently.

“It is like an alien world. We entered massive caverns with walls shaped like nothing you’ve ever seen outside.

“I agree that it is not an easy-difficulty hike. Don’t bring young children or senior citizens,” he said.

Pang went into the cave with about 10 hikers and ended up becoming the group’s photographer simply because he possessed a 9,500-lumen handheld torchlight.

A shop assistant arranging mineral and crystals dug out of Gunung Keriang for sale.A shop assistant arranging mineral and crystals dug out of Gunung Keriang for sale.

The intensity of his torch’s beam is 18,000 candlepower, and it allowed him to illuminate entire caverns for memorable pictures.

“Deep in the cave, there is zero light. It is pitch black no matter how long you wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

“You must wear a good headlamp and also have a powerful torchlight,” Pang said.

Hikers making their way into a cave in Gunung Keriang. It is pitch black, everyone is wearing a headlamp and this shot is possible only with illumination of a 9,500-lumen torchlight.Hikers making their way into a cave in Gunung Keriang. It is pitch black, everyone is wearing a headlamp and this shot is possible only with illumination of a 9,500-lumen torchlight.

He pointed out that bright as 9,500 lumens is, it lasts for 15 to 20 seconds. Then the circuitry programming in the torchlight will bring down the illumination when the torchlight gets too hot.

“This kind of torchlights have many brightness settings. At the lowest setting, mine is only 30 lumens and the battery can last hundreds of hours at that setting in the higher settings, it will last just a few hours.

“So when you are in a pitch black cave and want a good photo of the cavern, turn on the highest setting and quickly take your photos. You’ll have a scenery that is impossible to have in a natural setting,” he said.

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