Expedition to Bukit Selidang, one of the highest mountains in Sarawak

Chaos theory links a hurricane in Florida to the beating of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon. If you believe that, then its credible that a chance article in a newspaper lead to a four day slog through the interior of Borneo. This resulted from a group of hashers discussing a report of a trip to a waterfall in Usan Apau and someone claiming that climbing the nearby mountain, Bukit Selidang, was impossible. Never tell “Big Spender” (a leading hasher) that something is impossible because she feels compelled to prove it can be done and she has to drag along a few innocents to prove it!
Bukit Selidang at 4504 ft is one of the highest mountains in Sarawak and is located on the central plateau of Usun Apau close to the border with Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) at approximately 114o-36’-30” E, 2o-52’ N. Bukit Selidang was formed by an extinct volcano and is part of the rim of the crater. The surrounding high tableland is uninhabited and the last recorded visit was by an expedition from Oxford University in 1933.
One of the most attractive features in the area are the Julan waterfalls that cascade off the edge of the tableland and are the highest in Malaysia with the main fall having a vertical drop of over 250m.
At the beginning of June a party of twelve intrepid Miri Hash House Harriers supported by 15 local guides and porters set off on a six-day expedition to try and reach the summit of Bukit Selidang. The drive from Miri to the start of the trek took all of the first day, and was mostly on logging roads through increasingly spectacular country to arrive at the base camp in a fantastically scenic location overlooking the Julan falls on the far side of the valley. Although several kilometres away, the thunderous roar of the mighty falls could be clearly heard with every shift of the breeze.
The base camp had been pre-established by the support team and was built in the traditional local style with a raised sleeping platform made from thin logs but with a tarpaulin roof instead of palm thatch as the only concession to modern times. The hard work of the support team and their determination to make the trip a success was immediately obvious from the care and attention to detail in building the camp to make it as comfortable and welcoming as possible.
After an excellent meal but a somewhat restless night, the party set off on the first real day’s trekking through virtually virgin jungle. Starting at about 3000ft, a good trail lead gently upwards before narrowing and dropping steeply for a thousand feet to the bottom of the valley. After crossing the valley floor, we started the real lung breaking ascent up a trail cut by the porters to the relatively level tableland at 3750ft.
Once on the plateau proper, we stopped for a brief lunch break at the site of the aborted “Millionaires Club”, a luxury mountain lodge that was started in the 1980’s but unfortunately ran into financial difficulties just before it was completed. A pity because the lodge commands superb views over the country surrounding the plateau.

After a quick “cocktail” in the abandoned bar of the lodge, we continued to the top of the Julan falls via a somewhat hazardous river crossing, aided only by a vine safety rope, and were able to reach the edge of the main drop. Not a place for anyone suffering from vertigo since you seemed to be looking out into empty space with only the distant mountains to give any sense of reality.
A final, mercifully short, trek from the falls took us to the second camp located by the side of the Julan river. This camp was a similar, but more modest version, of the base camp with three 4-man sleeping platforms nestled together in the midst of the jungle. The relatively easy day’s trek was estimated at 12km and took five to six hours, a good warm-up exercise for what was to come.

The second day’s trek covered an estimated 17km across the plateau to the base of the mountain but because the terrain was continuous ridges and gullies it was hard to distinguish where the mountain really started. The long gruelling day’s trek took us to the location for the third night that marked the extent of the reconnaissance trips by the porters. It was here that the our local team really demonstrated their skills and hard work by building a four platform campsite out of virgin jungle in less than two hours, before lighting a fire and cooking a meal. This was quite a feat as they had also been carrying heavy loads all the way from the previous camp, a trek that had exhausted the rest of us just carrying our personal packs. After the nine hours of vigorous exercise, it was a quick meal and off to bed with no complaints about lumpy mattresses that night.
The next day saw us set off into the unknown, guided only by a map and compass (GPS isn’t much help in dense jungle) with no clear idea of how far the summit was or what obstacles might lie in the way. The plan was to reach the summit, or 3pm, before returning to the previous night’s camp but because of the uncertainties of the route, basic supplies and essentials were carried in case the trek proved to long and we needed to set-up a fly camp on the way back. The route was a steady uphill slog onto a ridge and was very hard going through a tangle of fallen rotten trees, thorns and other delights of the jungle. Following a 7:30 start and continuous scrambling, the summit and rim of the crater were finally reached by 2:30 when the ridge ended abruptly in a 1000ft vertical drop. The natural euphoria of the group at reaching their objective was greatly increased because the cliff edge provided unusually good views of the spectacular scenery of the surrounding peaks with the plateau below, the lower hills and cloud filled valleys beyond and even a clear view into Kalimantan. With the daunting prospect of the return trek still to come, there was only time for a brief appreciation of the views and a major photo stop before starting the gruelling descent back to the previous night’s camp.
Happy but exhausted we made it back for a much needed wash in the river. This 10-hour trek was a hard day’s exercise by anybody’s standards but we were all buoyed-up by the successful outcome of the expedition.
Although we had originally planned to return via the camp at the head of the Julan falls on the next day and complete the trip on the fourth day, there was the possibility of a more direct route back to the base camp so it was decided to make another major effort and get all the way down in one day. This necessitated another pre-dawn wake-up before starting the mammoth walk out with only the briefest of stops for lunch. Despite the tough terrain and the heavy toll of the previous day’s trekking, all the party completed the journey safely with the last group getting “home” before dark much to the relief of everyone. A quick wash and short nap preceded a celebration feast with all the best of the local produce including copious quantities of Guinness and Tiger, courtesy of the local organisers.
Altogether it was a most enjoyable and rewarding trip that showed us all a lot spectacular scenery, new flora and taught us more respect for the jungle and the people who live in it. Several factors contributed to the success of the expedition, most importantly the hard work and preparation of the support team and the prayers offered on our behalf by the leader’s father, all of which were greatly appreciated by everyone. We were also very fortunate in having unusually good weather with only a few showers during the nights. All of the party were experienced hashers so were used to moving in the jungle, were reasonably fit and acclimatised to local conditions. The temperature was very comfortable and pleasantly cool at that altitude however any extended periods of rain would quickly have made life miserably cold.
The expedition was also a milestone achievement for the support team since their distant ancestors had descended from the tableland when it proved too inhospitable to sustain life and this was their first opportunity to return to the country of their roots.
The Usun Apau area with its unspoilt natural beauty is under consideration for a National Park and trekking activities are being encouraged to help stimulate the local economy. As such, this expedition was a pilot run for subsequent trips that can offer access to previously unexplored areas and unclimbed peaks so the romance of joining the ranks of the world’s great explorers remains.
We all had a very rewarding week and thoroughly recommend it to like-minded masochists. Drawing on the experiences gained during the trip, we can offer some advice to anybody else considering a similar adventure:
·10-15 persons is the optimum number to be economically viable without impacting too much on the environment.
·All participants must be fit, familiar with the jungle and prepared to live rough for the duration.
·Reliable footwear is essential with army combat boots probably being the best choice although normal trainers proved adequate. A second pair of shoes/boots should be carried to provide a dry change for the evening / night and also as emergency back up – it would be an uncomfortable walk back in bare feet!
·Long trousers and long sleeves, although a bit hot, provide a lot of protection against the numerous thorns.
·A combination of “leech reduction” measures was reasonably effective, including wearing ladies tights (as long as nobody is looking) but you need a new pair each day. A good spray of Baygon helps, as does hong yew oil. Also, the locals taught us the only good use for tobacco – soak your socks in a brew of tobacco and water overnight. For any little rascals that do get through all your careful precautions, a quick spray of insect repellent or washing-up liquid is effective for safe removal of leeches.
·Plenty of water (2 litres/day) and rehydration salt are essential. The river water is reputedly safe for drinking but boiling is a sensible precaution even if it does end up tasting like excessively diluted Laphroaig whisky.
·A good stock of high-energy food (chocolate, muesli bars, boiled sweets etc) is also essential since the meals were filling but not very nutritious.
·Strangely, mosquitoes were non-existent on our trip but anti-malaria tablets were recommended before departure.
·Normal first-aid supplies are sensible to take along, especially elastic bandages since a simple sprained ankle could become life threatening in such a remote and inaccessible location.
·Vaseline is very effective for combating the chaffing of wet clothes on the feet and other more sensitive areas of the body. “Moleskin” or plentiful supplies of plasters are important for the bits you miss with the Vaseline.
·Heat rub was recommended for sore muscles but opinion was divided on its necessity.
·A perimeter ring of sulphite was sprinkled round the camp each night as protection against snakes. We didn’t see any at all so maybe it worked.
·Keep your baggage to a minimum because the porters are already heavily laden with the camping gear. During the days, we wore one set of clothing that we washed and wore wet the next day. We also took one dry set of clothes for the nights, including a sweater, and lightweight sleeping bags. A sleeping mat is useful to provide a degree of comfort on the bare log beds.
·Be aware of the local customs and beliefs of the jungle people, they depend on the jungle for their livelihood and have great respect for it and many taboo’s that should be observed.

Our local “tour guide” and organiser was Morrison Ngau who did a great job for us and would be our first choice for any similar expedition. He left the basic camps intact in the jungle in the hope of attracting more customers, as he is very keen to support the local kampongs. Morrison can be reached with some difficulty on his hand phone 016-8502098.

The Adventurers:
The Guides & Porters
  Jee Mui Lan
Chin Kiok Voo
Chia Kan Ooi
Ting Swee Lian
Tang Chun San
Eric Chin
Kiew Jung Chong
Hii Lian Yu
Chong Mai Kim
Lee Khin Pin
Patsy Stringer
Ray Stringer
Morrison Ngau
Breadly Gregory
Nelson Sigau
Stephanus Lian Ngau
Nyipa Erang
Engau Bilong
Lawai Angi
Michael Erang
Robert Lasau
Tony Ngau Jalong
Jekeria Tusau
Ugang Udau