Gunung Tahan’s Crossover Route (or “endurance mountain” in Bahasa Melayu) is possibly Malaysia’s most challenging trek. Standing 2,187 meters high, it is a three-day trek either way, back to civilization.
Inside Taman Negara, Malaysia’s National Park, it borders the states of Pahang and Kelantan. Gunung Tahan is arguably harder to complete than the more famous and much higher Gunung Kinabalu (4,095 meters) in Sabah. Arguably harder, as while not facing the challenge of Kinabalu’s higher altitude two-day trek and climb, you are on an unsupported expedition and must carry more weight on your back to last you for a week, or longer.
The accumulated physical and mental challenge of carrying food, shelter and water for a week in the jungle with frequent river crossings makes it very challenging. So strong knees, fitness and determination are a must.
I was based out of Singapore when I set off for this grueling trek a few years back. After catching the overnight sleeper train from Singapore at 6pm, we arrive at four the following morning in Merapoh. We sleep on the train station’s benches until first light, when our park ranger pickup is planned. After registering at Kuala Juram to collect the climbing permit and meet our local guide, we go by SUV to the trail’s starting point that begins at Sungai Relau, at an elevation of 309 meters. On the way I begin to realise we really are in the wilderness when an enormous snorting wild boar runs across the road, just missing our SUV by inches.
You cannot trek without a local guide in the national park. Asri is our intrepid trekking leader for the next seven days. He’ll make sure we don’t get lost and stay safe.
A park ranger takes an inventory of everything inside our backpacks. All food packaging must be accounted for at the end of the trek. And a large fine awaits litterbugs that ignore the environmental regulations.
The Merapoh–Kuala Tahan route is just over 100 km long through low lying primary jungle, across wide fast-moving rivers, and up to Gunung Tahan where the rock formations, muddy bogs and vegetation would look perfectly at home in the Scottish Highlands.
The route takes up to seven days, depending on the weather conditions and trekkers’ fitness levels. The trek begins proper at Sungai Relau and ends at Kuala Tahan. While rangers clear the path annually, it is often obstacle-strewn after heavy rain, especially after the monsoon season.
When an old tree falls in this 130 million-year-old rain forest, it is huge. Try clambering over a fallen trunk that stands more than two meters high with 30kg on your back. Or crawling under one, up to your elbows in biting ants. This is back-breaking work.
River crossings are a mixed blessing: cooling for our poor abused feet and with beautiful views, but waist-high in parts and currents strong enough to take you downstream if you lose your footing. A pair of trekking sticks is a good idea to help you keep your balance.
My pack and water supply weigh 32 kilos on top of my body’s 105kg.
The other trekkers are at least 30 kilos lighter than me, so while they can often cross mud flats without sinking, I sometimes end up knee-deep in mud and have to ditch my pack to crawl to safety.
In the evenings after ten hours of trekking we set up camp and bathe in the river to cool down. The dirty clothes we throw onto the rocks are quickly covered in butterflies, attracted by our dried out body salts we have sweated out during the day.
Dinner alternates between rice with assorted packets of vegetarian curries, noodles, and pasta dishes. And the obligatory cup of Milo sets us up for a deep sleep to help forget about the aches and pains from muscles we never even knew existed.
As it turns dark as early as 6pm under the jungle canopy, we are often asleep within an hour.
We wake up at the crack of dawn every day. Breakfast is either pancakes with maple syrup and cereal with Milo, or mash potato. Carbs, carbs and more carbs, to help keep us going.
Lunch is a snack of nuts, raisins and energy bars throughout the day. There is no time to stop and cook.
Some sections of the trek involve climbing up and down seven to 15-meter high metal ladders.
“Snake! Snake! Snake!” screams one of our group, as he climbs to the top of one ladder, trying not to fall as he takes swift action to avoid being bitten. Luckily the snake is more scared of him and quickly disappears into a bush.
While most of the nasties on the ground are hidden by the jungle foliage, birds of paradise and hornbills can be seen above us in the jungle canopy, foraging for food.
And one morning, footprints and huge piles of steaming dung confirm that we are sharing the trail with at least two wild elephants.
Some parts are so steep that guide ropes are needed. While not quite rappelling, I wish I had brought along the right equipment: gloves to protect my hands, a climbing helmet, and carabiners to help descend safely in some sections of the trail.
But reaching the peak of Gunung Tahan is an anti-climax. While the views from above cloud level and down into the jungle canopy below are beautiful, and the sound of the waterfalls cascading down into the valleys will always remain with me, we have only trekked half the route’s distance.
And I know the coming descent will play havoc with my bad knees.
On our descent we find an old plane crash site. A very deep and wide crater surrounded by hundreds of small pieces of silver colored aircraft aluminum. Did any of the crew survive the impact? Were the bodies ever found? Was it a World War Two plane wreck or one from the Malayan Emergency period? The only certainty is that the thick fog that seems to descend at a moment’s notice and hide the dangerous hillsides will challenge any experienced pilot’s flying skills.
After the plane wreck it’s just a hard downhill slog in the pouring rain. And as we descend back down to rainforest level, the leeches return and the claret flows once more from our exhausted legs.
Medical advice is to leave the leeches on you until they fall off, engorged with your blood. Some trekkers simply burn them off. Others apply salt or vinegar onto them and they drop off. Whichever method you choose, just ensure you clean the wounds thoroughly; otherwise you risk a serious infection. In some cases, trekkers can suffer a severe allergy or even anaphylactic shock requiring immediate medical care.
Thankfully at the exit point is the Taman Negara Mutiara Resort—an oasis within the jungle. After completing our forms with the ranger station to account for all our rubbish items, we check in. A very welcome long hot shower and shave later, and its beer and buffet time.
That’s when we realise we are surrounded by dozens of beautiful female Indian celebrities. It’s the team from the Indian television version of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!”
If only I’d got to spend the past week with them instead of my stinking Welsh and Singaporean trekking buddies.
All in the mind
The trek is an individual mental challenge and being physically fit doesn’t guarantee success. And a medical check-up before you start training is essential.
Endurance training for at least three months is highly recommended, with your boots and a fully loaded pack.
Build up slowly on the cardiovascular exercise and gradually increase your weight carried. Start with 10kg and move up slowly. During the trek you will easily be carrying on your back up to 30 kilos every day, for a week.
Despite eating around 2,500 calories of mainly carbohydrates every day, I dropped six kilos in a week. I also returned home with over 25 leech bites as souvenirs. And my right knee was shot for a couple of months afterwards.
Train hard. Go with the right friends. And eat well. But plan and prepare for this trip properly, otherwise you’ll get lost, injured or both.
Unfortunately in February earlier this year, a 35-year-old man died climbing up Gunung Tahan. The victim was reported as experiencing breathing difficulties before he passed away. Efforts to airlift his body out of the jungle were delayed due to the bad weather. Gunung Tahan is no cakewalk.
If you fancy a hardcore challenge, involve your friends in your training sessions and build on the team ethos. Those most committed to the training will be those most likely to complete the trek safely and successfully.
Leech bites and injured knees aside, this expedition was one of my most enjoyable Malaysian challenges so far. None of friends want to join me in making this an annual challenge. I wonder why.
How to tahan Gunung Tahan:
- Check your boots every morning for unwelcome critters
- Check your body for leeches regularly. Sprinkle salt or vinegar onto them and they drop off immediately. Clean your bite wounds morning and night-time.
- Stay hydrated. Drink throughout the day, before you start to feel thirsty. Darker urine means you are not drinking enough and already dehydrated.
- Use water purification tablets when filling up your water bottle from rivers or pools. Even better, boil it.
- Use trekking sticks. Save your knees and help keep your balance, especially on the way down, or when crossing rivers.
- Use gloves to avoid blisters. Useful when climbing ladders and using ropes.
- Eat lots of carbohydrates.
- Always watch where you are walking.
- Carry a whistle and wear bright clothing. If you get lost, you are easier to find.
- Travel in the dark. You should plan to set up camp at least an hour or more before it gets dark. It gives you time to put up your shelter, wash and start cooking your evening meal. Traveling at night will result in injury.
- Forget earplugs. It’s a jungle out there and unless you want a sleepless night, you really need to block out all of those loud insect noises, terrifying animal sounds, or snoring coming from your mates.
- Leave your tent unzipped at any time.
- Leave any litter. It’s a national park and although others clearly ignore this rule, lead by example.
- Wear long trousers. You can’t see the leeches and they won’t allow your legs to cool off in the breeze.
You get what you pay for when it comes to outdoor kit, so buy the best quality and most durable items you can afford.
A pair of strong and comfortable boots and a durable backpack are the most important items. A pair of walking sticks will save your knees. I prefer the UK military kit as it lasts longer, costs less than most high street brands, and is sometimes better designed. The shipping cost to Malaysia is reasonable and the price even more attractive when you consider the 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) is deducted from the price.
In the tropics, heavy leather or waterproof boots are best avoided as they take forever to dry, keeping your feet wet, and will give you jungle rot problems.
Look out for military-style hi-top jungle boots made from nylon and canvas, or unlined leather. Even better that they have small mesh covered drainage eyelets in the side to allow water out after your river crossings, yet have no large entry points for blood-sucking leeches. Altberg, Garmont and LOWA are quality jungle boot suppliers.
Some trekkers use boots but for river crossings switch to waterproof sandals or black rubber lace-up shoes with the three stripes on the side (known locally as “kampung adidas”). They are very comfortable and cheap, but provide no arch or ankle support.
Sandals are best avoided unless they offer full toe protection. The last thing you want is your toenail ripped off when you stumble between rocks on the riverbed.
Whatever you end up using, just make sure they are already broken-in, give good ankle and foot arch support, and don’t fall apart when drying out after multiple river crossings.
Bring enough pairs of socks to ensure a dry start to your day.
Your pack should be able to carry a quarter to a third of your body weight comfortably. With adjustable and padded shoulder straps and a hip belt, you should be able to wear it all day. Even better if you can attach a hydration bladder, so that you can hydrate on the go. I carried four liters (weighing four kilos) of water as well as my 28-kilo pack.
Other useful kit includes dry bags, two sets of clothes (one for trekking, one for sleeping in), a small waterproof camera, salt/sugar rehydration sachets, a small head-mounted torch, bug spray, sun block, a first aid kit and emergency rations. And compact silk thermals just in case it gets cold at night, and a tropical sleeping bag.
Temperatures range from 35 degrees down to as low as 5 degrees on the summit at night. Humidity is in the 70% to 100% range at jungle level.
Some extra skills you need include navigation and first aid. If your guide injures himself or is knocked unconscious when climbing, you will need to know basic life-saving techniques, such as Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), and how to apply a splint or a tourniquet.
Choose a good trekking operator who can help you arrange insurance coverage for the unexpected and who takes a keen interest in your training schedule, diet for the week and gear that you use. Trips organised by retail stores often offer equipment discounts.