This was one of the most unpleasant Malaysian hiking trips I’ve done — not difficult, but decidedly unpleasant.
Gunung Rajah is a 1683m mountain in the Main Range of Peninsular Malaysia. From its summit, one can purportedly see several of the Titiwangsa peaks. To get there, one can take a taxi from Bentong, which is in turn a 1 hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur.
Thanks to a bus screw-up, we started walking at 10.30am instead of 9am as planned. The first two hours are spent along a muddy, flattish, and boring logging trail, basically cut into the steep slope of the river’s gorge. After that the terrain alternates between stretches of scratchy fern-fields (the path is not well-cleared) and your typical jungle paths. It’s still only gently sloping, and this is perhaps the only part before mid-afternoon where one is far away enough from the river that one cannot hear it.
After about an hour of this one finds oneself back on the slope of the gorge, with the gushing rapids below drowning out any cries you might make to teammates who are too far front/back. The path gets steep and muddy, with leeches in the rainy season. With sufficient vigilance I was able to flick off all the leeches I saw on myself before they bit, but unbeknownst to me one had found its way to my butt and would gorge itself there for some time before I discovered it in mid-afternoon. The path is narrow and one has to cross many fallen trees. Very good practice for your classic ‘step cut into tree trunk’ crossing maneuver. It is a good idea to bring a smallish backpack for this trek, because the constant squeezing under fallen trees or past rattan trees rather inconvenienced those of us with big backpacks. On several occasions I had to get people behind me to detach my backpack from a persistent rattan branch. During the monsoon season, it was extremely slippery, and since we were on a narrow path on a rather steep slope looking down into the gorge, this made me a little nervous. One quickly becomes sick of the gush of the river below; I have never climbed any other mountain in Malaysia where one spends such a long time along the slope of a gorge. The terrain was not particularly steep so we were not gaining much in altitude but had to move slowly because of the narrow path, interfering vegetation, and slippery mud.
Two river crossings are entailed. My suspicion is that in the dry season, one can do this without getting one’s feet wet, but the river was quite full in December, so wading was unavoidable. As a result, my feet were wet for the rest of the day, and even though I changed into dry socks in camp, they still felt cold and wet throughout the night.
After the trail finally departs from the river (this is the second last water point before the summit), it turns ‘friendly’ for an hour of so. That is, less slippery, and steadily uphill but not so steep as to require scrambling. Kind of what one would typically expect on a sub-1500m Malaysian mountain. You then come upon the ‘false summit’, a pleasant clearing in which someone has constructed a ‘bench’. After the false summit there is a short stretch of going downhill, after which it’s uphill all the way. The terrain starts getting nasty at this point. Instead of firm soil one is now trekking on a kind of matted weave of soil, plant fibres, and tree roots. It is slightly bouncy and strong enough to take your weight, but your walking stick goes right through it. You are in the clouds so everything is wet. To compound the general instability and slipperiness, the trees become shorter and more fragile, so you need to be very careful about selecting your handholds and footholds when scrambling. At one stage you have to traverse a landslide. That in itself is alright, but at a fork just before the landslide, where both the left and right paths take you the the landslide, I unwittingly picked the more treacherous left side, which overlooks a sheer rock face that seems to go down the entire face of the mountain. A little higher up on the rock face you can see ropes going across it, and I didn’t want to think about traversing that rock face in such slippery conditions. Thankfully, it turned out that we didn’t have to do it.
We did, however, have to scramble up an extremely slippery short stretch of rock right after the landslide. There was a rope to help us, but it too was slippery. Waiting for everyone to negotiate that took some time. It was already well past 6pm at this point.
There was scarcely any room for everyone to stop at the junction to the last water source. It was a short distance off the main path, but one had to inch along a dodgy-looking, slippery tree trunk to get there. It was a pretty little mini-waterfall with mineral-tinged golden water, just like on Tahan. Since the path was so narrow we formed a ‘bottle chain’ passing empty and filled bottles to and fro from the water source to the main path. That took up more time than we would have liked, and it was getting dangerously dark.
From the last water source to the summit (where we were camping) is supposed to be an hour. I have no idea how long we took (it became too dark to read my watch, even supposing I wanted to depress myself by doing so), but I suspect it was significantly longer than that. We were tired by a long day and the darkness made it difficult to negotiate already demanding terrain. I learned to figure out where to step by ‘feeling’ around with my foot before putting my weight on it, and it didn’t seem to be any less efficient than my previous sight-driven strategy. We camped at a series of clearings just below the summit rock. It was quite a squeeze to pitch even my two-man tent in half of one of the clearings; I had to make do with an unsatisfactorily floppy flysheet. The wind was vicious, everything was wet, and everyone was getting into everyone’s way as we set up camp. Eventually, though, dinner was cooked and consumed, and I could retreat under shelter for an uncomfortable night.
I went up to the summit rock in the morning. There was no view whatsoever as we were still swathed in clouds (and moisture).
Going down wasn’t much better. I took a wrong turn shortly before the landslide, leading us to the wrong side of the sheer rock face going down the entire side of the mountain. Like we saw from below yesterday, there was a rope going across the rock face, but we figured we’d better backtrack and find the ‘right’ way to get to the other side of the rock face. The terrain seemed more difficult than it was in the dark last night and I was pretty weary by the time we got to the slippery rock section. I slid down the rock section on my chest because I had no grip on either the rope or the rock face (I miraculously escaped ropeburn).
There really isn’t anything of note on the way down. It was bloody slippery and I fell down more times than I care to count, leaving cuts galore on my shins. My palms were punctured, too, from gripping thorny things. We were reacquainted with leeches. It rained quite heavily at certain points. The logging trail seemed interminable. We were late enough to miss the last bus from Bentong to KL. Half of us managed to get a taxi to KL from Bentong, but the other half had to stay in Bentong for the night.
This could be a pleasant mountain to climb when it’s dry, but it’s literally and metaphorically a washout during the monsoon.
Full photo set here.