We arrived at the dead of the night. Our convoy of cars was stopped just before we reached base camp. Pak Yusuf, our guide who was keeping a lookout for us, instructed us to head back to his house a few kilometres up the road. But why? It was getting late and some of us had driven for many hours to this remote kampung in Ulu Sedim, Kedah. "Pak belalai," somebody mentioned. Apparently these trunked creatures had been trampling about near the base camp the night before and Pak Yusuf wasn't looking forward to seeing pancakes for breakfast.
So all 17 of us, members of the Malaysian Nature Society from the Selangor, Penang and Kedah branches, followed Pak Yusuf back to Kampung Sungai Buloh where we put up in an abandoned wooden kampung house. While it would have been an exciting experience to see elephants in action, it was important for us to keep all our limbs intact for the trek up Gunung Bintang the next morning.
There is no doubt that the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) still exists at the foothills of Gunung Bintang. There is ample evidence in the form of their numerous droppings that we encountered throughout the first day of the trek. Other large mammals previously recorded during surveys by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) in the forests of the Bintang Range include the Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and the Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti).
The first portion of the trek was along an old logging road which was badly eroded at some stretches. It was also the most energy-sapping because the absence of tree cover subjected us to direct sunlight. The persistent presence of hardy resam ferns (Nephrolepis sp.) also made this portion of the hike monotonous. Fortunately, it was a time of the year when many plants of the forest were flowering. The occasional bursts of orange Gapis flowers (Saraca thaipingensis) were a welcome sight. Most spectacular of all was the impressive display of scarlet blooms by a solitary Firmenia malayana (an excellent photo of which is featured on the front cover of the 2nd volume of Corner's "Wayside Trees of Malaya").
The first campsite was located by the very picturesque Sungai Kerian waterfall. Cold, clear water tumbled down a 10-m rock wall to a small pool below bordered by large boulders. However, this tranquil scene changed dramatically after a heavy downpour. The deluge of water transformed the waterfall into almost Niagara-like proportions.
The conditions of the trail began to change from the waterfall onwards. There was more tree cover and as we climbed higher we began to see more tree ferns. Eventually, the logging track ended and we continued on a narrow trail through the forest proper. At this altitude, the forest was of the montane type with gnarled tree trunks enveloped by a carpet of mosses, succulent herbaceous undergrowth and pitcher plants suspended mid-air and in clumps on the forest floor.
The mossy forest of stunted trees with orchid-laden limbs inspired someone to name one spot "Kebun bonsai". The last watering point before the final stretch to the summit was at Hulu Charok Kelian, an enchanting brook amidst lush greenery. As there was no water at the top of Gunung Bintang, we filled up our containers with precious water for cooking.
The trek approaching the summit was a series of ups and downs, with the uphill stretches typically ending in a false summit. Our guides related how they had arrived late one night at what they thought was the summit and set up camp. But when the mist cleared up the next morning, a higher peak mocked their premature celebrations. It would appear that they were not the first to have been fooled. There is another peak in Perak marked on government-issued topography maps as Gunung Bintang False (height not given). Apart from this, there are also peaks named Gunung Bintang Selatan (1560m) and Gunung Bintang Utara (1835m). To complicate matters, there are two Gunung Inas' - one on each side of the border.
There was no mistaking the real summit though - a pyramid-shaped metal structure marked the highest point. The view did not disappoint but strong winds frequently caused wandering clouds to obscure the vista. As the others posed for the obligatory photo with the signboard proclaiming Gunung Bintang's height, I busied myself with a far more urgent task - making myself a cup of ginger tea.
But once the clouds cleared up and the euphoria of reaching the summit had worn off, a stiffer drink is needed to come to terms with the harsh realities of logging. On the hillsides to the east, very likely in the Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve, sheet erosion due to logging could be seen. The huge strips of bare red earth were a stark contrast to Gunung Bintang's relatively intact montane beauty. The lack of valuable timber in its mossy forests gives some reassurance that Gunung Bintang's natural charms will remain for others to enjoy in times to come. But for how long? Nobody knows but in the meantime, it's varied fauna and flora deserves to be savoured. May they live long and prosper.
About Gunung Bintang
The Bintang Range has not been studied extensively and there is not a great deal of information about its biodiversity. The combined area of the Gunung Inas and Bintang Hijau Forest Reserves forms a forested area of significant size and, if properly protected, could harbour viable populations of larger wildlife species. There is also potential for Gunung Bintang and its surrounding areas to be a nature tourism site. On the Kedah side, Ulu Sedim is now being promoted as a white-water rafting spot. The mountain peaks of the Bintang Range are also increasingly popular among local hikers. However, steps must be taken to ensure that the impacts of visitors on the ecosystem are regulated.
Gunung Bintang, 1862m, is part of the Bintang Range which stretches from the Main Range near the Thai-Malaysia border in the north to Taiping in the south. The mountain straddles the Kedah-Perak border with its eastern slopes located in Perak's Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve, totalling 57 433 hectares, while the western portion lies within the Gunung Inas Forest Reserve covering 36 979 hectares in Kedah (refer to map). The streams of Gunung Bintang form the headwaters of Sungai Kerian Kiri which in turn flows into Sungai Kerian. Sungai Kerian forms part of the boundary between Kedah and Perak. Gunung Inas is the source of Sungai Sedim which is a tributary of Sungai Muda, a major river in Kedah.
Acknowledgements: The writer would like to thank Hooi Peng Kwan for his tireless efforts in organising the trek and Ahmad Nadir Iskandar and Chan Mee Leng for contributing their photographs.
This article appeared previously in the Malayan Naturalist, a publication of the Malaysian Nature Society.