Once in a while in your life, you’ve got to push yourself to the limit and see how far you can go. Whether it’s your career, sports or the outdoors, get out of your comfort zone, try out new adventures, do something extreme. Well you can’t get more extreme than spending 4 days in the jungle climbing two of the toughest mountain on the land. That’s what I did with my eleven other hiking buddies last week. Yup, I finally scaled the dreaded Chamah and Ulu Sepat mountains.
I got to know about the trip from a hiking buddy of mine. We used to go hiking together a few times. In fact he was amongst the first few people that I started hiking with. After just conquered Yong Belar earlier this month, I was about to take it easy from hiking. You know, get a proper rest for a month or two. But then Bazli messaged me about this invite-only closed group trip to Chamah - Ulu Sepat (CUS). It was made to understand it was going to be a 5 days trip but somehow it got compressed to 4 days. I’m actually rather hesitant to join compressed trips to be honest. These are the trips that everybody will walk or climb really fast and I naturally would be hard-pressed to keep up. That said, since this trip is joined only by a select few people and it doesn’t cost much (RM230 instead of the usual 300–400 ringgit), I was compelled to join. So I signed up my name and paid the deposit a few weeks in advance.
Since I’ve already did Yong Belar a few weeks earlier and my right knee is still recuperating from pain, I didn’t do much training for CUS. Sure I did run on the road once and a few times on the gym treadmill but that’s it. I didn’t want to push it too much and hurt my knee again. Nothing is worse than hiking a hard core mountain with a bad knee. I might as well cancel the trip if that happens. I wondered why nobody discussed carpooling for the trip and then realised when I read the itinerary, we are going in one way in Gua Musang, Kelantan and come out in Gerik, Perak. So no wonder nobody brought up carpooling during the chit-chats. The organizer/go-go rented a van instead, a huge 10 seater one which will ferry us from TBS to Gua Musang.
I got packing 2 days in advance. This is a serious trip which requires serious preparation. I got all my Brahim packs and gears ready. This time I strive to bring only the most necessary things. That said when I weighed my backpack before leaving home it was already 17 kilos without future rations. My wife was kind enough to give me a lift to TBS (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan). We hugged and kissed as usual. I arrived 10 minutes to 9:00 PM but still the first one to arrive. Nobody else were to be seen. Typical I thought. The gang didn’t begin to arrive until an hour later. It was already 10:45 PM we the van finally left TBS for Gua Musang. And since it was an extended labour day weekend, the road was heavy with traffic. Although there were lot of traffics on the road, we inched through it at times but moved smoothly for the most part of the journey. I didn’t have much sleep in the van. It was hard trying to catch much sleep with little legroom and a noisy bunch.
We arrived at the new Gua Musang R&R around 4:20 AM. Most of us had an early breakfast and packed some food for lunch afterwards. The 4WD vehicle meaning to take us into the jungle was already there. The driver apparently waited for us for hours already. After Subuh prayers we left the rest area around 6:10 AM. At the back of the 4WD we rode into the early morning wind, freezing our butts off naturally. We rode in the morning darkness until the sun rises in the east and to halfway up in the sky. It was a bumpy ride for sure. We went through the logging road past Pos Tohoi (of the missing orang asli children tragedy) up until Pos Simpah which was the starting point. The gang was particularly in a good mood cause they chatted and sang and laughed a lot during the almost 4 hours journey.
After a little stretching and brief warm up, we started the arduous journey across Chamah and Ulu Sepat. The starting point is marked by a small stream near Pos Simpoh. It didn’t take long for us to start traversing the dreaded logging road with its archetypal wide open path with little trees to provide shade against the hot scorching sun. We were drenched in sweat in no time and I was constantly drinking water from my bottle to keep myself hydrated. It took us 3 hours to reach our first checkpoint, the Rekom orang asli village. The village looked deserted with no inhabitant in sight. Maybe they were all taking a nap in the hot afternoon sun. Maybe they were hiding and watching us with suspicion. Either way I didn’t exactly expect a welcoming party or anything. I was made to understand they were quite cold towards us hikers ever since the incident where a bunch of hikers were unnecessarily rude towards the village head, refusing to pay after camping near their village and using their water and their shed. It is because of them most hiker after that will avoid staying for long in the village and quickly make their way to the next camp. Needless to say I was already exhausted after 3 hours of walking under the merciless sun and wanted to have my Brahim lunch there and then. However we decided to walk for another hour to Kem Pakma before stopping for lunch. Halfway to Kem Pakma everybody was really tired and sleepy so we kinda slept on the track. Yes I’ve heard of people doing it all the time due to exhaustion but this is the first time I see and did it for myself. Well, I didn’t exactly had much nap to be honest. Just shut my eyes for 10 minutes or so. By the time I’m about to get comfortable the guys were all up and ready to go again. Just my luck.
I was surprised we didn’t set up camp at Pakma. After rereading the program again, we were supposed to walk all the way to the last camp before the summit today, on the first day. Normally people would rest at Pakma for the night and proceed to climb the Chamah peak the next day. But since were on a compressed trip, there’s no time for that. So we just bundled our bags together under a ground sheet and carry only the bare essentials for a day pack to the summit. We barely had any rest that afternoon. I had a quick lunch, went for a dip in the river and then all packed up and ready to go by 4:40 PM. Yes there was a lovely little river flowing nearby with refreshing icy cold water. It’s a pity we didn’t get the chance to spend more than 2 hours at Pakma.
From Kem Pakma we hiked for an hour to Kem Tengah and then another two hours to Kem Tongkat Ali. By then it was already dark and very cold up in the mountains. We left Tongkat Ali for the peak at 8:00 PM, everybody with their headlamps on. It’s another 3 hours of grueling hike to the summit. The terrain was steep and unforgiving and in the darkness of the night, we couldn’t go very fast. Well actually a few of us including me had to play catch up with the rest of the gang. One member of the crew had almost lost it and started counting every step of the hike, 1.. 2.. 3 and stopping at 50. It was funny bordering scary. I was afraid that she might really lose it and start running headlong into the jungle or something. Thankfully she didn’t and after what it seemed like a dozen starts and stops we finally reached Anak Chamah which is the last false peak before the summit. It was already 10 o’clock at night and everybody was totally exhausted including the gogo/guide. Initially our lead insisted that we carry on and spend the night at the top but luckily he came to his senses and decided to camp at Anak Chamah instead. I wouldn’t exactly call it a camp, we just lay out some ground sheet and that’s it. No fly overhead to shelter us from the freezing cold mountain night air. I didn’t have anything much on beside my thin sweater and my sarong to keep me warm. Obviously they weren’t enough as I was literally shivering all through the night. Why didn’t I bring my sleeping bag did you say? To keep things light of course. A sleeping bag would not fit my measly 5 liter dry bag plus I don’t fancy lugging along that thing for 8–9 hours into the thick jungle. Maybe I should have brought a thicker jacket and a blanket in the future? We had dinner around half past eleven that night. Undercooked rice with some beef. The cook argued she didn’t have much water for the rice although we gobbled down everything regardless.
I woke up at 4:20 AM the next morning shivering to my bone. Tried to sleep but I can’t close my eyes with the cold and all. I didn’t have anything to use as a pillow so it wasn’t much of a comfortable night sleeping under the stars which is on any other night should be wonderful and amazing. In the end I used my water bottles, put them inside my dry bag as my pillow. It was noisy for sure but at least it’s something. After an hour or so of sleep I woke up, make some coffee and get myself ready to make the final push to the summit. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast that morning but it wasn’t much and certainly not so fulfilling. The hike to the summit took only one hour or so but it involved hiking up and down 7 hilly peaks. We finally reached the summit at 10:50 AM and celebrated with a few slices of banana bread (cake?) for everyone. Normally I would snub my nose at banana breads anywhere else but at 2171 meters and after such a grueling hike, it was heavenly.
An hour later we left the peak for Anak Chamah. By then I had not much water left, about 10 sips until the next water point so you can imagine my condition - thirsty and weak. We had a lengthy stop at Anak Chamah that afternoon for some reason. Met with other hiking groups who were on their way to the peak and chit-chatted with the lot. I met with a few familiar faces One of them was Man Pahang, a seasoned hiker/guide who everybody seems to know. It was my first time meeting him though and who could forget his ‘baek baek baek’ trademark at the end of every sentence. It was already 3:00 PM when we finally depart from Anak Chamah. On hindsight, I should have followed the other group in front and instead of waiting for the gogo to finish lepaking.
We returned to Kem Pakma again by sunset. Stopped a couple of times for various reasons. As usual I had a quick dip in the stream water. By then the camp was fully occupied with fly sheets, grounds and other assortments. For dinner we had some marvelous fish, vegetables and rice. Okay I lied, I didn’t eat much dinner because you know, fish. I know I’m gonna pay for that later (with fatigue) but I don’t care. I was already exhausted from the return hike to Chamah, it couldn’t possibly get any worse. We depart from Kem Pakma around 8:43 PM. An hour later we still couldn’t find the way to Kem Peres en route to Ulu Sepat. Let me let you in a secret, our gogo/guide had never actually reached Ulu Sepat himself. Yes he’d been to Chamah before but not the other peak. He’d been relying on his little Garmin GPS device to lead the way whenever he’s not sure. Not that there’s anything wrong with using technology to guide you. It’s just that with a mountain this hard you’d expect your guide to be well-versed and sufficiently familiar with the entire track. To his credit, he did find his way for most of the trip. Most of them except for that night and another incident later on.
Two hours later we were far from finding our way to Kem Peres. We sent to members of the group to ask for directions with another hiking pack but something got lost in translation and we end up traversing the old legendary Chamah-Ulu Sepat track instead, a route twice as difficult and nobody in their sane mind would want to try. 3 hours after leaving Kem Pakma and no where near going to Peres, our guide decided to turn back and camp at Sungai Rekom at last much to my relief. Actually it was a mix of exhaustion coupled with disappointment. Disappointed that we waste 3 good hours going around in circle and ultimately turning back. As I mentioned earlier Sungai Rekom is situated right next to the orang asli settlement who were not so keen of having hikers anywhere near their village. There’s a good chance we might be chased away from our campsite in the middle of the night but that’s a chance we had to take. I just can’t imagine walking another step towards anywhere let alone another hour long hike back to Kem Pakma. If the locals decided to shoo us away that night, they had to drag my tired fat ass away themselves. After having a cool midnight bath (naturally) I just wanna lay my head down and go to sleep. My hiking buddies however were kind enough to wake me up at 2:30 AM for a super late dinner. Seriously it wouldn’t have made much different for me because I’ll be going to sleep right away and wake up the next day feeling hungry again. I’d rather have my 5 hours of precious sleep instead.
The next morning, thanks to my well-oiled biological clock, I woke up at 6:00-ish to complete darkness. Thankfully I got an hour or so more of sleep before running to answer the call of nature in the river nearby. I left a part of me in Sungai Rekom that day (ha ha). We had a simple dinner of plain fried rice that morning. As always our guide is the last one to wake up and we had to wait for him to get ready before leaving. Our first part of the journey on the second day involved going up a steep hill and then straight into a thick jungle. By that time the sun was already up and directly overhead us. We found a few orang asli huts on top of the hill and met a few who were building another hut. At the entrance of the jungle we refilled our water bottles with water flowing from a pipe straight from the hills. By this time I have already finished all my mineral water so the fresh cold mountain water was a welcomed reprieve. It took me another 2 hours to reach the camp we’re supposed to go to last night. Since I didn’t sleep so well last night, fatigue started to set and I just feel like lying on the track and sleep when we reached Kem Peres. It was one of the lowest point of my trip.
But I soldiered on regardless. Our guide, lead the way until we reached a valley with dozens of huge trees uprooted by a storm recently. The trees practically blocked our path and we had to climb over, slip under and in many part find a new route towards the next camp. It was a sight to behold really seeing all those fallen trees. Like I said, our guide who has never got that far before struggled to find his way through the wreck. We were stuck in the valley for well over 2 hours until another group showed up and their gogo Ucop lead the way. Unlike my guide, Ucop took no time at all zigzagging through the trees. Although I’m glad we finally found our way through, our joy were short-lived when it started to pour much of the way until the next camp. We had been pretty much dry the day before but were drenched through the bone that fateful evening. Despite our misadventure at the valley, we reached Kem Maggi safe and sound. It was almost dark by then and as always our original plan was to push ahead to the summit on that very day. Yeah right. Thankfully again, our guide was sensible enough to do that the next day so we set up camp at Kem Maggi along with the other group that we met halfway there. The campsite had a running stream next to it, a rarity really at such high altitude. I had a quick bath and then after a truly tiring and wet hike during the day, fell to sleep pretty quickly. I can’t recall what we had for dinner that night though.
The next morning we left Kem Maggi at around 10:00 AM. You can see a trend here, some people likes to enjoy their beauty sleep so much that we start each day’s hike way behind schedule. The third day’s hike was just as difficult as the previous 2 days. What’s worse I started to have blisters on my feet for hiking in my wet shoes and socks. It was every hiker’s nightmare walking around in pain and discomfort. Okay maybe night as scary as getting lost in the jungle but still sucks nevertheless. We stopped by Kem Sungai Lepir, the last water point before the summit for a late lunch. I finished my last good meal there, a packet of Brahim’s mushroom and cheese rice. Of course I shared some of it with my friends, I’m not that evil. We finally reached the summit of Ulu Sepat by 7:00 PM. We left our bags at the junction checkpoint and bring just the necessary items for the remaining 15 minutes hike to the summit. It was no doubt, one of the toughest mountain I have ever scaled in my life, no kidding. We took lots of pictures at the top and hung around for a bit. Our customary banana bread delicacy being served of course.
It didn’t take long for the temperature to drop because of the altitude and being almost night time and all. By 7:35 PM we started our journey down to the next camp. It was the longest 4 hours in my life. Aside from hunger and fatigue, the painful blisters on my feet started to take their toll on me. I could barely walk let alone catch up with the rest of the guys who were practically sliding their way quickly down the mountain. I couldn’t thank Qayyum and Zaidi enough who’d been my rock for much of the journey. They patiently waited for me at the back while I made my way slowly up and down the mountains for much of the journey. I don’t know what would I do without their support. Probably got left behind so far and get lost in the jungle. Painful feet or not, I made it anyway to the final camp of the trip, Kem Sungai Lam by midnight. By then I was limping my way around with huge watery blister on one feet and a few minor ones on the other. In total we have hiked 14 hours since morning that day. This time around I didn’t wait around for dinner to be served (they were having instant noodle anyway) but quickly went to bed by 1:00 AM. Just my luck though it started to drizzle a bit so I had to wait for the fly sheet to be up before finally getting to sleep.
I think I had quite a good night sleep that night in the jungle because I woke up at half past 9:00 the next day. By that time, our ration had all but gone save for some rice and fried rice paste. I forced myself to eat the plain fried rice to give myself some energy for the final hike out of the jungle. I was getting pretty fed up with the same old menu by then. We left Kem Sungai Lam about 10 minutes to noon (don’t ask me why). This time I got my injured feet all wrapped up nicely in a bandage although it is still painful for me with every step I take. Not far from the campsite we had to take a little detour because we couldn’t find the regular route towards the exit. Eventually our trusted guide found the right track thanks to the marvel of technology (i.e his Garmin GPS). Since I was literally limping my way out, the rest of the crew didn’t bother waiting for me anymore and march ahead without me save for Qayyum and Zaidi. Not that I mind of course. I felt I had slowed down everybody enough these past few days it would be selfish to make them wait for me.I thought we would have it easy for the final leg of the journey but I couldn’t be more wrong. There’s still about a dozen little hilltop and valley that I had to walk through and a few more streams to cross before we get out. The final hike from Kem Sungai Lam to Kampung Lerlar took 3 and half hours but with my injured feet felt like forever. I was hungry and tired and the only thing that kept me going was the thought of getting reunited with my loved ones back home.
Since the initial plan by our gogo/guide was a compressed 3 days trip across Chamah and Ulu Sepat, he told our next 4WD driver to come along at 10:00 o’ clock on the 3rd day. Obviously since we far from finished hiking at that time, he waited 4 hours at the exit point for nothing. Not that we didn’t try to contact and warn him not to come early, we did. At almost every checkpoint before and after Ulu Sepat, we tried calling him with our cellphones but there were completely no signal the entire time. Hence it didn’t surprise us that much when we found no 4WD driver at the exit point that afternoon but only the note left by him telling how he waited for hours for us. When we tried to call him though he didn’t pick up his phone so we feared the worst and started making contingency plans to get out of there. Since it’s already late in the afternoon, we were made to understand that no 4WD is willing to come to pick us for the 6 hours return journey. Our other option is to go by boat across Temenggor lake. However to get to the Trojan jetty would require hour ride on a 4WD and the bad news is, there’s no boat left to ferry us across. The boat service for public is only until midday every day. One resourceful member of the hike called a friend in KL who agreed to pick us from the remote Grik village but then the journey would take 2–3 hours minimum. Thankfully our original 4WD driver finally picked up his phone and was kind enough to drive back in to pick up all of us. Turns out it’s only 2 hours plus to drive in from Kuala Kangsar to there so 6 hours were totally exaggerated. What irks me was that gogo/guide was pretty laid back during the entire incident while other members of the hike were frantically calling people to come help. I wouldn’t rate him highly in term of leadership.
Kampung Lerlar is another orang asli settlement deep in the remote part of Grik in Perak. Unlike in Rekom, these guys are not hostile and all and looked pretty welcoming to us hikers. The first thing we did when we arrived were naturally to find a shop to buy drinks. Luckily there was one shop open and we happily gulped our room temperature soft drinks to quench our thirst. While waiting for the 4WD to arrive later that night, we camped next to a river in the village. We bathed and cleaned ourselves in the cool and clean water and later cooked some instant noodle for dinner. It was one of the best Maggi curry that I have ever tasted. Probably because I was famished. Our 4WD finally arrived around 9:30 PM. I had the honour of sitting up front with the driver with my injured feet and all. Despite the bumpy 2 hours ride out, the guys were absolutely enjoying themselves at the back of the pickup truck, singing and chatting on top of their lungs. Me I tried saying a few words to the driver before falling asleep not long after that.
From Kuala Kangsar we took another van to Ipoh. It was already midnight when we reached the Amanjaya bus terminal and obviously no more bus service to take us anywhere. After a late supper at a mamak nearby and watching the second leg of the Champions League semi final, we decided to crash on the floor of Amanjaya terminal. Yes it’s not so clean nor hygienic but those were the last things on our tired minds to care about. To be frank I didn’t get to sleep much on the cold hard floor no matter how hard I tried. In between reading some ebook on my phone and wandering around the complex I managed to stay awake all through the night. We said our goodbyes and board the bus to KL around 9:00.
Needless to say, Chamah - Ulu Sepat is the hardest hiking trip I have ever attempted yet. It requires all your physical and mental strength to complete, few had attempted it and some didn’t even finish it. I was fortunate that despite all the difficulties, challenge and injury, managed to conquer both peaks within such a short time. Forgive me if I sounded like a whiny bitch all through this post but there are some things that really annoys me about the trip that could have been avoided if we had the right kind of leadership. There’s a difference between going through an impromptu adventure as one group member would call it and suffering because of somebody else’s incompetence and lack of preparation. Sure maybe we did pay peanuts compared to the others for this trip but that doesn’t mean you could skimp on rations and (a reliable) guide. I’d rather pay more for a more decent food and an experienced guide than suffer the inevitable inadequacies. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom on my last hike. I did have some memorable moments especially upon reaching the two summits, the moment I arrived at kampung Lerlar and also the time we returned back to civilization in Ipoh. My hiking trip members were mostly not bad and very friendly and helpful. Some I have known for quite some time although can see be excessively loud and annoying. Here are some lessons that I learned from trans Chamah - Ulu Sepat:
Study and confirm your schedule in advance
When my friend invited me to join the trip, I was under the impression that it would be a 4–5 days trip. The normal amount of days taken by the average hiker tackling both summits. It was hours into the hike that I finally found out we’re gonna do a 3 days compressed trip which is totally insane for an old man like me. Well I’m not exactly that old but the difficulty of the climb mixed with unforgiving weather and other circumstances makes it so much harder. Next time I should confirm without any doubt whether the trip is a regular, leisurely trip and not a rushed, compressed one which I usually avoid like the plague. Apart from that now that I’ve went along a few different types of guides and gogo, I learned to distinguish from the best one to the worst. Ohana is definitely the best followed by Core Adventures (although a bit pricey). The others are only so so and one or two would be my last trip ever with them. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of choosing your preferred gogo or guide because of scheduling difficulties but after this I’d rather wait for the right group to come along then gamble on my happiness (really?).
Bring only the most necessary
This is one of the most basic rule in hiking and in my defence I did brought along only the most necessary. However I did bring my extra zoom lens which proves to be rather unnecessary item during the hike. It’s rather big and it took some space in my dry bag and keeping it safe from dirt and mishap turned out to be a chore to me. So that’s it? That’s the only thing that I regretted bringing along? If you don’t use any of the items you brought along then you’ve brought something useless which only add unnecessary weight to your backpack. Although water is completely essential in all hiking trips, carrying just the right amount of water in between campsites and water points is a tricky proposition. You don’t want to carry too little water and risk dehydration but at the same time, too much water will only weigh you down and tire you.
Make sure your hiking shoe is in perfect condition
Perfect as in the sole inside is not torn in anyway which could lead to blisters on your skin. One of my shoe sole had a little bit of fabric torn away in the middle due to wear, add a wet sock to it and you got a recipe for a painful blister. Sure blisters are going to happen anyway for long and difficult hikes like this but you could minimize the likelihood of it happening by not wearing a worn down shoe.
Mosquito coils are a necessity!
Two days into the hike, I thought the mosquito coils that I brought along would be just a waste of space since there’s hardly any mosquitoes or sandflies to content with. However on the third day there came the mosquitoes and sandflies out of nowhere and I’m so glad I brought my mosquito coils along. However since I used the cheap red Ridsect type, they didn’t last too long and easily became spoilt by the weather and humidity. My friend’s Fumakilla coils however did the trick and lasted the entire night. So next time, buy a Fumakilla.
Tea and sugar for energy
I was prepared with my own ration of drinks for this trip you know for that extra boost of glucose for my energy. However I grossly miscalculated my tea/coffee and sugar ration. As expected our gogo had a kundur tea only drink menu for the entire trip which I hated and they tasted horrible. Thankfully I had my tea and coffee with me although they were all but finished by the third day. Towards the end I had to ration my tea bag and use them twice, something unthinkable back home.
Personal first aid kit & medication
I didn’t bring along my tiny first aid kit since a member of the hike already brought her own first aid kit. However after I had some serious blisters on my feet, I had to use a lot of plasters and change them regularly. Naturally I’d hate to hog all of the public plasters so next time remind me to bring along my own plasters and also gamat oil which could do wonders to my wounds.
Power bank and wall charger
Power banks although heavy are a real necessity on hiking trips. I listen to music a lot and take a lot of pictures on my smartphone so towards the end of my trip I have all but ran out of juice on both power banks that I carried. So next time remember to keep some power left to use on the return trip, even better reserve one smaller power bank for the purpose. And bring along a wall plug! After all of my power banks ran out of juice, I was left stranded with very little power on my phones. The irony is there’s a lot of electrical sockets at the bus terminal and the restaurants that we went but since nobody brought a wall charger we can’t do anything with them.
So there goes my little adventure doing the Chamah - Ulu Sepat hike. If you plan of doing it, make sure you have and excellent guide to lead you, not just some cheap ass guide. Make sure you are physically fit and do some mountain training a few months prior. 5 down, two more G7 to go for me.