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Mt Tambuyukon - Paradise Unscathed

She plays a supporting role to the leading lady – the famous Mt Kinabalu. Yet, over a four-day trudge in Mt Tambuyukon’s wilderness, LEONG SIOK HUI beheld a magical forest on the third highest peak in Malaysia

I first heard the name, Tambuyukon, when I trekked up Mt Trusmadi with TYK Adventure Tours’ guides in April this year. Though it’s the second highest peak in Malaysia, Trusmadi is relatively unknown, especially to West Malaysians. The mountain’s mossy forest and diverse flora and fauna are incredibly captivating.  

But TYK’s managing director, Tham Yau Kong said, “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till you get to Tambuyukon. It’s even more beautiful.”  

I took his word for it. After all, Tham, an avid photographer and naturalist, had gone up to Tambuyukon seven times since 1990. Six months later, Tham invited me to join the Sabah Society members on a four-day trek to the mountain.

Mt Tambuyukon peeking through the clouds.

Mt Tambuyukon (2,579m) huddles elusively at the northern part of the Crocker Range, the backbone of Sabah. Set within the 754 sq km boundary of Kinabalu Park, the mountain is protected by Sabah Parks Board, the park authority that manages Sabah’s national parks, nature and wildlife conservation areas.  

Southwest to Tambuyukon, looms Mt Kinabalu’s granite massif.  

Over the last decade, researchers and naturalists had written about Tambuyukon’s natural treasures and captured images of its unkempt beauty in various publications. Yet, the mountain hardly sees any visitors. 

“It’s the third highest mountain in Malaysia but it’s the least known,” said Dr K. Ravi Mandalam, Sabah Society’s committee member and one of our trekking members. A self-professed Tambuyukon admirer, Mandalam, 48, had scaled the peak three times prior to this trip.  

“Each time was different, and there’s always something new to discover,” said Mandalam. But the mountain’s remoteness and absence of human habitation in and around the area explain the lack of visitors, he added.  

“I think people should be aware of the mountain and its rich biodiversity before they can understand the need to protect it,” said Mandalam.  

On a clear October morning, Tham picked me up and we drove to meet the Sabah Society members at their HQ. The trekkers comprised Mandalam, Dr Ho Chee Hok, 54, Dr Helen Benedict Lasimbang, 36, Tan Wallace, 30, Tan Beng Lee, 54, and Wong Phong Yun, 46. These active Sabah Society members share a common love for outdoor adventures and nature preservation. The Society, Sabah’s oldest non-governmental organisation, was founded in 1960 with the objective to record and preserve Sabah’s history, culture and natural heritage. Today, it has about 400 members and constantly bustles with activities. 

We hooked up with guides, Maik Miki and Jimi Ginsos at Rose Cabin Restaurant near the Kinabalu Park HQ. From my previous experience in Trusmadi with them, Maik and Jimi are excellent guides with lots of mountaineering experience under their belts. 

After a quick breakfast, we hopped on a truck and rumbled off to Kg Manggis, the nearest village to the base of Mt Tambuyukon. Passing tranquil villages framed by rolling hills and gushing rivers with languishing buffaloes, we arrived at Kg Manggis about two hours later. 

The Sabah Society group.

A cluster of wooden houses on stilts standing on a green meadow circled by vegetable plots, bamboo thickets and dense forests sum up Kg Manggis. With a population of about 160 people, the villagers plant ginger, chilli, white pepper and vegetables for a living. Some local boys work as porters whenever there are visitors to Tambuyukon. 

Our guide, Awang Matamin, 24, is a Kg Manggis local who has followed in his dad’s footsteps of becoming an official Tambuyukon guide under Sabah Parks. Aside from his experience on the mountain, he underwent a two-week training course at Kinabalu Park before receiving his guide’s license. Four local porters accompanied us – Yan, Julius, Jakson and Janson helped lug food supplies and some of the trekkers’ packs.  

The first part of our journey was a traverse across lowland, dipterocarp forest (rainforest). Characterised by trees stretching up to 50m tall with gigantic buttresses, the forest boasts a dense canopy with a myriad of ferns, orchids, creepers and psychedelic-coloured fungi.  

Since few people take this route, thick undergrowth and fallen trunks made the maze-like trail quite daunting. But Awang confidently slashed his way through the bushes with a parang, guided by his instincts and the marks on tree trunks left from previous trips. Friendly chat and intermittent photo shoots of unique plants filled the ticking minutes as we trekked over a series of rolling hills. Delightful glimpses, like a dancing Smaller Wood Nymph, a white butterfly with black spotted wings, and beautiful wild ginger flower, broke the monotony of the hike.

Keep your eyes peeled and you'll find interesting orchid specimens like this one found growing on a tree trunk.

Seven tiring hours later, we plodded into Camp 1. The next day, we hit the trail by 7.30am. Pelting rain with intermittent drizzle kept us company throughout the day. And the leeches finally stirred from their slumber. Incidentally, Tambuyukon is dubbed the “heaven of leeches.” Suffice to say, leech socks gave the wearer a psychologically calming effect. She (in my case) would still take home leech bites as souvenirs.  

After eight hours of lumbering on the trail, we finally staggered into Camp 2. Cold and damp, we gathered around the campfire. A few chaps started rolling their homemade cigarettes, kirai daun – tobacco rolled in dry leaves – and offered the cigarettes to us. Some of us, including this writer, puffed away contentedly. Heat from the fire spread warmly over our bodies as we shared a cosy tête-à-tête over steaming cups of coffee.  

Soft, pitter-pattering rain on our canvas tent lent a soothing melody in the background. When the sky finally cleared, glittering stars peeped out from between the foliage towering above.  

Ah, the simple pleasures of the outdoors.

Dr Helen Lasimbang with another kind of moneky cup, the Nepenthes edwardsiana.

Next morning before sunrise, we were already traipsing up in anticipation of a long, arduous trek to the peak. As dawn broke through the sky, we noticed the change in our forest surroundings. The lower montane forest (usually between 1,200 and 2,000m) carries the oak, laurel, conifer and myrtle tree species, measuring between 25 and 30m tall.  

We had stepped into the enchanting, mossy forest. But the terrain was perilous and sheer. We grasped at tree roots for handholds and warily treaded on slippery, moss-carpeted tree trunks, or zigzagging roots.  

Bright pink rhododendrons and sunny yellow orchids peeked out from trees and thick bushes. Pitcher plants like the Nepenthes rajah laid like babies cradled by the tree shrubs and Nepenthes edwardsiana dangled prettily like Christmas tinsel. 

As we clambered nearer to the peak, the air was refreshingly cool and crisp. The trees were looking more stunted and gnarled with elaborate, claw-like branches, right out of a Chinese ink brush painting. Tree species like the Leptospermum recurvum, L. flavescens and Gymnostoma sumatranum (ranging between 7 and 15m tall) thrive in this altitude.  

Nearing the summit, we scrambled up these amazing, sandy-coloured, ultramafic rocks. Certain narrow ridges and crests sent the adrenaline pumping. One false step, and we could tumble like rag dolls down the few hundred feet ravine.  

At last, we reached the summit but thick fog enveloped the whole area. Alas, we could only imagine the majestic view of Mt Kinabalu from this point. But an intimate garden of bonsai-like trees, low shrubs and miniature plants greeted us at the peak. Everyone broke into a huge grin and cameras started clicking away.  

Kudos to the Sabah Society members for their unflailing spirit and grit. One of the most senior members, Tan, had persisted through the trek despite his knee problem. His steely determination was inspiring indeed.  

Of the four peaks I’ve scaled this year, Mulu (2,377m) was the most physically gruelling. But Tambuyukon was the most (mentally) challenging.  

I had begun the trip wishing I wasn’t there. Weary from the non-stop travel assignments over the weeks, I was drained of any enthusiasm and every sluggish trudge entailed a huge effort. Minus a willing spirit, the body was fighting a losing battle.  

Yet, Tambuyukon weaved its magic wand, and I’m glad I didn’t call it quits. Weeks later, as we settled back into our daily nitty-gritty, Dr Lasimbang expressed her thoughts.  

“I’m not sure why I keep thinking about this mountain,” she mused. “It’s as if I met someone, felt attracted and almost fell in love. But before I can get enough of this person, I had to leave!” 

My sentiments, exactly.

Source: The Star

Related Article: Mt. Tambuyukon - A Well-Kept Secret

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