Kuching – Climbing Mount Santubong

Kuching – Climbing Mount Santubong

Mount Santubong, on the Damai Peninsula, about 30 minutes drive from downtown Kuching, is 810m above sea level. Sounds tame, but looks can be deceiving, as after a fairly gentle gradient up, it becomes a serious climb, with scaling required where the grade can reach 75*, in short almost vertical. That is why I flew in over the Easter Weekend to Kuching with my Camelbak.

Having done some prior research, apparently, it takes 3 hours to reach the summit from the Bukit Puteri Entrance, without stops or delays, and just slightly less to come down. It takes an extra hour from the Restaurant Entrance just down the road, as you will be passing the aforementioned waterfall. Both good starting points on a mountain that inspired Alfred Wallace’s ‘Sarawak Law’ during his stay here.

Intent on doing the summit directly, DC and I chose the Bukit Puteri trail, and after paying RM8 at the entrance and parking our car by the side of the road, we started our ascent at just after 0930. The entrance is manned by the same people as the restaurant, and they will watch out for your car in addition to logging your details. Officially, this site is a National Park, and fees are collected by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, so this subcontracting is somewhat questionable, but at time of writing has yet to be satisfactorily explained by anyone.

Ant Highway, goes on for a few metres, along summit trail

This trail is a single shot up along the ridge, with nice views of Santubong Village, the Santubong River and Kuching City on your right, with nature to your left. I was tempted to run up, the trail runner within keen to hone his skills, but DC, despite being muscular and a regular gym goer, talked me in to keeping a steady pace. I compromised with a somewhat fast steady pace, intent on reaching the summit in under 3 hours.

Mt Sejinjang, Pandak and Panjang beaches, Salak River in back;
Santubong Village and Santubong Estuary in foreground

After under an hour from the start point, we reached the split. The route to the left goes to the jungle trail, waterfalls and restaurant entrance. Upwards is the summit. After a brief stop for DC to get some air, we ploughed on ahead.

Shortly after the split, the trail became steeper, and we bumped in to our first group of hikers. After pleasantries, we pressed on ahead, to be greeted by what was the first of a few somewhat challenging ascents. At 30-50* grade, we had to really hike up, with the aid of ropes for some, or makeshift steps from soil and roots for others.

Trail map, not to scale or trail, Mt Santubong

Here, we reached the second of the pit stops, and a view point somewhat obscured by a rock. This was just under F7, at ‘Viewpoint 2.’ After a brief stop and some picture taking, we both decided to send pictures out to make some of our friends envious. I am more surprised that here, in the middle of dense jungle on a mountain, I had excellent BlackBerry coverage, even better than in some parts of KLCC.

Santubong River, Mt Sejinjang, Kuching City;
seen from Viewpoint 2, Mt Santubong

We ploughed on ahead, with more ropes to guide us along the steeper bits. The entire thing made me think of the Hash Challenge trail running marathon I did last year. As we were climbing up, we both kept yakking away to keep our mind occupied and I retold my entire 42k Hash Challenge story to DC. If I could do 42k up and down mountains in just under 11 hours, this 10k return trip should be doable. He called me a crazy mountain goat effortlessly scaling up rock face.

The steep bits done, DC hinted that if it kept getting steeper, he would turn back. I told him we were close by the summit, which was true. There, at F8, at 1,561 ft, we had a view of the city, a clear view of the summit within reach, and voices just beyond the trees. We caught up with a big group.

After a small bar of chocolate to keep us on the move, we continued on. I conveniently neglected to tell DC that there were steeper bits, wooden climbs, valleys and sheer rock face coming along.

Steep climbs, boulders and ropes; Mt Santubong

Within short order, we reached the first bit of the really steep bits, maybe 60* grade. We caught up with the group just ahead of us. After holding on to rope ladders and plank stairs, we were right behind them, and DC, sensing my agitation, told me to slow down and wait for them to clear.

Roots and trees and a deceptive incline

That I did, as DC took that opportunity to slow down slightly, catch his breath and drink some water. I told him to ration his 1 liter as much as possible. He somehow did not listen to my advice of taking 1.5 litres. After waiting for clearing, we scaled up the rope ladders along bounders and sheer face, careful with our footing and wondering how they decided on spacing the ladder handles.

At F11, we bumped in to yet another group, this time making their way down. This tested my resolve for zen, as we patiently waited for 3 big groups to clear: one before us waiting to climb, one in the middle taking pictures on the mid-rope landing and another going down from the top.

Steep walk down, Mt Santubong

While waiting, we met this lone Caucasian guy descending. He told us that we had an hour to the summit, and that there were a lot of ropes and roots to hold on to. So, after 5 minutes of agonizing wait, we went up, and taking advantage of the less steep and wider hold area, by-passed the group on the open side and went to the last ‘basecamp,’ F12. There were a few people who just sat by this summit, content with this height, with the summit-proper was just in reach.

And there, with the goal in sight and determination filling my very being, the moment DC reached the summit of F12, I gave him just enough time to catch his breath and have a sip before we did the home stretch.

Just as we went along another steep descent and ascent, we bumped in to another group. The leader informed us that we had 45 minutes to an hour to reach the top and advised us to rest and take it slow as it was basically a vertical climb. DC and I had other ideas: I wanted to reach my aim of the summit in under 3 hours and DC wanted this challenge to be over and done with.

After the steep descent and ascent which was somewhat technical for efficient climbing, at F13, we reached the most challenging park of the climb: the 75* grade. This was almost vertical, with rope ladders and roots your only foothold against solid rock. This was not a walk in a park.

Damai Peninsula, Damai Golf Club and South China Sea,
from Mt Santubong summit

Once at F14, I called out to DC, who kept going strong, and told him we were close. As I let him rest momentarily, I went up to recce the rest, and before long, I told him to hurry up. The stop at F14 was basically the slight pause before the fanfare in Handel’s Zadok the Priest.

Santubong River, Kuching City in the distance, Mt Santubong summit
Flag of Sarawak, Mt Santubong summit
‘Welcome Arch,’ Mt Santubong summit
Cloud cover, Mt Santubong Summit

Immediately after F14 after scaling up boulders and stuff, lay the top of the ridge, the summit, F15. The views were spectacular. The Damai Peninsula before us, the South China Sea, the Santubong River, coves and bays and beaches. There was a small inscription at one of the boulders at the top, commemorating the legend of ‘Datuk Merpati.’ A carved head lay hidden somewhere amidst the foliage.

At the top, at 810m, we explored the narrow ridge. There was a small pool, which had some water, and a thatched hut. There was even a topiary archway and of course, a flag at the top. The view above the cloud line was beautiful, with the City of Kuching laid before us.

Santubong River Estuary and cloud-line

After a few minutes of contemplation, we made our way down. Just as we did, a group of Caucasians came up. One was a blonde guy, shirtless with a heart monitor, determined as if he was racing up. A few steps behind him, another blonde guy with a girl, both looking very fit. Trailing behind them, another Caucasian girl and just a few steps behind her, a Norwegian man who called out to his wife at F13. These were serious climbers, no joking here, all complete with gear.

I admired their determination and resolve, and their almost single-mindedness to reach the summit. They, I told DC, were the proper Mountain Goats, as I was all but a Mountain Kid, still getting his rock climbing feet stable.

View on the descent: The Serapi Range in the back, middle is Pandak
and Panjang Beaches and parts of Santubong Village in foreground

At the ranger’s office, as we signed out, the park ranger was impressed at our speed, and asked if we ran up. I told him we did not, just a regular, steady but brisk-walk pace. He told me we did it faster than the most. How Alfred Wallace did it during Sir Charles Brooke’s reign in the State, considering the steepness and lack of trails then, is in itself an example of the toughness of British explorers in the Victorian Age.

He even asked me if I bumped in to the Caucasian group going up and I told him they did. After explaining to him the heart monitor, he tells me they do the climb very regularly. After congratulating us on our speedy ascent, we drove a short hop to Damai Central to get some drinks. DC was truly knackered and was wondering where all my energy came from. I just shrugged as I left him in the car, checking my GPS tracker on our hike as I walked to the shops to get us drinks.

All in all, the numbers on the climb of Mount Santubong:

Ascent: 0930, summit 1205; Descent: 1215, station 1405.

2 hours and 35 minutes to ascend, including stops, delays and chatter; 1 hour 50 minutes to descend, including chatter and an errand for fellow climbers; 10 minutes on the summit and walking around.
I used Nogago Tracks, very efficient especially on the BlackBerry 10.

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Written by FlyKLIA

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