In order to climb Bukit Raya, we first had to get there. Our last post shows how we did that (kind of).
We set off from Rantau Malam at 7.30am and began our hike along a muddy motorcycle path trekking past various other villages and settlements. After an hour, the track became very steep and I found it inconceivable that motorcycles could go up and down these slippery, narrow channels. However, to prove me wrong a groaning bike would occasionally pass us; the rider wobbling furiously with his legs out half-running half-riding. It was a punishing three-hours of walking in the exposed heat, and by the time we got the actual beginning of the trek I already felt like collapsing. We had a 20-minute rest while I massaged my sore legs. If there is already pain, I thought, how can I possibly do five days?
As we stepped into the jungle the heat dropped and the tree canopy closed over us. We began heading downwards making our way over leaf-litter, roots, fallen trees and other obstacles. After a while I noticed a niggling pain in my right leg. I ignored it.
As we climbed I started getting sharp pains in both of my thighs. Every time I lifted a leg (which is a lot when you’re walking) I would wince with pain. Worried, I said to Caroline, “My legs are in a lot of pain already. I’m worried that it’s going to get worse.” She looked concerned but encouraged me on. On we went.
Several hours passed and the leeches started appearing. We had been told to expect ‘a lot’ of leeches and had thought, “What constitutes a lot? Ten? Twenty per foot?” On that first day our estimations we were accurate. At any given time we would have about twenty leeches per foot. Others would wiggle up our clothes, finding our neck and torso areas.
If you’ve never had a leech before, let me just say that it’s more pleasant than sitting entirely still for one hour, but worse than just about any other conceivable situation. A leech will smell you from a distance and then excitedly wave about on the ground like an inflatable tube-man. If you step on it, it doesn’t die; it simply recognises this as a an invitation to an all-you-can-eat buffet. It will squirm up your shoe and wiggle its way towards your sock. But if you think a sock will protect you, you’re out of luck; a thin enough leech will wriggle through the threads and straight into that juicy foot where it will gorge and grow up to three times its original size. Occasionally you’ll get a fat leech who doesn’t mind a mouthful of fluff. Fatty will just say, ‘Fuck it,’ and bite through your sock, suckling contently. Tucking your pants into your socks does little more than make you look ridiculous.
Once your blood starts to flow, more leeches will all be attracted to the wound. The sick bastards will then proceed to shack up with each other and have blood-orgy, growing fat and mating. At first you feel nothing, but after a while it can start to sting. By then it’s too late; once a leech is removed the wound will keep bleeding for hours, slowly congealing into a horrible blood-jelly.
And that’s leeches.
We had lunch by a river at one of the camps. And when I say ‘camp’, I mean a clearing with a few sticks that have been dug into the ground where you can hang a tarpaulin sheet. On this occasion It was lucky we did hang one, because the rain began to pour while we waited for our water to boil over the fire. Lunch was instant noodles, tea, and rice – a meal that would become painfully familiar. We topped up our water bottles at a stream and dressed in waterproof gear. I stared unhappily at my aching legs and bloody feet and we carried on.
As we walked we didn’t see a lot of fauna. When you see an artist’s impression of a jungle it is usually packed with mammals, reptiles, primates and birds. A panda will be juggling cashew nuts as a prairie dog rides an ostrich over a crocodile. I think a more accurate depiction for Bukit Raya would be ‘one billion leeches and not a lot else’. Caroline pointed out a giant squirrel, but all I saw of it was a flash of fur and rustling leaves. We also saw a couple of interesting millipedes, but since we had so much ground to cover in one day we didn’t really have time to go around lifting leaves and peering into holes. We simply walked and walked and walked.
Night fell and we were still hiking. It had been around twelve hours of walking up and down some very steep inclines, and I was dragging my feet in pain with each step. Finally, after an hour of walking in the dark with head torches we made it to our camp. Caroline and I could barely function, but we had to erect our tent (for the first time ever) and set up our beds. Firstly though, we sat in the river and pulled leeches from our feet. Oh, and it was still raining.
Once the tent was erected we ate a dinner of instant noodles, tea, and rice, during which I was able to lift my head off my knees only when the fork neared my face. Afterwards I crawled into the tent to lie down and massage my legs, vowing that I couldn’t go on and tomorrow we would have to turn back. Caroline, ever the trooper, stayed up for about half an hour chatting with the guide and porter in Bahasa Indonesian. She mentioned to them that we hadn’t realised how difficult this would be, and that we might have to turn back tomorrow. Pak Pius encouraged her to go on, saying that reaching the summit was an amazing experience, and that we’d shouldn’t give up. Caroline came to the tent with Pak Pius’ encouraging words, and although I was frustrated and sore I decided to keep going.
We slept fitfully as the rain poured and the tent pooled with water.
Either I awoke sobbing or sodden. In hindsight it’s difficult to tell – there was plenty or water. A chorus of horny Gibbons were whooping in the trees, their calls working into a frenzy like comical sirens then calming down to contemplate. A light mist had formed to replace the rain. We joined the other two for breakfast and ate instant noodles, tea, instant cereal, and rice. The guide and porter had slept under a couple of tarpaulin sheets on sleeping mats, but were otherwise exposed to the elements. They looked drier and happier than we did, and encouraged us to get ready. This meant pouring water out of our filthy, muddy tent, and pulling on our wet shoes. It was daylight so we could now observe blood everywhere from our leech-bitten feet.
“Today is mostly up, up, up.” Pak Pius informed us. “There are also many leeches on this part of the trek,” he added gravely. The words rang in my ears.
We began walking up, up, up though the jungle. At first the pain in my legs was severe, but after an hour of walking I became numb to it. That isn’t to say it wasn’t still there, it’s just that I was used to the idea and could will myself forwards, slowly.
It was around this time that I heard a kind a screaming gasping coming from Caroline who was behind me.
“I’m being stung!” she cried, “Oh god it’s still stinging me, run!” And so we ran.
“What is it? Can you see it?” she pleaded. I saw a thing that looked like a very large hornet or wasp in her hair so I flicked it out. I then saw another one buzzing around her. We kept running up the steep hill for an adrenaline fuelled minute and then stopped to catch our breath. Caroline had been stung five times in the arms and neck by the hornets, yet I had escaped with nothing. Her stings were very painful for a couple of days, after which time they became itchy. And still she walked on, determined.
On we hiked, up hill through the pain and the leeches. And Pak Pius wasn’t joking about there being more leeches on this portion of the track; we stopped counting individuals and started counting clusters. Usually around three or four clusters on each foot with twenty units in each cluster. I wore two pairs of socks which accomplished nothing.
After ten to twelve hours we made camp. Once again I was cursing under my breath for the last hour of walking, but at least it wasn’t raining when we set up our tent (a small mercy). I almost lost my mind pulling leeches off in the river. There were just so many and it was dark and I was exhausted. I belted my shoe against the riverbank in anger. “Calm down, man,” scolded Caroline. So I did, sheepishly.
We ate a dinner of instant noodles, tea and rice and collapsed into the tent. It rained during the night, but we had planned ahead and erected the tent on a slight incline. This meant all the water would pool at one end, and we could store our stuff at the other end. By now the leeches had infiltrated our bags, and so we all spent the night together; two big worms in sleeping bags and fifty little worms sucking on the big ones.
“At about 300 metres from the top there are no more leeches. Too cold.”
This amazingly good news had been told to us three days earlier. A group of Indonesians were working on a documentary called ‘The Seven Summits in Indonesia’. The film makers had recently been released into the world from the film school in Jakarta and had completed the climb a couple of days before we arrived (but in seven days, not five, and with motorcycles at the start – pfft). We met them in Rantau Malam, and they claimed Bukit Raya was the hardest peak they’d climbed so far out of four.
* Sept 2015 edit: They now have a website.
Our walk to the summit was the most vertical yet, but also the most stunning. The first couple of hours were a standard uphill slog with leaf litter and roots and spiky, thin, hanging ferns. As we got higher, moss started to appear coating everything in sight in a beautiful green fur. Caroline mentioned Jurassic Park which succeeded in putting the theme song into my head. Eventually we came across an enormous rock face with water droplets falling from the edge and had to scale our way up and around it. This was essentially rock climbing using roots. Being able to use my arms to help me was a surprising relief for my legs, so I quite enjoyed this climb – even if it was difficult.
I thought that the top of the huge rock was the Bukit Raya summit, but I was sadly mistaken. We had a bite to eat at the top and then walked about half an hour to a clearing with a view. “Bukit Raya.” Informed Pak Pius and pointed to a peak that looked a long way away. My heart sank. We had to trudge downhill again before we could go up. Demoralising.
It took about three hours more to reach the peak, and for the last hour I was very grumpy. “It never ends!” I cried in frustration, but suddenly we rounded a corner and just like that, it ended.
It was the nicest tent setup yet; it wasn’t dark and it wasn’t raining and there were no leeches. We were still very tired from our climb but at least this time we didn’t collapse right away. Dinner was instant noodles, tea and rice – a rare treat. With strong cloud cover there was no view, and Pak Pius told us that only three out of his eleven times coming here had the cloud ever cleared enough to see anything. But the fact that we’d seen the peak from the clearing earlier gave us hope that the clouds might disappear again.
The first thing you notice about the Bukit Raya summit is, sadly, all the crap everywhere. Oven the years the climbers have left little bits of themselves behind, from t-shirts on sticks, to banners declaring themselves having been there, to cigarette packets. There were two wooden shrines where believers had made offerings so that they might have children. The offerings included cups, plastic bottles and general rubbish.
I know that if someone offered me a rubbish for a kid, I’d give them a pretty rubbish kid.
We retired, terrified about the following day which was to combine days two and three together in one go.
This is the day where we all almost cried, but it started out spectacularly.
In the morning, after a wonderful night on the summit with no rain and no leeches, we emerged from our tent to find the clouds clearing and the sun shining down on us. Our spirits boosted, we hobbled around and hung our wet gear (which was all our gear) on various bushes and trees to get half an hour of sunlight. Then we climbed various mossy knolls and trees to admire the gorgeous panorama.
There was water at the summit, but the low rate of flow meant it was an unappealing yellow colour due to the tannin in the leaf litter. The yellow water could be boiled and consumed safely, so we had a sunny breakfast of instant noodles, tea and rice, and then took some photos.
Pak Hatta, a village man through and through, was unfamiliar with modern camera technology and when we asked him to take a picture of us the result was five minutes of the camera being turned on and off and a crooked final photo. Adorable! (Pak Hatta was 50 years old, could carry up to 50 kilograms on his back in a woven rattan bag, and did the entire trek in jandals. When the rain poured and we shivered in our waterproof jackets, Pak Hatta wore a t-shirt and a blank expression. He was amazing.)
It started raining just as we set off. We trudged down the ups from the day before and up the downs, clambering down rock faces and backtracking over the mossy worlds. The rain didn’t stop pouring for four hours and we were drenched through all our waterproof gear.
Several hours in we found a giant shimmering earthworm reflecting a rainbow of colour as it slithered through the dirt. These bioluminescent worms glow in the dark and are simply enormous. Naturally Caroline wanted to pick it up. When she did it constricted a little, so in the photo below it isn’t quite as long as it was when we found it.
We passed our day two camp and kept right on going, mostly down. My left knee began to sting with all the downhill walking and it became progressively worse as we carried on. Night fell and we arrived at the top of a huge hill. The bottom of the hill held our camp – the same camp from day one.
Climbing down that pitch-black hill was absolute torture. The leeches were in full force, my knee offered a stabbing pain with every step, and Caroline was getting the beginnings of a nasty fever from (what she thought was) the hours of cold rain. What we didn’t realise until about one week later was that it was Dengue Fever.
To make a bad situation worse, halfway down we got lost and had to backtrack by about 20 minutes. The hill took three hours to descend in the dark, and we could only go at the pace of my limping. By the time we got to camp we had been walking for almost 13 hours and were, in every sense of the word, exhausted. Caroline’s fever hit her hard and she went down to the river to get rid of the leeches and bathe.
I set up the tent with a torch in my mouth, limping, my eyes closing and my body breaking down. The only glimmer of mercy was that it wasn’t raining. We both slowly blew up our air mattresses and lay down, almost in tears. Caroline couldn’t move so I dragged myself out to fetch noodles and tea. On the way I was attacked by hundreds of tiny biting ants who had taken a liking to my sandals.
When we woke, Caroline was burning with fever and I could feel nothing but pain from the waist down. There was blood all over everything from the leech bites because we had run out of plasters, and both our sleeping bags were soggy. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves up for a hearty breakfast of instant noodles, tea and rice, and got our tent packed away. I bathed in the river and felt marginally better. We walked.
The climbs, while difficult, were easier on me than the descents because of the pain in my knee, but everything was difficult for Caroline whose fever was brutal. She could barely eat, and needed to stop every hour to partially vomit.
After nine hours we came to the final, lengthy descent, and my knee started hurting so much that I could barely go on. Pak Pius took his knife and cut me a sturdy cane which helped immensely as we headed downwards. I lead the way as I was by far the slowest person. Two hours of punishing descent later we came to a half hour climb that lead back to the motorcycle track and thus, the end of our walk. I had relied on my cane so heavily that blisters had developed on my hand. Caroline was sore from walking and hornet stings, wincing from opened blisters, bleeding heavily from the feet and could barely speak. On top of all this misery she unknowingly had Dengue Fever.
As we waited for the motorcycles to take us back to Rantau Malam, the sun went down and it started raining lightly in the darkness. Pak Hatta quickly chopped a couple of branches and made a temporary shelter using a tarpaulin sheet. We wanted to take motorcycles back home, but there was a little bit of trouble finding willing drivers. We waited over an hour with Pak Pius desperately making calls (we were on a high spot that miraculously had cell phone reception) and eventually three riders showed up. The gear was loaded up and we threw our legs over the seats (using our hands). The ride home was completely insanely dangerous. But very fun.
The track was wildly steep and muddy, and after a few minutes on the bikes the monsoon rain hit us hard in the darkness. A couple of times during the trip petrol had to be siphoned from one bike into a small plastic bag and added to another bike, which had us standing in the pouring rain and mud. We were forced to disembark on some of the more ridiculously perilous uphills and hobble up while the drivers pushed their bikes through the thick mud, and the downhills were driven at high-speed along pouring channels of monsoon water, over makeshift wooden bridges and through sleeping villages.
And as we sped along I looked up into the downpour, smiling crazily, and thought, “If this isn’t travelling, I don’t know what is.”