This year, I decided to take a break from my yearly Mount Kinabalu climb, after already successfully achieving the feat 10 times (see ‘A Decade of Mount Kinabalu’) so I was already expecting my December holidays to be a month of complete rest and relaxation. Little did I know that in the end, I would end up going for a last-minute hike deep into the jungles of Sarawak to a remote village called Semban.
The region of Bengoh (where the controversial Bengoh Reservoir Dam is built) was probably hit by a meteor long before, causing the crater that holds all the eco-system within the crater. Kampung Semban (‘Semban Village’ in Malay) is located in the region of Bengoh, smack in the middle of this crater at an elevation of around 400 meters above sea level. All the villages including Kampung Semban have actually been relocated (more like evicted really) to their respective new settlement area, but a few of the villagers still return to their village to tend to their crops.
We started our journey from Kuching at 6.30 am and made a breakfast stop at Padawan (some know as 10th Mile), a small town with plenty of tuck shops, butcher shops and plenty of coffee shops. We ended up in a coffee shop called ‘Jin Jin’.
After our much needed stop to attend to our stomachs, we finally continued on our journey which brought us deeper into the interiors. By 9 am, we reached the infamous Bengoh Dam. This was my first time seeing a dam with my own eyes. Such a huge man-made structure smack in the middle of nowhere, the modern mechanics of mankind looks like a marvel to behold.
This is where the actual trail starts. The trail was easy enough, what one would expect going through a jungle… some parts covered with trees which provides natural shelter from the sun yet some parts totally exposed to the shrieking sun and pouring rain… some with overgrown lalang (Malay word for very long weedy grass) that cuts like a knife making superficial scars on your skin. It is better to go in with long sleeves and long trousers to protect yourself not only against sunburn, but also from the ‘blades’ of these lalang.
As we progressed further into the trail, one thing seems obvious… the constant sounds of chainsaws and modern steel dinosaurs in the distance followed by the echoing cries of the fallen trees. There were a few spots on the trail that we passed that were so bare that one could easily collapse from heat stroke!
One of the unique attractions on the trail would be the river crossings on bridges architected by the villagers out of bamboos! Sticks and sticks of bamboo held together by little pieces of bamboo shaped into nails that creaks and sways each step of the way! (One of these bamboo bridge actually gave way and collapsed behind my friend’s weight and thus the rest of us who have not crossed had to do an actual river crossing… in the river! It’s okay… we get more value added excitement and adrenalin to our adventure HAH).
It was only when we reached the now abandoned (and destroyed) Kampung Bojong that my heart totally sank seeing all the destruction. All the plants and trees surrounding the village has already been chopped down and left there to wither (Perhaps to be collected for wood at a later time?). Most of the wooden houses are already near collapse, some even seemed to have been burned down. Litters of plastic products and human waste are still left behind, probably the source of the army of vicious and blood-thirsty mosquitoes that were constantly attacking us like there’s no tomorrow.
With that being said, the beauty of the whole area was simply indescribable. This is not my first jungle hike and I have to admit that I have never before seen nature beauty such as this. Miles and miles of river with white rapids, and as we went further up-river, uncountable numbers of multi-tier waterfalls that looks more and more inviting as we went further in. At one point, the waterfall was as high as 3 or 4 storey, the wind force generated from the crash of the water was so powerful and intense one that we could not even hear each other talk!
After 5 hours of muddy paths, steep ascents, climbing over fallen tree trunks and crossing rivers, we finally reached our picnic spot. It was the Pain Waterfall (pronounced ‘pine’ since it is a Malay word). Like the other majestic waterfalls that we encountered, Pain Waterfall was also a multi-tier waterfall (I did not bother to count how many levels it had as it seems unending) but the best spot for a picnic would be the top tier where the currents were less strong and the crash of the waterfall did not break our bones.
From the waterfall, it was another 2 hours hike with a lot of ascends and small river crossing. At this point in time, it started raining and we proceeded slowly but surely on with the trail. Before long, I noticed that we were passing some pineapple plants, too many to be a rogue growth, therefore I knew that we were already nearing the village. Sure enough, rows and rows of wooden abandoned huts welcomed us with its eerie silence and the chilling rain of the evening. Even with the cold sight, it was a relieve to many of us as we knew shelter and shower was just a few more steps away.
Sagen, the homestay owner took the liberty of welcoming each one of us with a fresh already-opened ready-to-drink coconut. While some was in the shower, others took to washing their shoes or drying their clothes, and for others whose stomachs were already singing, smelling the delicious aroma coming from Sagen’s kitchen.
The homestay which is actually Sagen’s own house, is totally made out of wood, just like every other houses in the kampung. There is no electricity but Sagen has a generator set that he turns on when night falls. Water supply is abundant as small little aqueduct like setup made out from bamboo shoots split into half to channel the water from the water source from the top of the hill. Celcom seems to be the only provider with mobile coverage throughout the whole trail. The coverage along the trail is quite bad, there are only a few spots (more like closer to none).
For dinner, we had very interesting local dishes. Two of them were durian-based dishes. Needless to say, the dinner was more than enough to feed 10 hungry stomachs two times over! We all went to bed fairly early with sore feet but satisfied stomachs.
I automatically woke up at around 4 am and found myself not able to sleep. Since it was raining previously, I made the decision to get up to see if I could catch any sight of stars. It was a decision that I am glad I made. It was definitely rewarding!
The rest got up at 5 am the next morning to hike to the top of the hill to pay homage to the rising of our sun. The climb up was fairly easy with gradual incline all the way to the top. The sides of the hill was planted with rows and rows of pepper trees.
We reached the peak just as the sun was rising from the horizon, still hiding behind the clouds. The view was simply breathtaking! The peak from where we stood appears to be one of the tallest peak around the crater rim. I estimate that we were around 800 meters above sea level judging from the air and the temperature of the surrounding.
From here, we witnessed firsthand the real testament to the line, “The village above the clouds”: in the distance, Semban village lies seated on a hilly slope overlooking all the milky white clouds that fills the crater. As the sun’s rays starts to penetrate the clouds shining its life-giving beam unto the earth below, Sagen took out his flask and began offering us hot coffee. Every sip was heavenly as we witnessed God’s marvelous creation. We must have spent at least a whole hour on the peak, and when Sagen signaled the time to head back down, my heart was extremely reluctant to leave the place. I took one long last look at God’s painting for me that morning, took one long last breath and said my goodbyes to it.
When we got back to the house, breakfast in the form of Fried Rice with fresh anchovies was awaiting us. The weather was fine that morning so we had our breakfast out on the ‘ruai’ (Malay for balcony). The friendly and lovable cat decided to accompany us for breakfast, not to mention the few chickens that were chirping away nearby.
After breakfast, Sagen brought us to see the Tapang tree (scientific name ‘Koompassia excelsa’), one of the tallest growing tree species in the tropical rainforest that usually towers above the canopy and has huge roots that grows on the surface to support its weight. The Tapang tree always attracts giant honey bees who makes their huge honey hives hanging on the branches. The villagers with the skills capable to climb the tree would harvest the honey which generates more value than the tree itself for its timber.
Along the whole trail to the Tapang tree, Sagen stopped to pick petai which has dropped to the forest floor, indicating the petai is ripe and suitable to be used for culinary use.
Sagen also stopped at the ‘Peace’ tree which the villagers planted many years ago as an offering to the spirits to signal a truce between the spirits of the jungle that they will stop all their head-hunting activities. This peace tree is actually a Jelutong tree, chosen for its latex which is white in colour to represent the end of blood spilled from from head-hunting days. Sagen also mentioned that the Jelutong wood is a soft wood very suitable to be used to make souvenirs as it is easily carved into shape.
After the ‘stroll in the park’ we assembled back at Sagen’s house to another… breakfast? This time it is smoked mee with freshly grinded pepper. Another tasty combination that wowed us to finish every single strain of mee! Sagen then made each one of us smoke the hookah which is a traditional smoking apparatus which uses a water filtration system much like the ‘shisha’.
We took one last group picture in the clearing outside which had a good panoramic view of the village with most of its houses hidden among the trees. As my group posed and made their silly faces and antics for the camera, I couldn’t help but notice the now abandoned village, quiet and still… then I imagined what used to be a bursting and thriving community of loving Bidayuhs and behind it lies the hilly slopes that we climbed this morning and where we witnessed firsthand why this is without any doubt …. The Village Above The Clouds.