This trip (I should say expedition but more on that later) was a lot of fun, Bukit means hill in Iban. I am not sure why a sizable mountain is referred to as a hill. The peak of this “hill” reaches about 3000 ft or 900 something meters.
The mountain is sometimes referred to as the Grandfather (of the mountains) by the Ibans, you can see why when you look at the view from the top. It is in a massiff with a couple other peaks which you have to cross to get to the tallest one. The surrounding area has other smaller hills but none come close to the height of Bukit Sadok
While the mountain in not a holy place in itself, it is as close as it gets for the Ibans. It is not so much the mountain itself that is the reason for the great respect the tribe has for the place, it is more the events that took place there. It was here that Rentap along with the other Iban leaders established a wooden fort in the 19th century, which they defended successfully on two occasions from the more numerous and better armed forces of the white Rajah of Sarawak James Brook. Actually James Brook never came to the mountain himself, his forces were led by his nephew Charles Brook. It was only with the use of a 12 pound cannon in the third expedition that Charles manged finally to dislodge the Iban defenders from the top of the mountain, however even then Rentap himself managed to escape and was never captured by the Brooke forces.*
It is because of these events that Ibans continue to make visits to the mountains, usually making offerings to the different spirits on the mountain and waiting for meaningful dreams or visions.
Anyway, getting back to our own trip. We started off from Kuching on an early Wednesday morning, there was five of us so we could fit in just one car. We made a short stop in Serian to get some supplies (water food etc) from the market. After that we drove to Betong and made a stop at the district office where the cannon used by Rentap’s forces is displayed.
It was also here in Betong that we met our guide for the rest of the journey to the mountain. We followed his car along the dirt roads to the south of Betong for over one hour to get to the longhouse which would be our starting point the next morning.
The area around Bukit Sadok is quite difficult terrain to travel, the dirt road winding it’s way up and down hills and mountain sides. It doesn’t make things easier that the officials for the area do not seem to be making much of an effort to modernize it or at the very least provide running water, transport and electricity to all villages and Longhouses.
We stopped at Jambu Kerampak one of the longhouses directly at the bottom of the Sadok massif. Here we were made very welcome and we ate supper (as we had spent most of the day traveling).
We also had the opportunity to take a bath in a cool mountain river. Although the local people did say that the water level was very low due to the lack of rain for the last month and a half.
The river was some distance from the longhouse we stayed in, but there was another longhouse much closer to it. We visited it before going to bath as is polite, here we saw two interesting things, the first were bee hives suspended from the balconies along the side of the longhouse. The second was a single bunch of human skulls suspended alongside the hives. I took the opportunity to take some pictures as headhunting is a long gone tradition and it is rare now days to see the trophies from the past still being held by the descendants of those that captured them.
Later in the evening back in our longhouse we also took part in a Miring (offering) ceremony which was performed to keep us safe on the trail the next day. The ceremony took hours to finish and the three Orang putih’s (white people) went to sleep after the first two hours or so when the most important part was over.
We got up early the next morning, before the sun had risen from behind the horizon, it was then that we had a good clear look at the mountain awaiting us and I have to say that when you climb a couple mountains in the tropics and you know how much effort and sweat goes into it you realize it will be a hard day at this point.
But first, as is a good Iban tradition, we had a big breakfast. In fact all the people in Sarawak put great importance on food and regular meals (five to six of them if possible ;).
Now I have mentioned at the beginning that this trip should be called an expedition, and here is why. We had set out from Kuching with five people, three white guys and two Ibans, the guide who had met us in Betong was also coming with us to the top of the mountain. One of the Iban gentlemen coming with us was an ex- politician and a devoted historian, because this was the first time he was going to make the trip to the top by foot (he had once before been there briefly by helicopter) it was decided that a live pig should be carried to the top and sacrificed there (I should have mentioned that the Miring ceremony inevitably ends badly for at least one chicken or pig). Since none of us were interested in carrying the 20 kilogram pig to the top it was decided earlier that two porters would come along to carry the pig and 2 chickens. This would make it 8 people right? Wrong, by the time we set out we were 14 people and 3 dogs strong, not to mention the two chickens and the pig. We had porters with all sorts of supplies, we had guides, we had some people whose role would become known later in the story. We also took to calling the three dogs (that followed us up the mountain of their own free will) hounds, every good expedition should have hounds right ;)?
The first kilometer or so we did on the back of the track (dogs chasing us on foot), however after just a minute or two on the truck we were at the bottom of the actual trail to the summit.
At first the track winds mainly through pepper gardens, pineapple gardens, and all manner of other crops. Nevertheless even this part of the trail ascends the mountain quite sharply and we were soon asking ourselves the age old question which is asked by all people climbing mountains: “so why exactly am I doing this again?”. Still soon enough we have found a pace more suitable to us and let the man walking bare foot with a 20 kg pig on his back disappear into the distance…to the front of us unfortunately.
The trail is quite educational for people who are not Iban, as it will take you through every stage of Iban farming practice in just a few hours. And so after we had been walking for a while in the different crop patches we reached areas where the forest had been cut down just weeks earlier and the trees lay in the hot sun drying out, this was followed with other patches where the dry trees had already been burned and we walked through charred still smoldering fields of ashes and tree stumps. And finally as we got even higher we came upon fields which have been burned days earlier and were now freshly planted with pepper plants (pepper being one of the main cash crops for this area and doing quite well indeed).
We took plenty of stops on the way up the mountain to admire the views, get a better description of something we saw or just to rest. The trail is not as tough as I expected at first but if you ever climb the mountain keep in mind that how tough the climb is will depend mainly on your speed and stamina, it is a long climb so if you try to go too fast it will be one bad day.
As we climbed ever higher we saw the different sides of the main range, the Sadok range/massif divides different river catchment areas. So if you climb one side and descend a different one you will end up in a completely different area including the Iban accent spoken and the political affiliation in the past days.
The trail splits many times, and we usually take the smaller less clear looking branches, at some points the trail gets very very faint indeed. So unlike many of the other mountains I have been up to this one does require a guide, if you do not have one you will take much longer o get to the top and you are unlikely to follow the right trail all the way there. To give an example Charles Brook took three days to get to the top while it took us about 5 hours.
At one point we came up on 5 curious piles of brush wood, everyone going past them picked up a stick or at least a leaf and threw it on mumbling something. I noticed two things, firstly that they threw something at each pile and second that each time they mentioned the word bula (lie). I was curious so I asked for the reasons behind this strange behavior, especially as I was told to do the same thing.
It was explained to me that each mound was there for a different person whom in the past has told some great lie. For example one of the liars had been up to Bukit Sadok and upon his return to the longhouse told the other folks there that there were wild boar so big on the mountain that they could easily break a tree the size of a man’s forearm. The establishing of a liars mound for someone is a very grave punishment indeed among the Ibans it seems and I was surprised that such a lie would warrant that punishment, but after all wild boar is the single most praised food for the Ibans. I wonder if the application of these mounds in politics may be of some use?
Continuing onwards we finally came up on a rocky outcrop at the top of a narrow ridge, according to some this is where a palisade was built by Rentap and his men. While this is a possible place for a stockade or something of the sort it is far too small for the main fort, never mind the 2 or 3 longhouses which according to the story were also built on the top of the mountain.
But as the rock is very respected it did receive some cigarettes, tuak (rice wine) and some coins. We took a longer stop here as we were already near the top and also because one of the white people got lost, luckily he got lost with one of the Iban guides so they were found within 20 minutes or so and we could soon move on.
Further on still the trail passed a big red tree, with bark peeling off much like eucalyptus trees, we took some of it as it is an important ingredient for a ceremonial baby shower which happens soon after babies are born.
About one hour from the rocky outcrop we finally did reach the main summit. Here were two small structures, one was a shelter big enough for about 10 people to fit easily, and the other was a small memorial hut built nearby with a copy of the Timpang brang cannon placed in it and with several signboards giving the gist of what happened on the mountain.
There was also a stone slab there with a quotation from the bible, according to some members of the expedition placed there by an Iban priest who was trying to insult the Ibans who go to the top to perform non christian ceremonies. The people with us did not take kindly to the gesture, upon returning home I did read the bible fragment it quoted but not being a bible expert I still found nothing really offensive in it 😉
From the top of the mountain the view was truly magnificent, even with a little haze hanging in the air from burned forest patches (which is quite common in the dry season). At sunset we could even see the sunlight reflect of the surface of the sea far in the distance (about 50+ km as far as I am aware).
However before we got to the evening several other things did happen. First of all as soon as we reached the top a miring ceremony was held again and one of the chickens was killed and cooked.
After eating the guides disappeared for a while to go and get some water, others cut wood for the fire or cut back the grass which has grown quite high at the top. it was at this time that the role of each person become clear all the guides seemed to know exactly what they needed to do and there was very little confusion or time wasted even though no one seemed to be in charge. During other times of the year there are a couple of streams and ponds not too distant from the summit but at this time of the year the nearest stream was over an hours walk away.
Toward the evening the main ceremony took place again a chicken was slaughtered and the pig as well, an offering was made for each person there and some “poems” were also recited. The offerings were then distributed to all people each person was supposed to sleep with the offering plate near their head in order to bring the dreams to them. I did actually have several dreams but none of them seemed very prophetic or special at all. The night at the top was a little chilly, it is quite high up and the temperature dropped to about 18 degrees.
The morning was very pleasant, cool air, great views, and about 10 kilograms of pork still left to eat (ok we did have to take some back as it was too much to eat at once).
We set out back down the mountain side a little later then the previous day and the pace was also more relaxed as going downhill was generally easier. About an hour from where the truck was waiting for us we bumped into an old lady and her daughter. Now keep in mind that we were up to this point very impressed with the achievements of the porter who took the pig up the mountain. but here was a 70 year old frail looking lady with two 20 kilogram rice bags, water, pots and several other small packages all neatly arranged on her back, on top of this she had the time to stop and talk to us, a smile never leaving her face, and her destination turned out to be a few kilometers beyond the mountain.
We had one more stop at the bottom of the trail where we ate fresh coconuts and pineapples and I have to say both taste best after several hours climbing down the side of a mountain in the tropical sun ;).
So this is more or less the story of our Sadok expedition, I found it to be a great trip and much more original than those arranged by tour agents. Not to mention the fact that the price was very reasonable as well. The trip can, I believe be arranged from Betong, but not usually through travel agents, it is best to ask around as it is the Ibans from the longhouses at the bottom of the mountain that arrange it.
From the tourist point of view it was a great trip, fun with plenty of things worth seeing and with a price tag of not much over 200 RM per person (this includes everything, even the fuel for the car from Kuching).
* For more information on the story of Rentap refer to the book “Rentap – Warrior, Legend and Enigma” written by J. Ritchie and E. Langgu Anak Saga (2009)