Before joining Tourism Malaysia, about the only “adventure” I ever had was climbing the corporate ladder in the concrete jungle that was Kuala Lumpur. Nowadays, though, climbing actual mountains has become part of the job in promoting Malaysia.
One of the first peaks I attempted to scale was Gunung Stong (Mount Stong) in Dabong, a small rural village in Kelantan. It is believed that the word stong is a Malaysianised – or specifically, Kelantan-ised (if there is such a term) – version of the English word, “stone.” If you have been to Kelantan, you will know that they will turn any word that ends with the “n” sound into a nasal “ng” sound. And so the story goes…
The stone in question is the domed granite structure of the mountain, rising to a height of 1,433 metres, and said to be more than 500 million years old.
One website reviewed it as “best-suited for those who seek adventure and love to test the limits of their mind and body.” Another had these cautionary words: “For the uninitiated, the hike up the mountain is hard work and not for the physically weak.” Hardly inspiring for a jungle newbie like me.
To get to Gunung Stong, we took what some called the Jungle Train from Gua Musang to Dabong, an exciting journey of about two hours passing the interiors of Kelantan and small villages and towns that probably hadn't even heard of broadband. The train ride itself isn’t The Orient Express, but it’s a great chance to see the other side of Malaysia that isn’t all glossed up by glass towers and skyscrapers.
Once we arrived in the little village of Dabong, I was immediately smitten by the tranquility and stillness. From the train station, we then crossed the lazily-flowing Galas River on a little sampan or boat. A recent check with a local guide confirmed that a bridge has already been constructed over the river, so there’s no need to take a boat across...unfortunately…! Instead, your guide would already have arranged for a car to take you across the bridge.
The first time I caught sight of Gunung Stong and its seven-tiered waterfalls, Jelawang Waterfall – apparently the highest tiered waterfalls in South East Asia, at 270 metres – tumbling down from it, I thought, die lah like this. It was this massive, imposing granite rock that looked like a hard-core adventurer's dream. It stood majestic among a chain of peaks that rose up from the flat valley.
I pointed to the top of the falls. "Is that our destination?" I squeaked, my voice registering the tiniest quiver. My guide, all muscled and six-packed, who looked like he could conquer Gunung Stong in a single leap and bound, nodded his head, grinning at my fear.
"Looks tough,” I offered, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"Tough or not, it’s all in the mind,” was his Yoda-like advice.
After warm-ups, we immediately hit the slopes. The inclines were pretty steep, and I had to grab hold of whatever tree roots I could to haul myself up.
I was a pathetic sight, struggling to maintain some semblance of bravado among these obviously muscled and experienced adventurers. While I was negotiating a particularly muscle-wrenching, fat-burning slope, some lady in the group overtook me in her flip-flops! When asked how she managed the climb on some skimpy footwear, she smugly smirked that she "baca ayat” (chanted some prayers). Must be some powerful charms, I muttered under my breath in the trail of dust she left behind.
After about 15 minutes of hiking, the jungle cleared and we saw the waterfalls rushing down to the lower tiers. It was a beautiful sight...I was told that the volume of water would be especially massive – and potentially dangerous – when it rained.
We crossed over to the other side of the cascading waters and started working our way into the dense jungle again. The trek started to become even more arduous here. We literally had to pull ourselves up the boulders using chains and ropes, grabbing onto tree roots and sometimes even resorting to crawling on all fours to get to the next step.
There were some beautiful plants and flowers along the way which the guide pointed out (wild ginger, fan palms, endemic bamboo, etc.) but most of us were too tired to notice them and instead muttered some superficial appreciative remarks wherever appropriate.
It became a standard joke among us that whenever anyone asked "Are we there yet?" someone would answer, "Ten more minutes!" even though it would probably take us another lifetime to reach the nearest campsite. Soon, we found ourselves at Kem Baha (Baha Camp) at the top of the Jelawang Waterfall, the standard pit-stop for hikers on their way further up.
The crisp, cool morning air had created a carpet of thick fog on the ground and it was just a magical feeling of walking on clouds and cotton candy. Later at noon, when the fog had cleared, we saw the whole of Dabong valley – so green and bright – below us.
Located near Kem Baha are some river pools such as the Kolam Tuan Puteri (The Princess Pool), Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) and Air Terjun “Y” (The “Y” Waterfall), so named thanks to the converging flow of waters from both Gunung Stong and Gunung Ayam. Even if you don’t reach the peak of Gunung Stong, the time spent in these pools would have made the trip extremely worth it!
I learned later that our trek up from the foot to the summit of the Jelawang Waterfall was a mere one kilometer distance. But with the steep inclines, it seemed longer and took us about two hours to reach Kem Baha.
We stayed at the top till noon before making a move back to the foot of the mountain. The trek down was via a different route. We walked fast but the inclines were still steep. At a couple of places, we had to negotiate our way carefully down a 90 degree drop using tree roots and some chains.
After conquering Gunung Stong (well, part of it at least), there is a unique gait to my walk. I'd like to think of it as a confident swagger of one who smugly rejoices in her recent conquest. The truth is far less pretty -- the knees crack with every stride, the muscles pull mercilessly, and every step is excruciatingly painful -- resulting in a less-than-flattering limp. But I came away from the experience with greater confidence and motivation in my life. Back at work, my friends compliment me on the glow on my face and the vigour in my life.
Yes, I did the Stong Waterfalls and if you ask me if I'd do it again, I'd say, "In the blink of an eye, my friend!"
Gunung Stong is located within the Stong State Park, Kelantan, in an area of about 22,000 ha, with diverse geographical landscapes including dense jungle, a chain of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and caves. Its equally diverse ecology consists of an amazing variety of flora and fauna. Within the interiors, elephants, tigers, bears, gibbons, hornbills and a range of other exotic wildlife roam. Visitors may also chance upon the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia of the kerii meyer species, the endemic long-sectioned bamboo and a unique palm species (licuala stongesis).
Currently, accommodations are only available at Kem Baha, where there are four chalets (about RM15 per night), but most people prefer to pitch their own tents (or rent one for about RM5 per night).
The Stong State Park comes under the care of the State Forestry Department and is monitored by the World Wildlife Fund (Malaysia). Carrying capacity is limited, thus, visitors are asked to make travel arrangements through a registered agent. Packages usually include transfers from Dabong train station to the foot of Gunung Stong, state park permits, guide services, camping fees, and a certificate from the Kelantan Tourist Guides Assocition (KTGA).
For more details, please contact: KTGA at (609) 7432 125, or visit http://www.tourism.gov.my/en/destinations/item.asp?item=gunungstong.