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Korbu – A small odyssey of agony and ecstasy

© by Pipit Tai

......decision has been made, the die is cast....

As we made the approach into Ipoh, we could just make out the dark and menacing “head and shoulders” of Korbu. In my mind, the name evens sounds dangerous, a combination of sacrifice and struggle, the striving underdog to over-achiever, Tahan. A slippery sliver of cold fear squeezes through my chest. A million doubts and questions churn in my mind, but this is no time now to turn back. The decision has been made, the die is cast. We are to take on Korbu.

We spend the night in Ipoh so as to start early for the mountain. Some avid climbers from Negri Sembilan are in our group. They wake up at 5 to have a good breakfast at Foh San before the climb. We were not so agile of mind, waking only at 7. I thought it would have made a good last meal, but never mind, some really good roti canai served to fuel us up.

After the initial introductions, pleasantries and briefing, our guide led the way. It was uphill immediately. I wondered what pace to take and eventually settled on trying to stay near the guide to catch whatever information he may pass on. The initial write up given to us for the preparation and discussion with people who have done the climb mentioned an easy climb of 2 stages, of 4.5 hours and 3 hours. The guide said the first stage will take about 8 hours and the second an almost equal amount of time. We are also advised to take it slowly as the second stage is dangerous and we have to walk out on our own two feet if we hurt ourselves. “Rubber time and conflicting reports” I thought. Things are beginning to stretch a bit.

As it turns out, there are several routes to Korbu. We are to take the tortuous one. For most of the first part, we follow the course of a river (Temin?), clambering over rocks and squeezing under fallen trees, criss-crossing the river to avoid major obstacles. I give good account of myself arriving almost exactly 8 hours later at the first campsite – Seroja, about 700m above sea-level. We are about a third of the way by height and half the distance by time to Korbu. The guide said that there is another campsite, Kijang about 2 hours on. If we wished we could camp there to give ourselves a head start for the next day’s climb, but the group is too dispersed and too tired to get a consensus and the guide gives up trying. On our way to Seroja, we passed some curious artifacts strewn on the ground. They looked a bit like photographic slides – black rectangular plates about 3mm thick encased on the margin by white plastic. No one could make out what they were.

A good dinner of vegetarian “bak kut te” and canned vegetarian “duck” as well as a troubled night’s sleep was all the preparation we had for the next day’s challenge. It is amazing how difficult it is for 4 men to get a good night’s sleep in a 4-man tent.

The next day, we are all in relatively good shape for the 2nd stage, but it is a steep uphill all the way – 8 hours of grinding, muscle cramping agony. Shoes and equipment which did not give trouble on short hikes started to punish the body. Skin turned red and started to chaff on abrasion and toes nails started turning black. I think I am going to loose at least a couple of toe nails. My advice to would be adventurers is to test gear and shoes as well as fitness thoroughly. Do not attempt any major undertaking unless you are 100% confident of your gear and fitness. Adrenalin can keep you going to the end of your expedition, but you will pay a heavy price in terms of pain.

The vegetation starts to change ever so imperceptibly. Trees that look like hill casuarinas start to appear. Moss start to thicken and creep higher up the branches. Eventually the moss appears to be several inches deep and generations of climbers have cut a path over a foot deep into the moss. In places the track has turned into a muddy morass of dead moss debris, trapped rain water and dirt. Still it is an unearthly scene with gnarled trees of trunks and branches not unlike thick ropes and green and brown moss wrapped around these trunks like passionate unshakable lovers. I almost expect goblins and fairies to appear, the evil ones making us stumble and slip over mud and roots while the good fairies provide unusually convenient toe and hand grips in the form of roots and branches in all the right places. It were as if we were in a well designed ship with all the supports and holds to aid the crew in clambering around in heavy seas.

Higher still, the trees start to give way to bamboo, monkey cups and shrubs. At a place called Botak Hill, we are confronted by a mountain with an almost vertical rock face about 100m high – Raya. Korbu lies behind this last treacherous and dangerous obstacle. The wind whips up into a terrific growl and my fingers are frozen. I have no idea how I made it past this point – fear and adrenalin I suppose, but eventually we break into open ground. There are a few tents already set up by the early birds. My body, so tensed up by fatigue and fear relaxes almost immediately. The endorphins, oxydoxins and all other pleasure hormones flow freely. I reach an elation and ecstasy almost karmic in nature and break into song. Forest notices this and comments that mountain climbing can be addictive. This brought me down to earth a little, besides, the cold was starting to suppress the endorphins. My stay at the summit was an anticlimax. The wind never stopped blowing and a thick shirt and pullovers were not sufficient to ward-off the cold. Forest was the only one who did a little sightseeing and reported seeing the lights of Ipoh at night. The rest of us spent our time shivering in the tent.

The next day, the others headed off to conquer Gayong, a neighbouring summit while Jungle and I decided to forego the quest and retreated downhill. I must say the hike down was even more painful than the hike up. Muscles and knees start to give way besides the seriously blackening toe nails. An experienced Temiar suggested we climb down the steep rock face with our backs to open space, the reason being buttocks and backpacks bumping against rocks have been known to push climbers over the cliffs with devastating consequences. I hear some birds which sounded like prinias when we pass through the shrubs– maybe Hill Prinias, but I cannot be sure.

Our progress was slow. Forest caught up with us at Kijang and we proceeded to Seroja together. The rest of the hike was uneventful, except that we came upon the almost forgotten artifacts again. The Temiar who was with us, said they were parts of an old battery (the carbon rod) and were remains of equipment left by a British unit caught in an ambush during the Emergency. Some closer searching turned up an old aluminium water bottle and corroded parts of a wireless set. So it would appear this isolated part of the country has some history too.

At the end, the guide pointed in the direction behind and said just one word, “Korbu”. I turn round and see the majestic “head and shoulders” still unbowed. We may have conquered her, but it is only our own personal puny egos that revel in triumph. Korbu remains eternal and forever. I saluted her and turn away, perhaps forever too.


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All photographs by Forest Ang unless mentioned.
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