An adventurous ride by boat, then on logging rails led to a mysterious hill hidden in the middle of the jungle.



It was getting dark when Maureen caught me with a couple of maps and a large-scale satellite photo.

“What have you discovered again today,” she asked with a mocking voice.

"Another mud volcano, look here it is,” I said, whilst pointing to an area of the size of a dime on the colored picture from space. “I found it in an explorer’s diary, 1938, Sarawak Oilfields Ltd. I wonder if anyone has studied this feature ever since, it is so remote… frankly, it’s in the middle of nowhere, and very difficult to approach. We might try the logging road that leads to Kampong Karap.”

I put my finger on the picture and traced the wrinkly road that wound through the picture like an unhappy worm. “You see this orange line that wiggles along the dark green patch. It’s primary forest. Adjacent is an area of yellow green color, which looks like wood half-eaten by termites. This might be a logging concession. Finally this dark, blue snake – it’s the Bakong River. Yet the volcano is still farther up, on a little creek called Sungai Kulak. It doesn’t look like it carries a lot of water, yet its valley can’t be overlooked.”

“These rivers are swarming with crocodiles,” remarked Maureen. Frankly, I hadn’t thought about that. But with a bit of caution, nothing bad would happen.

“No-one told you to swim in there. If we drive all the way down to the Karap village longhouse, it’s just a few farther miles to go by boat. No big deal.”

“You want to leave the car in the Karap village, and hire a boat? Forget it!” she said. “If you want to get rid of you car, let’s go there. This area is populated by Iban people of a bad reputation. They’re going to break your car doors open before you’ll have gotten to the first river bend. You’ll never see your car again. We better go from Marudi. My brother-in-law Arso owns a speedboat. It looks a long trip from Marudi, but I could ask him.”

“What are you waiting for?” I replied full of joy.

The next day, or some fifteen hours later we arrived in Marudi with the River Express. There we shook hands with Arso, a shy Foo Chow Chinese man in his early fifties. He didn’t say much, only that we needed some eight gallons of gasoline, because we had to cater for a long trip, riddled with so many uncertainties. I gave him the gas money, and had a light Mee dish with Maureen in the noodle restaurants that overlooks the Baram. Fifteen minutes later the three of us were ready to go. We loaded the boat, and our captain pulled the rope to start the engine. Arso’s boat was a simple wooden blue-colored galley, but powered with an outboard engine of decent strength. It almost matched the speed of the ‘Tuto Nr. 10 River Express,’ as it we saw it leaving for Kuala Baram.It was a beautiful noon.

The sun was burning down on us as we followed the lee shore downriver. A mild breeze gave comfort. Now, in mid- March, the water level had fallen from his rainy season peak, indicated by a line of mud cutting some 1.5 yards above through the river grass, and tree-roots. After some eighty bumpy minutes we reached the mouth of the Bakong River. Arso turned the boat sharp left, and we saw this tributary winding SE through hilly terrain. Calm creamy waters were flanked by forest shores with impressive root bundles braided along the water line. Many trees seemed to hang ‘free’in the air, as erosion along the riverbanks had deprived the trees from the clayey soil below.

Arso slowed down. Floating grass islands became more and more pervasive, and covered at times two thirds of the river’s surface, that had shrunk to a diameter of some twenty yards. Two small villages, one sandpit and two logging camps passed by. Now, a forty minutes travel from the Baram, we had reached the mouth of the Karap river – a dark and gently flowing water of tea-colored aspect, and some eight yards in diameter. This small river carried hardly any sediment, as it seemed to drain many square of low-lying swamplands. Fish were jumping out of the water here and there, and we wondered why.

In this silent stream, we made good progress. I followed our journey on the satellite picture, comparing the vegetation’s signature, whilst counting every bend in the river. As the Karap turned right, on a sharp urn, I gave Arso a sign to slow down the engine. Somewhere here was the entry point of the Sungai Kulak, an even smaller backwater of a similar kind. There it was! A breach in the canopy to the left! Yet overgrown by mats of floating grass there was no apparent way into the creek.

“Let’s go on,” I said, “perhaps I got it wrong. May be the entry point is still farther up.” But my satellite picture seemed to prove me wrong as we carefully navigated upstream. There was no farther inlet. An eagle drew circles on a blue sky, among a flock of clouds. The sun shone through the bird’s wings in mild-brown tones. Passing another sling of the river we saw an Iban fisher, who was laying nets around a grass islands. A large fish was battling inside the floating grass and beating the water against the net with its tail in despair. We stopped right next and asked the elderly man for help.

“The Kulak creek is indeed where you stopped two miles downstream,” he said. “A long time ago one could travel up the creek by boat. I used to cast my nets with my grandfather. Not any longer. There is very little water left, and river grass has invaded its valley. You can hike along the levees, but this will take you for at least three hours.”

I looked to Maureen and shook my head. “No way we can do this,” I said. “Let’s enjoy nature and return to your sister’s farm near Marudi.”

Arso turned the boat and we went back. After some twenty minutes we reached the mouth of the Kulak, and climbed the levee to have a better look. A young but dense ficus and bamboo forest covered the terrain. We ventured into the penumbra of the forest. Silence was only broken by the humming of a mosquito, the ‘barking’ of a monitor lizard. Soft and bouncy ground everywhere, as we advanced.

“Watch-out,” yelled Maureen. Indeed, I was about to stumble over a crocodile trap. Little sticks were planted into the ground and a rope was hanging down from a bent branch. Two yards away, a dark hole in the ground seemed to indicate the entry of the reptile’s den. I didn’t really understand how the trap would work, but I wasn’t in a mood to test its functioning.

A little further down one could overlook the valley. The fisherman was right. There was hardly any creek left, nothing but overgrown swamplands. I gave up. We returned to the boat, and navigated downstream. The river’s surface shone almost like an ideal mirror. Dark thunderstorm clouds rose from the North-East and made the Karap look even darker. Maureen and Arso were discussing something in their native Kayan language, but I couldn’t understand anything from their conversation.

As we reached a logging camp on the right-hand shore, Arso suddenly slowed the throttle and steered his boat to the jetty.“What’s going on now,” I asked Maureen. “He wants to talk to the logging manager. Perhaps they let us use the train.”“A train,” I asked unbelieving. “There can’t be a train out here in the jungle.”“I don’t know how to explain you. I really don’t know, either” said Maureen. “He was talking about a train. Let’s have a look.”

I shook my head in disbelief. We went ashore and passed the camp – a fit-for-purpose gathering of improvised wooden huts. Arso went to see the manager. Maureen and I balanced our way over slippery wooden boards and poles, which were draped over the morass. Some twenty men were hanging around, obviously drunk, but friendly nevertheless. A young lady gave me a friendly tooth gap smile. Behind the main hut I saw the ‘train.’ Indeed, down to the right a narrow-gauge railway led into the forest, its track disappearing far beyond under a sizzling sun.

I suddenly realized I was looking at one of the strange orange lines I had seen on the 2002 Landsat picture: too narrow for a logging road, to straight and visible for a footpath.“My brother-in-law is a Foo-Chow, a very stubborn man. He wants you to reach your bloody mud-volcano. The train can bring us to the hill,” said Maureen. I heard a rumbling sound, and turned my head, but what was that? Arso came rattling around the corner, sitting on a strange motorized sledge, together with a driver from the camp. This vehicle could be best described as a hybrid between a soap box sledge, and a roller-coaster cab. It was made from local lumber, resided on four iron wheels, and a two-horsepower lawn-mower engine powered its rear axle. Maureen and I took the front seats, a simple wooden bench. An empty egg packing tugged as cushion under her buttocks gave her a rudimentary illusion of comfort.

The kind-of-locomotive took off with a sputtering and grinding sound. Yahoo! Here we go! The sledge rattled along the line and kicked my butt every three yards or so, as we sat just a ten non-shock-absorbed inches above the rails. The orientation of the tracks wasn’t quite precise either, the shiny metal had many kinks, and many sleepers sat loose. The railway tracks were built on double or even triple layers of wooden poles, to counter subsidence on wet forest ground– dark oily-looking water pools lurked just everywhere, and no heavy truck could ever venture into these treacherous bog lands.

Along the lines we saw many unhappy trunks of giant jungle trees that had been cut and evacuated through the jungle railroad network. As we rumbled along the ground seemed to become gradually drier. I just speculated how many bumpy miles we were off the mud volcano when the sledge locomotive jumped the track. The engine screamed, and we almost landed in the ditch. Luckily it wasn’t a big deal to push the rails back on the track, and our bumpy journey continued.

Not long, and we reached the terminus, a wooden hut populated by a family or two of local Iban tribes people. Our vehicle, that didn’t seem to have brakes, came to a rumbling and grinding stop. Arso and the driver stepped down and walked right into the bushes. Maureen and I followed them.

There it was: a clearing of some three hundred yards wide, forming a very gentle hillcrest. I took a GPS measurement, which told me that the hilltop was towering the forest at a height of some sixty-five feet. In the middle of the barren caldera emerged a single crater, four yards in diameter, where gray mud bubbled in sporadic micro-eruptions. A strange, eerie rumbling sound preceded every eruption – caused by rising and rapidly expanding natural gas bubbles. I kneeled down, and put my hand in the mud. It felt somewhat cooler than the air, perhaps 85 deg F or so. We watched the strange scenery for a while. I took a few pictures. Then it was time to go. It was already 3.30 pm, and with 2.5 hours of daylight left we better made a move.

The train brought us back to the logging camp where we boarded our speedboat. In the east a dark wall of clouds had gathered. “We won’t make it home dry,” said Maureen, and gave the sky a suspicious glimpse. As we approached the mouth of the Baram, successive gusts of winds pounded down on us, followed by rolling thunder and curtains of heavy rain. Maureen grabbed an empty plastic bag and covered her head, before pushing her pink sun hat on top. We stowed our luggage under the seats, as well as we could, although we knew that there was no escape from a tropical rainstorm on the open waters. Our boat jumped the river waves with unease, the motor sputtered from time to time.We got soaked.

The wind blew so hard in my face and on my shoulders, that it made me feel cold – a rather unusual sensation in the tropics. Dusk fell as we reached Marudi and, nor far behind, Arso’s fruit plantation. As we stepped over slippery poles up to the levee, I said a prayer of merci. The warmth and comfort of the farmhouse was in reach. It had been a long and exhausting day.

Travel log:

River Express from Kuala Baram to Marudi: 2h 10 min; from Kuala Baram to mouth of Bakong: ca. 1 hour 40 min; Marudi to mouth of Bakong using small speed boat: ca 1 h 20 min; travel on Bakong River (one way): 40 min; on Sungai Karap until logging camp: ca. 25 min. Ride on jungle train ca. 35 min; walk to volcano ca. 5 min.

Attention! logging operation is winding down in this particular area. The big, valuable trees seem to be gone already. I expect the camp, and the railway to be abandoned by 2006. From then onwards, the volcano can only be accessed by walking along the rotting remnants of the railway line; this might take 2 hours.

To bring: medical kit,  insect repellants, sunscreen (vital), food, rain coat, and 0.5 gallons of drinking water/person. Good shoes. Fuel: at least nine gallons of gasoline. Satellite map and GPS are advised. Caution with snakes, and crocodiles. Swimming is not recommended.

© 2005 by Franz L Kessler