Six young Englishmen were determined to conquer the remote peak of Batu Lawi – but neither the jungle nor the mystical mountain gave in easily.
It was at least 60cm long, brownish coloured, and slithering along inches from my eyes. Normally this wouldn’t such a problem for a die-hard jungle traveller, but this particular snake and I were sharing the same deep, dark crack 150m tip the south face of an unclimbed pinnacle in the Borneo jun¬gle. Baru Lawi was proving to be a place, of dreadful surprises.
The vertical fissure widened into a chimney. I found myself spread-eagled between two sheer walls, trying not to look down as I searched for a spot to place the next belay. Finally I reached unto a narrow ledge. As I hauled in the green, sodden rope I heard my fellow climber, Kevin Fletcher, grunting his way up the rock face below me. When he came into view, his face was ashen. We both grimaced and shook our heads.
We had been struggling on this south face for five days, and were now low on, water and ideas. The rock was dangerously loose and every hold had been strangled by lichens or knobbly thorns. Our hands were scratched and gnarled and the sun was roasting our backs. The prospect if our team of six British Army climbers 5eing the first to conquer Batu Lawi, a 2043m sandstone pinnacle in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, was looking remote.
Dreams & schemes
The twin spires of Baru Lawi had caught my eye for the first time three years earlier when I was on a flight into the Kclabit Highlands. It looked just as the late Bor¬neo scholar, Tom Harrisson, had described it over half a century ago in Borneo Jun¬gle, a vivid account of the expedition studies of five fellow Oxford University undergraduates. When they saw Batu Lawi from the summit of Mount Dulit Lawi — a jungle peak more than 160km distant — they described it as “standing as an island in a sea of white cloud”.
Towards the end of World War 11 this peak took on a special significance
for Harrisson. In March, 1945, a Royal Australian Air Force Liberator aircraft
dropped him by parachute at the Kelabit village of Bario, close to the Kalimantan
border. He had a daunting mission: as a member of the Allies Special Operations Executive (SOE) he was to raise a native force from friendly tribes then dislodge the Japanese holding the coast before they advanced inland. Baru Lawi, code named Mount 200, was the landmark used to indicate the flight path on four abortive attempts to land him on the plain of Bah, where Bario sits. Each day low cloud prevented the aircraft finding the drop-zone over wet rice paddies. Time was tight. On the fifth sortie he and three Australian SOE companions dropped blindly into the mists. They landed safely but the aircraft was not so lucky: it failed to return to its base in the Philippines, and its fate remains a mystery. Harrisson described his wartime experiences in another work World Within.
The magnificent, terrifying spire of Batu Lawi towers above Sarawak ‘s jungle canopy. It’s appearance and naccessibility, have made it the subject of many myths as a jungle-loving soldier, I naturally found it gripping; and as a moderate climber I took an even keener interest in the author’s description of his postwar return to Baru Lawi. With a local guide, Harrisson had made his way to the mountain and, to com¬memorate the airmen who disappeared on that ill-fated Liberator flight, tucked a carved wooden plaque in a niche near the 1850m summit of the smaller peak. Harrisson’s passion for Sarawak and its people continued for 30 years — he later became curator of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching — until he was killed in a car crash in 1976.
When I had my first glimpse of Harrisson’s mountain I was a British army, officer attached to a Gurkha regiment in Brunei. I then spent a week’s leave walk¬ing the jungle paths leading away from Bario, which even now is accessible only by light aircraft or on foot. I knew that one day I’d try to climb that mountain.
A lunatic endeavour
Baru Lawi’s twin white fingers thrust men¬acingly from a knife-edged ridge that’s covered by dense rainforest. A saddle joins the two towers of rock, and the highest peak soars like a cathedral spire for another 300m into the sky. In the Kelabit dialect Baru Lawi means “fish-tail rock”, and was the subject of myths, legends and superstitions. The towering peaks were regarded as po¬tent symbols of male and female forces, and it was widely believed that misfortune would befall anyone who showed disrespect for the mountain. Undoubtedly the local people passed through this area from time to time, but largely because of these super¬stitions and also the difficulty of assault¬ing the peak it’s highly likely that Harrisson was the first person to attempt to climb it. It was also evident that Harrisson, who was equipped with little more than a rope, had not attempted to scale the tallest peak. I wanted my name on it.
After a week walking around Bario as a guest of Penghulu Nyimat Ayu headman of the 30,000- strong Kclabit tribe I learned much of Baru Lawi. I also met Nagalewan Rajah, an old Kelabit who guided Harrisson there after the war. He confirmed that no-one had ever climbed Baru Lawi’s tallest peak. He laughed, adding: “No man ever could.” This was just what I had hoped to hear.
On my return to England, the expedi¬tion soon took shape. I selected a six-man team, consisting of Junior Lieutenant Eamon Ross, Sergeant Trevor Jones, Cor¬poral Kevin Fletcher and troopers Dave Workman and Stuart Lythgoe. The Brit¬ish Army remains a great supporter of lu¬natic endeavour. No one could have had more than a scant notion of what I was actually aiming to do, but I was given time, money and support. Viscount Slim, an SAS officer during the Indonesian confronta¬tion, agreed to be our patron, and we soon attracted sponsors.
We arrived in Sarawak in mid-Decem¬ber, after spending a week in Brunei at the British Army’s only jungle warfare school. It was a chance to test our communications, and for the men to spend their first night in the jungle.
When our small plane touched down on the grass airstrip at Bario, we were greeted by a horde of enthusiastic Kelabits. The Penghulu (headman) had recruited four por¬ters Liang Ulun, Padan Rivuh, Tama Akup and Tama’s nephew Duncan to carry some of our kit to Batu Lawi.
Meeting the mountain The journey to the base of the mountain would take us three days. We set out at 7am on December 21, fresh and bright and feeling in very high spir¬its. That didn’t last long: even at 1000m and shel¬tered beneath the rainfor¬est canopy the intensity of the sun made walking absolute hell. We were unused to the near-100% humidity, not to mention lugging 35kg rucksacks. Our pace was painfully slow. We crawled, often on all fours, up precipitous spur sides with jungle thorns dragging at our sod¬den clothing and leeches latching on to any exposed flesh.
With decent maps, a compass and lo¬cal knowledge, I hoped that finding Baru Lawi was not beyond my navigational capabilities. Harrisson was not far off the mark when he said of walking in the jun¬gle: “Step two paces off a track, turn round, not notice a mark ... and that may well be the last anyone hears from you.”
You also find yourself keeping an eye on a compass bearing but not being able to walk directly on it. Amid the constricted, claustrophic greenery of the rainforest, finding any visual point to use as a landmark and course indicator is simply out of the question. But somehow we man¬aged: on the second day, a break in the forest that had been caused by a landslip gave us our first sight of Baru Lawi. I was secretly releived. Even from about 2km away, the mountain looked awesome.
Our porters, although blessed with an inherent sense of direction in the jungle, had never been close to Batu Lawi before. They were not an enormous help in pinpointing the final target and they also abandoned us a day prematurely when we were on the steepest uphill section. They were keen to be back in Bario for Christmas day, and felt they had lugged or load far enough. I reluctantly paid them off. Then, just an hour and a half later, the terrain grew steeper, the trees were spaced further apart and the jungle floor was scattered with chunks of stone. Sud¬denly, at 1700m, the scrub-covered base of a rock face reared up in front of us.
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