- Elevation: 940 m (3,084 ft)
- Prominence: 904 m
- Ribu category: Spesial
- Province: Kalimantan Barat (West Kalimantan)
- Google Earth: kml
- Other names: none
Gunung Kelam is a huge granite dome near Sintang in central West Kalimantan province. It was first written about by German botanist Johannes Gottfried Hallier in 1894. He was the second European to climb it, after a Dr. Gürtler, and reached the summit ridge on five occasions between January 30th and February 13th 1894. Of particular interest to him was the large number of pitcher plants (Nepenthes). The following is his description:
“Mount K’lamm is a unique mountain of grand beauty. It rises singly and abruptly from a wide plane overgrown by young forest almost up to 1000 m above seal level and stretches approximately from west to east. Up to about half the mountain the steep slopes are covered with vigorous virgin forest, but the upper half is encompassed by mighty, almost vertical cliffs made of rock, over which water runs down in numerous gullies. Above the upper edge of the cliff there is high mountain vegetation compiled of bushes and small trees.
After once again climbing a steep slope with Gleichenia thickets, one stands suddenly beneath the high enclosing rock wall of the mountain ring. The smooth water-washed stone seamed with water channels shows no variation in structure, and it appears almost as if the whole mountain was composed of a single monstrous block of rock. On this wall has been erected the steep 45 metre high rattan ladder; it is secured only at the bottom, in the middle and in the solid earth at the top, the rest lying free against the stone…
Just above the middle of the ladder a small thin patch of humus is found, just sufficient to allow one to stand and rest for a moment. Both here, and at the top of the ladder a Nepenthes plant with unusually large pitchers has established itself. In the basal part, the pitchers are expanded into a jug shape. They are thus able, on the one hand, to take up a large quantity of water, and on the other, to hinder the escape of insects which have fallen inside, by means of the relatively narrow neck.”
Gunung Kelam remains one of the most important known habitats in the world for the pitcher plants, apparently being home to no less than 14 different species, one of which – the endemic Shield-Leaved Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes Clipeata) – was until recently thought to be the most endangered of all. The pitcher plants grow on the side of the vertical granite cliffs at an approximate altitude of between 500 and 800 metres. Most of the pitcher plants grow in obscure corners of the mountain difficult and dangerous to reach, yet numerous examples can be seen from the steep metal ladders which have since replaced the rattan ladder that Hallier used over a century ago – and which hikers must use if they wish to reach the summit ridge.
Kelam is a striking mountain from many angles both because it is an immense Ayers Rock-esque boulder and because the surrounding land is mostly very flat, with just a couple of minor hills to the northeast. More regular-sized boulders (for example, those measuring between 2 to 10 metres in height) can be found scattered by nearby village houses at the base of Kelam itself.
Just as those in Kalimantan call their highest peak ‘Bukit Raya‘ (‘big hill’ or ‘great hill’) despite its considerable size, so too do they refer to Gunung Kelam as Bukit Kelam. However, those who have climbed the ladders up its vertical cliff faces would probably agree that it deserves to be called a mountain rather than a mere hill! Although it can be climbed in a day by the reasonably fit and prepared, it is a significant hike up from about just 25 metres above sea level to an elevation of 940 m (the official 1,002 metres seems to be an exaggerated figure). A local man claims to have reached to summit ridge in just 45 minutes of running, but for dayhikes you should realistically allow 4-5 hours to reach the top and 3-4 to descend carefully. You’ll need a lot of water (minimum 3 litres each) and a decent sunhat and suncream, especially if you have pale skin. Wonderfully it would appear that there are no leeches on this mountain, which is an occasion worth celebrating in Borneo.
The trail starts at the signposted Pesona Wisata Bukit Kelam which is about 22 kilometres (or one hour by car) from Sintang. Follow the cement steps up past the stalls selling drinks (very busy with locals on Sundays) until you reach the sign with ‘puncak’ written on it. The cement steps continue up past a cement water pool (140m), up a short metal ladder (which is a brief taster of things to come as there are 3 longer ladder sections higher up) to a cave with a view (200m) and then a large rock (‘batu jengkol’, 230m) in a small grassy area with excellent views over the surrounding countryside. You will already be sweating by this point, so take a break here and admire the views. Unfortunately, much of the nearby land – which in Hallier’s time would have been primary rainforest – has been converted into palm oil (‘sawit’) plantations. It is a very sad state of affairs and represents a threat of such severity that it is not inconceivable that the majority of Borneo will be like this within the next couple of decades. Ecosystems destroyed for private profit.
The first of three increasingly long metal ladder sections (270m) soon follows and there is little shade to be found for much of the ascent from this point onwards. The views, despite being of palm oil plantations, are still pretty impressive, especially as you hang off the near vertical metal ladders screwed tightly into the granite cliffs. Take real care on these ladders and watch out for snakes which are quite common in this area. After the first major ladder section, the trail is very slippery and steep but you will probably find this to be more of an issue on the descent. On the way up, you will be wanting to take a rest every five minutes and quite possibly desperately looking for some shade from the hot sun!
The second long ladder section (483m) is slightly scarier than the first, being longer and steeper, but still only 20 metres up. Those with a fear of heights may find it rather worrying. And just when you think you’ve reached the end you see that metal bars (500m) lead the way across the cliff face to the right. This granite can be very slippery when wet so take things slowly as you negotiate this exciting stage of the hike. It is at this point that you will be able to spot pitcher plants by the side of the trail.
The third ladder section (or ‘fourth’ if you count the very short one down near the beginning) is the longest of them all. It is about eight sections of ladder in all, connected together on Kelam’s vertical rock-face for about 40 metres of ascent in total. It looks pretty daunting but it is by far the easiest way to the summit ridge (one group of local expert rock climbers actually climbed the cliffs – it took them 18 days in total!) If in doubt, you should probably just enjoy the views here before returning to the entrance. Those who continue are perhaps best advised to hold on tight and get on with the task in hand rather than looking…down!
At the top of the final section of ladder, there is a small ‘pos’ area (650m) near a pool of water. This water is ideal for pouring over your head after negotiating the ladders but if you want to drink the water there is a better source further to the right and down a little way (5 minutes or so). After this ‘pos’ area, the trail flattens considerably before leading up over an area of wet rocks and mud (750m). A few hundred metres further along the trail (which drops down a little) you will reach an old sign at a mini-junction just above a large hut (830m). From this junction, take a left up to the highest parts of the mountain or, if you are staying the night on Kelam, down to the hut. This hut is large enough to accommodate about 6 people inside and perhaps 4 outside the main room so unless you have been beaten to it by a large number of local students you won’t need a tent at all. There is even a cooking area, a washing area and a toilet (the latter is down to the right beyond a deep cave home to many bats).
The view from the hut is wonderful. First of all you will notice a second hut further along which is in a state of disrepair. Looking down to the villages below you will see the wide Sungai Kapuas – Indonesia’s longest river – snaking through the landscape near Sintang. In the distance you may spot Gunung Saran and nearby mountains about which little is currently known. The view is roughly southwest, so you will catch half of the sunset from here. Best of all is the temperature – almost perfect, being at an elevation of 830 metres near the equator.
From the sign at the junction just above the hut it is just 10 minutes further to a signpost (845m, left for ‘Batu Bediri’ and right for ‘Helipad’). Batu Bediri is the place to admire the view northeast – an ideal location for sunrise. The helipad no longer exists but those of you who wish to reach the highest point of the mountain must go to investigate! But, first to Batu Bediri. The path climbs a little further before descending down the other side of the mountain about 50 metres or so (don’t take either of the minor trails leading left or right), to a height almost identical to that of the hut. A tiny stream of flowing water shoots down the side of the bare granite. This is the Batu Bediri area. The views are fabulous – the smaller hill nearby is Bukit Luit (436m) and behind it is Bukit Rentap (658m). More distant hills further to the east-southeast look pretty huge but are infact a similar height to Kelam itself (for example, the beautiful Gunung Bang – 1087m according to US Army maps). It would be wonderful to see Bukit Raya, Kalimantan’s heighest mountain, from here but given that it is well over 120km away it seems almost impossible from an elevation of just 830m. In good weather you will probably want to spend at least half an hour enjoying the views. As always on this mountain, take real care when exploring the near-vertical cliffs. It only takes 30 minutes to reach this point from the hut on the other side.
Once back at the sign to the helipad, continue up to the summit ridge of the mountain (just 20 minutes or so). Apparently a helipad was constructed here for the filming of a documentary, but it must have been a long time ago as there is no sign of a helipad now. What you will find is a new cement rock with TNI written on it (Indonesian Army) and then a minute further along are a couple of antennas and old cement slab with a piece of metal sticking out of it. There are no views here, but this is definitely the highest part of the mountain, and GPS readings suggest a summit altitude of around 940m. To visit both Batu Bediri and the summit from the hut I would allow about 90 minutes in total for a round trip. For the descent back down from the hut to the entrance it shouldn’t take longer than 3-4 hours and perhaps much less in cool (cloudy) conditions or for those who enjoy clambering down vertical ladders!
Once back down, have a look at the images on the side of the entrance to ‘Bukit Kelam’. They represent the mythical story of the origins of the mountain. If you have a spare hour, follow the link road via Merpak which circuits the base of the mountain. You will see several granite boulders and have the opportunity to take photographs of Gunung Kelam from a variety of different perspectives. And soon you will once again meet the main road back to Sintang.
Everyone has heard of the mighty Ayers Rock in Australia. The elevation of Ayers Rock is 863 metres and the surrounding land is already several hundred metres high. That means the actual formation of Ayers Rock is only 348 metres above the ground. Gunung Kelam rises from almost sea level to a height of around 940 metres or more. Therefore, if Gunung Kelam can be considered one huge rock, then West Kalimantan is home to what just might be the largest rock on the planet.
Bagging information by Dan Quinn (June 2013)
- Getting there: Allow at least 8 hours to get from Pontianak to Sintang by road (it’s a very bumpy journey). There is an airport in Sintang with daily flights to Pontianak.
- Accommodation: Several hotels in nearby Sintang. Try Hotel Cika.
- Guides and GPS Tracks: Want a PDF version for your phone? Looking for a guide? Need GPS tracks and waypoints? Gunung Kelam information pack can be downloaded here.
- Permits: Rp5,000 per person for entrance ticket to the tourist area at the base of the mountain.
- Water sources: Available at 140m, 650m and near Batu Bediri on the northeastern side. However, best take your own given the information above.
- Travel insurance: We recommend World Nomads insurance, which is designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities including mountain hiking.
Local Average Monthly Rainfall (mm):
Origins and Meaning
‘Gunung Kelam’ means ‘dark’ or ‘dim’ mountain.