This article also appeared in Malaysiakini on 21st May 2016
The Jerai Experience
Living away from Malaysia, mountain biking played a huge role in me getting to know more about my then host country. It often took me to places that I may not have otherwise thought to go. The promise of beautiful trails to explore took me to many small towns, underrated cities and little known gems.
Being back in Malaysia, I was excited to execute the same strategy to explore the country. High up on my list; was Gunung Jerai in Yan, Kedah. I first heard about the bike ride down the forest trails of Gunung Jerai just a few years ago. The trails are notorious amongst the local mountain biking community; thank to its steep, root covered, long and untamed jungle trails. Any mention of these trails to those who have experienced them; would bring on stories of heroic feats on two wheels, near-death experiences, comic mishaps and supernatural tinged tales of caution. Most would jump at the opportunity to revisit their Jerai experience.
After a few foiled attempts to make the trip up there, we finally booked our trip up north over the Chinese New Year public holidays. We decided that braving the “cuti-cuti Malaysia” and festive traffic was going to be worth it.
Having spent every other Hari Raya Aidilfitri in the northern states meant that Gunung Jerai was a familiar name to me. It was the big hill you see towering over the paddy fields, beyond the cluster of “kampong” houses. I was a little amused that I had to explain to a few friends where we were heading. I have to admit to being a little smug at the ignorance of the place by my KL-based friends. I was quickly humbled by my short-lived sense of superiority, as I had greatly underestimated how popular Gunung Jerai and the surrounding Yan district were with holidaymakers.
Most of the lovely chalets and home-stays we had looked at were booked solid. We were lucky to find a place to stay about half an hour away; in accommodation that our poor planning deserved. We shrugged our shoulders and decided that it was good enough for what we wanted to do, which was essentially – ride our bikes all day.
Access to the bike trails of Gunung Jerai is somewhat restricted of Gunung Jerai. For safety and largely logistical reasons, you will need a guide and riding companions. This is done by contacting the local volunteers, who maintain the trail; via their Facebook page.
On the morning of the ride, we were greeted by Nasron; our trail guide for the next two days. Nasron leads the Jerai Trail volunteers group. We were joined on the first day by a group of 20 riders, mostly local. A few enthusiastic regulars had driven up from Penang and intimidatingly, a French rider based in Vietnam who had recently dominated the competition at the recent Asia Pacific Downhill Challenge. Although it takes a while for most of the group to take on Florent’s accented English, Nasron is the ever-gracious host giving him a warm welcome. Nasron is at ease with his foreign guest, having hosted mountain bike riders here from all over the world including Indonesia, Japan, UK and the Australia.
There are currently three, sanctioned mountain bike trails that descend from near the peak of Gunung Jerai. These trails have largely been left natural, mostly sharing older disused walking trails. There is strictly no removal of tree roots, mature trees and significant soil movement. The sensitive nature of the highland flora and the remoteness of the mountain require that access be controlled and limited. The wild nature of the trail itself currently keeps the number of caps organically.
The ride down Gunung Jerai is by no means beginner friendly with the steep natural terrain to manoeuvre. It requires riders of experience, technical ability, good equipment, wearing sufficient protection including full- face helmets, kneepads and elbow pads. Without going into too much detail of the ride itself, it was admittedly hard on our bodies. But it was rewarding and exhilarating. Plus, it’s not every day you get large groups of day trippers, of all ages cheering and clapping as you roll past.
It wasn’t all adrenaline rushed, chest thumping tearing down mountains over the two days. The meandering drive up the mountain to the start of the trail meant plenty of time to exchange stories and enjoy the scenery. Conversations; half of which were expressed in the direct but disarming “orang utara” style, ranged from stories of the mountain itself, current affairs, trail etiquette to even waste management. It comforted my maternal side to hear the youngest of our group; a rider in his late teens, proclaim that he would be in bed by 8.30 pm. Tired from the day but keen to recover for another day on the mountain.
We passed by many joggers, cyclists and tourists heading both up and down the mountain road. We beeped and waved hello at the Kedah Junior State cross-country team as they powered up on their bikes, putting us to shame.
Being part of a relatively fringe sport meant that it is always rewarding to meet others who not only share the same love but inspire you to do more. The word passionate tends to get overused these days, but on this trip we met at least one person who embodied it in Nasron. He takes a lot of pride in the work that he, together with a dedicated group volunteers have put in to establish and maintain the Gunung Jerai trails. He dreams of making Gunung Jerai an internationally renowned destination; one where it’s natural state is respected and not damaged for mass consumption. The token amount we pay to access the trails; goes partly to costs of the 30 minute or so shuttle up the mountain. The rest of it goes towards our generous lunch on the foothills of Gunung Jerai.
Trail maintenance is a physical effort with fallen trees to clear and garbage left behind by irresponsible tourists to remove. Maintaining the trails is no mean feat; access is only by foot. A “rubbish in, rubbish out” policy is strictly enforced on our rides. Sadly, as witnessed in parts of the mountain; others do not always share this same policy. Nasron informs me that the trails are funded largely by donations from the riding community and recently by the Yan district tourism board. All proceeds go towards the upkeep of the trail and some sustenance for the volunteers on trail maintenance days.
Our trip to Gunung Jerai gave us not only the thrills on two wheels. It gave us an insight into how good things can happen when community members, interest groups and local government work together without hidden interests. See you again soon, Jerai!