Nepenthes of Gunung Murud.

During our visit to Mulu National Park (Sarawak, Malaysia) and to Batu Lawi in the Kelabit Highlands we had seen a major summit in the distance. The mountain in question is Gunung Murud. Different sources confirm the presence of nepenthes on the summit and talk about a great variety in plant life.Our guide for Gunung Mulu also suggested that a nepenthes similar to n. muluensis appeared on Murud. So in planning our tour through Kalimantan and Sarawak we scheduled for Gunung Murud. The tour took us to the Kelam in Kalimantan,to Kuching and surroundings in Sarawak and to the Kelabit Highlands.

Gunung Murud is with 2423 m (7946 ft) the highest summit in Sarawak. The first ascend was made in 1922 after a five week march from the coast. The mountain is part of the Kelabit Highland range and lies about 180 km from the sea. The lowest part of the mountain spills over into Kalimantan (Indonesia). Access to the mountain is either from Sarawak or from Sabah.

Our starting point was to be Miri, where we picked up our guide. From thereon we planned to fly to Bareo, the main longhouse center in the highlands at an altitude from 1000 meter. There we could look for n. stenophylla, n.reinwardtiana and n. veitchii, plants we saw on a previous trip but wanted to photograph again. The n. veitchii from Bareo is intermediate between the lowland version as found in the foothills of Gunung Mulu (pure epiphytes) and the highland version of Batu Lawi which typically clasp the trees ingrowing higher. The plants grow in a dry soil on the side of the road among shrubs and shorts trees and are rarely taller than 0.75 meter.

Bareo has an airfield with a grass runway and is serviced by Twin Otter planes,so when it rains the town cannot be reached. The first time we were in Bareo the field was just opened after being totally closed for one month. Of course when we were ready to leave for the highlands this time it rained, so we had to look for an alternative.

Fortunately Gunung Murud can be climbed from the Sabah side. The nearest village, Ba'kelalan, has a hard runway and can be reached via Lawas.

Flying in over the highland range into Ba'kelalan was impressive. The village on an altitude of 1000 meter has no longhouses anymore, and is spread over different hamlets. It is surrounded by numerous hills, and in the distance the Murud range can be seen. As we came in the morning, we had time for an afternoon walk. With a temperature of 23 deg C and slight overcast this was more agreeable than walking in the lowlands. The landscape reminds of meadows crossed by small brooks and many of the trees carry ant plants and epiphytic orchids. After half an hour we arrived at a small wood and found n. reinwardtiana. As usual at this altitude the nepenthes were growing among rhododendrons and were climbing high in the trees. Next morning we had an early start and followed the runway in westly direction. The first part of the hills were steep, and we climbed 200 vertical meter in the first 30 minutes, which proved hard for a starter. Fortunately after the climb we found a flatter stretch at an altitude from around 1300 meter. At this level there is no rain forest yet, and we walked trough tropical oak forest. We scaled the ridge and after the midday break we lost altitude again till we reached a logging road. A logging road is a stretch of forest 15 meter wide where all trees have been cleared so trucks and transporters can pass to take out the cut trees. Rain caused erosion and at many locations land slides had taken out part of the forest and blocked the road. Rain also caused the clay to stick to our shoes, tripling their weight and making walking very difficult.
We saw no nepenthes that day, apart from a single pitcher, but unfortunately the dry state made correct determination impossible. From the single pitcher however we found a similarity with the species which goes under the umbrella of n. stenophylla at the first ridge of Gunung Api (Mulu national park). The same red colour was apparent on the remaining parts of the pitcher. We descended again (funny how easy we always seemed to loose the height we just had laboriously gained) and camped for the night at a small river.

After a rainy night under tarpaulins we continued west trough the oak forest.In the middle of the morning at 1400 meter we found our first nepenthes, a single plant. The first impression is that this is stenophylla. The difference with the same species from Bareo however is striking. The lid is more triangular than circular and the hairiness is less. Comparing descriptions and illustrations leave the possibility that this could be the original n. fusca as described by Danser, and there are similarities with n. fusca as seen on the road to Mount Kinabalu. From that point till midday that was the only plant we saw. Then at 1730 meter the first n. tentaculata appeared. This species is widely distributed, and in our opinion there are small but characteristic differences between the species on each mountain.

And 50 meter higher a species appears that surely belongs to the maxima family, with pitchers up to 30 cm. No records are available about n. maxima on Gunung Murud. The hairiness of the leaves point toward n. veitchii, and although we might have seen some pure strains the variation in shape of the leaves and pitchers indicate that there are at least two types of hybrids involved, most probably between n.veitchii and n. stenophylla or n. fusca. The shapes of some leaves even suggest presence of n. lowii (comparable to n x trusmadiensis), but this seems improbable. The higher we climbed, the larger the pitchers of n. tentaculata seemed to grow. They soon reached 20 cm, which is unusual for this species.

Going slowly higher on a well trodden path we found n. lowii at 1860 m.

The reason for the pad is simple: a fundamentalist Christian movement has developed in Ba'kelalan, and Gunung Murud is a place where the villagers go to meditate and pray. They have built a second village with a large church on a plateau, so on special occasions the whole community can go up and stay for a couple of days. For the rest of the year the buildings stand empty. This village was to be our base camp, as our guide's family lived in Ba'kelalan and of course had a house in Church Camp.

Slightly higher than the n. lowii we found a nepenthes which also looked familiar. Obviously it belonged to the n. tentaculata family, and the coloration reminded us of it's relative on Gunung Mulu: n. muluensis.Where on Mulu the plants grow on the summit exposed in the crown of the trees and the bushes on Murud they grow in the shade of the mossy forest. The plants on Murud are darker, most probably due to the continuous exposure to the UV-light at higher altitude. Comparing pictures of both plants leave no doubt that we are looking at the same species and that n. muluensis also appears on Gunung Murud. It remains to be clarified if the species appears in the 75 kilometre that separate both mountains.

The tentaculata grow even larger close to the ridge, but the pitchers become so different from the normal ones that we had to think that we were looking at another species. The largest pitchers were now 30 cm, with a more round peristome and no hair on the lid.This could be sufficient difference to constitute a separate species or a hybrid. And surprisingly we found n. reinwardtiana close to the ridge. According to Danser this species is normally found at lower altitudes (below 1200 meter)although there is one reference to Batu Lawi, which is above 1500 meter. Nevertheless it is indeed n. reinwardtiana, as witnessed by the two characteristic "eyes". And it is also the other parent of the the hybrid found earlier. By comparing pitchers we could find back the characteristics of both parents in the we have seen previously

Rain had started, and we hurried down from the ridge at 2130 meter for a descend of half an hour to the Church Camp at 1980 meter. Nobody was there and we were living in a ghost town for the next couple of days. At this altitude the day temperatures were around 18 deg C, going down to 12 deg C in the evenings.After a chilly night we started the walk to the top. As usual however, we first went down through a small mossy forest to stream and followed that one in the riverbed. After a stretch of bare rock we found again nepenthes,the same species as the day before. N. muluensis appears at 2200 meter and becomes more like the relative from Mulu.The n. tentaculata have the largest pitchers we have ever seen, reaching 35 cm, but the plants barely grow higher than the pitchers itself. The same stunted growth is apparent in the n. lowii which occupy the same site. This growth is most probably due to the harsher weather conditions at the top, and the complete absence of protecting forest.This makes that the nepenthes have no possibility to climb high and are forced to exist as ground dwellers. On the way back the traditional afternoon rain starts and the Church Camp almost disappears in the fog.

Next day we took it easy, climbing back to the ridge to take pictures. Fort he first time we see a squirrel drinking from a lowii pitcher. Hearing whistling we search for the source, and are drawn to ground pitchers of n. tentaculata embedded in the moss. The sound comes from a pair of tree frogs which apparently house in the pitchers. After finding the first we hear more and can easily spot them in the same area. The mossy forest stops below the top of the ridge,and a small alpine landscape appears. On the other side of the ridge the mossy forest reappears.

It looks like the rainy season has started a bit and we are facing an important decision. If we continue to Bareo we risk that the airfield is closed and we will have to walk to days back to the next field. So we decide to walk back to Ba'kelalan. Leaving in the early morning well before the guides.As both my wife and myself don't like coming down the same way as going up- it can be boring - we decided to take the two day walk back in a single day. So we set a good pace, turned at the ridge and started loosing height quickly. The path became unknown, and no nepenthes appeared where we expected them. The compass and the shade of the ridge in the distance kept us in the right direction, but we considered turning back. We had already gone down 500 meter, so would need at least two hours to recover that distance. This would mean we had to stay another night in the forest. So we continued following the sound of a little brook which we assumed would end up in the river close to the camp of the first night. And indeed we reached a junction with the old path, and waited for the guides. Luckily for one day we had no rain and the logging road was dry enough to walk without too much difficulties. Again we were astonished by the erosion taking place at the sides of the road. We finally reached Ba'kelalan in the evening.

We continued the trip to Gunung Silam looking for n. macrovulgaris, photographed n. vilosa and n. kinabaluensis on Kinabalu mountain and relaxed in Singapore before flying home again.