This is a great but challenging day-walk to the top of stunning Gunung Santubong, which rises up out of the Damai peninsular, 1/2 hour drive from Kuching. The steep trail, involving numerous rope-ladder ascents, is rewarded by views along the coast in both directions, plus inland back to Kuching. A pretty waterfall offers a great way to cool off at the end.
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Gunung Santubong (‘gunung’ means mountain in Malay) is located on the Damai Peninsula, 35km north of Kuching. From sea level, it’s irregular rainforest-covered peaks rise steeply to 810m, forming a catchment for numerous streams and a potential sanctuary for a variety of wildlife (it is proposed as a national park, but has not been made one yet). Gunung Santubong provides a spectacular backdrop to hotel resorts, local fishing villages, and the Sarawak Cultural Village. Its striking peak is visible from Kuching on most days. (The photo at the top of this page shows Gunung Santubong viewed from across the bay at Bako National Park.)
We have only described one trail here, although a second trail is covered in the “return” section of the main trail description. There are other walking possibilities at Santubong/Damai – see the other treks section.
Gunung Santubong Summit
This is a moderate difficulty day-trip from Kuching, and one of the best in the region. It involves some steep climbs, including up rope ladders, but the trail is well made, and it provides very rewarding views from the top. The trail passes through beautiful and diverse rainforest and offers a good opportunity for seeing wildlife, especially on weekdays when the trail is quieter. A pretty waterfall offers a great way to cool off at the end of the walk.
Myths & Legends
There are a number of local legends about Gunung Santubong. One of these tells of how the mountain came to be (and where its name came from). Like many legends, there are several versions of this one. According to one version, the mountain was formed when mythical Princess Santubong was speared by her jealous sister, Princess Sejinjang. Falling over, she gave the mountain its distinctive profile, like a pregnant belly. According to the other version of this story, the two princesses lived in the heavenly kingdom Kayangan. The Crown Prince fell in love with both of them, but they refused to be joint wives. The King of Kayangan banished the princesses to earth, where they became Gunung Santubong and the nearby Gunung Seijinjang.
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Another (less romantic) story is that the name originates in the Chinese ‘San Chu Bong’, for the wild boar found there. Yet another legend relates that the animals living on the mountain turned into people on crossing the ridge to the other side, and back into animals on returning (or vice-versa).
The Santubong area (primarily around what is now Kampung Santubong, on the mouth of the river) has a long and interesting history. Excavations at Santubong Village have found early Malay Hindu and Buddhist relics from the 9th century AD. There was a Chinese settlement there probably as early as AD 1000, and Santubong was an important trading and iron mining center in the 11th to 13th centuries. Long after this (in the 19th century), locals believed that the bits of slag left by the iron smelting process (and scattered around the area) were the petrified droppings of giant animals! Also thought to date from this period are some enigmatic rock carvings of human figures, one of which is reproduced outside the front of the Sarawak Museum. (The originals can be visited, down a land off the left-side of the Damai road, before reaching the turnoff to Kampung Santubong – a small sign says “Batu Jaong”.)
In the 15th century, Santubong was the site of the original Brunei Malay capital of Sarawak. The first and only Sultan of Sarawak, Sultan Tengah, is buried in a mausoleum at the base of the mountain, just off the road.
The first White Rajah, James Brooke, built a holiday bungalow at Santubong; and the great naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote some of his important works on evolution while staying there in the mid-1850s. Italian botanist Edoardo Beccari climbed to the top of Gunung Santubong at the end of the 19th Century, looking for new plants. Here’s what he had to say about the climb:
Without a guide it would have been no easy matter to find a passage up the precipitous rocky cliff which bars the way at the very outset; but I happily found one in one of the huts at the base of the precipice, and we managed to get up somehow, holding on to the roots of the trees, though I found it pretty hard climbing. When we had got over this difficulty, we came to a sort of terrace leading up the least precipitous side of the peak – that facing the sea. By this we were able without too much difficulty to reach the summit, which I found to consist of a small area of level ground.
Santubong is currently a forest reserve and is proposed to become a National Park in the future. There are also currently plans to upgrade the trail with more information about the rainforest, a canopy walkway, and various other facilities.
A small leaflet called ‘The Santubong Jungle Trek’, produced by the Holiday Inn outlines the Jungle (‘blue’) Trail. It should be available from the Crowne Plaza, the Kuching Holiday Inn and each of the Damai Holiday Inn Resorts.
National Parks of Sarawak contains a brief description of Santubong and the walk, as well as excellent general information about the geology, flora, and fauna of Sarawak and magnificent photos.
Beccari’s descriptions are extracted from his engagingly written Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo (1904), Reissued as an Oxford University Press Paperback in 1986, with Introduction by the Earl of Cranbrook.
Various articles in the Sarawak Museum Journal (from the 1950s onwards) discuss the results of archaeological excavations at Santubong and the history of the area.
The second of the two versions of the Puteri Santubong legend is taken from the June 2003 Sarawak Discovery magazine (a monthly insert in the Sarawak Tribune), in an article Princess of Santubong, by Lim Tze Ling (p14).