The age of adventure
a taiping doctor takes to the outdoors with vigour. and he only started when he was 50!
WHAT can a man who is in his 60s do when it comes to outdoor adventures? How about wildlife photography, birdwatching and floating down river on a rubber tube in Taman Negara, Pahang?
Well, these are not very strenous activities, you say.
Okay, how about waking up in pitch darkness at 4am to climb the 3,805m-high smouldering Gunung Kerinci in West Sumatra, and then walking round the edge of the crater rim, knowing that one false step means tumbling into the volcano’s giant barbeque pit?
Isn’t that sufficient test that an old body can still make it? And, more importantly, that one’s mind is still young?
These are some of the adventures that Dr Chan Ah Lak, 66, has undertaken in the sixth decade of his life. Readers of The Star’s travel pages on Saturday will be familiar with his byline, as he has written numerous articles on his trips over the past 12 years.
Yet, surprisingly, he only began his hardcore outdoor “career” at 50.
“Before that I did some hunting, fishing and scuba diving, but nothing as arduous as what I do now,” says Dr Chan, who still runs a general practitioner’s clinic in Taiping, Perak.
“At 50 I had a major operation and that was when I was advised to exercise regularly. I started by walking around my housing estate but after one month, I got tired of that and started climbing Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill).
“I met one Canadian couple in their 70s, who were walking around with heavy backpacks. They said they had just finished climbing Mount Kinabalu and that back home in Vancouver, they were active in mountain climbing.
“That was when I told my wife: ‘ Look, we are only 50, we can do it!’ After three months of training, both of us had Mount Kinabalu under our belt. After that, we joined the Malaysian Nature Society and started participating in many more outdoor activities, like mountaineering, hiking, nature photography and cave exploration.”
Four years ago, Dr Chan kayaked around Penang island. A few months after that, he was in Sabah and took a shot at white water kayaking in River Kiulu and white water rafting in River Padas.
Two years ago, he abseiled down the slip- pery rockface of a waterfall in Gopeng, Perak (which this writer did years ago and found to be nerve-racking). Imagine leaning backwards over a rocky precipice and having to keep your legs and body at 90° to the rock wall. If your legs are too high, you slip and dangle upside down from the safety rope. If your legs are too low, you slip too and may dash your face against the wall!
Dr Chan wrote of his experience in Having a splashing time ( Star week ender, Aug 8, 2009):
“Somehow the forceful, streaming wall of cold water erased all my fears, as if washing it away ... When I slowly plied the abseil rope through the descender to lower myself, I felt like a small kid running in the rain. Mum, however, was not around anymore to show her displeasure at my antics.”
Four years ago, he completed the iconic G10 of Peninsular Malaysia, the 10 mountains which are higher than 7,000 feet, namely Gunung Batu Putih (Perak-Pahang border), Gunung Ulu Sepat (Perak-Kelantan border), Gunung Chamah (Kelantan), Gunung Korbu, Gunung Yong Belar, Gunung Gayong and Gunung Yong Yap (all in Perak), and Gunung Tahan, Gunung Irau and Gunung Benom (Pahang).
While these mountains may not seem very impressive in terms of altitude, the treks up their peaks often require a tenacious attitude due to their wild, overgrown trails, compared to the clear, well-worn tourist trails of Gunung Kinabalu.
(In fact, in Malay folklore, the word benom is translated as “a faraway, dark forest of tall trees where no one lives”, a place of forest spirits and voices.)
“After climbing every mountain, I would write a story for The Star,” Dr Chan adds. Last year, he and two other 60-somethings conquered Gunung Kerinchi in Sumatra.
His advice for people, especially seniors who want to embark on serious outdoor adventures, is to do a medical checkup first to ensure they have no adverse medical conditions.
“Once you know that you are medically fit, you can slowly increase your exertion and pace.”
Progress should be gradual. “Start by walking on flat ground, then move on to gentle slopes before trying steep climbs. Listen to your body, don’t over-exert. One good way to gauge that is to walk with a friend uphill and keep talking with him. If your effort is at the right level, you can still carry on a conversation. If not, then you are over-exerting.”
Having conquered the G10, Dr Chan has cut down on hardcore mountain climbing.
“That is really tough. Before climbs I have to really condition myself to trek for hours while carrying 15kg of weight,” he says.
Nowadays, he still does bird watching and keeps fit by walking up to the second hut of Bukit Larut every morning, an ascent of 300m over a walking distance of 2km.
“At 7am I will be there, and I usually see about 20 or 30 people, mainly senior citizens and housewives who are ready to walk up. I will carry my water and a small cangkul as I am one of few who help maintain the jungle track by digging some small drains at the side to prevent it from getting flooded.
“I can still trek as my knees are fine. I come down by 9am, and I normally do this alone, although once a week I have a bodyguard – my wife.”
All is not lost for those who have knee problems as they can take supplements, such as glucosamine sulphate. However, the most important factor is to have proper walking technique, he adds.
“Take small steps, especially when climbing. You can use a walking stick or grab tree roots at the side to help support you, to reduce force on the knees.
“Descent should be extra careful. Transfer your weight with both feet on the ground as far as possible. In other words, don’t just jump and land on one knee. Those who run down mountain slopes will find that their knees will koyak very fast.
“In any case, our local senior citizens whose knees are not in great shape can still do line dancing or tai chi or walk around Taiping’s superb Lake Gardens.
“I think people in smaller towns tend to lead a healthier lifestyle,” Dr Chan quips.
Avid trekker: dr chan ah Lak with the rafflesiakerii at cameron Highlands.