Sungai Lembing – a world of ore-some tunnels and rainbows

loading A breathtaking view of the cascading Rainbow Waterfall.

A trip to Sungai Lembing is a trip both into the past and into the bosom of Mother Nature. The magic of darkness and light awaits the valiant traveller into this part of Pahang.

According to legend, a village chief saw a vision of a spear in the river and aptly named the town Sungai Lembing (Spear River). Situated about 42km from Kuantan, Sungai Lembing is a small, unassuming place that surprisingly boasts a wealth of economic and industrial heritage – the sleepy hollow was once the El Dorado of the East during its heyday in the early 20th century.

As travel bugs with a hankering for adventure, my family, friends and I were thrilled to head off to Sungai Lembing’s ancient trails and immerse in its historical splendour.

It's a double rainbow all the way.

A world of ore-some darkness

Our first stop was Tei Pei Tong Tunnel, one of the two main tin ore mining tunnels that lead into the dank depths of the underground mines. We took a brief train ride before continuing our journey by foot. This train was once used to ferry miners when Sungai Lembing was a town thriving on tin ore. In fact, Sungai Lembing had one of the richest deposits of tin ore in the world, and was second only to Bolivia – hence its fame as the El Dorado of the East. After decades of mining, Sungai Lembing eventually had the largest, longest and deepest subterranean mine in the world.

As we went deeper, the air became cooler and the atmosphere denser. It would have been pitch black if not for the dim lights that glowed faintly from the ceiling, and I was glad that we brought along torch lights. The soft sound of water drops gave one a sensation that time was slowing down and coming to a standstill.

The entire tunnel structure is a labyrinth of many smaller tunnels, all strictly out of bounds. So small are they that you have to squeeze and crawl through and inch your way forward, painfully. Workers would create the tunnels with occasional use of explosives. Myah Mines, which stretches 700m, is the deepest.

The huge opening of the tunnel that was out of bounds.

I didn’t know how far we had walked until I saw a sign indicating 500m. We came to a cavity that loomed about 30m high. Shining our torches on the ceiling, we spotted the remaining white flecks of tin ore. The ground here was wet as water rained down in spiralling tiny droplets. Life-sized figurines of miners stood before us, a symbolic reminder of a bygone era – a time when economic riches were made and Sungai Lembing shone, thrived and prospered.

Then we came upon “The Kiew”, a lift that would take us further down into an underground mine.

Only it didn’t.

The lift, constructed from wood, was not purpose-built to make it to the highly dangerous depths of the mine. It did, to some degree of amusement, simulate realistic sounds and movement. For better appreciation, a somewhat amateurish graphic built-in video showed where the miners went about their job.

The Kiew, a lift that simulated the reallife environment of miners going further underground.

That was as close as we got to re-living a sliver of a miner’s daily grind and toil. I wondered if the miners sang and whistled to stay sane.

After being down under for more than an hour, it was refreshing to see light again when we emerged from the dark world. The sun was harsh but we didn’t mind – it was a great history lesson that began in darkness and ended brightly at the other end of the tunnel.

A pot of gold

Our next lesson was in geography. Once again, we started out in darkness, finishing breakfast by 5:30am at the one and only wet market in Sungai Lembing. Although food wasn’t the highlight of the day’s lesson, allow me to say a word or two about Sungai Lembing’s tofu: it is delightfully soft and smooth, its texture so fine that it glides down from mouth to throat without a single chew. Mmm

Our goal was to see Rainbow Waterfall and the once-a-day rainbow that it’s famous for. Our journey began with a four-wheel truck ride that rattled our teeth, strained our backs and blistered our bums. To say that the ride was rough is an understatement – it rattled us from head to foot. It had rained the night before and the trails were muddy and heavy, slowing us down. Some parts of the trail were very steep but the truck was solid – built to perform under immense pressure. It could also breeze easily through occasional small streams to the cheers of its elated passengers.

After an hour of non-stop jangling, we were sore to the core. Then it hit us. We had to cross the waist-deep river. No wonder we were advised to wear sandals instead of shoes. The water was cold but bearable, the riverbed covered with menacing rocks and stones that threatened to twist the ankle should one slip. We held on tightly to the rope that was firmly harnessed from one bank of the river to the other. Everyone made it safely on to land, wetter, colder and heavier.

The rough, rocky trail leading to Rainbow Waterfall.

But that was only half the agony. Now we had to hike up rough, rocky, and not to mention slippery terrains. The going up was tough, but the going down was even tougher. We held on to ropes (thankfully, there were some), trunks, branches and any other support nature provided to avoid falling or slipping.

Fatigue set in. The world swam before me. I could hear my heart hammering in my head, amplified by the numbness in my brain. Then I heard it. The faint murmurs of a cascading waterfall. Relief… ecstasy! I had waited with bated breath for this moment.

Nature kept its promise. Everyone was awe-struck.

Rainbow Waterfall tumbled down 50m, glittering in the sunlight. The waterfall was a heavenly backdrop, and the pool beneath beckoned. While the others dipped and swam, I sat back to conjure up childhood images of fairies frolicking in the water.

Then it was time for the grand finale. At around 9:30am and for the next precious 15 minutes, the eponymous rainbow appeared. Time stood still. The moment was entrancing.

Then a second rainbow appeared! A sign of double prosperity? I’d certainly like to think so. Perhaps that was the pot of gold.

Lim Shu-Lin is presently attached with a leading local financial institution in Malaysia and has been freelancing as a copywriter for more than 15 years. She writes passionately about travel and personal experiences, poems and inspirational quotes, social, economic and political observations or opinions, and short stories, to name a few.

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