The B-24 Liberator bomber crashed near Gunung Berembun.
I stretch out my arm and grab hold of the nearest root. I glance upwards at the orange clay track receding into the skyline and let out a deep breath of exhaustion, knowing full well that when I physically reach that point, another escalator view to the sky, complete with tree roots, will appear – cest la vie - such is mountain climbing in Malaysia.
All I can hear is my panting until a voice pops up from below – “Is this the hardest part?”
The response from our forward team leader is delivered dryly.
“No, not yet, this is practise for the next part which is practise for the hard part, “ he says – My heart dropped, I had to laugh, moments before I had almost thought of asking, like bored children do, “Are we there yet?” but refrained, because I was far too tired to talk, even having a thought was exhausting.
And my smart watch says I have taken 18,342 steps - only another 24,000 to go.
THE WALK TO GUNUNG BEREMBUN:
The hike to Gunung Berembun, just outside of Seremban in Negeri Sembilan, has become one of the most popular one-day and weekend walks in Malaysia for hiking enthusiasts.
Why? Two reasons really.
Firstly, the forest is beautiful. Even after 4 hours of walking it was still relatively cool apart from the few open area slopes where the climbing gets to perhaps 70 degrees vertical.
There are waterfalls, an abundance of steams, a cool overhanging cave lunch-stop with its own Post Office box. Combine that with a vivid green array of thick and thin trees shading you most of the way and you have a damn good forest walk. You can hear the yells and squawks of siamang gibbons, spot huge hornbills navigating their way through the trees and although the species has been declared extinct on the Peninsula—Sumatran rhinos have also been rumored to be in the jungle too with photographic records of both elephant poo and rhino tracks on various blogs.
The track is very well defined due to its popularity, with signposts all the way directing you to the different destinations as well as signs informing you of the kilometre countdown. Of course the forest floor is carpeted with roots and at times difficult but not overly strenuous.
If you are into ticking off lists then Gunung Berembun makes it into the top 100 mountains in Malaysia, coming in at about 73rd place, 1,014 metres high.
But the main reason hikers head to Gunung Berembun is to visit the site of a tragic event that occurred in mid-1945.
THE B-24 CRASH:
A B-24 Liberator
The Second World War had officially ended eight days earlier when RAF flight KL654-R took off from their Brown’s West Island airstrip in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands base, some 1000km’s south of Sumatra.
The young crew, all but one who were less than 25 years old, left with four other B-24s undertaking a vital mission to drop supplies of food and medicine for Allied POW troops in the region.
Flight KL654-R, from the long-range 356 Squadron, never returned and no one knew what had happened to them for a long, long time.
Authorities who studied the wreckage years later, believe the plane clipped a tree near Gunung Berembun, or the slightly higher Gunung Telapak Buruk, lost control then smashed through a heavily wooded ravine where the plane was torn apart, spreading debris across a wide area.
It is believed the wreckage site was originally discovered by orang asli (Malay aborigines) who reported it to the British Army in the 1950’s but with communist insurgents active in the area, it was feared a trap was being laid so they did not investigate at the time.
Lack of funding and historical reluctance by UK authorities to confirm and investigate, (the UK prefers leaving sites like this as war graves), saw it take until 2006 before a Malaya Historical Group made two expeditions to the wreck site, positively identifying it as belonging to KL654-R.
With the assistance of Malaysian army involvement in 2007, the historical group returned to the site with two experienced British participants and found many personal belongings of the crew including rings, a gold bracelet, dog tag, coins, dagger and a small doll.
In the following years experts recovered more than 80 bone fragments that were DNA tested to confirm the boys’ identities.
The remains of the 8 crew members, listed below, were buried together in the same coffin with separate headstones on the 18 October 2012, with full military honours at the Cheras Road Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur, some 67 years after their B-24 Liberator crashed on 23rd August 1945 - Lest we forget.
Flying Officer J.T. Bromfield, (20 years old).
Flight Sergeant A. Turner, (21 years old).
Flight Sergeant William Ross, (20 years old).
Flight Sergeant Jack Blakey, (30 years old).
Flight Sergeant Raymond Arthur Towell, (21 years old),.
Flight Lieutenant John Selwyn Watts, (24 years old).
Flying Officer Edward Donald Mason, (22 years old).
Flying Officer William Kenneth Dovey, (20 years old)
For some odd reason, I'm not sure why, the plaques attached to the fuselage and at various other places on the wreckage only have the names of six of the crew.
Many relatives from the UK attended the funeral, all grateful to find out how and where they had died, giving them some solace from all those years of grief.
Nick Bromfield, 53, the nephew of FO Bromfield said 'I feel very honoured to have been able to represent my family at the funeral.'
FO Dovey’s brother John, 74, said: 'We think about him every day and finally finding out how he died is a relief.
British high commissioner to Malaysia Simon Featherstone, said: 'It has been 67 years since the crash and now the servicemen, who tragically lost their lives for their country, have finally been laid to rest.
'I’m glad the family members have been able to pay their last respects and the men accorded the military honours they deserve.'
The wreckage in the ravine can be found by walking along the ridgeline from Gunung Berembun to get to the slightly higher Gunung Telapak Buruk, and takes approximately an hour depending on your fitness. To get to Gunung Berembun from the access point at Pantai water treatment plant can take 4 hours.
Returning from the ravine two hikers return to the trail after visiting the wreckage site.
On arrival at the Gunung Telapak Buruk peak you descend into the ravine aided by ropes, as it is steep and sometimes wet and slippery. The Forestry department regularly visit the area to maintain the pathway, cut away the constant regrowth and tend to the occasional tree fall.
Two propeller parts.
Less than halfway down the roped walkway you see the first piece of debris, what looks like two propeller parts.
Further down that are what looks like a wing, engines and some of the undercarriage, the rubber tyre still looking brand new and inflated with no visible damage.
Piece of a wing and the tail section.
Aviation experts say the plane probably clipped the ridge with its wing, and went into a horizontal spin knocking piece after piece off until its fuselage ended at the bottom of the small stream, said to be the source of the Sungai Muar.
The undercarriage and tyre.
The tail section lies further down the gully and smaller pieces most likely have been washed downstream in repeated heavy downpours; smaller debris is strewn along the trail down and the stream.
It’s hard to imagine the crew of Flight KL654-R surviving the initial impact and subsequent high - speed break-up. For non-experts like me I could not get over the very thin skin of the planes fuselage that still looks relatively new and useable even after 73 years.
Once you’ve adjusted yourself to the fact you are essentially in a graveyard, a place were 8 brave men died, you find yourself looking around, taking in what happened, wanting to make some connection. Most visitors talk about feeling some reverence towards the deceased crew and a desire to have a moment to themselves. My team members felt it, even those who had completed multiple visits. I saw some hikers praying, having a special moment.
Our team, one in his seventies and another mid-sixties.
A majority of people who make it to the wreckage show some respect towards the airplane, broken into pieces on this hallowed ground, there is some small evidence of souveniring and graffiti, but it is not prolific.
As one blogging hiker wrote, “Please remember to be respectful when you do visit this location and do not remove anything. As tempted as you might be to secure yourself a souvenir, some things are simply not ours to take.” Couldn’t have said it better.
HOW TO GET THERE:
It's a 20km hike to the wreckage via the climb to Gunung Berumbun then on to Gunung Telapak Buruk and the trail begins at the Pantai Water Treatment Plant.
Go to Kampung Pantai along Jalan Jelebu (Route 86). Turn right at the fork after the mosque, there is a police station on the corner and the road takes you past the popular Dusun and Shorea accomodations. Follow the road until it ends at the Pantai water treatment plant. The trailhead (GPS coordinates N2.801721 E102.022523) is on the left, next to a power transformer sub-station.
There is a RM5 entry fee and you must sign in at the HQ. The ranger is there from about 7am.
It will take 3-4 hours to reach the summit of GB and another hour or so to get to the wreckage, once again, depending on your fitness. On our trek three fit looking boys in their twenties turned back after four hours of hiking so don’t overestimate your fitness.
From the northern side.
A shorter route can be taken from the northern side but requires a 4WD or lorry transport to get to the start off point.
*GPS coordinates: N2.84047 E102.06771
You have to drive up a road, 12km long, which takes you to the telecommunication towers and from there the hike is only about 5.5 kms.
A lot of hikers start here, visit the wreckage, head to Gunung Berembun then have someone pick them up from the Pantai treatment plant.