Batu Lawi Hill

Batu Lawi is a twin-peaked mountain in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysia (Borneo) that has played important roles in both ancient mythology and modern history. The taller 'male' peak is 2046 metres above sea level, while the female summit is at 1850 metres. It is one of the highest mountains in the state of Sarawak.

Batu Lawi Hill
Batu Lawi, seen from the peak of Mount Murud on 4 September 1998
Highest point
Elevation2,046 m (6,713 ft)
LocationSarawak, Borneo
Parent rangeKelabit Highlands


Batu Lawi is sacred to many of the people who live in the region, such as the Kelabit and the Penan. According to the legends of the Kelabit people, the mountain's peaks are a husband and wife—a pair of protector gods that are the parents of all highland peoples. There was a time when a mountain of fire called Batu Apoi tried to burn all living things. But then Batu Lawi fought back to defeat it and Batu Apoi's flames died out. Kelabit people would traditionally visit Batu Lawi on pilgrimages from settlements such as Bario or Ba Kelalan—about a two-day walk through forest that is now part of Pulong Tau National Park. According to their customs, from the moment they first set eyes on the mountain to the moment they stand at its base, they must not utter the mountain's name for fear of antagonising the spirits on the summits. There have been regular sightings of flames bursting out spontaneously on the male peak, where Charles Hose, a naturalist and an administrator served under Brooke regime also witnessed this phenomenon. He reasoned that the bleached surface of the limestone acted as a magnifying glass, causing dry grass to catch fire.[1]

Japanese occupation

In World War II, the twin peaks of Batu Lawi served as an important landmark to pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), during Allied missions to help recapture northern Borneo from Japan, which had invaded and occupied the region in 1941. The Allied response was to send commandos behind the Japanese lines to train the indigenous communities as part of the Z Special Unit to resist the Japanese invasion. One of those to parachute in was Tom Harrisson, the British scientist, journalist and founder of Mass Observation, who was then a second lieutenant in the British Army.

In those days, the maps of Borneo were of a very poor quality.[2] The pilot Squadron Leader Graham Pockley dfc and bar was leader of the expedition and of the RAAF Consolidated Liberator that carried Harrisson and seven other Z Force operatives behind the Japanese lines would have seen a thick green blanket of tropical forest for miles around. However, the pale sandstone peaks of Batu Lawi stood out like a lighthouse and allowed the commandos to be sure they would land somewhere close to the settlement of Bario, and the Kelabit people they sought. The jump was a success but the plane was shot down on its return to the airbase at Morotai in the Dutch East Indies. Squadron Leader Graham Pockley died after making the successful drop.[2]

Climbing attempts

Saddened by the loss of the plane, Tom Harrisson took part in the first successful ascent of the female peak, with Lejau Unad Doolinih and five other Kelabits in 1946.[3] He then placed a commemorative board just below the summit in memory of the lost crew that was shot down on the way back to Morotai.[4] It takes another 40 years before British and Australian soldiers from the 14th/20th King’s Hussars, led by Jonny Beardsall, made the first successful ascent of the male peak in 1986.[1]

Among those who have attempted to climb Batu Lawi was Bruno Manser, a Swiss national who lived for several years among the nomadic Penan people in Sarawak. He attempted to climb the mountain in 1988 but failed. In May 2000, he entered Sarawak illegally and told his Penan companions that he planned to climb Batu Lawi for the second time but went missing since then. He was declared legally dead on 10 March 2005.[5][6]

On 14 August 2007, a team of Malaysian climbers successfully ascended Batu Lawi.[3]


The vegetation on the female peak of Batu Lawi is classed as mountain heath, with low shrubs of Rhododendron and Callophyllum, ground herbs, ferns, orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes species) that include Nepenthes lowii.[1] Many of the species present are also found on the summit of Gunung Murud,[7] Sarawak's highest mountain, but are endemic to Borneo—that is, found nowhere else on the planet. Immediately below the female peak is a band of mossy elfin forest and, below that, oak-laurel forest.[1]

A 1998 expedition by members of the Miri branch of the Malaysian Nature Society recorded 67 species of bird, including helmeted hornbill, and 20 species of mammal, including Bornean gibbon and sun bear, in the forest that surrounds Batu Lawi, but the only birds recorded from the summit of Batu Lawi itself were ochraceous bulbul and mountain blackeye.[1] In 1946, Tom Harrisson saw a peregrine falcon on the male peak.[2]

In May 2008 the authorities in Sarawak approved the area around Batu Lawi as an extension to Pulong Tau National Park. This meant all logging there should have ceased, but satellite images taken in May 2009 indicated extensive logging within the Batu Lawi reserve area. The images appeared in a report[8] that the Council on Ethics of Norway’s State Pension Fund published in August 2010.


  1. Malaysian Nature Society 1998 Expedition of the proposed Pulong Tau National Park (PDF). Sarawak, Malaysia: Malaysian Nature Society, Miri branch. 1998. p. 69. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-11-10. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
  2. Harrisson , T. 1949. Explorations in Central Borneo" Geographical Journal.Volume 114:129-149
  3. "Gunung Tama Abu - Sarawak - Borneo - Malaysia". Gunung Tama Abu. Archived from the original on 18 August 2017. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  4. Judith M, Heimann (1998). The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life. University of Hawaii Press. p. 228. ISBN 9780824821999. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  5. Elegant, Simon (3 September 2001). "Without a Trace". Time magazine Asia. Archived from the original on 13 January 2015. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  6. "Bruno Manser's biography". Bruno Manser Fonds-for the people of the rainforest. Bruno Manser Fonds. Archived from the original on 9 May 2014. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  7. Beaman, J. H. (1998). Preliminary enumeration of the summit flora, Mount Murud, Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak. In: Ghazally Ismail & Laily Bin Din (Eds.). A Scientific Journey through Borneo. Bario. The Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak. IBEC, UNIMAS. Pelanduk Publications.

Further reading

  • Lightner, Sam Jr. All Elevations Unknown. Account of the first expedition to climb Batu Lawi, interspersed with the story of Australian soldiers sent to recruit and arm the natives in the area against the Japanese occupiers during World War II.

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