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Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut), Perak

Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut) Overview

Doing a bit of background reading before visiting a place is a little like reading a novel and then watching the movie of which the book is based on. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by the true renditions and sometimes a little disappointed with the misinterpretations or representations in the movie. But there would be expectations. This was how I felt as we turned out of the highway and headed towards Taiping. You know how it is. Taiping has a first for almost everything. The first full-fledged high walled, tough security (and even tougher inmates) prison in the country, the first museum and amongst several other firsts, is the first (claimed) hill station in Malaya. The latter is not really true. The first hill station claim goes to Penang Hill, whilst Maxwell Hill gets the title 'first hill station on mainland Peninsula'. As the changing scenery snapped me back into reality. i wondered quietly. Things change drastically over time, especially in the tropics. Can Maxwell Hill stand the test of time? Cameron Highlands has seen drastic changes, Fraser's Hill has seen some changes and so has Jerai then what of Maxwell? As in movies, where scenes unfold before the audience, I dreamily sat back and again allowed my mind to wander off into a time when European planters managed plantations below and where their wives escaped the tropical heat by running off into the highlands. Maxwell Hill's fame William Edward Maxwell was appointed Assistant Resident of Perak in 1875,not long after British Resident J.W.W.Birch's murder. His timely promotion was initiated to smoothen riled feathers and disappointments amongst the local Malays and the Chinamen. Maxwell was a noted Malay scholar and was well versed with the customs and sensitivities of the locals, unlike many of his peers. He worked and lived in the Larut area. Taiping was a beautiful basin, surrounded by lush tropical jungle and lofty hills. In the early mornings and after a heavy downpour, a white, cushy blanket of heavy mist hung over the canopy. This cool, jungle air brought in by the morning breeze must have prompted Maxwell on a quest for a hillstation just like Simla in India. Suitable high grounds were sourced for rehabilitation and relax resorts reserved for senior officers and also the wives of officials and other high placed gentlemen. Other visitors would have to write a formal letter requesting a stay. There had been several unsuccessful stations that were inadequate, made up of a single or small cluster of bungalows which were abandoned soon after in areas like Gunung Angsi in Negri Sembilan , Bukit Kutu in Selangor and Gunung Kledang in Perak. Maxwell finally found it only 6km away from Taiping itself. The Larut ridge was narrow and the difficulty was the steep climb to the summit. At 1250m above sea level and just 13km from the base of the hill, it was a wonder that the idea of a hill station could have been developed here. It did and by the 1870's, adventurers and famous writers like Isabella Bird and Ambrose Rathborne had the pleasure of visiting the hill. However, in the early years, the road to the peak was really more a rough track. Visitors had the choice of walking, taking a pony trek or being carried up in a 'mountain chair'. These 'mountain chairs' were only made available to invalids in the early years and were owned by the PWD but later, a local firm called Taik Ho and company took charge of delivering the sedan chair services to willing visitors for a small sum. Other local firms also provided delivery services of goods and daily items from Taiping at a 'reasonable cost'. Maxwell Hill however, was able to produce daily needs like flowers, milk, butter and vegetables and some small quantity were even exported to the lowlands. It wasn't until 2nd World War when the road was widened and made suitable for vehicles to cart up and down. The Japanese official made his residency on Maxwell Hill when Taiping was once again declared the administrative centre for Perak and Indonesia. He put the POWs to work on the building of the road. Today, the narrow road winds painfully up the hill as it did when the road was opened in 1948, 3 years after the Japanese surrender. One can just imagine the blood, sweat and lives that went into paving these roads. Images ran past of hollowed men in rags, dragging their skeletal bodies up this road day after day with loads that weighed more than they did. The road certainly shows a hint of having been carved out of the hill...or was it my imagination running wild? Up on the peak, the cool weather is a welcome to visitors. In the old days, the cottages had their individual personalities and names to suit them. Names like 'The Hut' (Cendana), 'The Cottage' , 'Treacher' (Tempinis), 'Watson's Rest House' (Beringin), 'The Federal Bungalows'(Sri Angkasa), Speedy's Chalet (Rumah Rehat Gunung Hijau), 'The Nest' and 'The Box'. All of them are still standing although a few have been renovated to suit the current visitors but others are in various stages of deterioration like the Tea Gardens Guesthouse. The Tea Gardens lie just 2/3rds of the way to the peak. This guesthouse was initially built for the use of Perak Government officers. Here, the slopes were cleared to accommodate Assam tea plantations. However, this project failed and the plantations were converted into pastures for cattle. That was some 100years ago and since then the jungle has pretty much covered the tracts of any human activities except for the guesthouse. This pretty structure could be restored into a wonderful inn but unfortunately funds are hard to find these days for restoration work. The Senior officers, family and guests were particularly fond of Maxwell Hill, as put by Sir Frederick Weld, Governer of the Straits Settlement, ' Most of the time we have been here its been like English April weather, without the harsh winds. We had fires every evening, and I have had to go to bed with, not that the cold made it necessary, but because it looked bright and cheery.' (Imperial Belvederes, S.Robert Aiken). As I stood there, it was no wonder why the English loved it here. Within half and hour, the mist had settled in, then the rain came and went and before I could put on my raincoat, the skies cleared as the sun broke through splattered clouds and soaked up the rain. As fickle or as draggy as the English weather, it was the weather that brought a tear to the eye of many homesick guests. The Superintendent of Hill station and a botanist by training, Leonard Wray experimented with the growing of European vegetables and flowers such as begonias and gloxinas which he used to landscape the walkways and gardens on the hill. There are still traces of these wonderful gardens which have also become favourite feeding grounds for the local montane birdlife and other creatures. Maxwell Hill has remained pretty much as years ago. Apart from the Telecommunication tower on Gunung Hijau where the Cottage stands, there's not been much advancement. This makes Maxwell Hill the most well preserved hill station in Malaysia, in my opinion. It's wonderful to dream of an era that lived a life of breaking frontiers, of sacrifices and of great loves and wars, and of living. As we meandered down the narrow road to the base of Maxwell, in a faraway distance of my mind I recall the words of a gentlemen from a time before the war, who said, 'How delicious to be cold for a little while! We played tennis on a court below the house surrounded by blue morning glory. The mist came down in the afternoons and people retired to their rooms and wood fires to sleep. After a large homeside tea we played croquet on the lawns.

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