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One man's journey to find the highest point in Phuket

PHUKET: Glenn Fleagle finished hacking a trail north-to-south across the mountain ranges of Phuket on the first day of summer (June 2), a project that spanned five years. His trek led him into territory still so wild and difficult to access most people – not even natives – have ever seen it.

By Marque A. Rome

Friday 2 August 2013, 11:19AM

He also discovered that the island’s highest peak is not Mt Mai Thao Sip Song above Patong, as usually adduced, but another, apparently nameless, peak in the Kamala range.

Fleagle, a 62-year-old professional musician from rural Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, is known in Phuket for his many performances at the Phuket Blues Festival, but less well-known for his love of outdoor pursuits, especially hiking.

Fleagle is one of only 155 ‘triple crowners’ certified by the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West as having hiked the Appalachian (3,515 km), Continental Divide (5,000 km) and Pacific Crest (4,270 km) trails, the former two on multiple occasions. Each such adventure – which follows the ranges’ spurs and ridges – takes the better part of a year to complete. The whole requires hikers to traverse more than a million feet (304 km) of vertical gain.

He has also hiked across the Iberian Peninsula’s Pyrenees range, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean; and in the Himalayas, going four times to Mt Everest and twice round Anapurna. Fleagle has trekked over 20 thousand miles (36,000 kilometers).

For 15 years that's all I did,” he says. “I lived to hike.”

To such as he, Phuket must seem small potatoes; right? Wrong. The other trails he’s been on, though often difficult, were known.

Though the island is only 48 kilometres long, ‘as the crow flies’, his route through rubber plantations and trackless jungle covered some 143 kilometres. “I spent at least 60 days, probably more, finding the route. I probably could have hiked it in five days if there had been a trail.”

In travelling across the mountain ridges from Cape Promthep in the south to the Sarasin Bridge at Phuket’s north end, Fleagle had to find, frequently to cut, his own trail, because, as far as is known, no one else has done it.

He started by using Google Earth to mark a preferred route across the mountains, zooming in “as close as possible” to find the spurs and ridges, and determine whether it was practicable. This he loaded into a GPS device that he used on the trail.

My goal is to create a downloadable track anyone with a handheld GPS can go out and hike,” he explained.

With home-made machete in one hand (and GPS in the other), Fleagle began trailblazing from Cape Promthep, Phuket’s southern-most point, in March of 2008. Through rubber plantations, the route is easy. But through jungle, he had to hack his way: “It is thick with thorn bushes,” he said, and thus hard-going.

Fleagle estimates he cut his own path along ten per cent of the whole route, but perhaps 50 per cent of his time along that section, which, through hill and dale, spans 25 kilometres.

Unanticipated obstacles were a constant feature of his trekking: “I saw just three snakes in all those times; and each time they were going away from me. What I didn’t see is what those snakes might be eating – I rarely saw lizards, and rarely saw mice.

When I was at a water-hole [northeast of the Heroines’ Monument] – after falling down the steep bank surrounding it – I heard a noise and looked up to see the biggest, fattest, and fastest wild boar I’ve ever seen charging around the top of the ridge, and coming my way. I started screaming and waving my machete when he charged. Luckily, he then veered off. Whoo! Talk about an adrenaline rush!”

Then there was his fight with a Gibbon monkey.

It was about 4pm and I was bushwhacking when this monkey attacked me from above. He first came down and took my hat. Then he jumped down again and grabbed my watch and broke it, then jumped on my backpack and started pulling my hair, and trying to grab my arm.

I was freaking out. I had my machete and would have killed him, but he was too fast. He pulled the tent stakes out of my side pocket, took my big water bottle and threw it.

Blue Tree Phuket

He was big, maybe three-and-a-half feet high.

A lot of bamboo was nearby, so whenever I could take my eyes off him I’d chop a big piece and throw it at him. But even if I had a great throw, he’d dodge it. Finally, after a good 10 minutes – it felt like an hour – he slowly left.

I gathered my stuff, found another trail – and got the hell outta there.

Another 15 or 20 minutes on, I found a beautiful swimming hole on a good trail. A sign explained about the Gibbon Project and said the animals can be aggressive. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any signs before then.”

In all my 20-plus years of backpacking, I was never attacked by a wild animal – well, I was false-charged by a bear once in Virginia – and, let me tell you, it is scary. That monkey could have bitten me, or even killed me if he wanted. He was that fast.”

His trekking also had rewards – such as finding Phuket’s highest point. “Mai Thao Sip Song mountain was [reputed] the island’s highest.” It frowns over Patong and has “a big golfball-looking structure on top (actually a radar station).

But, I discovered that, according to Google Earth, there is a higher peak. Of course, this is only computer-generated from satellite images and could be in error. So, I went to the beach and set the altimeter on my Garmin 60 CSX GPS.”

Then he went up the mountain.

I put my GPS onto the altimeter page and took a picture – 545 meters. I was pretty excited as I knew Mai Thao Sip Song was around 500 metres. I sat a while, enjoying the quiet.”

Two hours later, he drove to Mai Thao Sip Song to check the elevation. The high point is about 10 metres east of [the radar station] gate.

My altimeter read 482 meters. Google Earth has it at 512 meters to the west of the gate but I don’t trust Google Earth as much as I trust my new barometric pressure altimeter. Either way, Mai Thao Sip Song is the second highest point in Phuket and the newly discovered highest point has no name, no access, and no one knows.” Its only distinguishing characteristic is a property marker.

In five years of trekking Phuket, Fleagle met no other hikers. His encounters were mostly with rubber plantation workers. “They probably thought I was a little crazy. Many do when I go out on these excursions.”

It's not only rubber workers who wonder at his sanity: “My wife thinks I’m nuts,” he explained.

I usually come back full of cuts and scratches – very dirty, hungry, and dehydrated. But, I’ve learned so much about this island and people who work rubber plantations and farms.” He finds them – despite terrible poverty (“They hunt frogs and geckos and grubs. The women collect wild edible plants”) – remarkably hospitable.

It’s not for everyone,” he said about hiking. “You gotta love it.”

Glenn Fleagle’s blog is For his route, click here

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