The old English charm of Maxwell Hill

With English bungalows, blankets of mist and lush greenery, Maxwell Hill can charm any visitor with a heart for adventure.

As I shelter from the rain under a makeshift shed, the mist engulfs what little was visible of the surrounding wilderness. The roar of our ancient four-wheel drive has faded away, signaling my mother to lay out our mini picnic. Pigging out on sandwiches, chips and chai, and watching the rain paint the landscape a lush green, I feel nostalgic of our impromptu dhaba stops on road trips in India; what fun is rain without a cup of hot steaming tea? Only this time, we are miles from any dhaba, and miles from the throngs and street markets that symbolize popular hill stations back home; this time we are off most tourist maps, at Maxwell Hill.

Maxwell Hill’s old English ambiance shrouded in mist. Pic: Shivya Nath.

Perhaps one reason Maxwell Hill retains its colonial charm and exudes a poetic isolation is that the journey up the hill is not for the faint hearted. A scenic four-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur takes you to the base of the hill but to reach the peak or picnic somewhere midway, you must trek for 4-5 hours on a road that is as steep as it is winding, and as rewarding as it is steep.

The winding road leading up to Maxwell Hill. Pic: Shivya Nath.

An alternative to trekking is riding on one of the jeeps that ply the route; while these seem to be as old as the hill itself, the drivers are experienced.

Our ancient 4-wheel drive & our pro driver. Pic: Shivya Nath.

We are only half way through our tea when the wind and rain stops abruptly, the mist rises, and the clouds part to reveal a clear blue sky. The peaks of the trees are visible for the first time since we arrived and the aroma of wet earth fills the air. I look around, wondering if the gods are playing games. I’ve been to the Cameron Highlands and Genting before, but have never witnessed such intensity followed by such calm.

I walk towards the edge of the hill, where a British styled bungalow is perched in isolation. Its windows are covered in raindrops, and the small front garden is layered in green grass and colorful wild flowers. I imagine a poet or painter living here years ago, when the British colonized Malaysia, depicting the magical world of Maxwell Hill in words and colors. The hill station was first discovered by William Edward Maxwell in the 1880s, perhaps on the same quest that led the Englishmen in India to find and inhabit the likes of Shimla and Mussoorie – the quest for pure mountain air, lush greenery, and blankets of mist. Luckily, Maxwell Hill has escaped most maps of Malaysia, and hence retains enough charm to treat travelers who venture there.

Royal old bungalows to spend a quiet weekend. Pic: Shivya Nath.

We had thought Maxwell Hill was only a day trip destination and were surprised to hear a few English bungalows could be rented for short-term stays, though they usually get booked up to three months in advance. I pledge to return some day with a stack of books to read, and notebooks to write. Such serene beauty could make a poet of anyone.

As twilight approaches with no signs of our jeep, my sister and I contemplate walking to the base of the hill instead; the path after all was breathtakingly beautiful when we rode up, littered with red and yellow flowers, vantage points overlooking the valley below, by-lanes leading into the woods, and the sky quickly changing its shades of blue. This dream is interrupted with the roar of the jeep that would drive us down to, as my father called it, reality.

Bidding goodbye to Bukit Larut aka Maxwell Hill. Pic: Shivya Nath.

Half way down, our man decides to take a detour into a by-lane partially engulfed with mist, sending my mother into panic mode. To everyone’s surprise, we wind up at a small, ancient Hindu temple to pick up another passenger waiting for his ride, and my mother relaxes enough to say a quick prayer, while I look up to see the sky perform magic yet again; the clouds slowly descend as though the heavens were saying goodbye. As we reach the base, we looked up at the path we just descended, hoping to return one day soon to soak in more Maxwell magic.

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