Rainforest Experience

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Taman Negara is an enormous tract of virgin rainforest located in the middle of the Malaysian peninsula. To get there we take a huge Mercedes Benz bus from KL to the boat jetty in Tembeling village. From here its a 2hr journey by sampan, a long narrow wooden boat with outboard motor, to the park headquarters in Kuala Tahan.

Before we get on the boat we do a deal with a local travel agent to take us to our next destination. We have fun watching him drop the price of a 5hr taxi ride from RM280 to RM100 (about GBP16) as we pretend to procrastinate on whether its good value, and whether it might not be better to take the train.

As we get on to the boat Rachel recognises one of the other passengers, Maud, who she used to study with in Wageningen, in the Netherlands. We remark that its a strange place to meet after 9 years. We also meet another blue-eyed Scot, Pete, who is travelling through SE Asia solo.

The boat journey turns out to be a relaxing introduction to the rainforest as we glide up the murky brown river with the wind in our faces. Lush green vegetation reaches down to the river banks and we see monkeys in the trees, buffalo cooling off in the water, and blue and orange kingfishers darting across the river.

On arrival at Kuala Tahan, we head into the village, across the water from the park headquarters, and find some accomodation. I negotiate with a guy that looks and sounds like Morgan Freeman, to rent a chalet for RM30 (about GBP5.00) per night. To Rachel's delight, he chops down a couple of papayas from a tree behind our chalet as a welcome gift. To understand how much Rachel likes fruit, this is equivalent to me being given two pints of Hagen Daas Cookies and Cream Ice cream in a welcome basket.

Morgan Freeman explains that can't eat anything himself until 7pm as he's a Muslim and its Ramamdan.

Not long after arrival, night falls suddenly and we head down to one of the floating restaurants on the Sungai Tembelling River for a bite to eat. In the Family Restaurant the food is basic rice and noodle dishes which are cheap but tasty. From our table we gaze out at the torrent of black water and see a myriad of trees in the faint moonlight. We hear a cry go out that its now past 7pm, and the locals, fasting for Ramadan, gather round tables and eat. We decide on a plan to walk around an area of the park near the HQ the next day. Back in the chalet, we fall asleep to a noisy cacophony of frogs and insects.

In the morning we take breakfast in another floating restaurant. I open a bottle of Magi chilli sauce to put over my fried eggs (...when in Malaysia do as the Malaysians do) and theres a massive pop and fizz from the fermenting contents. The restaurant owner can't stop laughing, and shouts 'chilli...fire...hot' at me. Much to our amusement he keeps giggling through the duration of our breakfast. I'm pleased to see the folk up here have a sense of humour.

We take the on-demand ferry across the river for RM 0.50 each (about GBP 0.08) to park HQ. From here its just a few metres walk through the expensive chalet accomodation zone till we hit primary 130 million year old rainforest. I explain to Rachel that this doesn't mean that individual trees are 130M years old, just that this type of habitit has existed in this spot for quite a while. Under the canopy its fairly dark and ferns and creepers cover every free space on the forest floor. Lianas hang down like ropes from tall trees with thick butress roots, and I see vines across the path coiled in remembrance of an erstwhile host.

We find the canopy walkway, a 400 metre long ropebridge and ladder pathway suspended 30 metres up in the tree tops. It feels very Heath Robinson in construction, using only rope, aluminium ladders, and wood. Each section is suspended between large trees that sway in the breeze and add to the feeling of vertigo. Other walkways Ive been on in Australia seem robust in comparison with their steel pillars, concrete, and metal.

From the canopy walkway I can see the rainforest melting into the horizon and I wonder where the tigers, elephants, and leopards that inhabit its vastness are right now. The land undulates for miles and I can make out the crooked silvered bark of the distant larger trees shining in the sunlight.

In the canopy we are joined by squirrels, irridescent blue butterflies, and unseen birds singing noisily. The walkway swings up and down and side to side making progress slow. Signs warn us not to get any closer than 5metres to each other to avoid overstressing the ropes.

After the walkway we head up a 350 metre hill to get a more commanding view of the terrain. Climbing upwards, it really hits home how hot and humid it is, as we sweat profusely even when ascending slowly. From the top we take a breather, look around, and start the descent. Going down is even harder work because we keep slipping on the muddy soil between the tree roots. I dont want to grab the occassional handropes because they seem to be motorways for legions of ants.

The last part of the walk is along the side of the Sungai Tahan, a clear watered tributary of the Sungai Tembelling. As we progress slowly, marvelling at how little ground we've covered in 3 hours, we start to notice that there are leeches everywhere. When we stop, we notice how adeptly the little bloodsuckers inch forward and jump on our shoes, working their way upwards on their hosts. I brush off some that are on my boots and trousers and start to feel somewhat alarmed by the one thats approaching my trouser flys.

Later we hear a crashing sound in the dense forest beside us and we wonder what large creature is causing it. A few moments later out pops our new friend Pete, enthusing about having spotted some hairy creatures in the canopy.

We walk together down the path and come to a clearing beside the river where there are a couple of people swimming in the river. We are so hot that we can't resist the temptation to strip off to undies and join them in the refreshing water. I discover only one succesful leech on my leg and Rachel has one on her tummy. The couple we meet by the river lend us a lighter to 'burn' the leaches off. Its surprisingly stressful having one on me even though there is no pain whatsoever. When the burnt bodies fall off, it takes ages for the blood to stop flowing from the wound because of the anticoagulant the the leaches use to keep their prey's blood mobile.

The swim in the river cools us down a lot and we feel ready to face the leaches for the last 1km back to the park HQ.

That night it rains very heavily and its the sound of rain that lulls us to sleep. In the morning we see that the river has swollen and its pace has quickened. Several of the floating restaurants are now innaccessible, their gangplanks swept away in the river.

We decide to do a walk that doesn't require any river crossings, and Pete joins us indicating that he might extent the walk on his own to a remote wildlife hide. We take a taxi boat down the river to a little jetty tucked in a bend of the River near BunBun Yong. The trip is fast and exhillarating as the tiny boat skits down the river. Our eye level is just above the waterline making the fast flowing water feel a little to close for comfort.

Walking through the forest we find that the leaches are just as eager as ever, and that insect repellent is an even better way to get rid of them. We stop in a couple of hides, but spot no more than a few birds and butterflys, the mammals seeming to prefer night activity. On the path we see a small black and orange snake that we poke with a fern to watch it wriggle away. We crawl through some limestone caves, using our torch to see the bats hanging from the roof. After a couple of hours we part company with Pete as he heads deep into the jungle on a little-used path. We walk a further 800m back to the park HQ which takes us best part of an hour due to the slippery conditions, heat, humidity, and pausing to brush off the leeches.

Early evening we are enjoying a drink at park HQ when we see a bedragled trekker returning from the forest. Pete tells us about his exploits: losing the path; turning up in the same spot 20 minutes after he left it; finding a signpost that has been vandalised making the path unclear; being terriffied of strange barking noises deep in the forest; and his multiple attempts at fording a swollen river without getting washed away. We are glad that we returned when we did.

Next morning we leave the park on the 9am boat back to Tembelling jetty. At the jetty an ancient Toyota Crown taxi is waiting to take us to Kuala Besut, where we will take the ferry to the Perhentian Islands in North East Malaysia.
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