Camaraderie in Cameron Highlands - days 29 to 32

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Most people seem to make the journey from the south by taking a coach to Kuala Lumpur and from there take a second coach along a highway route to Tanah Rata, the main town of the Cameron Highlands.  We thought we would be a bit more adventurous and buck the trend by taking a coach to a town outside of Highlands called Tapah, and then board the local bus for a scenic 2.5 hrs journey up the winding roads into the mountains, saving some cash in the process.  Clever old us...

We departed on the coach from Melaka bound for Tapah and beyond.  About three-quarters into the journey the driver pulled into one of the open-sided cafes in the middle of nowhere that the Malaysians are fans of.  Whilst inside, the driver introduced us to the driver of another coach, telling us that for a fee he would gladly allow us on his coach which was the tourist journey to Tanah Rata, and he would get us there by the same time as we would arrive in Tapah.  By this time in the delayed journey (four hours and counting), the proposition sounded good.  However, we couldn't abide the fact that this driver was going to pocket the money (15 ringgits each), especially when we had already paid 33 ringgits each for our tickets to Tapah; money for nothing.  Ross told him as much, but the driver wasn't budging and declined an offer of 15 ringgits for the both of us.  We couldn't understand, if this was money for nothing, why we weren't called back after we walked away.  Perhaps he knew the cost was well worth it.

After another hour, our coach pulled up after just leaving another of the many tolls on Malaysia's highways, and were told this was Tapah.  No it wasn't, it couldn't be.  It was in the middle of nowhere, like being told to disembark ten metres from the Dartford Crossing tolls.  We had gathered from Lonely Planet that the stop would be in town, for a quick change to the local bus.  Disputing the stop, and after angrily being told by the driver that the local bus was four metres away, then four hundred metres away (there was something vaguely visible in the distance), we relented as this guy was clearly not interested in helping us to town.  The coach pulled away and, unsure of the advice and desperate, Ross gingerly walked through the gates of the nearby fortified police compound and into an office building, fearing that any second a gun would be pointed at the trespasser.  He was found (no guns), and told that they couldn't help (or understand him) and was recommended to go to the building by the tolls.  He did so, and found a helpful couple of Malay women who explained that the coach drivers tend to not bother going the extra four kilometres into town and instead drop unsuspecting and unable-to-argue tourists here, then U-turn back through the tolls and onto the highway north. 

They called for a taxi for the exasperated pair and we were taken the distance into town.  The bus station was small, and informally run.  The bus we were shown to belied the suggestion given by the name, 'The Regal Bus Company'.  We boarded with our bags, they having to have their own seats since we were told there was no stowage (leaving the bus later we found there was).  It was the school hometime run, and we had naively situated close to the back.  A group of teenage boys were sniggering and clearly making comments directed at us, cleverly knowing that we couldn't understand their naughty talk.  This continued somewhile until the casually-dressed elderly woman who was the conductor seemingly chided them for their misbehaviour towards the foreigners.  Apparently, one of the little cherubs had placed an open bag of drink on top of one of our bags, in the hope that a sharp turn of the bus would send it cascading over our stuff.  (Sensibly, mixed-up drinks are poured into clear plastic bags at roadside stalls rather than consumption of expensive bottles and cans; something we have not yet witnessed Westerners doing, including ourselves.)

It was difficult to keep cool on this bus, and not because of the inflammation from the back seats.  This was our first experience of transport with no air-con.  The first twenty minutes of the journey were distressing, us fearing two hours or more of the same.  We definitely understood the cruelty meted on dogs left in cars on sweltering days.  The bus was stopping every few hundred metres in town, so there was no opportunity for the single vent in the roof to sheer cooling fresh air into the bus.  Fortunately, once we had got out of town and at the foot of the mountainous region, speed picked up and we were spared death-by-roasting.

The fare turned out to be seven ringgits each, and including the taxi fare of eight ringgits, our total spend had been 88 ringgits.  Had we gone with the transfer at the roadside cafe, it would have been a total of 96 ringgits; for the equivalent of less than two pounds more, we could have saved ourselves a whole lot of frustration.  We learnt the lesson that sometimes you should be prepared to pay a little extra to go from a bad deal to a good one, even if it doesn't seem fair.  We have spoken to others since who have said similar.

The increasingly amazing scenery as we got ever higher made up for our initial unhappiness.  The old driver's ideas on driving were even worse than his coach-driving peers (even the lady conductor had fear on her face at times), but somehow we stayed on the narrow winding road which had enough blind corners to increase our chances of mortality this day at least a thousand times over.

Malaysia is close to being listed as a developed country.  Although we had realised there wasn't a great deal of public money, we were truly surprised to find small stalls manned by entire families sporadically along the roadside, sustaining themselves by selling just half a dozen warm bottles of coke, or a few vegetables.  Their houses backed away, and they were little more than a covered few square metres of bamboo floor space.

We reached Tanah Rata, and were promptly picked-up by the minivan promised by the guesthouse we had booked ahead.  Father's Guesthouse was well-recommended by travelers on websites, and even someone we met in Melaka had stayed there.  We were to stay in one of the 'Nissen Huts'; semi-circular tubes of metal which had housed British troops when Malaysia was under the administration of the UK.  The setup was very summer camp-like, with communal everything.  Amenities around the house were intelligently geared to the modern traveler, with WIFI and computer terminals, a grill for home comforts, regular movie screenings, and the owner was very friendly as well (until the day when one of his staff had booked our room out to someone else, despite us having told him during an hour's conversation on the corrupt tourism industry that we would be staying another night, and we refused to move to the only remaining room at double the price!).

Still somewhat guilty about the amount of our budget we had spent largely dossing in Melaka, we decided to get up early the following morning and make a concerted effort to get on a tour or two to see the delights of the Cameron Highlands.  By 2pm we were in a minivan with a Dutch couple and one of their sets of parents, as well as a young English gap-year traveler.  The 'Countryside Tour' was intended to give us an idea of what wildlife the relatively cool (25*C) climate and different soils up here could produce.  

The first stop was a 'rose centre' a twenty-minute drive away.  Our guide left us at the foot of some steps and advised us to head for the top and then meander back down.  We soon found that the place was really a commercial nursery for all manner of plants and flowers, with no information given.  The views over the surrounding valleys were good, though.  Next we were taken for cursory (fifteen-minute) visits to a strawberry farm (hydroponic cultivation has taken over in the past two years); a bee farm; a local produce market; a butterfly farm (with reptiles and other insects); and finally a Buddhist temple, ending the tour four hours later.

Amongst those, we were taken to visit the pride of the Cameron Highlands, one of the tea plantations.  In fact, we went to the largest and most famous; BOH Tea is apparently a national institution (though still owned by descendants of the Englishman who established it in the 1920s), akin to PG Tips for the British.  We were first given a short tour of production in the working antique factory (tea-making is fairly interesting!), before going to the cafe to sample a couple of the various grades of tea produced there.  The views of the rolling hillside carpeted in stunted tea trees was awesome; our presence in photos of which detract from the ripe beauty somewhat!

The following day was another early start, as we piled into the old and worn Land Rover (Ross noticed the odometer had given up at 200374 miles!) for a full day tour.  Along with Francis, our local guide, there was a young French-Canadian couple, a Swiss couple and two Americans.  The highlight of the day was to come first; the rare Rafflesia flower opens for just a few days each year, and is a very large flower, usually growing to 60-100cm in diameter.  Although found elsewhere, it was only discovered in this area in the 1990s.

We were in a reliable Land Rover for good reason, as we found ourselves struggling up the hillside along a track of deep, soft mud.  After a few breathtaking moments, Lauren cheekily asked Francis if he had ever had an accident with the Land Rover, and got no response.  (We later discovered from the guesthouse owners that Francis had once rolled the Land Rover, leaving a tourist with a broken leg and fractured skull!)  We reached the edge of the jungle, sprayed DEET, and waded in.  In truth, the trail was fairly well-worn, so machetes were not required.  After a twenty minute hike, we reached the currently-open flower, having ventured off the trail and scrabbling ten metres into the dense jungle.  It was a weird sight, at the base of a tree the flower looked almost unreal (having been told under no circumstances to touch it, Ross joked to Lauren that perhaps the tour guides place a fake foam one wherever and whenever convenient!).  We then moved on to a nearby waterfall, but none of us dipped into the murky pool. 

En route to the BOH Tea plantation, again (a fixed part of the package), we stopped off at a small village of indigenous people (the 'Orang Asli').  We were given a blowpipe demonstration and offered an opportunity to try (Ross could perhaps, at a push, poison a large orangutan from five metres), before being offered to buy fully-functional mini versions (their equivalent of side-arms, we suppose).  We were invited to wander around the village, though we couldn't help but remember the strong message to travelers not to do this, as it detracts from the true way of life.  Lauren's urge to take opportunistic photos got the better of her and a couple of others sporting their huge Canons, and we stalked in.  The quarry in sight, cameras were mounted-up, and a few toddlers (one boy wearing a football shirt emblazoned with 'Torres') suffered multiple shots.  The amusing thing was the un-bemused face of the children - we were clearly not the first and were not capturing anything unique, as is the photographic goal - and indeed one of them gave us the finger, or as our American friends related, 'flipped us the bird'!

Those of us who had already been treated to the tea factory tour headed straight for the cafe.  We chatted about traveling and places we had been, and got to know the Swiss Couple as Ralf & Tanya, and the twentysomething Americans as Erica and Rob (traveling independently and not a couple).  Next, we were off to the highest peak of the Highlands, Gunung Brinchang (2031m above sea level), and its viewing tower above the clouds.  This was followed by the 'Mossy Forest', so named because of the higher altitude causing different foliage including lichens and mosses to grow.  This is a very haphazard and treacherous place, with no trail like we had for the jungle.  It was like being in the moist set of a fantasy movie whilst being shown exotic pitcher plants and other-worldly wildlife.  We were amazed to learn that this protected small forest, and just a handful of others like it, have remained unchanged for over 200 million years.

We went into town in the evening to eat with Erica and Rob, also staying at Father's.  We introduced Erica to the delight of claypot tofu (which we'd enjoyed in Mersing), and crazily agreed to meet up the following morning for breakfast before challenging ourselves to undertake a few of the DIY jungle trails listed at the guesthouse!  Despite the inherent danger of going unguided and the pain we suffered, it proved to be worthwhile and rewarding.

Looking on the hand-drawn map of the local trails, we decided on Trails 5, 6 then 4, which over the three hours were to take us in a rough loop, culminating with a viewtower and a waterfall.  We got off to a poor start, not being able to find the entrance to the first trail until an hour after we had set off, and ravaging a couple of crops as we mistakenly crossed farmland.  We entered the jungle proper at 1300, and quickly found this was not going to be a 'walk in the park'.  After 45 minutes of taking huge steps from one embedded tree root to the next and steadying or pulling ourselves up using the branches, we reached a hut in a clearing where we had a breather before carrying on into the next trail.  So far we had been climbing, but we soon came upon the first of several steep descents down the slippery overgrown hillside.  Without injury we got down the first, and were spurred-on by our ability to trek hardcore (though none of us had a previous benchmark to compare the difficulty against!).

We were worried when the afternoon rains broke, stuck in the middle of the jungle with no phones and at least an hour from civilisation.  We were especially concerned about the effects of water run-off as we gazed alarmed across to the other side of a sharply deep ravine that we had to climb.  With nothing for it but to proceed, on bums and heels we shuffled downwards, anchoring on the helpful tree roots.  A monkey swang away through the canopy above us, reminding us that we were the subjects of the presently overbearing Mother Nature.  Lauren's operation-weakened feet were beginning to make themselves known as we started the climb up the other side.  With a few tears and trembling from an odd exhaustion, Lauren was handed some of Rob's Oreo cookies that he had most sensibly brought for the occasion.  The sugar and rest seemed to do the trick, and we pressed on.  This lark was definitely for the able-bodied only, though the advertisement didn't give this warning.  This was taking longer than we had been led to believe, and as Rob reminded, the darkness was only a few hours away and we didn't appear to be even halfway through. 

Tired, Ross misplaced his footing a couple of times, crashing down on his back.  Fortunately, his stuffed backpack breaking his fall each time, though he still managed to bruise his arms.  After nearly three hours and a couple of episodes of backtracking where the trail had overgrown, we came upon the viewing tower.  The wooden structure had collapsed and there seemed no intention to make safe the wreck.  Disappointed, we ploughed on, and eventually started to hear the distant noise of traffic.  Following that direction, eager to get back to the relative safety of the road to chance a hitchhike or taxi back to town, we caught sight of the waterfall.  A path of bricks (made slippery by the jungle) had been laid, and we made our way downwards.  We passed a sign which explained that the viewing tower had fallen and work was underway to restore it, but by the fading and decrepit state of the sign it must have happened at least a decade ago.  The waterfall was a tragic abuse of nature; the pools at its foot were filled with rubbish that had been discarded upstream and collected here.  In fact, we came to learn that the name of the place was 'Parit Falls', or 'Sewage Falls' in translation.

Fortunately, a few people were here, and pointed us towards a path as we were thankfully told it was just 200m to Tanah Rata.  Outside the jungle, sweaty and weary, after four hours and nearly 6km of undulating jungle, we laid hands on each other's and pumped them before releasing with a cheer, in true American fashion.

Ross had tried to keep spirits up when enthusiasm was plummeting in the jungle by giving the promise of celebratory beers when we got back to the guesthouse, though by the time we had collapsed into the chairs by the cafe, we were only up for cola and water. 

In the evening, after a good scrub of our boots and ourselves, we considered the options for our next destination.  The Perhentian Islands are situated off the northeast coat, and are supposed to be paradise like Tioman, though with even fewer amenities or distractions.  Off the northwest coast is Penang Island and north of that are the islands comprising Langkawi.  Our intention had previously been to go to the Perhentians before crossing back to Penang, maybe Langkawi, and then taking the short train journey across the border into Thailand, as was booked by Ross in Singapore, or fly north to Bangkok.  After realising that we had bled money so far, we couldn't really afford to go island hopping.  We were thinking of joining Rob, an avid diver, in going to Perhentian, but canceled that in the evening.  We were going to do historic Georgetown on Penang Island and then fly to Bangkok.  We booked the coach tickets for the following morning, before having dinner again with Erica and Rob and bidding our fellow Magnificent Jungle Trekkers a fond farewell.
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