RAMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
The night was hectic. A huge storm had descended, lightening lit up the whole campsite and thunder made the air around me vibrate. I finally slept only to be awakened by a loud commotion on the other side of the site. Twenty wild pigs were ransacking another tent, sending pots and pans and food remains everywhere. Two angry, naked occupants appeared and warlike chased the pigs back into the jungle.
This was just my first night in Taman Nagara, an ancient rainforest in the heart of Peninsular Malaysia. In the United Kingdom a woodland is considered ancient at 400 years. Taman Nagara, untouched by volcanic activity or the action of ice, has been in existence for 150 MILLION years.
As a professional ecologist and keen photographer this should have been a “must-see”. However, I’d heard a lot of negative reports about it being very touristy and expensive and it was a last minute decision to catch a bus to Temperluh and then another to Jerantut. The Jerantut Resthouse, run by Steven and his bubbly sister, was one of the friendliest places I have stayed.
Steven took time out to show me the local Cocoa and Palm oil plantations where I savoured the fruit both raw and roasted and that evening he shared his extensive knowledge of the area and gave me the low down on Taman Nagara. What I had heard proved to be correct; parts were touristy and expensive - but not everywhere. I could stay at Kuala Keniam Lodge or Kuala Trenggan Lodge for MR100 or I could camp for MR1. Fortunately I had my tent with me.
Gunung Tahan is the highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia at 2187m. It is a nine-day walk and a guide is compulsory, costing RM400 per week and RM50 for each extra day. Guides and equipment are available from the Park Headquarters. I had all the gear I needed together with a hand drawn map from Steven. Unfortunately I did not have a spare RM400+ or nine days. I decided to try it on my own and in 6 days!
The following morning Steven drove me to the park headquarters. Once in the park I obtained my permit, MR1 for me and MR5 for my camera! The campsite was basic but adequate. After erecting my tent I headed off to explore a nearby cave. It was very wet and soon too narrow even for my slight frame. The walls were lined with bats, which took flight as I approached until the air was filled with their wing beats. I sloshed through water that was alive with fish and frogs, which were predated on by albino snakes. I also checked out one of the hides that could be hired overnight for MR5. Although the easiest way to see nocturnal wildlife the hut itself was basic bordering on grotty. A browse through the comment's book revealed that the only wildlife seen was mosquitoes, bats and lots of rats.
Early the next morning I packed up my tent and headed off alone. My pack must have weighed around 25kg, not including the 5 litres of water I would have to carry for much of the way. Once off the more popular route the path became hard to find in places, with no sign of markers whatsoever. The trail was constant up and down, often blocked by fallen trees and tiring. Humidity and heat meant I was soon soaked in sweat.
After 6 hours of hard walking I was relieved to reach a clearing, Melental camp, my first day's destination. After pitching the tent and purifying some water I went for a swim both to cool down and to wash away the salt. The campsite was mainly on bare ground and swarming with wasps gathering mud and beautiful butterflies drinking from the puddles. I hung my clothes out to dry and set about picking the leeches off my boots.
At dusk the cacophony of the jungle began. The sheer volume and intensity is impossible to imagine without actually experiencing it. There were cicadas, frogs, toads, crickets and something that sounded like a model aircraft, except there were dozens of them. The fireflies gave an aerial light show while a deep “growling” began from the other side of the river. Fortunately I never found out what was making it. The noise continued all through the night and even earplugs did little to reduce its effects. The mandatory thunderstorm began and lasted for 3 to 4 hours. Something large and heavy fell from a tree with a crash to accompany the rumble of thunder. I slept not a wink. Hectic nights were obviously the norm.
That morning the tent was still wet from the previous night’s storm and I noticed the river had risen and was tinged brown by the sediment as I waded through. On the other side the path was fairly distinct, about 1.2m wide and bordered by dense jungle. Slippery leaves and roots made it slow going. The few other paths I came across I marked off to help me route find on my return.
Around noon I reached the top of a hill where the forest gave way to high bracken and fantastic views of the jungle ahead. The path plunged back into the forest where much of the light was blocked out by the dense canopy. Where light did penetrate large, colourful butterflies fluttered, and all along the path strange exotic fungi grew, many glowed with an alien-green light at night. There was the constant sound of birds calling, hornbills I could recognise and the others I named according to their sounds - cuckoo, steam train, boiling kettle and the monkey bird (which may have been a monkey). The trees were enormous, with huge buttress roots, many over 2000 years old. Every so often I would walk past one in flower; the path coloured with blossoms and the air full of scent.
Things were going well, I was supposed to have crossed 27 hills that day but I had only noticed one. As well as that, at the second night’s campsite I found a pair of old sandals, which I fixed and wore, allowing my boots to dry out. That night I slept like the proverbial babe. Finally!
The next day started well but soon deteriorated. Firstly, I nearly stepped on an iridescent blue snake with a bright orange head. Then the path running along the edge of the riverbank had been eroded in places and now ran along the edge of the river. At times I waded through the river. I was exhausted scrambling up and down the wet, muddy bank, over treacherous tree roots and fallen moss covered trunks.
I soon arrived at a tributary of the main river that I had to cross. I put on my newly found sandals, found a second stick and carefully set off. It was about 20 metres to the other side and the water came up to the bottom of my rib cage. Fortunately the tent was in the bottom of my pack and was already soaked from last night’s rain. Safely on the other side I stopped for a rest. I later discovered this river was home to crocs! As I got ready to leave two large black bees with attitude started to buzz around me. I casually wafted them away, and then they attacked. I raised my arm across my face and turned away as they stung me on the back of my shoulder. Running to my pack, I threw it on and power-walked until it felt safe enough to stop. My shoulder was on fire and of course my first aid kit contained everything except anti-histamines.
I reached the camp and was immediately plagued again by bees. I once again shouldered my pack and set off up the ridge to Wrays camp at 1100m. After 90 minutes I passed a group of Malaysian fire fighters and their guides. This was my first and only meeting with anyone on the trail. We exchanged brief pleasantries and carried on.
I reached Wrays camp 3 hours later. The tent was laid out to dry while I went to collect another 5 litres of water. Dining on a cup-a-soup with bread-a-la mould, and a bowl of curried noodles I reflected on my day. I treat my numb shoulder to some antiseptic and my sweaty feet to some Daktarin powder. By this time I was quite worried about the bee stings; they don’t normally bother me but these had set my back on fire and I couldn’t feel anything when I nipped my shoulder. Being days from help I reconciled myself to the situation and went to bed.
Next day a steep 2-hour climb found me on a ridge reminiscent of a jungle cloaked Striding Edge, although this had much larger drops off the edge. In places large rock outcrops blocked the way. The only option was to haul myself and my pack, up the wet, slippery fixed ropes that had been fixed into place. This was hard going; holding onto the rope with one hand while moving the other to the next position - hand over hand with at times a 6m drop onto a narrow path that dropped off very steeply on either side. There were moments when I had to pause to calm down and stop myself trembling.
After less than 4 hours I came to a clearing large enough for two or three tents but there was no sign saying it was Padong camp, so I kept going. After thirty minutes I was stopped by a steep and mossy gully covered in small trickles of water dripping down the walls. There were fixed ropes but these were wet and half way up I decided it was too dangerous. I lashed my pack to a tree, tied the camera around my waist and carried on. Without the pack I glided up the ropes.
The woodland soon cleared and I entered another world. The alpine heath consisted of low growing ericacious plants and pitcher plants supplementing their meagre diet on exotic invertebrates. Mist swirled around me and through it I caught glimpses of the summit. I walked until I arrived at a path junction from where I began to count my paces to ensure I did not miss the turning on the way back. The mist began to swirl more densely and I was acutely aware of not having brought any water with me. I backed off determined to try the peak again the next day. I decided that the last clearing must have been the campsite, and if it wasn’t, I was going to sleep there anyway.
The next morning I washed down some biscuits and chocolate with the last of my water and set off back up the gully. At the top I found a small puddle, just large enough for me to top up my supply. The sky was clear and I could see Gunung Tahan in the distance, with beautiful views across the alpine flora to other smaller peaks, their lower sides cloaked in an omnipresent expanse of jungle.
I reached the summit at 10.00am and feeling chuffed with myself took a few photographs and headed back down. The mist came down thickly on the way back and visibility was reduced to about 50m. In places my footprints were still reassuringly visible. I almost collapsed into Padong camp but after I had packed my gear, had a cup-a-soup and a 30-minute rest I felt like a new man.
Shouldering my pack I steamed along although some of the fixed rope sections were still a bit of a struggle. I Reached Wrays camp with only two hours of daylight remaining but decided to push on. The diminishing light was all but obliterated by the dense canopy as I plunged back into the Jungle. After stumbling over several tree roots I put my head torch on. I arrived at Teku camp just as the light was fading having covered 30 km and descended over 2000m. I felt uneasy as this was where I’d been stung and although the pain had now subsided I knew the bees were still out there somewhere. My feet were sore and my toes bleeding. In the distance I could hear the low rumble of what I hoped was thunder. Battered, bruised, sun burnt, cut, bitten, stung, sore and very tired, I fell asleep.
On the final morning I set off without breakfast. Less than 2½ hours later I was back at the lodge. I felt dishevelled and presumed the strange looks directed at me where due to this. Nobody would serve me breakfast; surely I wasn’t that smelly? At the Jerantut Resthouse I discovered what was wrong when a young girl screamed at the sight me. What I thought was sweat soaking my T-shirt was in fact blood from an undiscovered leech! After a cold bath, clean clothes and a large noodle-free meal I felt much better.
On reflection this was both physically and mentally the most demanding trek I have done. It was a truly magical, sometimes frightening experience to walk alone though a forest where tiger, leopard, honey bear, panther and elephants wander as freely as myself.