Taman Negara

Taman Negara: Part 3. Into the Jungle

Giant tree

I finally managed to join a group heading for 3d/2n into the jungle.  Constant inquiries at Han Travel turned-up nothing but luck was on my side when I inquired at Danz located beside Family Restaurant. I was told by pony-tailed Alyas to return at 8pm to confirm as he had 2 couples who had signed-up for the trip already.

The trip was to start the next day, Tuesday.  I still had a paid room booking at Durian as I had planned on just a 2d/1n excursion on the 27th but this was the only available group and dates so I had to take it.  I was told by the guys at Durian at Han that I could try to get a refund at the Han office in KL which facilitated my accommodation booking.

Back at 8pm, the 2 other couples were there— 2 Dutch guys and a French girl and guy who seemed to be a couple.  Alyas explained that he would just charge us RM200 instead of RM280 as we would only have a guide and meals until the 2nd day.  He would make his way back to Kuala Tahan on the third day after dropping us off at Bumbun Kumbang where we were to spend our second night.  A boat would pick us up at the jetty, 45 minutes away from the hide on the morning of the third day.  It was a good deal so we agreed.

Day 1

At 10:30 in the morning we all assembled at Danz.  Neatly laid out were the supplies for each person— a plastic plate, a

The path to the jungle. The leeches await.

plastic cup, a spoon, a pack of noodles, some biscuits, two 1.5 litre bottles of water, a sleeping bag, and an earth pad.  The rest of the food and stuff would be carried by our guide.  Our original group of 5 had grown to 8 with the addition of 3 Spaniards– two guys and a girl.  They would only be doing a 2d/1n junk so they were traveling back to Kuala Tahan with the guide.

As we were packing our stuff, my cup fell on the river and floated away.  There goes my early morning coffee.  I told Alyas and offered to pay for it but he declined.  My pack was full as I had a total of 5 bottles of water plus a can of baked beans, some biscuits, and individually packed slices of fruit cake.  I had so much food but not enough change of clothes as I would regret later on when I had to sleep and hike on the same damp shorts I was wearing.

We had to register first at Park HQ where a park officer took note of everything we had in our packs to make sure we brought everything back.  I also reserved my bunk bed for Bumbun Kumbang as the Dutch and the French had made their reservations the day before.

We made our way to Kuala Keniam on the Sungai Tembeling, a journey that took approximately an hour and a half.  I had the back seat all to myself so I had lots of room to stretch my legs and even lie down a bit.  We were given our packed lunch of fried rice and a piece of fried chicken which we ate on the boat.

The Keniam Lodge was right next to the jetty.  It was deserted though there were clothes left hanging to dry.  If it were a horror movie, it would be the start of a mystery—- where were the lodgers?  No clues were left behind.  Everything seemed in order.  Clothes drying and there was no sign of a struggle.  They were probably out on a walk to Bumbun Kumbang.

As we got off the boat, our guide asked us what time we wanted to go back on the third day.  8am, we agreed as the French couple had to be on the 10:30am bus.

8.1 kilometers, our guide told us we started our hike.  Our end point was the Kepayang Cave where we were to spend the night.

At the head of the line were the Dutch boys followed by the French couple, then the Spaniards, and me bringing-up the rear.

The first hundred or so meters were easy enough as it was flat.  Trees near the Keniam Lodge even had some signs identifying them and there were forest conservation projects around it. As we went deeper into the jungle, the darker it got as massive trees spiraled to the sky forming a dense canopy of greenery. Sweat stained our backs as we tried not to stumble on the dense growth underneath our feet especially the root trees that formed mini obstacle courses.    In spite of the humidity, or is it because of the humidity, I kept taking a sip. With the amount of water I had, was rationed 2 bottles per full day and 1 bottle on the third day.

Another giant tree

It was a taxing hike as we had to go up and down many hills, cross streams, scramble on fallen trees, duck under branches and more fallen trees.  More challenging was walking the length of huge trunks of trees with nothing to hold on to.  The trail was quite clear but it would be crazy to go at it without a guide as at certain portions, the trail seemed to be just part of the entire jungle floor.

About an hour and half later, we took a break. The Spaniards, who admitted to be heavy smokers, puffed away while we rested our tired legs.  My feet were aching a bit as the leech socks were a little thick and big and filled-up my shoes leaving little room for my toes.  But at least it was effectively keeping out the leeches which kept clinging to the French girl.

We were back on the trail again and about half an hour later, we reached some limestone cliffs.  We put down our packs and went to a side trail to see a cave perched high on the cliff.  There didn’t seem to be any trail that would allow for a closer view.  Back on the main trail we hiked to another cave.  The cave mouth was big and cool and made a nice place to put our feet up and relax.  People aren’t allowed to go up the cave as it was too steep and slippery.  Just outside the cave entrance  was some dried-up elephant poop.  Earlier in the trail we came across some “fresher” ones which our guide said was still warm to the touch.

A leech tried to squiggle through the fabric of my pants I was panicking as I couldn’t pull it out. Our guide deftly flicked it off with a dried twig.

My spirits fell as we started up again and our guide said that it was going to be another four kilometers!  He has got to be kidding! That means another two hours! I told him that I saw a sign that said it was just another 1.5k to the cave but he laughed it off and said it was another four kilometers. It’s moments like this when you question the sanity of engaging in this type of activity.  Deep inside me I kinda felt that maybe he was just testing us and that we were actually close to Kepayang.

No elephants but there was elephant poop

An hour later we did come reach Kepayang Cave. We were either fast walkers or our guide was kidding us.  A short scramble and we came to the a really large chamber so big that elephants could probably ballroom dance inside. Indeed, elephants and even tigers do come to the cave for a salt lick. We were told that we had to gather firewood to make a fire to keep animals out.  Three months ago, a group failed to set a bonfire and in the middle of the night a tiger came. Fortunate for them, they saw it trying to climb up on the other side of the cave.  With that in mind, we unpacked our mats, rested a bit, then went back to the jungle to hunt for firewood.  The Dutch boys were really good at it and even got a large log.  I managed to find a few twigs and branches while looking for a spot to shit the next morning.

Our sleeping quarters for the first night

We hanged our wet clothes on some string strung across some rocks then took one of the many plastic sacks piled on one corner. We each chose our personal spot and unpacked our sleeping stuff.  Covering the floor was the plastic sack on top of which was the earth pad then finally the sleeping bag.

My personal spot

The cave was damp and had an unpleasant but not very bothersome smell.  I had unzipped the lower part of my pants and hanged it to dry. Tucked inside the leech socks, my pants were like a sauna suit and was really wet.  I wished I had packed something, even a sarong to change into which one of the Spanish guys did.

Soon, two other groups came— a  European family and a mixed crowd of youngish people. I think there were about twenty of us total.   Our guide made the bonfire and cooked dinner while we slept a bit.

Canned sardines, canned chicken curry, canned tom yam and steamed white rice never tasted so good.  Our guide cold have fed us one of those large caterpillars and we would have probably eaten them out of sheer hunger and tiredness.  I ate one of my fruit cakes for dessert.

I snuggled in my sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep.  What a day!

Day 2.  From the cave to the hide.

It was still a little dark at around 7 in the morning when I woke-up. Everyone was still fast asleep.  I went down to the forest for my morning ritual of shitting.  I headed to the spot I had chosen the day before— between the fanning roots of a large tree away from the entrance of the cave.  The small branch I had put aside was still there. The soil was a little damp but compact which made digging a cat hole a tough task.  After shitting, I covered it with some soil and a bunch of twigs and leaves.  Then back to the cave to sleep again.

Breakfast was toasted bread and peanut butter.  I had three slices as I didn’t want to hike with a heavy stomach.

The trail from the cave to Bumbun Kumbang was much easier.  As explained by our guide, there was only hill we needed

I was a little scraed here

to climb unlike the previous day’s hike.  We detoured to a nearby cave as the Dutch boys wanted to see some snakes.  According to our guide, harmless snakes lived in small holes in the cave and they would feast on the bats fluttering around.  Like before, we left our packs on the trail then took a side trail to the cave which was less than 10 minutes away. Butterflies and bats flitted about as we entered a small cave then exited to a clearing to the left of which was the entrance to a chamber.  We weren’t really excited about caves and snakes so only the guide and the Dutch boys went in.  Besides, you could peer and see the entire chamber which was lit from the sunlight coming through the opening. Unfortunately, no snakes could be seen.  “They’ve eaten bats already so they’re all away,” explained the guide.  “You promised us snakes! Do we get a refund?” joked the Dutch boys.

Back to the main trail.  A particularly nerve-wracking crossing was walking the length of a large trunk that spanned a small stream.  Unlike previous crossings, this one was high up and falling off could mean serious injury. Flimsy vines on the right provided a little support.  I walked laterally for better balance. We all made it to the other side.  Whew!

An hour and a half later we reached the river.  One of the groups that had set off earlier were already swimming. I just sat on the shallow part of the river and let the coolness wash over me. Some kids and young adults and even one of the Dutch boys were having a splash jumping from a small perch to the water.  I also washed my shoes which had become caked with so much mud you could hardly make out the threading on the soles.

We had our noodles for lunch at small stony outcrop in the middle of the river.

Bumbun Kumbang

A thirty-minute hike later, we reached Bumbun Kumbang.  A path led to the trail to the Terenggan jetty and to the longer trail back to Kuala Tahan.  The Spaniards went up to take a quick look at the hide.  They went off to the jetty with the guide while we went up to the hide. There were already 4 people there.  They probably came from the Terenggan jetty.  They were having a late lunch of sandwiches with canned tuna.  An Indian-looking guy was putting some cheese rings (junk food) on his sandwich.  He probably also puts his fries in his sandwich just like me.

The hide is high above the ground with a long cement staircase that led to it.  It was quite spacious and could accommodate 12 people with its 6 wooden double-bunk beds which were also quite big.  A long bench lay before the observation window which looked over a small clearing, presumably a salt lick.  There was a toilet and running water though I don’t think you could shit on it as the refuse was simply channeled down a long pipe to the ground below.  I took an upper bunk bed so the French couple could take the last two lower bunks which were side by side.

I slept a bit and woke up around 6pm. Everyone was really quiet and looking out at the window waiting for an animal.  I was too uncomfortable about my damp shorts and damp shirt (I shouldn’t have worn the extra shirt on the way to the hide) to care about animals at that point.  Everyone in my group had changed into fresh clothes and I felt like an old damp worn-out rag.

It was still very bright.  Since the viewing window was full I decided to just sit on the stairs outside which had a view of the salt lick, albeit a lower one.  An hour of waiting and nothing turned-up.  Went back inside and had a biscuit dinner.  Past 8pm when darkness finally settled in, everyone went to bed.  I woke-up around 10 to pee and took a quick look at the salt lick, still no animal.  Well, luck wasn’t with us.

Day 3.  Lost

We left at exactly 7 in the morning so we could be at the Terenggan jetty by 8am with enough time to spare.  We followed the track that was supposed to lead us to the jetty.  A stream crossing and an hour later, I told everyone that we seemed to be on the track to Kuala Tahan which would take six hours.  French girl had noticed earlier that the yellow squares nailed on the trees were now red which seemed to indicate that it was a different track.  We decided to head back.  Dutch boys saw a side trail and decided to follow it.  A few meters into it French boy said it didn’t seem to be the right one.  I mentioned having seen a sign earlier when we set out to which French girl said we should turn back and try to find the sign.  It was like a scene from Survivor.  I was expecting a vote to come-up. “Who elects to stay on this trail, say ‘aye'”.  To my relief, everyone agreed that the most sensible thing to do was to go back to the trail to Bumbun Kumbang.  So we backtracked again until we hit the main trail.  About ten minutes later, French girl saw a sign, “Trenggan,” that pointed to a side trail. She turned right to follow it and shouted in glee, “Many signs!”

So much effort to try to cross this stream with dry feet. At the end, we just decided to wade through. Then we realized we were on the wrong trail.

It would have been impossible to see the “Trenggan” sign coming from Bumbun Kumbang as it was facing the direction of the trail coming from Kuala Tahan.  So that’s why we missed it.  We should have also checked the map first to see that the trail turned left somewhere and didn’t cross the stream.  We relied on the trail too much.  It was a 45-minute hike and there were all yellow squares nailed on the trees.

The famous yellow tag

Finally we came out of the jungle and into the dilapidated Trenggan Lodge and the wooden jetty.  There was no sign of the boat.  French girl asked someone from the lodge and said that we would have to wait for it.  We tried to flag down a passing boat but the driver and its lone passenger thought we were merely waving.  There was no signal so calling Danz was impossible.  Fortunately, a boat came to discharge a family of 4 to the jetty.  The driver offered to take us back to Kuala Tahan for RM 10 each and said we could just ask for a refund at Danz. Refund or no refund, we were ready to get out of the jungle as it was 10am already and the French couple were sure to miss their bus.

The ride back to Tahan was about thirty minutes.  At Danz, Alyas said that the boat had come at 8 but returned since we were not there.  Perhaps they all thought we had decided to just hike back to Kuala Tahan as the Dutch boys had originally planned to do so. I guess no one figured out that we might had gotten lost or there was an accident or something.

While the French couple decided on their transport options to Kuala Besut and the Dutch boys looked for a place to shower before catching the bus to Jerantut, I went back to Durian where my room was waiting for me all clean and ready.  They had even turned the a/c on so it was really cold when I opened the door and got in.  Such a simple pleasure.

I really enjoyed the jungle walk.  It was a bit disappointing not to have seen any animals but trekking the path inside the world’s oldest rainforest is like stepping back in time.  I imagined that touching the trees was just like laying my hand a million years back.  Amazing if you think about it.  Standing in the middle of the jungle is a humbling experience as you realize how small you really are amidst your surroundings.  Everything in Taman Negara seems big—the trees, plants, even the insects are huge!  I’ve never seen such enormous ants before.

One More Walk.

With my clothes left hanging to dry, all showered-up and refueled with a lunch of rice and fish from Nusa Restaurant, I was back at the trails around park headquarters.  My legs are still tired, particularly my toes which were squished in my shoes due to the heavy leech socks but there was the entire afternoon waiting for an adventure.  I contemplated on taking another shooting the rapids tour but I thought it better to save my money for something else.  I tried the trail to Bukit Paya but turned back after ten minutes.  The memory of getting on the wrong trail in the innter jungle just earlier in the morning was still fresh in my mind.  I headed to Lubok Simpon instead.  There was a small crowd there lying on the banks and some were swimming in the lake.  I stayed for a while but the tranquility I had found a few days earlier was missing so I left.  At Bumbun Tahan there was no one there and no animals either.

The salt lick at Bumbun Tahan

Inside the hide

Another Night Walk.

That evening, I tried to beat the night walk tour crowd but they were on the trail by the time I got there.  I took the path through Mutiara Resort and headed straight to the Bumbun Tahan.  The deers were there again and there were not much people at the hide.  It was nice to just sit by the viewing window and watch them.

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Taman Negara: Part 2. On the Beaten Trail

A blue pheasant

Second day at Taman Negara, I woke-up early, bought some snacks at the woman selling curry puffs near the entrance of Durian Chalet and headed to the park as I wanted to beat the crowds at the popular Canopy Walkway.  My plan was to do the classic loop of Canopy Walkway-Bukit Teresik-Libok Simpon; a walk that would take about three hours.  Easy enough.

With leech socks I bought at the souvenir store earlier, 1.5 liters of water, and some snacks, I headed to the trail. The raised platform near the Park HQ soon gave way to a trail covered with leaves, branches, and the creeping roots of the large fan trees.  Minutes into the trail and I was sweating like a pig as there wasn’t any air and sunlight barely fleeted through the thick foliage above.  I felt like a dwarf among the gigantic trees.

I reached the Canopy Walkway around 9:45 and I was the first one there!  Paid the RM5 fee and took my first step on the suspended planks high above on the rainforest.  Each segment led to a platform which connected yet to another segment of planks.  At one platform, you could choose to take the platform that led the way out or climb a steep aluminum ladder to another platform and on to suspended planks much higher than the previous ones.  It was an exhilarating walk especially when you peer down at the rainforest and see how high you are.  The entire loop was about 45 minutes and as I exited, people were just arriving.  Only 4 people are allowed at a time at each segment and it would be utterly unexciting if you had to wait your turn to walk the planks.

A trail from the Canopy Walkway led to Bukit Teresik which means “high hill.”  It was a steep but easy climb as roots and stones made natural steps on the trail.  There were a lot of people both going uphill and downhill.  Fine views of the jungle greeted me as I reached the rocky outcrop of the hill.   The guide of a Japanese (or was it Korean) couple pointed to a side trail whichhe said led to another viewing plateau and was “nice for meditation.”  It was a 15-minute walk and unlike the first outcrop, this one was much smaller and seemed more secluded as the tiny space was surrounded by trees.  Perhaps if you’re alone, it would really be a nice spot for meditation.

At the foot of the hill, a trail led to Lubok Simpon about 1.5 kilometers away.  Of all the trails, this one seemed to be more lush as it led through really thick jungle.  My feet were kinda aching by this time and 1.5k seemed such a long way.  All throughout, I never passed a single soul. Maybe there were spirits hovering as Taman Negara, if the locals are to be believed, is full of them.  Spirit or no spirits, my own spirit was flagging as my legs seemed to have tired out after climbing Bukit Teresik.  It was with relief when I reached the sign that pointed to the swimming hole. Down some steps and I found myself in a lovely patch of forest with a lake.  Again, I was alone so I had all that beauty around me to myself. All the aches and tiredness drifted away as the serenity of the place overcame me.   It was so peaceful with nothing but bird calls echoing through the forest.  The very beauty of God seemed to hover.

I sat at a log and munched on my cereal bars and a chocolate as I rested my eyes on the still lake. Nourishment for both body and soul. While nourishing myself, I happened to glance at my right leg and saw a leech also nourishing itself with my blood.  That brought me out of my revelry and I headed back to the trail to Park HQ which led me through the camping grounds of the Mutiara Resort.

Back at Kuala Tahan, while waiting for my rice and vegetables to be served at Family Restaurant, I pointed my leg to the waitress and asked for some salt.  As I was about to pour it on my leg, she pointed me to the restaurant entrance with a “do it outside.. it’s so yucky” look on her face.  With a handful of salt, I watched in amazement as the leech disengaged itself from my leg by stiffening up.  It looked like one of the monsters in a B-grade monster movie.  I could almost hear it scream, “aaaaaaaggghhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!”.  Such is the power of salt.  I pulled it’s blood-pumped carcass with a napkin which readily squished between my fingers. Mission accomplished, I straightened-up and walked towards the small sink near the dining tables.  A family of Caucasians seated at a nearby table had seen the entire operation and they seemed in shock.  Nonchalantly, I washed my hands, wiped it dry on the towel and headed back to my table near the restaurant’s docks’ edge and feasted on my fried rice and vegetables.  Yummy!

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Taman Negara: Part 1. Shooting the Rapids and a Walk in the Night

Having arrived at lunch, I had the entire afternoon free so I signed up for the 3pm shooting the rapids and Orang Asli village visit (RM 60) and a night walk (RM 25) at Han Travel.

I was seated next to a guy from Slovenia in the wooden boat.  “Why are you in Malaysia?  Philippines is so nice,” he asked.  I answered that I wanted a new environment.  He and his friends were heading to the PH for New Year’s Eve so I suggested he head to Boracay as he seemed like the type of guy who wanted a beach and a party.  Like most others, he was heading to the Perhentian Islands the next day.

The rapids at Sungai Tembeling aren’t really much.  Think of bubbling brook rather than roiling water.  The excitement was caused more by boats pulling alongside each other and the passengers splashing water.  We should have brought water guns instead or even pails to scoop the water and throw it at the other boats.  To add a little “danger” to the ride, whenever we came to a rapid, the boatman would try to shake the boat a bit.  It was good fun nevertheless and getting soaked to the skin as refreshing; a cool respite from the steaminess of the jungle.

We disembarked on a sandy shore to visit an Orang Asli settlement.  Literally meaning “original people,” the Orang Asli are Negritos, specifically Batek,  and have lived in Taman Negara  for centuries pre-dating the current Malays.  Orang Asli are also found in other areas of Malaysia and are of different ethno-linguistic groups.  At the Cameron Highlands three years ago, part of the rafflesia visit in the jungle included dropping by an Orang Asli village.

We watched the usual blow-pipe hunting and fire-making demonstration.  “I wonder how it feels having your picture taken everyday,” Slovenia guy commented as dozens of people walked around the tiny settlement and snapped photos of their grass huts and of the people who smilingly obliged. There were less than ten houses in the settlement and mostly children and women were there.  The kids were really cute and I had fun trying to make conversation with them as they understood Malay.

Back to the boat for another session of water splashing as we made our way back to Kuala Tahan passing the same set of rapids.  We were told there were six rapids which in reality were just three as you passed by the same three ones on your way back.

Did I feel duped?  Was it worth it?  I like cruising down jungle rivers or any river on local boats and the scenery at the Sungai Tembeling was well worth the ride.  “I joined this tour just to have something to do this afternoon,” quipped Slovenia guy.  That just about sums up my feeling about the rapids.

Night Walk

I had an early dinner of kampung fried rice and vegetables at the Family Restaurant which seemed to be one of the more popular eating places (not that there were a lot of options) as it was filling-up with people just as I finished my dinner.

I almost missed the night walk as I took a post-dinner nap and woke-up at 8:25.  I rushed down to Mama Chop in time for the guy to wave back the last boat crossing to Park Headquarters.  “Sorry, I overslept,” I apologized to the passengers.

Our group of about a dozen people together with about another dozen groups assembled in front of Park HQ where we were given a briefing about the walk.  We took the path that led to the Canopy Walkway and the guide pointed out plants and insects.  I took up the rear so every time we stopped and the guide pointed out something, by the time I managed to inch my way up to the front, whatever insect he was pointing out with flashlight had flown away or sneaked past us.  I did manage to see a large stick insect and a spiderthough.  With so many people trampling up and down the trail it would be a miracle to see anything at all.  Headlamps shining brightly in the dark and the sound of so many trampling feet effectively guaranteed that we wouldn’t see anything at all except for  plants that somehow look different at night as you shine your flashlight on it hoping to see something that would make you go, “aaaaahhhhh… my RM 25 was so worth it…”  Perhaps insects on the trails around Park HQ had already developed a keen sense of smell for mosquito repellant and they could smell a tourist lathered with it from head to toe about a hundred meters away.  “Tourist alert! Tourist alert!”

I should have remembered the night walk we had at the Kinabatangan in Sabah.  Except for a few stick insects, there wasn’t much interesting to see. Though sloshing in the mud in rubber boots was a little fun.  I’ve never worn rubber boots before so it was an experience.  On the second night, I skipped the night walk and just sat on the porch and stared at the river.  I remembered all that as we wound our way through the trail and finally ended at the Bukit Tahan hide just a few meters from the Mutiara Taman Negara Resort.

Deers were having their fill at the salt lick a couple hundred of meters away from the viewing platform filled with tourists all eager to exclaim, “I saw an animal at Taman Negara!!!!!!” even if it was just a deer.  At least it was  wild deer roaming free at the world’s oldest rainforest and not a caged one in a depressing zoo.  With so many flashlights pointing at them it was a miracle the deers weren’t getting spooked away.  They’ve probably gotten used to it or their need for salt overrides their need to run away from the hordes of people all cramming their necks for a look.  Honestly, it was the highlight of the entire experience.  It was fun staring into the dark and then flashing your light and seeing deer grazing.

We took the path through the resort and back to the jetty to cross to Kuala Tahan.

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