We were within one final hour's stagger of the river bank, at the base of one of Taman Negara's many animal viewing hides, and Guatamalan Santiago glared into the towering trees' canopy.
"There's something there but I can't see it!"
Our squad of seven -- Santiago, two Brits, two Canucks, an American and myself, along with head guide Aa (pronounced Ah Ah) and his assistant Ali, have been tramping -- okay staggering actually -- through the wilds of Malaysia's premier patch of greenery, Taman Negara National Park. The river, and the boat home, were within earshot. We were all exhausted and it seemed like what were most likely macaques were taunting us, but to be honest we've more than had our fair share of highlights.
If you're umming and ahhing about a visit to Taman Negara, let me put your mine to rest: you should do it.
Two days earlier, the way the affable receptionist at Teresek View Motel spun it, the trek sounded like a bit of a walk in the woods. She described it as "a boat ride, then some walking, sleep in a cave, some more walking, then a boat ride home". While factually that is all correct, there were some missing adjectives: exhausting, gruelling, incapacitingly humid, steep, slippery, leech infested ... you get the idea.
The trip commenced at one of the rafthouses at Kuala Tahan opposite the National Park entrance. It was there we discovered we'd be lugging a good portion of our own kit, including sleeping bag, bedroll, three large bottles of water, canned chicken curry (you may sneer now, but I'd have happily eaten six cans when they fed it to us) and other bits and bobs. We hopped into the longtail and off we went, up the Tembeling River.
The trip upriver had us flanked by a towering wall of National Park forest on our left and a mix of semi-developed or forested land to our right. The swift-running river has a Scandinavian tan to it and while we were occasionally pummelled by minor rapids, we mostly sliced through calm waters passing by Orang Asli villages and fishermen.
An hour and a half later we pulled up to Kuala Keniam where there is a substantial ranger station. Aa gave us a final pep talk, we crossed a suspension bridge and the business end got underway.
I've lived in Southeast Asia for more than 15 years and would say I'm relatively acclimatised to the humidity, but under the canopy it gets raised another notch. The amiable banter and laughter quickly dissipated into silence as we trudged along. We had eight kilometres to cover on the first day, and another eight to look forward to on the second (though in fact we end up walking around 20km in total) and the going was slow. Within an hour, I was drenched, soaked to the skin, sweat beading up on my eyebrows and dropping into my eyes at the most inopportune moments (note to self: shave eyebrows before next trek).
The trail which commenced as quite a well defined easy to walk pathway, deteriorated. Sharp-spiked ferns closed in closer, catching packs and tearing at skin and clothes alike.
The real tormentor though, were the tree roots. Despite the trees' formidable height, many of the root systems are very shallow and we were forever stepping between (or tripping over) their exposed upper parts. It's almost magical how the roots gather; like the trees are furnished from a ball of clay with the fingers squeezing, clay oozing between to create the aerial roots as the ball is stretched high into the heavens.
I stopped now and then by an especially magnificent specimen, seemingly stabbed into the earth fully grown. Hand on the trunk I gazed up into the heights while I snuck a few dozen breaths. The light dappling down through the leaves, reflecting off the ferns, coupled with the cicadas and birds singing -- on one occasion I heard the "whoosh whoosh whoosh" of a hornbill overhead -- made it all magical.
Occasionally Aa stopped to show us some bush magic -- leaves pulped in the hands to keep mosquitoes away, or a tree whose toxic resin is used to tip darts (one dose will kill a monkey). At the same time we learned more about the Orang Asli -- Malaysia's original inhabitants -- who live a hunter-gatherer existence within the bounds of the park.
While the park is reported to be home to tigers, Malayan sun bears (both virtually never seen) and wild elephants (infrequently seen), Aa admits his number one fear is trees falling in windy weather. With their shallow root system, the taller they are the harder they fall and we frequently saw massive spreads of destruction where a single tree has come down, taking with it the canopy and anything else it can hang onto. Aa talked of taking shelter behind massive aerial roots while wind-storms thrash the canopy apart overhead.
Towards the end of day one, we clambered up a rock face into the Kepayang Besar cave. The initial entrance disappointed, but when we penetrated further, the cave bloomed into a sprawling, yawning cavern with, at the centre, a massive stalagmite almost meeting the stalactite at the top. You can walk the whole way around it, with bats swooping up high and voices bouncing around; it had an almost science fiction feel to it.
Aa cooked up a storm and after dinner led some of the group around the cave spotting cave spiders and the like. Theron and I stayed near the fire and I saw what I thought was a massive (beagle-sized) rat coming towards the dirty bowls and dishes. Aa arrived to explain it was a female porcupine; it certainly doesn't seem too bothered by us and our snapping cameras. Eventually, after tipping over some of the plates, it scatters.
We slept on the cave floor with a steady stream of bat guano falling on our sleeping bags and face; yes, if you tend to sleep mouth agape, you're best to sleep on the side in Gua Kepayang Besar.
The next morning we headed to Gua Kepayang Kecil -- a far more compact cave (kecil means small) -- known for its bat population. The cave was teeming with bats, but it was in a rear chamber that we experienced one of the highlights of the trip. In a narrow crevice above us, dozens of bats, disturbed by our torches, flew all over the place while, coiled like a spring a couple of metres up the rock face, was a cave racer (Elaphe taeniura ridleyi). As we watched, the snake propelled its head and about half a metre of its body out into the air with its mouth open wide. Then in the blink of an eye, its jaws snapped shut on a bat and the body retreated to the wall, where it enwrapped the unfortunate bat, crushing its bones ready for eating.
Sated with our first kill we left the cave and continued our way through the forest, stopping for lunch at a river with a deep swimming hole where some of the group washed off the latest layer of mud, sweat and tears. Don't worry, plenty more where that came from.
The final stretch took us through dense forest interspersed with bamboo, and we quickly spied elephant footprints. They like to munch on bamboo sprouts and we got our hopes up as we followed the seemingly fresh trail for a few hundred metres, but then it suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced with another set of trails coming towards us. Not seeing an elephants was one of the only true disappointments of the trek.
Two hours later we emerged back onto the bank of the Tembeling river, throwing ourselves down to wait for the boat back to Kuala Tahan.
Later that afternoon, two of our party were on a bus en route to Jerantut, driving through a landscape that once held the same kind of jungle we'd just trekked through. Today it's palm oil plantations, as far as the eye can see.
What a tremendous loss.
Other points of interest, such as the Canopy Walkway and Teresek Hill viewpoint can be walked in a day and without a guide. For those with limited time, this is the best option.
We paid 230 ringgit for a two-day, one-night trek. A three-day, two-night trek costs 330 ringgit per person. Those without a specific interest in the park will probably find the two-day trip to be a perfect fit. Trips leave daily from Kuala Tahan and there should be no need to book ahead, though in wet season some trails close.
Accommodation in Kuala Tahan runs from mediocre dorms for 10 ringgit through to comfortable, simple rooms in the 50-90 ringgit range and fancier hotel accommodation in the 150-300 ringgit range.
Admission to the park is 1 ringgit per day and the camera permit is 5 ringgit.
Aa is a freelance guide and gets but a fraction of the fee should you book through a travel agent. If you can rustle up a small group I'd suggest contacting him direct on T: (011) 1783 7330. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend him as a capable guide.
Pack as little as possible for the actual trek (most guesthouses will store your gear for you).
From Kuala Lumpur you can get a bus (3-4 hours, 16.80 ringgit) or a night train (8-9 hours, 35/41 ringgit depending on berth) to Jerantut from where it is another hour or so by bus (7 ringgit) to Kuala Tahan. Bus is the better option as the train arrives in Jerantut at 3/4am. Once in Jerantut, another option is to get a bus from Jerantut to Kuala Tembeling jetty (1 hour, 5 ringgit) followed by a 3 hour boatride to Kuala Tahan (35 ringgit).
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 18th January, 2016.