For nature lovers, the Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia packs everything - wildlife, jungle trek, rafting, a walk in the clouds that ends with a foray to a tribal settlement
Story and Photos by KARNJANA kARNJANATAWE
Spreading across the states of Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, the park covers 4,243 square kilometres, the largest in the nation, and it is also the world's oldest rainforest dating back 130 million years.
It took us around six hours from Kuala Lumpur to reach the gateway of the national park in Pahang. We spent the first three hours on the road and the last three on a 16-seat long-tailed boat riding the Tembeling River for about 60 kilometres.
A visitor concentrates negotiating the canopy walkway 45 metres above the ground.
Along the banks we spotted water buffaloes, birds such as the kingfisher, people fishing and were greeted by a group of four Batek women squatting on a sandbar under a yellow umbrella because it was drizzling. They had African hair style and wore brown sarong with colourful dots. They waved as our boat passed, cheering us on to our destination.
This was most unexpected and I must thank the Malaysia Tourism Authority for inserting this element of surprise for it woke me up just as I was drifting off to sleep and began looking for more.
By the time we arrived at our resort it was almost dusk. Our journey in the park began the first night with a jungle walk.
"We will walk 500 metres and that will take around an hour," said Saberi Bin Zoo, our guide.
Taman Negara was declared a national park in 1939. It is home to endangered animals like tigers, leopards and rhinos. It is a dense forest and very well preserved. Park statistics show there are some 10,000 species of plants, 150,000 species of insects, 25,000 species of invertebrates, 675 species of birds, 270 species reptiles, 250 species of freshwater fish, 200 species mammals and others waiting to be discovered.
"Do you know why we have to walk the jungle at night?" asked Bin Zoo while training his torch at a stick insect clinging to a twig. He didn't wait for the answer and said it was because most insects were out at night so we would have a good chance to see some of them.
He was quite skilful at finding bugs: he found a brown spider, another type of stick insect, moths and small, white mushrooms that glow in the dark.
A dish of friend fish cooked Malay style.
We climbed a stair to an elevated wooden enclosure, the stakeout point with windows and big enough for 50 people. We were told to stay quiet. Bin Zoo then trained his torch at a salt lick. However, we were not in luck and gave up after ten minutes of waiting as more visitors poured in. We then walked further but found nothing much except more tourists.
"Tomorrow we will take the same trail and walk 1.5 kilometres further to a canopy walkway. The trail will involve a little climbing and you need to have a good pair of shoes or hiking boots," the guide told us.
Next morning when Bin Zoo saw me in sandals he shook his head in dismay. He was worried that I might slip, but I was confident that the trail wouldn't be that hard since I have walked many forest trails in those sandals and also because it was a popular trail and also because many tourists had brought kids along.
And I was right. Although the trail was slightly wet from showers, it was simple enough. There were no steep climbs to negotiate but what worried me were the leeches. Although I watched my steps, one of them almost succeeded in latching on to me as I stopped to photograph a mushroom. Many tourists wore white sacks made of unbleached cotton to protect their feet and knees from leeches, while some tugged the end of their trousers inside their socks.
In fact, the ideal method is to use tobacco, but I didn't have any so I tried cologne. It didn't work.
Batek women sit by the Tembeling River in anticipation of passing boats of visitors.
Reaching the canopy walkway we were asked to queue up and proceed one way in groups of four in a single file. The walkway, 35-45 metres above the forest floor, was 530 metres long, and just wide enough for one person. Once I had made the decision to go, I could not change my mind and retreat because there were others behind me. Each of us had to maintain the distance between us - five to 10 metres - to spread the weight around. Officers stood at various points to manage the traffic and ensure security.
The walkway swayed with every step I took but I enjoyed the cool, fresh air over the treetops. It was like walking in the clouds. I spotted some birds and felt scary looking down.
"The walkway needs careful maintenance everyday," said a forest officer, noting that it would be closed to tourists if it is windy or raining. The day I was there half the walkway was closed for the very same purpose.
We walked back to the park's headquarters and took a break. As we were talking, we spotted a snake only five metres away. Ten minutes later, a wild pig was seen walking out of a bush. If we had stayed there longer, we might have seen bigger animals.
But we couldn't. The last activity was rafting followed by a visit to the home of Batek people whose roots can be traced to the Orang Asli aboriginal tribe of Malaysia.
Riding the rapids of Tembeling River in a long-tailed boat was not as exciting as rafting in inflatable boats in some rivers of Thailand, but it was still fun as we got thoroughly drenched.
Forest dwellers, Batek people live in huts made from dry leaves and bamboo.
On the way back we stopped by a bank that is home to Batek people. Ten families were in residence there and they had a leader. They were single-room huts that used dry leaves for roof, walls and as mat for the floor, while some houses had bamboo floor. The entire family shared the same room.
They dress like we do: men wear pants and T-shirt and women sarong, and while some of them cover the top of their body with a T-shirt, others leave it open. And mind you, their kids are not camera shy.
They showed us how to put on a fire without using a lighter or matchstick, and blew darts from a bamboo pipe - that is how they hunt animals - and invited us to try them out.
"They usually hunt for birds and small animals such as little monkeys," said Bin Zoo. These people also earn their living selling honey and whatever they can make by the way of tourism.
If you still have time, you may arrange a trip to explore limestone caves and take a nine-day trek to the park's highest peak - Mount Tahan - 2,187 metres tall. It is through such activities that the park is promoting itself as the premier eco-tourism destination in Malaysia.
The high season for visiting Taman Negara National Park is April to August; October to December is rainy season.
Fees for park activities: 25 ringgit for night jungle walk, 30 ringgit for a trek to the canopy walkway, 35 ringgit for rafting, 40 ringgit for a trip to an aboriginal settlement, boat trip and cave exploration.
Accommodation: There is a privately-run resort inside the park, but visitors are free stay in cheaper accommodations outside. For meals, visitors don't have much choice: food served is generally on the sweet side and mostly greasy. Vegetables and fruit are hard to find, while a 1-5-litre drinking water bottle costs 4-4.5 ringgit.
More information can be obtained at http://www.taman-negara.com and http://www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my.