In mid-April this year, just a week after turning 41, I ventured with some apprehension into the hinterlands of Malaysia’s Taman Negara Pahang, virgin jungle reputed to be older than the Amazon Rainforest. It was an experience that charted many firsts for me — my first time to Taman Negara, my first fishing trip, my first camping trip with my young children (aged 4 and 7), and well, my first camping trip in the wild, basically.
My destination was the Keniam River, one of the tributary rivers that flowed into Taman Negara’s Tembeling River. It was deep territory known only to hard-core anglers seeking the much-prized kelah or red mahseer.
Certainly, I was nervous about the entire trip. No comforts to lull me to sleep, no room for privacy, and most of all – the source of all my worries – no ceramic throne on which to answer the call of nature. It would be all water, dirt and leeches – they call it the great outdoors! I wondered how I would survive four nights in the Malaysian jungle. In case you are asking why I even agreed to the trip… well, I desperately wanted to tear my children away from gadget addiction and expose them to the natural things in life.
My adventure started at Kuala Tahan jetty where we boarded a “ferry” – a longboat with a roof – and whizzed upriver along the Tembeling River for about two hours. We became witness to the impact of the great flood that occurred early this year – uprooted trees turned upside down, a boat stuck in the upper branches of the canopy and erosion that left layers of rock exposed. It was definitely not a pretty sight.
We later switched to a narrower longboat fitted with a smaller propeller that would enable us to navigate the shallow waters of Keniam River. The boat ride took us past scenic panoramas of evergreen trees towering above on which we spotted eagles and other colourful birds, and in the river, the tomans flitting by.
After another two hours upriver – mainly with the underside of the boat grinding along the rocky bottom of the shallow river requiring us passengers to get down and push the boat along – we finally arrived at the fifth and upper-most campsite of Keniam River.
The riverbank was a carpet of smooth, solid rocks, on the edge of which the clear Keniam River flowed freely. We pitched our tents complete with ground and fly sheets on higher ground. And this became home for the next few nights for our group of eight adults and two children, accompanied by six very able-bodied nature guides cum boatmen.
A little about our guides: They had been in the jungle this year since early March, right after the flood receded. We were probably the seventh group they had brought to the campsite this year. Each trip into the jungle for them lasted about five days with just a day’s rest before they brought another group in, which meant that for some of them, they hadn’t seen their families for days and weeks. They had set up a nice campsite by the Keniam River complete with kitchen and sleeping quarters. They knew the jungle and the river like the back of their hand – we were certainly in good hands.
The group I camped with were friends who were nature lovers and avid anglers. Their mission was singular: to catch as many kelah as they could. Given their track record and experience in freshwater fishing, and seeing the gear they came equipped with, I was confident that we would soon be dining on thousand ringgit fish every night. I was told that Chinese restaurants charge RM1,000 onwards for a meal prepared with the kelah – they were definitely much-prized for their soft tender flesh and edible scales.
Every morning, the group would leave the campsite early with the guides to seek out fishing spots known to be home to the kelah, returning only in the evening to prepare the day’s catch for dinner. Some employ a kind of fly fishing technique where the line is gracefully whipped onto the river’s surface. Others prefer to find a quiet spot in the shade for still fishing (or fishing without moving the bait once it is cast) where they can wait patiently for the fish to bite. Lures and baits were seriously discussed during dinner — the typical bait is the palm oil fruit that has been fermented to give out a sour taste and smell, said to be a temptation to the kelah. It was also the time to relax at the campsite and regale each other with their past angling adventures. Close to midnight, some of them would pack up a small tackle box and trek upriver to fish in the dark.
The weather throughout our stay was good with occasional showers in the afternoons. This however, did not deter the anglers from their mission. The group looked forward to the challenge of hooking a good-sized fish, anywhere above 1 kilogram in weight would guarantee them bragging rights! They say that the kelah, though elusive in the deep dark parts of the water, display a great fighting spirit when hooked, giving a great fight to the angler before it concedes defeat and lands in the cooking pot.
Identifying Keniam River’s many still pools and shady spots said to be the perfect home for the kelah is easy, but tempting it to take a bite and tackling it once hooked, is another matter. However, on this trip, the fish was simply not biting. The kelah are known to be intelligent species of fish and perhaps they were smart enough not to take the bait this time. Our boatmen, who had brought several other fishing groups earlier who were similarly disappointed, offered a theory that was plausible – the unusual floods early in the year had probably carried the fish further away from their regular nesting sites at the Keniam River and were now taking longer to “balik kampong”!
Nevertheless, the fishermen in our group consistently brought home enough fish to guarantee that we would all be well-fed during our stay. Besides kelah, we also had sebarau on the menu each night, cooked in a variety of ways: masak gulai tempoyak (curry with fermented durian flesh and some chilies); grilled; masak asam (spicy and sour broth); and simply fried with turmeric and salt. On one night, we even had river snails cooked in creamy coconut gravy. Eating it required some work, a certain technique of alternately sucking and blowing into the shell to coax the delicate flesh to slip out. Delicious Malaysian escargot!
In the end, the camping trip to Taman Negara’s Keniam River was an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. And the bit that I was most apprehensive about (read: having to answer the call of nature in the wild) turned out to be the most liberating experience in my life!
Text & Images by: Ena Ramli