“You don’t have to bring a lot,” said my correspondent, Owee over the phone. “Just make sure to bring a pair of walking shoes and some sports attire, and you’re set.”
“You’re sure of this?” I asked, running through my mental checklist. “I don’t need my anti-leech socks, hiking shoes, raincoat or anything like that?”
“No,” Owee laughs. “You won’t need those – trust me.”
Owee sounded pretty confident, but I remained sceptical. After all, Taman Negara National Park, a rainforest reserve 130 million years old, paints a certain preconceived picture – lush evergreen trees, rare exotic flowers, venomous millipedes, wild boars, and perhaps most importantly – leeches. How was it possible to not worry about leeches?
Nevertheless, despite never having met Owee, I gave her the benefit of the doubt; I packed in my gym shirts, a pair of sport shorts, running shoes, and boarded my flight to Kuantan, Pahang for my next assignment.
TAMAN NEGARA: A BRIEF SUMMARY
For the uninitiated, Taman Negara Pahang is a 4,343 km2 area of rainforest reserve in peninsular Malaysia, encompassing the three states of Kelantan, Terengganu, and Pahang. The tallest peak in Peninsular Malaysia, Gunung Tahan, also resides here, along with some of the rarest Malaysian fauna like the Malayan Tiger, the Crab-eating Macaque, and the Malaysian Tapir.
My tour group departed Kuantan and headed towards Kuala Tahan, some 229 kilometres away. Kuala Tahan is the main entrance to Taman Negara, and also the most popular among the three entrances. Here, various outdoor activities are available, such as rapid shooting, outdoor hikes, and the famous canopy walk. It’s also the choice for travellers who wish to stay at the Mutiara Taman Negara Park Resort, the only operating resort in Taman Negara.
Four hours later we arrive at the Taman Negara entrance, and boarded our motorised sampans which were waiting for us at the Kuala Tahan jetty. Our sampans – long, motorised boats that sat five passengers in a single file – took us up the Sungai Tahan river toward our first destination, the Kelah sanctuary, a type of freshwater fish renowned for its taste.
The boat ride towards the sanctuary was a vision of green, as we travelled into the heart of the rainforest; tall, arching trees formed a canopy which provided a cool shade from the equatorial sun, and on either side of the river the lush rainforests grew uninterrupted. Somewhere high above the in the branches, an unknown song bird made its call, as our sampans gently rocked against the flowing river.
We arrived at the Kelah sanctuary, which was a wide segment of the river with calm waters. We docked our sampans and sat under the cool shade of the rainforest by the river, as our Taman Negara guide brought out a bucket of fish food to attract the Kelah. I grabbed a handful of pellets and threw it to the river – almost immediately, the water began churning as schools of large fishes brawled for the food.
The Kelah fish is also known locally as the king of freshwater fishes, due to its delicious flesh and edible scales when fried. It previously populated almost all major rivers in the country, however pollution, river degradation due to silting, and deforestation have destroyed many of the natural habitats of the Kelah.
Unscrupulous fishing, such as illegal netting, bombing, poisoning and electro-fishing have also aggravated the numbers of Kelah fish in the region, driving them nearly to extinction, but the Department of Wildlife and Animal Parks in Malaysia are slowly trying to cultivate the Kelah naturally here at the sanctuary. Surprisingly, I learned that angling was not prohibited, but only on the condition that they are released back after being caught.
THE BATEK PEOPLE
Next, we visited the Orang Asli or local natives, a nomadic tribe known as the Batek, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia. They were first widely documented in peninsular Malaysia in 1878, however like the Kelah, excessive logging and other human activities drove the Batek to live within the Taman Negara reserve. Now, there are only an estimated 1,516 of them left, roaming the forest grounds of Taman Negara.
A slender man with dark complexion and short, frizzy hair came to greet our tour guide. He was barefoot, sporting a grey t-shirt with track shorts, and had a broad nose; a typical feature among the pygmy people. This was our Batek guide, a man of few words – he never spoke more than a word or two throughout our tour.
We were escorted to a makeshift shooting range, an open air hut with wooden benches. About 6 metres away, an old, perforated teddy bear was nailed against wooden post.
“Now you’ll see how the Batek people hunt – they use this,” our tour guide says, picking up a long blowpipe, locally known as sumpit, about 2 metres long. “It’s not easy trying to shoot the blowpipe,” he laments, levelling the blowpipe at the teddy bear.
He blew. The dart fell short of the teddy bear, landing harmlessly on the ground. With an embarrassed smile, he passed the blowpipe to our Batek guide who blew his dart effortlessly – it hit the bear squarely on the head. It was at this point that our tour guide told us a little bit about the Batek people – aside from being nomadic, they have a very loose definition of ownership. To the Batek, there is no such thing as ownership of land. Instead, they consider themselves as caretakers of the particular area that they inhabit. Most things within the Batek community are shared, including foraged food items and hunting game, so everyone in the community gets to eat.
Our Batek guide later demonstrated how to make fire without the use of matches and lighters, using a string made out of bark fibres, a piece of log, and tinder made out of dry, untwined bark fibres. He would pull the string back and forth against a perpendicular cut in the log, and the heat from the friction would burn the tinder placed in a cavity inside the track. Once the tinder was lighted, he would blow the flames and use dried wood and leaves to start a flame.
After this demonstration our Batek guide took us to see some of the sumpits that were sold as souvenirs. Francis later explained to me that the money they earn from selling these souvenirs would be used to buy minor supplies like cigarettes and clothes for the Batek, the few modern day items that they relied on.
THE CANOPY WALKWAY
Early next day, we gathered at the Mutiara Taman Negara Park Resort, getting ready to head to the famous Canopy Walkway. While waiting for the rest of the group to cross the river, we spotted a family of wild boars, foraging the lawn outside the hotel lobby for food. I tried to approach them to get a better look, but eventually they scurried away as some of us tried to get a picture. I smiled. It isn’t often that a wildly pre-conceived notion was proven right.
There was only one way to the Canopy Walk – through the jungle trail which Owee mentioned would be easy. I packed light as Owee suggested, and brought only my camera, wearing a pair of simple running shoes. We started early morning and made our way in, following the wooden walkway.
After the first couple of steps on the walkway, I understood why Owee said it would be easy – there were none of the demands of balance and weight shifting on the uneven grounds of the rainforest. We strolled leisurely along the smooth, even steps of the walkways as the Taman Negara guide pointed out the different kinds of trees and plants. It was almost as if someone had cemented a path inside the forest. While pleasant, I couldn’t help but feel like I was ‘cheating’ somehow, like I had visited a spectacular show without paying for an entrance ticket. I asked the tour guide if any of the other tourists felt the same way.
Sensing my discomfort, the tour guide replied, “Of course, some tourists complain that it’s too easy. But you know, there are plenty of benefits of the walkway – one of them is safety. During the night walks, sometimes we need visitors to turn off their flashlights so as not to scare the wildlife. This reduces the chance that they might hurt themselves or get lost.
“Also, with the walkway, families are able to come here with their children and are able to share the experience of being in the rainforest with them. It’s really been better for tourists with families,” he says, as I spot a family with a child, strolling merrily further below.
An hour later, we arrive at the Canopy Walk, and Owee and I were so excited, we were the first ones up. One of the people from the tour group stayed back – he had a phobia of heights.
The Taman Negara canopy walkway is one of the three canopy walkways found in Malaysia, stretching 530 metres in length and 45 metres above ground, at the top layer of the rainforest vegetation. There are 9 platforms on this walkway, providing scenic vistas of the rainforest at each stop. Owee and I walked slowly and carefully, only one of us on the walkway at a time, each of us silent, wrapped in our own thoughts.
I sat at one of the platforms, taking a breather while Owee walked on ahead. There was no one trailing behind me. For the moment, I was completely alone at the top of the forest, peering into a sea of greenery, the calm silence interrupted by unseen birds. This was it: complete and utter relaxation. I could’ve fallen asleep if it wasn’t for the next person in line, waiting to catch a glimpse of the view on the small narrow platform.
I left Taman Negara wondering if I had achieved that ‘connection’ with nature most nature enthusiasts talk about. I hadn’t hiked, swam, or camped in Taman Negara, but as the bus pulled into the highway and the familiar noise of traffic came rushing back, I realized, I did. Thankfully, Taman Negara’s developments hadn’t shut me out from nature yet. Sure, it was easier now, and perhaps not as exclusive as it used to be, but nevertheless, it was a blissful encounter with nature, one that I had already began to miss.