Here are a few highlights from the place that orang-utans, tigers and elephants call home: the Malaysian rainforest of Taman Negara.
You hear about the humidity in the tropics, but unless you've been deep into the jungle, you haven't got a clue. The common perception is that humidity makes you sweat, but that's not strictly true; humidity makes you condense.
Ten minutes into my first day I was drenched, sweat dripping off my nose and running into my eyes, stinging slightly where it had mixed with remnants of soap and shampoo from the morning ablutions. The sweat patches spread from the centre of my chest – which is permanently slightly wet in the tropics, even in cities – across my shoulders, down my back and right up into the collar line; if I'd been a well-endowed woman, I'd have been attracting some pretty lewd looks by this stage.
Every hour or so I would have to stop to wring out my T-shirt and shorts, yielding about a pint of brownish water every time. Every five minutes I could squeeze my handkerchief in my pocket and it would be as wet as if I had dunked it in a river. I began to worry that I wasn't going to be able to keep up the liquid intake at this level, but I kept on drinking at my usual pace, feeling no more thirsty than on any other walk (and indeed, I drank much less than I did in places like Katherine Gorge or Wilpena Pound). It soon became apparent that the liquid pouring off me, into my pack and down into my boots where the socks squelched noisily, was simply water in the air condensing on my skin.
As if to confirm my fears, I met a young couple who had taken the boat to one of the hides I passed on the way, just for an hour's jungle experience. They stopped for a chat, sounded suitably impressed at my progress, and watched amazed as I wrung out the bottom of my T-shirt. 'Have you been swimming?' the girl asked. I just laughed.
It wasn't so funny after two days of walking through the humidity. My crotch and armpits were so sore from the constant rubbing and sweat that I thought I'd never manage to walk again; prickly heat's one thing, but this was more like the salt sores I got from a month on the south Pacific. All part of the territory, I suppose.
This isn't a whinge; trekking into the jungle and moaning about the weather would be like visiting a big city and moaning about the crowds, but the rain in tropical jungle deserves a mention.
You first hear it as a rustle in the treetops; it sounds like a gentle breeze. As it gets heavier it becomes obvious that this is no breeze, it's something more tangible, but on the jungle floor nothing reaches you, except maybe the odd leaf loosened by the downpour. The only signs of rain are increased humidity, a dimming of the already dim light, the crashing of branches tumbling to the ground and the rumbling of distant thunder, sounds which aren't too dissimilar.
But step into a gap in the jungle, where normally you would be greeted by a tantalising glimpse of the sky and a confirmation that there is still a world out there, and you'll notice the rain. It comes in bursts, bursts so heavy that as soon as it starts raining, the rivers start to flow with brownish water and the mud becomes a death trap. It's almost scary, especially when rain brings out the following nasties...
As I have said many times before, every park has its resident pest, be it the dingo, the rat, the monkey or the sandfly, but in Taman Negara it's the leech.
Ask most people what they fear most about the idea of hacking through the jungle, and it's not tigers or elephants, it's the leech, despite the fact that the former two are far more dangerous. The concept of a slug attaching itself to your skin and sucking out your blood is fairly repugnant, and before I hit the jungle, I shared that feeling. Having been sucked dry by all sorts of shapes and sizes of leech, I'm actually quite fond of the buggers.
Leeches are incredible beasts. Mostly active just after it rains – which is pretty much all of the time in the jungle – they look like brown-green two-inch strands of instant noodle, lurking in the undergrowth. Put your foot down for more than ten seconds, and you're spotted; the leeches will come from all around like something out of a horror movie. A leech has a foot and a head, and both ends grip like buggery; it moves around by stretching out with its head, sniffing the air in search of blood, and when it's satisfied it knows where to go, it plonks its head down on the ground, gripping whatever it touches, and pulls its foot to its head, attaches the foot to the ground, and raises its head in search of the next step. It's like watching a strange kind of slinky, and the way it holds its head in the air, sniffing, is quite eerie. When it decides that it's time to feed, the head burrows into your skin while the foot holds on, and it sits there until it fills up.
Leeches just love leather, and will rush towards your shoes when you stop for a breather; there's something quite manic about their movements, trying to reach you before you set off again. It makes you wonder how they survive; there aren't that many beasts in the jungle, surely? But survive they do, and they even manage to attack humans, surely one of their more demanding clients, with great success. They climb up your boots, slinking towards your socks, and once buried inside the folds of wool they're impossible to see. And now they've got a number of options.
The first option is to go straight for the flesh, through the sock; this has the disadvantage of it being easy for the human to rip the leech off his flesh; just pull off the sock. The second option is to climb up the leg and go for the copious exposed flesh of the shin or even the thigh, a good bet for guaranteed blood, but a little overexposed in the event that the human feels the teeth sink in and wants to burn the leech off with a match. The third option, and the most successful as far as the leech is concerned, is to bury itself down inside the sock, next to the skin, and dig in, well out of sight; the only disadvantage here is that if the human slips and the shoe presses against the skin where the leech happens to be, it's a messy way to die.
I managed to experience all three methods of attack. I burned a couple off with matches; I ripped a few off by removing my sock; and I accidentally crushed a few inside my boots. I soon learned, though, that the easiest way to deal with a leech is to let the little sucker hang on; you won't miss the blood, but best of all you won't create a wound that refuses to stop bleeding. When they latch on, leeches inject you with an anti-coagulant, not one as irritating as the mosquito brand, but one that's much more effective at making the blood flow. Rip a leech off, and not only does he take away a chunk of flesh in his teeth, he'll leave you with a bloody mess that takes maybe half an hour to stop bleeding. If you let him take his fill, then he drops off automatically, removing his teeth neatly and leaving you a wound that seems to heal much more quickly. Besides, trying to pull a leech off your skin is a tricky proposition at the best of times; as soon as you remove it, it latches itself onto your finger; pull it off with the other hand, and it attaches itself to that one. It's like trying to get rid of a long piece of extremely sticky Sellotape, except you can't just roll it into a ball and throw it away; unlike Sellotape, leeches just don't give up, and they never lose their stickiness.
As I plodded along the path on day 2, I got a big 'un on the front of my shin, a surprisingly good source for blood (judging by the amount dripping down my leg, regardless of the leech's best efforts to suck it all up). I watched him grow from noodle-thick to maybe half the width of my little finger, and as I sat down on a log for lunch, he decided that enough was enough and dropped off into the undergrowth. I swear that if a leech could hold his stomach and burp, this one would have done so; his struggle to walk away was a painfully familiar sight, the sign of a serious overfeed. Well, good for him.
Ants are no big deal, right? We see them every day, milling around the garden, clearing up the detritus of nature and recycling it endlessly. Who could be scared of ants?
Well, me for a start. Sure, little ants are nothing more than a nuisance, and then only when they discover the sugar bowl, but out there in the tropical jungle, you've never seen anything like it. The ants are an inch and a half long, I kid you not. At this size you can tell a hell of a lot about an animal, and one thing that's obvious is its attitude, and big ants have plenty of that.
I came across one particularly big group on a five-minute break somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I sat down on the path, and this delegation of five huge ants started plodding down the tree next to me, obviously intent on finding out my business and whether I had the correct permits to be there; I could see their jaws, and it made me nervous. I was on the point of trying to sign them up for a major role in the next production of Revenge of the Mutant Mandibles when one of them waved an Equity card at me and told me to beat it; they already had a contract to star in Jaws IV and I was sitting on their set.
I buggered off pronto. There's nothing scarier than an acting ant in one of his moods, especially when he's chomping his grapplers at you.
I include the lovable mozzie in this list simply because I have to get in an anti-mosquito dig at every opportunity. Not only are the tropical mozzies plague-like in their proportions, they have the added bonus of possibly being malarial. To be honest, the chances of getting malaria in Peninsular Malaysia are incredibly slim, but where there's a chance, there's a chance, and it's just another challenge to rise to.
Still, I haven't met a mozzie who can penetrate the Dettol and baby oil mixture1. Unless the sweat has washed it off first, of course...
I don't mention spiders because they're nasty, spindly and poisonous, and make lots of people scream and run a mile. Personally I'm more spooked by cockroaches than spiders, if only because it takes a hell of a lot more to kill a cockroach than a spider; no, spiders are included here because of their webs.
Take a spider, a perfectly good path and millions of square metres of jungle, and the chances are that the spider will string his web across the path. Perhaps the chances of catching flies there are better, but for the solo walker on an under-used path, webs are a pain. In Taman Negara, every few minutes I was pulling web off my face and brushing irate spiders off my shoulders.
Spider's web doesn't taste nice, isn't nutritious, and makes having a beard a right royal pain. There is one good thing about it, though; it indicates that nobody else has been along that path recently, so at least it means you're going to have some peace and quiet while you sit down and pull the strands out of your hair...
These are a good thing, unless they lie. Then they are a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.
I have never had a track-based walk where progress was so slow as my walk in Taman Negara; only in the Pyke was the going tougher, and there the track had long been washed away. On a good stretch of ground – the Bada Valley, say, or Seventy-Five Mile Beach – a good average is about six kilometres in one hour, a rate I can keep up almost all day if the track is fairly flat. Add in mountains or valleys and the rate goes right down, but even then it's not too bad; when climbing Rinjani the rate was still pretty good. In the jungle of Taman Negara, I was lucky to complete two kilometres in an hour.
This wouldn't be so bad, but when the kilometre markers are set up so that one minute it's 3.6km to your destination, and after half an hour of hard slog it's still 3.6km, you wonder if the person putting up the signs actually bothered to do the walk himself. Add to that the fact that there are loads of ways to get lost in the jungle, and it's a right royal botch up. It's a good job my tracking skills are pretty good; I was able to follow John's footprints for a lot of the way, even though they were about two weeks old. Looks like he had some pretty decent boots on, and a bloody heavy pack too...
Trees die, fall, rot and turn into topsoil; that's the essence of the jungle, the way it constantly recycles its nutrients, the reason that fungus and insects play such an important role in the cycle of life here. But fallen trees can really get on your nerves if you're not into eating dead wood.
Every five minutes I came upon a tree across the track. Some were easy to cross – just a stride over and onto the next one. But some of the fallen monsters were not only huge obstacles in their own right, they were half rotten, swallowing whole legs if you stood on the wrong part, and smothered in beautifully coloured and probably poisonous toadstools and mushrooms. And as for some of the insects who live inside the honeycombed trunks... yuk! Come to think of it, that's probably how I managed to get so many leeches.
Actually, the only thing worse than a tree across the path is bamboo. Bamboo grows in huge clumps the size of a house, and with thick branches of maybe three-inches across, when it falls across a path it's like a prison. Add in the inconvenience of a backpack, and crawling through bamboo ends up like something out of It's a Knockout. Without the prizes.
Rivers and Streams
An essential part of any ecosystem, streams are not only a wet experience, they're muddy too. Stepping cleanly through a stream isn't an option; on each bank the mud oozes over your ankles, threatening to suck you in further if you're not quick enough.
This is fine after a while, because you're so wet you no longer care about mud, water or other slimy things. But the things that really hurt about streams are the steep banks; descending is more like skiing than tramping, and ascending is as close to volcano walking as you will get in the jungle; it's definitely one step up, two steps down. More than anything the streams were the cause of my slow progress through the jungle. Still, without them I would have died of thirst, so I can't really complain, can I?
1 A handy tip I picked up in Shark Bay. Take 70 per cent baby oil and 30 per cent Dettol, mix and smear on your body for the ultimate insect repellent. The sandflies stick to the baby oil and die, and the mozzies simply hate the smell of disinfectant. It worked a treat for me in Australia and New Zealand, and it beats paying a fortune for normal sprays. It's more effective, too.