Malaysian place names can be surprisingly uninspired. From Muddy Confluence I travelled to National Park; yes, Taman Negara literally means 'Park National', a whoppingly original name for a National Park, don't you think? I wondere if I'll soon be crossing the River Sungai on my way to Mt Gunung on beautiful Pulau Island...
The bus journey from KL to the jetty at Kuala Temering was fairly uneventful; I slept through most of it, thankfully. The only way to get into Taman Negara is by a three-hour boat trip up the Sungai Temering, as there are no roads, a pretty far-sighted move by the environmental department, and one of the few nods in the direction of conservation that you'll see in modern Malaysia. On arrival I sorted out the business of a permit and booked some nights in the relevant huts, wading through reams of bureaucratically nonsensical paperwork in the process; I also rented a cooker and pot, and packed my bag. For some reason it felt heavier than normal, by a long way; I've been on walks much longer than six days, and I swear I didn't need this much junk. Perhaps packing two long novels (Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer), a computer and lots of food was the reason, but I figured I'd need my recreation out there in the jungle...
That night I dined at Wan's Floating Restaurant, recommended to me by an American called John whom I'd befriended in Melaka. Indeed, it proved to be the hotspot of Kuala Tahan – the home to Park HQ and the fancy Taman Negara Resort – and before long I was surrounded by chattering Germans, Dutch, Indians and locals. I talked to Wan for a bit, but something in me didn't really want conversation; it was time I headed off into the jungle for a bit of solitude among the flora and fauna. Sod the people; I wanted Mother Nature.
And I got her. Because central Peninsular Malaysia has been free of such excitements as seismic activity, ice ages or man's never-ending quest for wood, Taman Negara contains the oldest tropical jungle1 in the world; it's some 130 million years old, and it looks like it. After 130 million years the trees, vines, shrubs and undergrowth have evolved into something quite, quite different, and a whole lot nastier.
Into the Jungle
To be honest, the trek into the jungle was pure hell. I'd set my sights on the lodge at Kuala Perkai, some 28km from park headquarters, as a good place to get away from it all, and I reckoned that two days' walking, one of 11km (staying the night in a hide called Bumbun Kumbang) and one of 17km, would be fairly acceptable. How little I knew of the rigours of hardcore tropical jungle; the first day took a little over five-and-a-half hours of hard slog, and the second a whopping nine hours.
It's not all unpleasantries in the jungle, though. Despite the fact that the going was tough, it was a unique and quite fascinating walk. My destination – a fishing lodge on the confluence of Sungai Keniam and Sungai Perkai called Kuala Perkai ('Perkai confluence') – was described as an 'isolated paradise' by the ever-effusive John, and although I felt that was a bit of an overstatement, it certainly was pretty. Actually, now I come to think of it, he also said that it would be the perfect place for a honeymoon, but having been there, all I can say is that this might help explain why the divorce rate in John's native country is among the highest in the western world.
The journey was not without its interesting parts. My stay in the hide2 at Bumbun Kembang was considerably enlivened by the presence of a white cat, who had obviously decided he was living there and that was that. As I stomped up the stairs to the hide and dumped my dripping pack on the floor, the cat shot me the look of a superior being, as if to say, 'I live here, so don't get any ideas, buster.'
'Yeah, well I've paid my five ringgit to stay here, which is more than you have, cat,' I replied. 'And don't get any ideas about stealing my food in the middle of the night.'
'Who, me?' yawned the cat, wide-eyed and innocent. 'I'm a cat of the jungle, my friend, and I catch my own food. So there.'
'And no pissing in the corner, either,' I said, noticing an unpleasantly familiar smell coming from the corner where it sat.
'Harrumph,' said the cat, scratching his neck and studiously turning away from me to stare out of the window as if I didn't exist. Not surprisingly he came and went as he pleased, and I hid my food in the mattress locker, which he obviously hadn't mastered yet.
The only tourists I saw were a young couple, fleetingly, whom I met just five minutes from the hide, and a Kuala Lumpur man called Pati who also stayed the night in Bumbun Kembang. I did come across a good example of the tourist trade at Keniam Lodge, a decent-sized collection of luxury huts and central eating areas that looked amazingly tranquil in this, the closed season. All that was left of the tourists was a menu board showing overpriced standard meals, and a sign tacked up saying, 'Closed from 1.11.97 to 31.12.97.' I dumped my pack, discovered flowing water in the toilets, and had a cup of tea, overlooking a picturesque bend in the Sungai Trenggan. It felt like something out of The Shining, this ghost town of a resort, normally bubbling with life but now silent and home only to spiders and piles of leaves. It was strangely moving.
The Fishing Lodge
I was soon back on the trail, getting hopelessly lost and having to ask for help from the local tribesmen, but I eventually arrived at Kuala Perkai. I spent two full days at the fishing lodge, and it rained for almost all of that time. I found myself writing a lot (luckily I'd packed my computer) and reading a lot (fortunately A Suitable Boy is a monster of a novel). My clothes and pack steadfastly refused to dry out, I ate noodles and pasta in various unexciting combinations, and it wasn't long before I was bored out of my tiny skull.
It takes a special kind of person to really enjoy having nothing to do. Take sitting on the beach, for example; even if it's a two-week holiday between executive stresses, I still get frustrated and bored, and end up getting drunk or going out of my mind, often at the same time. The jungle wasn't quite as bad as the beach, but sitting on a veranda, watching the river flow by while the wildlife chorused around me, was pleasant but not exactly riveting. Despite the fact that I knew I was going to have to go through hell again, I was keen to get back on the track.
So on the Friday I hauled out from the lodge, packing my still-wet belongings into my still-damp pack, squelching into my still-sodden boots and starting off down the still-drenched track. The trek back to Bumbun Kumbang was distinctly easier the second time round; it always goes more smoothly when you're fitter, have a lighter pack and know the route, so I arrived at the hide with plenty of daylight to spare. This was fortuitous, because when I took off my socks, there were maybe five leeches latched onto each foot, merrily sucking away. One had even managed to climb up my leg and suck where the sun doesn't shine3, and I needed the extra time to burn them off and tend to my wounds.
There was one more thing that drove me mad – mad enough to make me stick my earplugs in when I arrived at the hide. All day – I swear, there was no break – I had something buzzing round my left ear. I have no idea why my left ear was singled out for such attention, or what kind of buzzing insect it was, but however energetically I waved my arms around and swatted the air, I couldn't connect with anything, and instead developed a sympathetic buzzing in my brain that kept going well after the walking had stopped. The earplugs helped, but I couldn't help being reminded of a particularly persistent blowfly that did the same thing as I hauled my way up Katherine Gorge in Australia's Northern Territory. My left side must smell more divine than my right... or is it the other way around for flies? Not surprisingly, the resident cat was no help at all; all he did was look me up and down, sneer and tell me, in no uncertain terms, to buzz off.
I returned to civilisation on the Saturday to find that after paying for my cooker and locker rental, I was broke. Whoops! Luckily the local glossy resort cashed a cheque for me – at a rate which had shot up considerably in my favour in the six days I'd been in the jungle due to the developing currency crisis – so it wasn't long before I was able to kick back, relax and enjoy the jungle from a safe distance. There are no leeches in Wan's Floating Restaurant, and I spent a very pleasant evening there with a couple from Perth whom I'd met while cashing up; we whiled away the night chatting about Kalgoorlie and Western Australia, and dreaming wistfully of the dry night air in the Australian desert.
Typically, the weather cleared up for my return, enabling me to see the moon and stars for the first time in days. I sat by the river, gazing at the constellations, and to my amazement spotted the distinctive w-shape of Cassiopeia, a constellation I hadn't seen since . I used to know where all the various pointers in Cassiopeia led to, but all I could think of was how much I missed the sky when I couldn't see it. Which now, of course, I could.
1 Although Taman Negara is properly referred to as a rainforest – as in tropical rainforest, semi-tropical rainforest and temperate rainforest – I think 'jungle' sums it up better. The word jungle is defined in the dictionary as 'thick, tropical forest', and so it applies perfectly to Taman Negara. It's probably less scientific than rainforest, but I want to emphasise how different this place is to the other rainforests I've explored. Taman Negara truly is a jungle.
2 Hides are so called because they are perched high up on stilts, affording a good view of a grassy patch that wildlife seems to frequent only when nobody is in the hide. The hide at Bumbun Kembang wasn't as pleasant as the fishing lodge, but it served its purpose as a break in the walk, and it did have a pretty view.
3 A bit higher up and he'd have been performing a service that desperate men pay for. Walking can be such a thrill!