Taman Negara…Jungle Gym on Steroids!! (Sept 7th – 12th)

Fresh out of island life, we motorbike-taxied to a small guesthouse
in downtown Karabi. We were anxious to shower and clean up a bit.
After chillin’ in the room, an intense sunset marked dinner time and we
hit the streets to hunt for a restaurant. We ended up selecting a
little outdoor dwelling where I painfully received the spiciest curry
on earth. Needing three bowls of rice and two large bottles of water to
dilute the hotness, I eventually got it all down…..despite its
attempts to resurface.

The next day, we took a bus to Hat Yai, a stepping stone city into
Malaysia. While arranging our next link of travel, we met another
foreigner (the only other foreigner) oddly from the states (not too
many yanks). Dennis (33) was a film producer from NYC and seemed to be
searching for an escape from a mundane career and an unhappy
relationship. We told him of our plans to hit up Malaysia’s largest
Rain Forest, and he expressed interest in accompanying us. As a
monsoon blanketed the region, we entered the minibus heading for the
border. Four hours later (10pm) we were shoved out, about 200 feet from the
country line. It felt like we were illegal contraband being brushed
into the dark of the sketchy ghost town, left to fend for ourselves.
We walked to the border, filled out some quick paperwork, got our
entry stamps, then found ourselves standing on Malaysian soil.
Welcome to Malaysia!

It was late when we entered the country and it seemed as though
one remaining taxi was waiting there just for us… and in a way, he
was. We exchanged Thai Baht for a couple Ringits, then taxied to
a guesthouse right near the rail-road station in the town of
Wakaf Baharu. Tomorrow the plan was to catch the 6am train, rightly
nicknamed “The Jungle Express”!

That time came around sooner than expected, and before we saw any of
Malaysia in the daylight, we were already chugging down the tracks.
Beautifully, the sun rose over a foggy mountain jungle.

Sleeping most of the way, at 2pm we approached Jerantut, the gateway
city to the National Park. We disembarked the train, nearly succombing
to a tourist (trap) package claiming they monopolized the only way to
enter the forest. Gladly, we reconsidered our options and chose to relax
and collect our ideas before running into the jungle. We checked into
a guesthouse and used the rest of the time to prepare spending the
following 3 days/2nights amongst the trees. We started the shopping
spree.

For food, we chose some interesting items; canned curry tuna, canned
curry chicken, canned vegetables, PB and J’s, fresh carrots, apples
and oranges. Lastly for water, we elected to bring two 5.5 liter jugs
along with four 1.5 liter bottles. With plenty of supplies, we
returned back to our residence to organize the items into two of
the backpacks. We chose Michelle’s and Dennis’s bags to take with us.

While packing our gear, Michelle and I made friends with a cute
Malaysian girl named Wati. A permanent resident of the guesthouse, she
kept us company while we equipped for the adventure. When our things
were finally sorted and packed away, we went out for our last meal in
civilization. Our favorite dinner item was Satay, mini chicken kabob
sliced meats, smothered in a spicy peanut sauce. At an equivalence of
$.10 per stick, we satisfied our cravings with bunches of ’em. At the
end of our meal, another patron of our hotel joined our table. His name
was Pablo (20’s), from Spain (go figure), and currently working in
London. He works for the UN, dealing with environmental regulations on
the importation of the animal and plant trade around the world, currently
here in the country for a timber conference. He was a nice guy and
anxious to enter the forest tomorrow as well.

At 5:30am we awoke to catch the 6:00am bus to Kuala Tahan, the
entrance to Taman Negara National Park. We were the only four
foreigners on the 1 ½ hour ride, which doubled as a school bus
for the children of the community. Before paying the one Ringit
to cross the Tembeling River by boat, we enjoyed an iced coffee
and egg roti (local pancake) on the deck of a floating restaurant.

Now, time for some action! Upon crossing the river we paid an entrance
fee, as well as booked a hide deep in the jungle for two nights. Pablo
had to buy some supplies, so opted to just meet us there later that
evening. Excited to get going, we set off on the five hour, 11.5 km
trek. One quick detour before really getting started was when we walked
up some spiralled stairs in hopes to open up vistas high above the canopy.
We mostly were in they sky to try and capture some beatuiful views, but
we did happen to see a monitor basking on the side of an enormous tree
trunk about 125 feet up! Down from the clouds, we continued forward
spotting a little black monkey in a tree not too far from the path.

With 3 of us and 2 packs, we rotated carrying duties between
ourselves. A person would carry a pack for a 2 hour stretch of time,
leaving one person an hour break in between their session. The packs
were unnecessarily heavy, each weighing literally around 25 kg (more
than 50 lbs). Fortunately, we figured they would lessen in weight as
we ate the food and drank the water.

The mud was slick and the terrain brutal, making things unexpectedly
more dangerous and unpredictably more difficult than we could have ever
imagined. Tiny streams criss-crossed the trail, and each creek meant a
steep revive. Going up and down the slippery inlets while carrying the
monstrous packs was hell for everyone, but particularly for Dennis,
who occasionally displayed some city-slicker moments. Unused to the
jungle heat, he was draining the water supply faster than Michelle and
I combined. We had to rest a little more frequently than expected, but it
was good for us all considering the intensity of the trek.

One turn ahead yielded a giant forest boar. Looking more like a wart
hog than any pig I’ve ever seen, the giant beast came rather close to our
snapping camera shutters. Eventually, it got spooked while going in
for a close up and snorted back into the depths of the forest.

A little while later, more rustling in the vegetation yielded a rare
find. It was a “Pablo”!! Some how he passed us on the trail, and now
he was emerging from a little side excursion to the river. It was pretty
random. Now a group of 4, we continued our best to traverse the
jungle’s obstacles.

While cooling off in a quiet, little stream, Michelle and I came to
two conclusions. First, we miscalculated our water rationing and had
much less available per day than expected (especially what Dennis).
Secondly, our hiking speed would put us at the hide well past night fall.
Both realizations weren’t a pleasure to our ears, but nonetheless we
weren’t turning back for anything! Luckily, I brought plenty of purifying
tablets and some bright flashlights, just in case. Go ahead…bring on the
obsticles!!

Pablo, only carrying a daypack, took off ahead of us. Moving slowly,
the rest of the group never reunited on the trail. The time was 4pm and
having left as early as possible (9 am), our misinformed 5 hour hike was at
hour 7.

When it was my hour long turn to go pack-less, I decided to sprint ahead to
survey the upcoming distance. A bridge, that I hoped to find around
each bend in the trail, marked a remaining 1 ½ hour walk to the hide. Each
turn yielded no bridge and even after catching up to Pablo, the bridge was
still somewhere ahead. Eventually, thirsty as could be, the jungle opened up and
I left Pablo back for Michelle and Dennis where the bridge finally did emerge.
Counting steps in aim to give the two back on the trail hope that the bridge
exists within a reachable distance, I measured every 100 steps with a tiny
twig I collected from branches lying around. 1,460 steps later, I reunited
with the team; Dennis filled with tears of joy to see my silhouette
on the hill. He was on his last leg, literally pleading with god for my return.
I took the weight from his shoulders (literally) and now with the bridge in an
achievable distance, we trekked onward. Finally, with a half an hour before
sunset, we arrived to the bridge exhausted, sweaty, and covered in our blood
from the leeches. We collapsed in the center and prepared to rejuvenate our
bodies with the nourishment contained in our aluminum canister dinners.
For at least 15 minutes, Dennis couldn’t sit down because at every attempt his
legs would cramp up in horrendous pain. Firmly stationed, he told us while
on the trail he was thanking God for tossing him into this punishing situation,
giving him the chance to redeem his sins he had collected while living life in
NYC. It made us all crack up…..since we were all hysterical by this time.

A refreshing rain passed overhead while we laid there lifeless on the
bridge. The dinner of beans and tuna curry really invigorated our
spirits and when night finally came, flashlights in hand, we continued
the last leg of the trek surrounded by darkness. Having the largest
population of elephants and tigers in mainland Malaysia could have
been daunting, but the eagerness to arrive would have drained the fear
from anyone. Holding true, about 1 ½ hours later we climbed up the
stairs to the hide. We were greeted by Pablo and two English guys in
their twenties. The five hour hike (what was told to us at the
headquarters) lasted from 9am to 8pm, totaling up to a whopping 11
hour trek (not to mention the fact we carried more than 50 lb packs
as well)!!!

Exhaustedly, up high, safe and sound, we were well rewarded with a
rainwater collected shower. We picked off the remaining leeches and
cleaned up our bloody wounds. Afterwards Michelle and I set up our
hammocks between the rafters of the bunk beds, then situated ourselves
down on the bench in front of the viewing window.

Unfortunately, my body was done! It didn’t want to stay up a wink.
I hoped people would stay awake, but not being able to last myself,
I wasn’t in the position to ask. No one organized shifts, so we basically
all drifted away around midnight. Then it happened… (around 3 am)…
“wake up”… “wake up”… “Oh MY GOODNESS”!!

Pablo woke us up since an even bigger mammal awoke him. Blasted by my
blue flashlight, way at the end of the clay lick was an enormous bull
Elephant!!! His tusks were huge, the whole thing was huge! The light
attracted an ungodly amount of insects which swarmed our heads, flying
into our mouths. We all took turns holding the light gagging on
the bugs. I feared that the choking would spook the hesitant beast, but
as if answering all our wishes, he came closer and closer till he was literally
right underneath us (guided by the beam of light the whole way). How
crazy is that! Anyone can see an Elephant on a safari in Africa, but
spotting an endangered Asian Elephant deep in the jungles of
Malaysia…eat your heart out! After allowing us to hang out
with him for an half an hour, granting us a chance to take a few
horrible photos (none of our cameras worked well in the dark), the
elephant vanished back to the trees from which he came. What an
unexpected, wonderful reward for putting up with the pain and choosing
the most difficult hide to reach! An Elephant….Yeah BABY!!

The next morning, while still buzzing from the adenine high the
night before, we ate some cereal for breakfast and discussed the day’s
future events. All our food was hung from the rafters during
the night, to keep the rats out, but for the English guys,
it was a different story. They left a backpack on the floor with a
package of Oreos inside and in the morning they were angry a rat had
chewed a massive hole and smuggled out the cookies.

Pablo left early that morning to exit the park, he was on a deadline
and had to be somewhere else by the next day. Unexpectedly using up
more water as well, he borrowed a couple water purifying tablets from
me to make it back.

We decided some fun for the day would be to trek 7 km to bat caves.
After gearing up (with a much lighter daypack), we headed out with a group
consisting of Michelle, Dennis, one of the English guys, and myself. Starting
our trek was a bit more difficult that we thought, since we had to
reconstruct a directional sign that had been bulldozed by the elephant
the night before. Deciding the path, we carried on. Within the first 20
minutes we lost the Brit and then 10 minutes later, Dennis turned back.
I guess they had enough of trekking from the day before, who could
blame them!

Michelle and I continued on, trading the backpack between each other
while following a much narrower trail then our previous. We didn’t see
too much wildlife, but there were elephant tracks everywhere on the
path. Leeches too weren’t hard to come by and every once in a while
you’d feel a big one dangling from your leg plump full with blood. Three
hours later we made it to the caves.

Before entering inside we opened our prepared picnic lunch of PB and
honey, along with an apple and orange. It was a blast being the only
two for miles deep in the lungs of the Earth. Taman Negara is
apparently the oldest rainforest in the world, and it’s shown by
hosting some enormous trees. After relaxing and filling up our
tummies, we entered on a guano pathway through a dark crevice,
following the chirps of high screeching.

A flash of the camera created what sounded and felt like a wind
tunnel. Bats left their upside down roost to fly in every which
direction. Literally coming within millimeters of our faces, we got
some pretty neat pictures of them in flight. We checked out a couple
more crevices, which to our excitement, revealed a similar display
from the flying nocturnal mammals.

The caves were great, but time was vanashing along with the light.
On our return back, we had to stop at a creek half way to fill the
water bottle. We purified it to perfection (I hoped and
thought… stay tune for that conclusion), then carried on. Right before
sunset, we made it to the hide only to be greeted by new faces.
Michelle exclaimed her excitedness to be back with a loud
“Hello Everyone!”. This remark was followed with a loud “shhh-ing” sound,
with nasty looks and single fingers to the mouth….we knew that this
group was going to be much different than the night before. Two birders from
Germany sat stoically gazing into the canopy while a cute couple from
New York (how many New Yorkers have breakdowns and need to flee to
Southeast Asia??) were anxious to see some fauna. Also, reuniting with
Dennis allowed him informe us of some crazy news. Apparently, Pablo was
charged by an agro-male elephant during his trek back to headquarters.
See, I guess after he survived his encounter by seeking refuge behind a tree,
he warned some hikers heading back towards our way of the ordeal.
Word apparently spread throughout the current Homo sapien population of the
Forest, but I was more thrilled for Pablo than anything (what a crazy rush
that must have been!).

Muddier than the swamp thing, I was anxious to take another shower.
This new group of hide-mates was hardcore; everyone was
silent, and the birders were the real deal! In the shower, where I
thought sound was muted, apparently it was amplified tenfold. The water
was freezing and when it hit my HOTT body (haha), it actually was
tremendously painful and I screeched like a bat. Not expecting an
audience to hear my discomfort, I was vocal outload about how jungle water
should not be this frigid, making this the most painful shower of
my life. Anyway, when I exited the bathroom, Dennis was quietly
giggling since he said the entire jungle heard my cries of discomfort and
that the German birder’s sported angered and frustrated faces at my loud
moaning. Apparently, it was a really funny situation you would have
had to be there to understand.

I redeemed myself with the group when Michelle and I organized a
schedule of shifts to stand guard and spot wildlife throughout the
night. There were six people wanting to participate, apparently one of
the birders just wanted to catch up on his beauty sleep (with good reason).
We divided up the night and early morning into twelve shifts allotting each
person with two. Michelle and I decided to keep each other company
during our watches, and we were left with the 10-12 and 2-4
openings. We went to bed after a gross dinner of canned chicken in
curry sauce, to get some rest before our session two hours later.

At ten O’clock, I was woken by Ian, the New Yorker, and in turn I got
Michelle from her hammock. We enjoyed (more like gagged down) a can of
warm Guinness and ate some peanuts while listening to the
constant buzz and chirp of the forest. A rat also kept us extremely
entertained, as it would skirt down a string attached from the rafter
that held the German’s food supply. The animal would disappear into
the bag only to reemerge with a stolen Kudos bar in its mouth.
It was quite a criminal! At one point, the rat fell off the high beam,
making a huge squeal….but upon investigation only the Kudos bar
remained. More cunning than the rodent, Michelle and I devoured the
candy bar after the rat did all the dirty work for us.

During our shift we saw a whole bunch of nothing. When twelve O’clock
came around, we woke up Dennis to stand guard and then anxiously
returned to sleep. What seemed like only minutes later, Dennis was in
turn re-awaking us. It was now 2am, time for our second shift.
Again, no Tapirs or Elephants were seen, only a family of
fearless rodents that didn’t hesitate to scurry right over our feet if
they got in their paths. At 4am, we went back to sleep and unfortunately
weren’t reawakened for any exciting surprises the rest of the night.
It’s ironic how with the lackadaisical crew the night before we saw an
elephant, but this time with a die hard team on shifts, nada was uncovered.

At 8 am I woke up and had to pee. On my way to the bathroom, I saw a
tiny feline about the size of a house cat. It was blotched with
blackish and brown colors and was already retreating when I called
Michelle over to come and see it. I never got a picture, nor did Michelle
see it…..What can you do?

After some more cereal, we packed up and got ready for the trek out. Dennis
decided to walk to the river (about 1 ½ hours), to hitch a boat ride
back to headquarters instead of joining our trek. Just being Michelle and
I, we went back a different route, hoping for more level terrain.
We got our wish, and with the land much flatter, we made great
time despite the slightly longer (in distance) trail.

Some falling debris from the canopy revealed Gibbons acerbating
through the branches, high above us. While in awe of their aerial
spectacle, the heavy flying from a pair of giant hornbills caught our
attention. These huge birds resembled toucans on roids, supporting what
looks like two beaks rather than one (they actually have a boney
casque-like structure protruding out from the top of their bill).

After passing a grunting family of pigs with over half a dozen
rambunctious piglets, we finally completed our three day adventure in
the jungle of Taman Negara. Overall, Michelle and I traversed over 23
miles of rugged rainforest and couldn’t have been better rewarded by
such an extraordinary elephant encounter.

We stopped at a public restroom where I took a shower in the sink,
then we headed back down to the river to spoil ourselves with an iced
coffee at a floating cafe. Dennis actually had just gotten there by sharing a
boat with the birders and joined us for lunch. By 6:30pm we were up
at the tiny bus station waiting for transport back to Jerantut.
Everything was “rolling” smoothly till the bus rapidly veered to the
shoulder of the road and stopped. The front right tire was flat, and
upon further inspection, they had no spare. This left us waiting for an
alternative vehicle to arrive. About an hour later, a smaller bus
rescued us, dropping us at the guesthouse where we stowed away our
gear. We were allowed to take a proper shower and rearrange our equipment.
Dennis decided to check in for another night while Michelle and I
planned to head to Kuala Lumpur on the midnight train. We went out for
a final dinner as a team (for more satay), then split ways having
created together some challenging and adventurous memories.

I left the jungle eager for a hot shower, huge meal, and an
air-conditioned train ride, but while in the comfort of luxury, I longed
to return back to the thrills of the wild. Our expedition proved
harsher than initially expected, but our preparedness for all obstacles,
along with our will to continue, allowed us to persevere, especially
when some of us (Dennis) thought death was near. Despite Dennis’s
struggle, Michelle and I enjoyed taking him deep into the jungle,
opening his eyes to an adventure formerly existing outside his realm
of reality.

In conclusion, for me a greater lesson was reinforced. Those who
attack the more difficult, less traveled road usually reap a
sweater trunk of treasure in the end……In our case, that trunk was
attached to four legs and some jumbo ears!!!

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