CURRENT LOCATION: Kuala Tahan (Taman Negara National Park), Malaysia
We hit the ground running on our first day in the Cameron Highlands, getting picked up by our guide Leo at 8.30am. We were venturing into the jungle in search of the worlds largest flower, the Rafflesia flower. We were told that we had a 30-40 minute drive in the most badass 4x4 truck (this thing had bull horns mounted on the front grill) to the entry point, where we would be taken into the jungle by a local "ranger". This ranger, it turns out, was not a park ranger as you would expect - perhaps you were envisioning a young man or woman, dressed in beige, carrying a backpack and a utility belt. Not quite. Our ranger, who never introduced himself so I cannot tell you his name, was 60 years old, had no teeth as far as I could tell, was wearing sweatpants, canvas shoes and a beanie, and on his shoulder he carried a sheath containing his trusty machete. He smoked like a chimney (perhaps a contributor to lack of teeth?), and, at first, seemed to be a no nonsense kinda guy. Without a single word he charged up the hill into the jungle and told us to follow. Leo, our driver said he was going to "sit this one out" and reassured us he would be there when we returned to take us back to our guesthouse.
Our group was small but determined. It was just us and one other, a middle aged man from Japan. Off we set into the jungle. Well not quite. The first 15 minutes or so we were walking along a dirt road flanked with a bunch of trees and bamboo. I was a bit skeptical that we would ever find a rare flower in a habitat like this. But, sure enough, we made it to the jungle. At this point, our ranger, let's call him Jungle Jim, instructed us to put on mosquito repellent and take a drink of water. Within 2 minutes of this stop we were definitely in the jungle, surrounded by tall trees, ferns, palms, bamboo, clouds of mosquitos, and of course, hungry leeches! We stopped a number of times along our journey at the instruction of Jungle Jim, who was starting to lighten up and find his sense of humour, so he could show us something unique to the jungle environment. He showed us how to remove leeches, find water inside a bamboo shoot, soothe a tooth ache with a yellow flower, decorate our clothes with ferns, and pointed out wild ginger - which he insisted we try; Sam is still trying to get rid of the taste, but I quite liked it! As the jungle became more and more dense, Jim would pull out his machete and hack away at, well basically anything. Especially if a stray vine or branch was bold enough to snatch off his beanie as he walked... He would get his revenge. He let me inspect the blade, and man was it sharp, and the counter weight along the back edge of the blade made it a perfect ACC advertisement in the making! I made sure to keep my distance anytime he unsheathed it.
After about 1 hour and 45 minutes we saw our first Rafflesia flowers. Well, kind of - they were dead, and closed up as a result. So not that impressive. But if the size of the dead ones was anything to go by, it only got me more excited to see the real deal. We left the beaten path and followed Jim into the jungle proper. This was yet another step up. The terrain was challenging and if we for whatever reason became separated from Jim, there would be no hope of us finding our way out. We bashed our way to the next flower prospect, but this one was not open yet. Jim reassured us that he had one more spot that he could take us to find a flower. He was confident that despite our luck so far, we would find a blooming Rafflesia!
Perhaps now is a good time to tell you what the big deal about this flower is. I mean, besides being the biggest flower in the world! The flower itself can be as big as 1.5 - 2 metres in diameter and gives off a smell of rotten flesh. This is to attract insects and small foragers to inspect the flower and aid in the pollination process. This is similar to how many flowers give off a sweet smell to advertise the presence of nectar to bees or hummingbirds, but a bit more macabre - the Stephen King of plant pollination. In addition to its fascinating reproductive approach, the hunt for the rafflesia flower is made more difficult by the fact that each flower blooms once in its entire life and remains open for only 5 days! The tour company works closely with the local rangers to try to ensure the best chance for tourists like us to see a flower, but there is never a 100% guarantee. After the five days, the flower closes, shrivels up, and dies, leaving a black/brown, stinky lump where the magnificent red flower once flourished.
After a further 40 minutes trekking, uphill, Jim told us we were about 10 minutes away. Anxious and excited we picked up the pace. I'm not sure if he was playing a poor practical joke, or if it was lost in translation, but we arrived at the flower about 1 minute after that! You could see it from about 20 metres away, which is far in the thick of the jungle, believe me! As soon as I spotted it, I immediately got this overwhelming feeling that I had somehow become my hero, David Attenborough. There is a great TV segment of him in a jungle not too different from the one we were in, talking about this rare and beautiful flower, and now we were looking directly at one! We took a bunch of photos and made sure to smell the distinctive odour, which was far less pungent that I had anticipated, you needed to get right up next to the flower before you could smell it. But it was stinky, no doubt.
We hiked a good 90 minutes back out of the jungle where we removed any leeches, reapplied bug spray, and got to try out the traditional method of hunting using a blow gun and dart. They had set up a target with a bullseye. Proud to say, Sam and I both hit the target first try, while our new Japanese friend was not so adept. Also, I know it doesn't matter, but mine was closer to the bullseye than anyone else's (especially Sam) (but not Leo) (but better than Sam...) (but it wasn't a competition) (but it was) (and I won) (no big deal).
After our tour we stopped to get some lunch on the way back to our respective accomodations. It was decidedly average Indian food. While we ate our lunch, it started to rain. It was seriously raining. Bucketing down. The streets were starting to flood. We jumped into the truck, which all of sudden seemed much less badass. The rear passenger side window only wound up halfway, so I held a plastic bag up to try and keep the back seat dry. There was no windscreen defogger, only a worn rag that Leo used to wipe down the inside. The windscreen wipers were, in fact, a single windscreen wiper, about 1 foot long. It creaked and squealed, and only marginally completed the task for which it was designed. As we drove home, along a winding cliffside road, passing motorbikes, cars and trucks on the wrong side of the saturated, flooding road, I thought it was surely to be the end. But we made back, alive and well! What a great adventure to start us off in the Cameron Highlands.
We walked a few minutes down the road from our guesthouse into Tanah Rata town, which vaguely resembles any small town in NZ. We ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant, which was surprisingly tasty (except the disappointing gyoza) and Sam was brave enough to order "Kickapoo", which turned out to be a soft drink, similar to Mountain Dew. We treated ourselves to some dessert and local tea and hit the hay after a great day of exploring!
Our next day was equally as active, if not quite as adventurous. The Cameron Highlands is situated 1500-1800m above sea level in central peninsular Malaysia. It consists of three main town centres: Tanah Rata, Brinchang and Ringlet. Running between Tanah Rata and Brinchang are a network of hiking trails that are maintained by the locals and reasonably well sign-posted. Saying that, in NZ we are well and truly spoilt with regards to the quality of our national parks, trail quality and signage. However, by far, this was the best we have experienced in SE Asia as of yet. We set off to cover 3 of these trails which start in Tanah Rata and end up in the more northern town of Brinchang. The whole hike was approximately 8km and started off easy and finished with the last 1.5km of up and down clambering on a rugged trail, muddy from the downpour the night before. It was great to be out hiking unguided, really for the first time since we left NZ. The forest was striking, not too dissimilar from a lot of NZ forests, except of course for the species of plants and animals. The vibe was similar though - it felt wild! Unfortunately, Sam and I are not as fit as we were when we left home, which made for some entertaining moments halfway up a steep ascent.
Arriving in Brinchang about 3.5 hours later, we decided to check out one of the many strawberry farms. The Cameron Highlands are very much an agricultural haven. There are greenhouses and plantations scattered throughout the whole region, situated here because of the moderate climate. A number of the larger establishments often have a cafe, or "pick your own strawberry"-type attractions largely pitched at tourists. We visited the Big Red Strawberry Cafe and had a rather unconventional lunch, consisting of deep fried strawberry ice cream, a sausage roll, french fries, and a coke float. Surprisingly, it was all very tasty!
We took a taxi to a nearby tea plantation called Cameron Valley Tea. It was stunningly beautiful. The tea leaves are a vivid, bright green that give the hillsides a water like quality. It was also massive - tea plants as far as you could see. We ordered some of their local tea and took in the sights. Storm clouds were rolling in as they had done about that time the day before and it made for a dramatic, impressive sight. We walked through the plantation as the rain started to fall and returned to tea house just in time to avoid another torrential downpour. They kindly called us a taxi to take us back to our guesthouse. Luckily, this cab was more well equipped to deal with biblical saturation than our truck was yesterday.
For dinner we went to a local street food stall and ordered some mi goreng noodles and deep fried chicken. All of the street food we have had in Malaysia has been outstanding and this did not disappoint. A great way to finish another action packed day.
Following a less than average night's sleep, and waking up to menacing weather, we decided to do a short hike via some small falls into Brinchang, and then cab to the Boh tea plantation, which was further afield. When we arrived at the Boh tea house, the afternoon rain began. We hunkered down and ate some lunch, drank some of their delicious Gold Blend tea, and took in the stunning views. This plantation was even more impressive than Cameron Valley, and the unrelenting rain made for an awesome sight. We made our way through the complex, learning about the history of the plantation, the Boh tea brand (one of the most popular in Malaysia), as well as the tea making process. We rescued a couple from the UK who had their umbrella stolen and had no means to call a taxi by letting them hitch a ride with us. We got to talking and discovered that they were both living and teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand, visiting Malaysia on holiday. It was great to chat about our experiences in SE Asia with nice people who were living it daily, kinda like us.
We arranged transport to Taman Negara National Park for the following day, so we spent the evening getting all our stuff packed (again) and researching the national park. Taman Negara is the oldest rainforest in the world... According the sign in our guesthouse here. We will save stories from here for next time!
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 3rd May 2015)