Welcome to the jungle

CURRENT LOCATION: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


DISCLAIMER: I wrote this whole blog once already, and then accidentally deleted it. These posts take about four hours to write, so doing one twice literally had me in tears (I may have been hungry at the time). So since this is round 2, I apologise if it's unusually bad...

We waved goodbye to our misty mountain top home of Tanah Rata out the back window of our minivan and headed for the jungle - the world's oldest rainforest, Taman Negara. We left Tanah Rata at 8.30am, heading to Jerantut, where we would take a 3 hour boat ride to Kuala Tahan, the closest town to Taman Negara, arriving at 4.30pm.

We settled in to the minivan, pleased with our driver who seemed to obey the road rules, and slowed down for corners. The ride was so good in fact, both of us crashed out, and didn't wake up until we arrived in Jerantut. We pulled into a cafe/tour centre/mini mart/bus stop (as all good shops in SE Asia are), and paid for our park permits - a whopping $5MR each, and $1MR per camera (1MR = ~30c NZ). We also received two maps - one of Taman Negara, and one of Kuala Tahan. From here, we had a short minivan ride to the jetty, where we collected our permits and transferred to our boat. Similar to a long boat, it was a canoe shaped affair, with a tin roof over the seats, but no sides. Each row seated two people, and the front and back of the boat held our bags, covered by tarps to protect them from the elements. Once we were seated (and of course had our life vests on - it's fine to put 9 family members on a scooter, drive on the wrong side of the road, smoke in petrol stations, weld with no eye protection, and use a jack hammer in jandals but you DO NOT GET ON A BOAT WITHOUT A LIFE JACKET IN SOUTH EAST ASIA), the sides of the boat came up to about mid chest, and we were seated below the level of the water. 

For three hours, we puttered along the river, with rainforest on either side. We managed to catch sight of a few monkeys, some goats and wild pigs, plus plenty of locals fishing from the shore or on boats. It was really cool looking up ahead and seeing the rain, then cruising through it to the other side of the rain storm.

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia

We pulled up to the dock (actually just one of many floating restaurants) bang on time, grabbed our bags, and sat down so that the tour operator could talk to us. He explained that once you enter Taman Negara, which we could see across the river (about 50m away), you had to have your park permit on you, or, if caught, you could face a fine of up to €1000 - ouch!! He drew our attention to the map of Taman Negara. Near the park entrance closest to Kuala Tahan were several sites that he explained could be visited without a guide. Beyond that, you needed a local guide to ensure you didn't get lost. Next, he showed us the map of Kuala Tahan. He mentioned that since it was so late in the day, most of the accommodation was full, but if we hadn't booked anywhere yet, he could help us out. Luckily, we had spoken to our guest house in Tanah Rata before we left, and they told us that none of the accommodation in Kuala Tahan takes bookings, so we could smell that particular bullshit a mile off. We grabbed our bags and headed up to find one we liked the look of from the list we'd been given. 

We walked past the main sites of Kuala Tahan: the public toilet, the school, several minimarts and guest houses, and finally came to the one we'd picked out: Tahan Guest House. The whole building was painted with massive murals of flowers and insects, and soft toys hung from the ceiling of the porch downstairs. It looked like a kindergarten. We booked a room for a night, and checked out our room. A decent sized double bed, a mosquito net, a fan, a balcony, and our very own ensuite: a squat toilet, a sink, and a shower head over the two. Sweeeeet. We decided to do a night tour that night, to get ourselves into the jungle mindset, so headed back down to the floating restaurant/dock to have a chat to the tour operator. We asked what the difference was between the night walk and the night safari. He explained that the night walk took place over in Taman Negara itself, and focussed on jungle insects, and occasionally you saw a few small animals like squirrels. The night safari however took you to a palm oil plantation nearby on a 4WD, and the driver used a floodlight to spot small animals, especially leopard cats, tapirs, slow lorises, and sometimes even a jaguar. We were sold - a night safari it would be. We headed back to the accommodation to change into warmer clothes, and went back to the riverfront for dinner.

Our lovely ensuite, Tahan Guesthouse, Kuala Tahan

Our lovely ensuite, Tahan Guesthouse, Kuala Tahan

At 8pm, they showed a video of the national park, describing the flora and fauna, and at 8.30pm, our guide collected us. Us and another couple made our way to the 4WD , which already had a woman in the back, and two kids on the roof. While this was never explained, we assumed they were the driver's wife and kids. The driver explained they needed two people on the roof. Since the other couple was in their mid-60s, it looked like we were going on the roof to join the two kids. We hopped up, and hoped he didn't take any corners too quickly.

We stopped to pick up one more pair, and hit the road. After a quick stop for gas (and some candy for one of the boys), we headed down the turn off for the plantation. At this point, the older boy, who would've been about 8 or 9 grabbed the spotlight and switched it on. 'Oh great', I thought, 'The tour is being run by a child.' He began shining the spotlight over the areas on either side of the road, and soon he thumped the roof and we came to a stop. We squinted, and the driver said there were barn owls on the roof of the house where the light was shining. Sure enough, there were three in the beam of the spotlight. 'I take it all back', I thought, 'This kid has amazing eyesight! No wonder they take them so young!'. We carried on down the road, and a couple of minutes later, he banged the roof again. Off to the side of the road was a leopard cat, which was what the hissy guy I loved so much in the sanctuary in Cambodia was. Two sightings and we hadn't even made it in to the park yet?! Fantastic! 

We entered the park and cruised down the pathways between the tress, with the boy with the spotlight scanning the landscape for a pair of eyes to catch the light. It began misting, and was generally a pretty awesome ride, ducking low hanging palm branches, and anxiously awaiting our next sighting. As each minute without a sighting ticked by, I could feel my excitement deflating. Finally, after about 10 minutes, the beam caught something. We stopped - what exciting animals could it be? A tiger? A tapir? A SLOW LORIS???? Cows. It was cows. 6 vicious jungle cows, hungry for our blood. Onward we drove... We stopped again. To examine three sleeping birds on a branch. Next we saw a rat. Then a domestic cat. We did get to see another leopard cat, and I have absolutely no idea how this kids spotted it. Even after he had the light shining on it, it still took me a few seconds to be able to see it. We managed to get pretty close, and while we had the light on it, it caught a rat which was awesome. During the rest of the two hour tour, we spotted another rat, 3 more birds (again, sleeping), and 4 more domestic cats. Still, the ride around on the jeep was fun, and leopard cats are so cute it was worth it just for that!

Rooftop night safari selfie

At 5.30am the next morning, we were woken by the call to prayer. In case we haven't mentioned it, Malaysia is a Muslim country, and we'd picked accommodation right next to the broadcast tower for the call to prayer. I didn't mind it, but when I rolled over, Zev had buried himself under a pillow and put his head inside his sleeping bag liner... A few hours later, at a more reasonable hour, we headed over to Taman Negara by boat (1MR for the 30 second boat ride) to chat to the park rangers about what to do for the next couple of days. They suggested that we check out the canopy walkway that day, but since it was Friday (the Muslim holy day), it would be closing at 12, and we could do some shorter walks close to the town. The following night, we opted to book in to a hide, a raised hut in the jungle located near a salt lick, where there is the possibility of viewing some animals. We asked which one was the best to head to, and they suggested Bumbun Kumbang, 11kms away, or about a 6 hour walk. We noticed it fell outside the zone we were told you could walk within unguided, but the rangers assured us that we would be fine. We noticed that there were two routes there - one followed the river, while one went inland more. We asked which one was harder, and they said the river path, so we decided we would take that path to the hide, and return via the inland path. At this point, I should explain that while these guys were pretty helpful if you asked them a question, they weren't very forthcoming with tips, advice or help generally speaking. They were friendly though, so we took them at their word.

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia
Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia

At 11am, we headed off to find the Canopy Walkway. At 45m high and 510m long, it is the longest canopy walkway in the world. Being Friday, the walk was pretty quiet, so we hoofed it the 1.5kms to the entrance, arriving at about 11.40m. Most of the inner walkway of the park, close to Kuala Tahan (which was the part that you could walk unguided) was covered by a boardwalk, making for easy walking, and plenty of signage about the flora nearby. We paid our 5MR entry to the walkway, and headed up the stairs. The walkway itself looked like a series of ladders strung horizontally between the trees, with planks covering the rungs of the ladders for you to walk on. On either side of the planks, a net rose up to shoulder height to stop you from falling off. We were instructed to walk at least 10m apart at all times. It was pretty amazing to be walking around in the rainforest at the height of the trees, looking down at the jungle below. It took us about half an hour to complete the walkway, and we seemed to be the only ones there - a huge relief given that we'd read that there were often queues.

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia
Canopy walkway selfies

Canopy walkway selfies

We decided to take the long way back, detouring down a path marked 'Bukit Teresek'. After about an hour of walking up stairs, we figured out that Bukit means hill. And about half an hour after that, we reached the top, where we were greeted with mediocre views, some aggressive bees, and the discovery that it wasn't a loop track, so we'd have to go back the way we came. We had a quick snack and a drink, and started the trek back down the stairs.

The view from Bukit Teresek

The view from Bukit Teresek

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia

We arrived back in Kuala Tahan in mid-afternoon, and booked another night at Tahan Guest House. Zev negotiated with the owners that we could leave our gear there the following day so that we didn't have to carry all our stuff to the hide, and that we could shower when we returned. Armed with the knowledge that a post-hike shower was a possibility, we booked a transfer to Kuala Lumpur for Sunday evening at 5.30pm. After a quick chat with Charles and Tana, we took them up on their kind offer (prior to us leaving NZ) to stay in a hotel if we ever felt we were in need of a break. Since arriving in Malaysia, we've had some difficulty sleeping, either due to noisy neighbours, uncomfortable beds, or calls to prayer. We knew that after a night in the jungle, and a few days of squat toilets and cold showers, we'd need a little pick me up - even if it was just a nice place to be while we waited for our laundry to come back! We booked a nice little spot in Kuala Lumpur, and headed out for dinner, excited about the upcoming hike.

On the way home, we stopped off to sort out food for the hike. One thing really lacking in SE Asia is hiking food. Nuts come in tiny little portions and are really expensive, there's no pepperoni or muesli bars, and in Kuala Tahan, there was no fresh or dried fruit. We ended up buying a solid fuel stove and fuel (at a whopping 10MR), instant noodles, some chocolate bars, a can of nuts, some chocolate chip oat cookies, mentos, and water.

The next morning we were ready to go - our packs were loaded and we were excited! The start of the walk followed the same path as the walk to the canopy, but being Saturday, it was much busier. We had to weave through tour groups and local families, but eventually we passed the turn off for the canopy and the crowds died down. We decided not to head out too early, anticipating that the 6 hour walk would take us closer to 5, based on our usual ability to hike a little faster than the suggested hiking times. We started walking at 10am, expecting to be there by 3pm, or 4pm at the latest. It doesn't get dark until 6.30-7pm, depending on the weather, so we weren't worried about the light.

Soon, we reached the end of the boardwalk, and a sign saying, 'You should employ a guide if you want to hike past here.' We carried on, having specifically asked the rangers if we were able to hike unaccompanied, and they had said it was fine. For the first little bit, the path wasn't very clear, and we couldn't see any trail markers, which was concerning, but shortly a path formed, and we found yellow squares nailed to the trees. The path was a little rougher than we were used to at home, but we'd expected that. The walking itself wasn't too strenuous though.

Every now and then we'd look around and remember that we were in the oldest rainforest in the world. It was pretty amazing, so lush and green, and of course very reminiscent of home. The biggest difference was the humidity. By this stage we'd been walking for a little over an hour, and we had both completely sweated through our clothes. I had to wear a bandanna to keep the sweat out of my eyes, and I could see it dripping off my chin as I walked. On top of that, we had to do battle with the leeches. Even though they're tiny, usually only 1-2cm long and a couple of mm thick, and they're harmless, they are really gross. We found ourselves stopping reasonably regularly to flick them off our shoes and socks, trying not to get them stuck to our hands in the process.

As time wore on, the humidity became a real problem. We had brought nearly 7L of water with us, and we'd already polished off a fair bit of that. We were constantly eating the peanuts to get some salt, but of course that would make us thirsty, so we'd need more water. The track was also becoming harder to follow, and we lost it a few times and had to back track. At one point we lost it for about half an hour, and only ended up finding it again because we ran into some other people who finally found a trail marker.

The track had changed too, and had become very challenging. We were clambering up slippery slopes, only to walk on the flat for a few metres, and then climb back down again. This repeated itself over and over again - up and down, up and down. Add to this the map - which looked like a treasure map written by a three year old. There was no scale, and it wasn't drawn to one. Two sections of trail that looked the same length on the map might vary in distance by a km. So we really had no idea where we were, or how far we had to go.

By this stage, I was not loving jungle hiking any more. There was no looking around and enjoying the scenery. I was absolutely exhausted from a combination of not eating well (I'm so sick of rice and noodles), not sleeping well, and general unfitness. Why the hell Zev didn't just leave me in the jungle I'll never know, but he didn't. In hindsight, it might be because if he did, he'd have to write all the blog posts himself....

We finally reached a marker - a river crossing, which we knew was about 3kms from the hide. We trudged along, and ran into a guide with a group heading there other way. He told us the hide was about an hour away. I begged Zev to let me die there, but he insisted we continue. From there on, we started to see a lot of elephant poop on the track. That did perk me up a bit - not because I expected to see an elephant, but because it's just amazing to know they're really there! 

Sure enough, a little under an hour later, we found the hide. It was 4.30pm, and we'd been hiking for 6.5 hours. The concrete hut on raised posts already had a handful of hikers underneath, who greeted us with warm hellos. They already had a fire going (dammit, guess we didn't need that camping stove). We headed up to check out the actual hut, and found it full of more bloody bees. One of the clever Spanish hikers brought up a log from the fire and used the smoke to clear most of them out, but a few still hung around to bother us throughout the night. The hide was pretty basic. It looked like it once had a toilet (which was actually just a pipe running down to the ground, so if you were standing near the bottom of the pipe while someone was using it...), but that was well and truly out of commission, and looked like it had been for some time. There were 6 sets of bunk wooden bunk beds with no mattresses, and that was it. Zev and I grabbed a bunk, and sorted out our gear. I pulled out something to get changed into, and discovered that I had sweated THROUGH my pack, and it had soaked into my change of clothes. I am revolting. I ended up wearing a slightly damp thermal top, and a towel for the rest of the evening. Zev had wrapped his clothes in plastic, clever bastard. We hung our stinky clothes up to dry, knowing that no amount of airing would dry that amount of sweat. We blew up our air mattresses (thanks Dan and Mace) and our air pillows (thanks Jan), and unrolled our silk sleeping bag liners (thanks Bruce and Christine). We headed down for dinner.

We did a water assessment. From our 7L, we had a little over 2L left, and we were both pretty thirsty. We knew we didn't have enough water to get back to Kuala Tahan, but we also knew we needed to eat and drink. We made the decision to hike 1.5 hours the following day to the closest town, and catch a boat back to Kuala Tahan. Me, a quitter? You're damn right. We cooked up our noodles (delicious) and ate them under the hide. We could hear thunder in the distance, and just like every other night in Malaysia, the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down. It was incredible to be in the middle of the jungle, watching lightning flash across the sky as it poured with rain around us. I looked around for Zev. He was out in the rain, with a massive leaf shoved in a drink bottle, gathering rain water. Soon, everyone was in on the action, using leaves as funnels, chopping the top off water bottles - looks like we weren't the only ones who didn't bring enough water! We were however the only ones who brought a UV water purifier (thanks Dad), so I suspect there might have been some gastrointestinal consequences for some of the people collecting the roof run off... Before we knew it, we had replenished all 7L of water.

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia

We headed upstairs to look out the window of the hide at the salt lick. We knew not to expect to see any animals, but we loved sitting there, watching the lightning storm rage outside the window. Soon it became apparent that there was an issue. One of the guys who turned up hadn't booked (sigh), so we offered to share a bunk so that he could have one of our beds. This was a terrible idea. Our camping mats didn't quite fit side by side on the bed, so every time one of us wanted to roll over, we had to wake up to do it so that we didn't end up rolling off the bed. Plus, the mattresses are pretty noisy (there's your road test Dieks, they're loud!), which isn't such a problem if it's just two of you in a tent, but is a bit more of a problem in a room with 12 other people....

Despite the lack of call to prayer, we woke up early and unrested the next morning. Breakfast consisted of strawberry hot chocolates (bought from the Big Red Strawberry in Tanah Rata), and we decided that in light of the change in the water situation, we would hike back to Kuala Tahan via the inland route. The rangers had assured us it was easier, but since they were already on my shit list, I wasn't sure I trusted them. Nonetheless, we hit the road at 8am, full of optimism.

The optimism was short lived. Within half an hour, we had followed the trail markers to a river, but due to the rain the night before, there was no clear path to cross. We couldn't see any trail markers in the other side, so we weren't even sure if we were supposed to cross. After 10 minutes of umming and ahhhing, we sucked it up and walked across. After a serious leech check on the other side, we found the trail markers and carried on. This path was a dream. It was flat and well marked, and we only lost the trail once due to a downed tree. 4 hours and 45 minutes later, we were back in Kuala Tahan, downing milo shakes, watermelon shakes, and fries. It honestly felt like we'd been gone for a week.

We eventually hauled ourselves up the hill to Tahan Guest House, collected our bags, and had the best cold showers in the history of the world. We had a few hours to kill, so we spread our disgusting hiking gear on the grass in the sun to dry out, much to the amusement of the owner. Eventually, we had to shove it all in our bags, hope it didn't stink everything out, and head to our transfer.

Taman Negara, Kuala Tehan, Malaysia

The minivan arrived bang on time and we piled in. The organiser informed us that rather than catching the minibus to Jerantut, then changing to a bus to Kuala Lumpur as expected, we'd be getting the minivan the whole way as the driver was headed to KL for a family holiday. This was great news - he estimated we'd be in KL by 9 or 9.30pm, rather than the 10.30pm we were expecting.  He did warn us however that it was a holiday weekend, so traffic heading into KL might be bad.

Holy hell was he right!!! It took us 1.5 hours to drive the final 68kms into KL. we ended up being dropped at the bus station at 10.30pm as expected. Luckily the bus station is right next to the monorail, which is awesome (and not just because it makes me feel like I'm at Disneyland). We grabbed our tickets, and a minute later a train arrived, and one stop after that, we were at our hotel. We checked in to our wonderful slice of paradise (including a flush toilet and and hot shower - amazing), sorted out our stinky laundry to deal with first thing in the morning, showered, and passed out!

More on Kuala Lumpur next time!

Lots of love,
S & Z

(Original post date: 5th May 2015)