Dec 10, 2007

Majestic Taman Negara - Malaysia National Park

** Philippe Estiot, Martine Lunder and Marije Mellegees are three exchange students from France, Holland and Norway. They are working with a UNHCR programme in Kuala Lumpur and stayed in Malaysia for six months. **

When so much in the modern world has an appearance of the impermanent and transient, there is certain uniqueness about the prospect of travelling to a 130 million-year-old-rainforest. After a short period in Malaysia - with most of that time spent in the capital Kuala Lumpur - Maria, Philippe and I were determined that we should immerse ourselves in what is generally regarded as 'the oldest rainforest in the world.'

Short break arranged, we met in the inauspicious downstairs surroundings of a central Kuala Lumpur hotel, early on a Saturday morning, to begin our journey to Taman Negara.
The sky looked rather ominous as we travelled out of the city. Heading east, we climbed the escarpment that leads to Genting, Kuantan and the east coast and…relaxed. Views of the capital and the Twin Towers faded into the distance.

Two hours later, we arrived at the embarkation point for the first part of our adventure.
Tembeling jetty is a busy transit point for the journey up river to Taman Negara. Formalities with the Park Office and Mutiara Resort soon completed, we enjoyed a straightforward lunch of fried rice and lime-juice The active river continues in the background. Boats arrive and depart, struggling with the current in a wide river, swollen by seasonal rains and churning a deep, coffee colour.

Soon we were called to our waiting boat. Sitting low in the water, the crafts feel surprisingly stable and comfortable, but it was the darkening sky that drew concerned glances from crew and passengers alike. Sure enough, as we departed, the first drops of rain began to fall; a pattern that was to repeat itself time and time again over our four days in the forest.
The three hour river journey against the current is one of the highlights of the trip. From embarkation at Tembeling, the river slowly narrows. Trees crowd the banks, fishermen half-immersed in water relay nets.

But this was the rainforest, right? What should we expect?

The three hour river journey against the current is one of the highlights of the trip. From embarkation at Tembeling, the river slowly narrows. Trees crowd the banks, fishermen half-immersed in water relay nets. Brilliantine blue kingfishers conduct their own darting fishing exercise, before returning to boughs high above the water.

The rain falls and we continue, silent in contemplation of the unfolding splendour. The boatman skilfully navigated his way forward, avoiding sandier shallows and the many boughs and branches that appear on the surface. Seemingly, as anxious to move downstream, as we are to move up.

The increase in river traffic first indicated that we were nearing our destination. Rounding a bend, as the light began to fade, we were greeted by the settlement of Kuala Tahan and located right alongside the Wildlife Offices, a welcome home for the duration of our stay, Mutiara Taman Negara Resort.

Wet and a little bit overawed by sights and sounds, we quickly located our comfortable chalets nestling amongst the trees and after shower and change of clothing, headed to the restaurant for some reviving food.

It was all so different from our experiences in Kuala Lumpur. A cacophony of sounds lulled us into a restful sleep that had us waking early the next morning ready for some exploration, barely concerned that it was (you’ve guessed it) still raining! After a substantive buffet breakfast, we donned wet weather clothing and decided to acclimatise with a visit to a well known vantage point, only 4km away.

A clearly signed path from the resort led us into a strange, ethereal world of mist, huge trees and slippery roots. Many of the trees were labelled and we were overwhelmed by the variety of foliage dripping with moisture but so luxuriant and ‘alive’ that you could not fail to be impressed and invigorated.

Bukit Teresek is a 344 metre hill that, we had been told, affords fine views of the surrounding area! It seemed unlikely as we emerged onto the first of the two viewing areas, but slowly, as we waited, the mist began to clear and we had tantalising glimpses back down towards the river and the park boundary far below.

Hornbills wafted by. Huge wings beating from an airborne presence before we had even spotted them flitting tree to tree. Apart from the sudden appearance of a gaggle of cadets on vacation from Penang, we seemed to be the only people up here as we pressed on, sunlight dappling the path, to the second vantage point where the highest peak in peninsular Malaysia, Gunung Tahan, tantalisingly revealed itself in the distance.

Already, we were daydreaming about how thrilling it would be to attempt the journey to this, the most arduous of the parks treks, five days away. A simple morning stroll had already promised so, so much!After a short break for refreshment, we retraced our steps to the bottom of the slippery hill and followed directions to the canopy walkway. Entrance fees paid, we were not quite sure what to expect, but as we climbed the first tower leading to the walkway itself, we realised that we were in for a treat.

The longest canopy walkway in the world meanders its way through the tree tops. Almost half a km in length and sometimes 40 meters off the ground, it can feel a little unnerving at first. You soon become accustomed to the sway. The view provided is beyond comparison. The river can be spotted in the distance; the occasional bemused monkey staring with incredulous eyes from neighbouring trees. A genuinely fantastical experience that left us all elated.

Forty minutes later, we emerged at ground level.

The rain began to fall as we headed back along the riverbank to the hotel for a late lunch and an afternoon spent relaxing with books, card games and ourselves on the balconies of spacious chalets.

Despite the weather, maybe this is a bit special.Evening-time in Taman Negara arrives like a river stone. Sonorous, supra-oxygenated environs invigorate us enough to contemplate heading out for food and to take advantage of the many water taxis that ply the jetty here at Kuala Tahan. Whisked over to one of the floating restaurants on the opposite side of the river, we gorge on river fish and prawns while light glints from the fast-flowing water-inches from our feet.

Perhaps all this rain was not such a bad thing!

With the rain still falling, we slept soundly in our comfortable chalets: the gentle patter adding to the ever present ‘chirrup’ of cicadas in the forest. Soothing ceiling fans whirr; no more than adjunct.

So much rain had fallen that we had to cancel a visit to a nearby cave the next morning. Park Wardens worried that water levels in the cave might be too high! But as we said farewell to Philippe - who had to return to KL - we opted instead for a journey further up river.
For both Maria and I, perhaps this was to be the highlight of the trip.

A boat to ourselves, a reassuringly skilled boatman at the helm, we inched our way up the swollen river. As the canopy closed in around, we truly felt we were heading to the heart of the rainforest. After a relatively short, exciting journey, we hopped off and began the short trek to the tumultuous falls.

At many times of the year, it is possible to bathe here. Maria and I faced a roaring wall of water and foam that left us in awe. We enjoyed the solitude the falls afforded, lingered amongst the arched trees on the bank side and reluctantly headed back to shore to find our craft waiting.

The journey down river was even more exhilarating and seemed to pass in an instant. Huge eagles could be spotted bathing on the edges of the river and flashes of colour told of a myriad of exotic birds inhabiting the hinterland.

After a quick lunch, we headed off to a local swimming spot. Initially uninviting water proved superbly refreshing and challenging.

As the light began to fail and the rain returned, we commandeered a helpful, knowledgeable guide who took us a short distance downstream to visit a local Orang Asli settlement. We felt a little self-conscious at first. These are people who could maybe claim to be amongst the first settlers in this diverse country many, many years ago.

It was the children who put us at ease. We witnessed traditional fire making techniques and a demonstration with blowpipes that left us both gratified. First-time, we both hit the target!
Sumptuous dinner at the resort was a fine way to end our action-packed day.

As we retraced our journey back to Tembeling and our onwards trip to Kuala Lumpur, we vowed to return to this fantastical environment, such a short, manageable distance from the capital.

Hopefully, the weather would be kinder and would allow us to embark on some of the many opportunities not undertaken. Whether it is white-water rafting or night stays in some of the hides dotted around the park, all present enhanced opportunities to spot elusive wildlife.
Sauntering downstream with the current the next morning, we both realised that a priority for any stay in Malaysia is a visit to the venerable and majestic National Park of Taman Negara.

Longer may it remain!

Source : Tourism Malaysia

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