Saturday 3 May 2014 - Friday 6 June 2014
Somewhere Over The Urals.
on stuartfinch's travel map.
If the countries visited on this trip could be summarised by just one word (and believe me they justifiably can’t be) then our experience of Malaysia would be “jungle”. We have spent more days climbing, trekking, swimming, boating, slipping and sweating our way through thick forests here than in any other country since August.
We had a gentle introduction to the strenuous nature of jungles following a few easy trails in what’s left of the forests in the Cameron Highlands. More developed into a domestic agro-tourism destination than billed by some tour operators, the regions cool climate has been exploited for the production of (some very tasty) tea, vegetables and fruit – most notably strawberries. This has been at the expense of the forest trails which are now largely ignored, in poor repair, closed or enveloped by the spreading urban sprawl of a few ‘villages’.
Taman Negara is billed as the world’s oldest rainforest and, by comparison to the Cameron Highlands, it can certainly feel both wild and untouched. Our entry to the park was a three hour boat ride up the Tembeling River to the small village of Kuala Tahan where we found our accommodation across the river from the park entrance. As we dozed in the shade of the boat (it had been a very early start that morning) the journey upriver only added to our sense of exploration.
There are many paths in the park that suit all abilities; easy boardwalks lasting 30 minutes to treks lasting several days to summit the nearby Mount Tahan. Not wishing to over-exert ourselves (!) we took to the easier paths first whilst taking our time to appreciate the surroundings. Consequently we saw a surprising amount of the wildlife along the way; macaques, monitor lizards, birds and insects but, thankfully, no leeches (they came later, en masse, in Lambir Hills National Park). Our evenings were spent trying each of the different riverside restaurants before being entertained by the orchestra of cicadas that would dive-bomb their way through our hotel corridor.
In Borneo the term ‘jungle’ takes on a whole new meaning.
We spent time trudging our way through virgin forest in at least six different national parks and nature reserves. Each offering a slightly different experience but all hot, humid and very sweaty! After each day Neil would invariably ask to be reminded that next time I asked him to ‘go for a walk’ that he should say ‘no’ but, secretly, like me, he enjoyed the accomplishment of the challenge and a decent shower at the end of it (or in the case of Kinabalu Park, a day soaking in Poring Hot Springs).
Seeing proboscis monkeys, wild orang-utans, the nocturnal tarsier and a (very fast) slow loris along the Kinabatangan River made the few days spent there the absolute highlight for me. Appealing to my inner David Attenborough we rose early to view birds, primates and the occasional crocodile from the safety of a boat, whilst at night we were guided by torch through the forest spotting frogs, snakes and sleeping birds.
This concentration of wildlife has come at a cost to the forest. It really only exists as the surrounding land has been quickly appropriated for oil palm plantations. The debate over palm oil will continue for a long time, it finds its way into much of the (processed) food we eat and can be used to make biodiesel, with lower CO2 emissions than fossil fuels. Malaysia has pledged that no more than 10% of its land area to oil palm plantations but the quick return on the investment is very attractive and it’s difficult to put a price on biodiversity. Driving through Borneo, it can seem like that the whole 10% is here!
We didn’t make it to the remote Mulu National Park as this involved a flight but we got our fix of jungle caves at the smaller Niah National Park. Here, some of the earliest evidence of human habitation has been found dating back over 60,000 years having been well preserved under several meters of bat and swiftlet guano, a commodity so valuable that it made fortunes and helped secure empires. Today, the market for guano has been replaced with artificial fertilisers but the swiflet nests are still collected, under license, by men with a good head for heights who climb the rather precarious looking wooden ladders dangling from the cave ceiling. Their spoils are available in Chinese stores locally and on the mainland, sold to make the rather glutinous ‘bird’s nest soup’ (bowl of bird-spit soup, anyone?)
The two-hour trek through the cave system by torch-light was sweaty and slimy. Under a near constant rain of bat and bird droppings, you quickly learned not to look up and to keep your hat on at all times. Our reward at the end was a few faded cave paintings in which you could just about make out some ochre animal and human forms, as well as the remains of some boat-coffins dating from who knows when. But it was the forest that truly gave us the reward - the limestone here gave the jungle a whole different set of niches that were filled with the weird and wonderful.
Probably our most memorable visit was to the jungle surrounding Kapit, in Sarawak, where we celebrated the harvest festival in a tribal longhouse. But that’s a story for another time (and my next blog post)…
Posted by stuartfinch
Archived in Malaysia
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