Taman Negara | Days 12 & 13
Palm oil plantations stretched, depressingly, as far as the eye could see as we climbed the windy road from Jerantut to Taman Negara in yet another plastic-seated, rickety bus, manufactured in an age long before air-conditioning had been invented. Perhaps they were trying to help us acclimatize to the extreme sweat we were about to experience during the next 48 hours which were to be spent in the depths of Malaysia’s rainforest.
Malaysia’s first National Park
Malaysia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, an economic goldmine in an age of processed food and cosmetics but one which necessitates the devastating deforestation of vast areas of tropical rain forest. Yet amid the sprawl of palm plantations lies the jewel in the crown for nature lovers in peninsula Malaysia: Taman Negara. Created in 1939, Taman Negara was Malaysia’s first national park and contains 1676 square miles of primary rain forest. At 130 million years, it’s the oldest rain forest in the world and almost twice as old as the Amazon! The diversity of wildlife within this pristine sanctuary is simply staggering and includes Malayan tigers and Asian elephants (both of which are critically endangered) along with rhinoceros hornbills, tapirs and MANY, MANY leeches.
Blood thirsty slinkies
We’d been warned about these pesky bloodsuckers in advance but as the early morning mist clung to the vast forest canopies, we set off on our first jungle trek and chose to ignore advice about wearing leech socks, despite their sex-appeal boosting qualities. Needless to say, we were wrong. The paths were alive with bloody thirsty slinkies excitedly rearing up and lurching towards us, hungry for their next fix of Homo sapien flesh. Using a combination of serious amounts of DEET, given a powerful flick to the adventurous few who reached ankle territory and only stopping for water if we could do so safely perched on top of a fallen tree, the leeches were defeated!
Taman Negara pandered perfectly to my preconceptions of a primary tropical rain forest: mysterious, magical and full of weird and wonderful creatures. A chorus of insects, birds and tree frogs (mostly unidentifiable) echoed through the canopies building to a crescendo as we drew closer. Butterflies and dragonflies perched on branches in chinks of sunlight and lizards and squirrels darted away as we approached.
Lost in the forest!
What Taman Negara did lack was well marked footpaths. The park prides itself on its acessibility but the routes were poorly marked, overgrown and often barricaded by fallen trees. Within 500m of setting off on our 8km walk to a boat jetty, the route marker informed us we had 13km to go and after an hour of walking (3/5 on the sweat scale by now; think accidental confrontation with a garden sprinkler) it still read 13km. Needless to say after 5 hours of walking (and looking like we’d just completed an army assault course!) we’d well and truly missed the boat back. To add to our frustrations, the eco-tourism hub we had hoped to reach at the jetty was nothing more than a jumble of dilapidated chalets, engulfed with ferns, suggesting that this place had been abandoned for many years. There certainly wasn’t an obvious jetty in sight! To our immense luck (after collapsing, dehydrated and disheartened, on a lonely bench) we were greeted by a local fisherman who kindly gave us a lift down the tumultuous rapids of Sungai Tembeling in his tiny boat.
Later that evening (after much revival thanks to 100plus!) we were comforted to discover that the palm plantations surrounding Taman Negara were home to at least some wildlife on a night safari during which we saw palm civets, wild boar, a leopard cat, snakes and a variety of birds. Perhaps all is not lost.
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