Published: August 22nd 2006August 18th 2006
there are some very big trees in this forest. That's my pack in front for scale
Day one: 10 August: Thursday
Ingo and Conny picked me up from outside the Puncak Inn and we drove down to the Gap where we birded for an hour or so, netting me seven new species. Then we headed for Taman Negara. We were going to just drive all the way there but a wrong turn at Jerantut saw us ending up at the ferry terminal at Kuala Tembeling instead. In terms of wildlife the boat trip is very poor (mainly Pacific swallows and water monitors), but for sheer style there's no better way of entering a national park. It may cost a bit more (but not much) and take a bit longer than the bus but it beats it hands down. The boat is a long low-sided affair with wooden plank seating, like a big covered version of a sampan. Cruising down the river in this makes you feel like you're in a scene from "Apocalypse Now". Or "Hot Shots, part deux". There were life vests we were supposed to wear but they were obviously designed for someone with a smaller chest than I, so after about half an hour I took it off. I figured being able
wild piglets (Sus scrofa cristatus)
do you like my arty composition of nature and the detritus of man?
to draw air into my lungs was more important. I got the seat at the back all by myself, I think because I was more important than the other passengers. The advantage for me was that after my posterior went numb after about an hour, I could stretch out into any position I liked. So I spent the last two hours slung lengthwise across the boat, back against one side, feet up on the other. The other side of the coin was that I was at the part of the boat that had no decking planks, so I could watch the water level rise in the bottom from just a few millimetres when we started to at least two and a half inches by the time we reached our destination.
Taman Negara (the name simply means 'national park') covers 4343 sq km. It is huge, but most people only see the area around the resort, and most of those never go further out than a km or so. It was the first national park in Malaysia.
Ingo and Conny had made a reservation for a chalet at the Tembeling River Hostel, which was coincidentally where I
Little Shop of Horrors
This is a palm stem, believe it or don't. This is what the jungle is like baby.
was planning on staying, although being considerably cheaper I opted for a bed in a dorm for 10 Ringgits. Once bags were stowed and I had eaten, I headed across the river to the park. (The actual resort is on the same side of the river as the park but it also has resort prices, so most backpackers stay in the town on Kuala Tahan on the other side, but it does mean paying one Ringgit every time you want a boat to cross the river). Everything I had read had told me that birding in Taman Negara would be difficult. In two hours I got nothing. What I could hear I couldn't see, what I could see was too quick to identify. I did a bit better with other wildlife: wild pigs (although they live permanently round the resort, so they're not hard to find), grey-bellied squirrel, tree shrew, bats as it got dark, and a shoal of hundreds of scissortail-like rasboras. Fortunately my lack of success with the birds was not solely due to my own incompetance. Ingo had also come up empty, and when I met Peter again the next day he also was finding it hard.
We did all get good birds eventually, but they sure were hard to come by. I think I sort of had an advantage over them however, because they were pure birders whereas I got as much out of finding a giant millipede or wierd fungus as I did out of some rare bird.
Day two: 11 August: Friday
The next morning there was no water at the Tembeling. No taps, no toilets, no showers. I thought they must turn off the water at night for some reason. Ingo and Conny and I headed for a trail called the Swamp Loop, said to be good for crested wood partridge (which I saw) and Malaysian peacock-pheasant (which I didn't) and currently garnet pitta, the bird that birders come to Taman Negara for in the first place. I saw my first leeches on the Swamp Loop. Ingo and Conny had much trouble from the little blood-suckers but they never bothered me at all. On the way to the Loop we met another birding couple -- the husband French, the wife Swiss -- who were also looking for the trail and who had met Peter the day before and been told
he had heard the pitta calling. So we all headed to the Loop together. Turned out the couple had been travelling the world in their campervan for the last ten years, birding all the way. We all parted company once on the trail; no-one got the pitta.
I met Peter a bit later and he recommended a trail that he had got some good stuff on, so I took his advice and got six new bird species there, including a red-billed malkoha (my fourth: I just need two more to complete the set) and a black and yellow broadbill (my first broadbill: I was so excited). There was always all kinds of little invertebrate life on the trails as well: little ants, big ants, big black harvestmen always, mantis flies, hoverfly-like critters that hopped instead of hovered, jumping spiders, hunting spiders, crickets, all sorts. This trail led on to Bukit Indah, so I continued on to the summit. Why? Because it was there. As you may recall, Bukit means hill, or in this case, colossal mountain. And unlike Hillary I didn't need a sherpa to carry me to the top. It seemed like a good idea to collapse
on the ground when I reached the top, so I did that for a while, then I ate some peanuts. While I was shelling them I found a three-chambered peanut. I probably should have kept it, or at least taken a photograph. I would have made millions on the freak show circuit. Instead I ate it. Going back down was easy. The fastest way of making the descent I found was to just fall down a lot. For those wanting to use this technique, I suggest the simpler methods such as stepping on one's own bootlace, watching for birds instead of where the edge is, things like that.
When I was nearly back at the resort again, quite close to the Swamp Loop in fact, I saw a pitta bounce away into the forest. Now there are several sorts of pittas in the park and the chances of this one being a garnet weren't great but I followed it into the trees before losing it without ever getting more than its silhouette. On the way back to the path, retracing my steps exactly, I heard a rustle in the leaves about a metre to my left, turned thinking it would be a lizard, and a king cobra at least seven feet long was gliding away in the opposite direction! I don't care what anyone says, that was better than a garnet pitta any day.
When I got back to the Tembeling there was still no water and they didn't know when they were getting it back. In Taman Negara it is so hot and humid that your clothes start dripping with sweat within minutes of putting them on. Its so hot that my soap was actually melting in my room. You NEED showers. So I moved to the Liana hostel next door where they had water and fleas but no working toilets, but hey, if you want working toilets go stay at the Waldorf Astoria. It was pretty much deserted, so for 10 Ringgits I had a dorm room all to myself for the entire stay.
Day three: 12 August: Saturday
As already said,the birding is hard here, but once you get started you see really good birds. Its just that the trees are so tall that even the squirrels can be hard to identify (I got six species) and the canopy can be so dense that sometimes you can't even see the animal -- I think I saw a gibbon at one point but I'm not sure, and I never got a good enough look at any of the leaf monkeys to identify them. There are Orang Asli tribes still living in the park and I assume they are allowed to practise hunting at a subsistence level, so all the larger mammals and birds are very flighty (to say the least!). Today I headed to the Jenut Muda trail where Ingo had seen a rail-babbler the day before, one of my 'most-wanted' birds (along with great argus, also said to be along this trail, although we all came away with our doubts about that!). I saw almost no birds at all, but I did meet the kind of mentally-retarded tourists who like to pretend they're monkeys when walking through the forest -- perhaps the reason I saw no birds. Some of the people you meet in places like this, you just wonder why they're even there. It'd be like me going to an antique car show and running around pretending to be Hitler's ghost and keying all the cars. On the way back I passed an English couple. I think the man was talking about wild pigs and how you should "just stand still, because if you run they'll catch you", and the woman says "I thought that was bears: you pretend you're dead then punch it in the nose." I'd so love to be there when that woman tried to punch a bear in the nose!
After food I returned to the Swamp Loop. Peter, being Peter, had actually seen the garnet pitta here the afternoon before (along with banded and blue-winged!). No garnets for me, but I did get the banded, my very first pitta (the cobra one didn't count). It was so beautiful. Pictures can't do them justice. I also saw a trio of crested fireback pheasants -- very very lovely and my ninety-ninth new bird for the trip. I then saw them almost every day after that until I left. Peter got the garnet pitta AGAIN today, with Ingo and Conny beside him. I arrived on the scene just as the damn bird departed! I literally missed it by seconds. It was Ingo's first pitta. That's right, his first pitta was a garnet. I guess everyone's got to start somewhere. Before ending the day we all made a detour to see a tree full of blue-crowned hanging parrots outside the police station in Kuala Tahan. Peter left the next morning back to Bangkok.
Day four: 13 August: Sunday
Today I walked (and walked and walked) to a cave called Gua Telinga and two hides called Blau and Yong. The first part of the trail was a bit steepish, then it got steep, then it got vertical. Most of the forest trails here have natural steps formed from the tree roots. This one almost had a root ladder! Fortunately after the first two hills it got a bit more level. The day was very frustrating. At the top of the first hill I could hear a great argus calling. I couldn't get to where it was but I wanted to see it very badly so I imitated its call very badly. It wasn't impressed. Twice on the trail I heard garnet pittas calling but I couldn't track them down. Even a hornbill couldn't be located when I was standing right underneath the tree it was calling from. I saw loads of awesome birds -- orange-backed woodpecker, chestnut-breasted malkoha, a whole flock of crested firebacks -- but all of them were birds I'd already seen. I had got only two new birds, both babblers,and that seemed to be it for the day when I finally got a good bird, a gorgeous black and red broadbill. Simply superb he was. (And then I got black and red broadbills for the next four days in a row!) Other highlights were the monstrous electric-green-blue mudnest-building wasp in Yong hide -- as big as a locust! The sort of wasp Dr. Frankenstein would have created...you know, if he'd been making a wasp instead of a man...; the serious bloodstains all over Yong hide from leeched travellers; and the muntjacs seen from both hides. Strange as it may seem for someone coming from a country with no fewer than seven introduced deer species, those muntjac were the first wild deer I'd seen.
Day five: 14 August: Monday
Today I went to the Canopy Walkway, a... well, a walkway up in the canopy. It was well worth the 5 Ringgit fee, even for someone not so great with heights. It was a little unnerving being so high up on a piece of Malaysian construction work. The creaking of the ropes and ladders was somewhat disconcerting but I tried to think of the number of tourists who use it safely every week. On the other hand, think of the number of tourists who use it every week! Apparently when it first went up it was really good for spotting birds and monkeys and so forth, but the noise of all those tourists has sent the wildlife off to quieter parts of the canopy. When I came down from the treetops I headed back over to the Swamp Loop. On the way I passed some people, greeted them as you do, and after they'd passed one made a remark about how nice it was that everyone on the trails said hello to each other. I think most of the tourists here come from places where if a stranger smiles at you it means he's about to mug you; if he's laughing you're already dead. There was no garnet pitta for me on the Loop, but I did find a rail-babbler to my surprise (and that of most of the other people I told. I guess they're not meant to be there, but there's no mistaking a rail-babbler for anything else). When I was about to leave some hornbills flew low overhead and landed somewhere nearby. I don't know what species they were but they were BIG! Their wings sounded like jet engines revving up. They were calling but I couldn't find them. I went back to the Jenut Muda. No great argus, but I did get a dusky broadbill, my third broadbill in almost as many days.
Day six: 15 August: Tuesday
Ingo and Conny left this morning, leaving me to carry on my fruitless search for the elusive garnet pitta. I pulled ten species out of a fig tree in the resort, two of them new, then tried the Swamp Loop where I got my first flying dragon, something I've been hoping to see ever since arriving in Asia. Then I headed along the River Trail where I met the French birder, sans wife. I actually thought they'd left but there he was. He said they got the garnet two days before and watched it for ten minutes! Personally I was starting to think they were all lying and there was no such thing as a garnet pitta. I found a brilliant snake on the River Trail. All grey and speckly on the front with a white belly, while the rear half had a thick black stripe either side and the belly was yellow. I was pretty sure it was harmless because it was rearing its head up to make me think it was a cobra, but I really didn't know so I wasn't going to mess around with it to get some photos. He went his way, I went mine. The closest I could get to identification was a cave racer (the only book at the HQ here is "Snakes of Borneo", and the staff really aren't much help with queries of that nature). Later on I found out it was a white-bellied rat snake. I also got a grey and buff woodpecker. He had a red crest so reminded me of Woody Woodpecker, but really small and cute, not big and creepy.
It was back to the Swamp Loop in the afternoon. I got off to a good start when I spotted a lesser mouse deer. So teeny tiny! I watched it foraging for several minutes before sneaking away to continue my pitta hunt. Pittas are territorial, so if you know where one's been seen it should always be around that general area. Its just that the "general area" can be quite big, is generally pretty scrubby, and much of it is innaccesible. When I got to the pitta site... I saw it! Well, I saw something. It was a bird and it hopped. It could have been anything it vanished so fast. I decided to wait. There were two big trees lying on the ground that hadn't been lying on the ground that morning. It got me thinking about the Zen of it all. If a tree falls on you in the forest and there's no-one else around, does it really kill you? I stood stock still, waiting. For an hour. I stood there so long that even Mother Nature herself thought I was part of her, and I became one with the forest. Giant vines snaked their way up my legs, ferns and orchids sprouted from the humus on my shirt, and a pair of squirrels took up residence in my beard. But no pitta came. It was getting dark and I was preparing to leave when I suddenly discerned a little monkey-like human face peering at me through the bushes. I knew it wasn't really a face, it was just an optical illusion caused by the positioning of vines and leaves, but the more I looked at it the more it looked back at me. When you're all alone in the gathering gloom of the jungle's dusk, things like that really REALLY creep you out. Pitta 6, Israel 0
Day seven: 16 August: Wednesday
The next morning my reliable old fruit tree gave me another new species, a scaly-breasted bulbul, then it was off to the Swamp Loop for another no-show from the pitta. While I was waiting though I got black hornbill (finally, and actually ended up seeing them three times in that one day) and a white-crowned forktail (they're supposed to only be found along streams and watercourses, but there he was in the middle of the forest). A little trek along a side trail brought me past an aviary housing a pair of green peafowl for a reintroduction programme. A jaunt back to the Swamp Loop that afternoon also brought me nothing. On the way out I passed two new birders going in. I bet they got it straight away. Pitta 8, Israel 0
My watch fell apart today. I blame the DEET. Its good for keeping the mosquitoes away, but its nasty stuff. It leached all the black from the watch-strap within the first week, then I started getting condensation inside the face, then both the back and cover-glass fell off. I sellotaped it together and the hands stopped moving. I thought it was dead, but I wound it up and it works fine. The DEET also turned all my ear-rings black.
Day eight: 17 August: Thursday
Today I found my fourth snake. Yay!!! So cute he was. About 15cm long and brilliant orange with a black stripe along the spine, forking at the head with sky-blue on either side of the fork. I feel I should know what he is but I can't place him. (Found out later he was a baby blue-necked keelback). The Swamp Loop was looking pretty poor otherwise, no birds to speak of. I was sitting at my usual pitta haunting spot when he suddenly appeared. It was the worst and briefest view anyone has ever had in the entire history of garnet pitta views and while I was fumbling with my binoculars, he left. It lasted about half a second. So there you are. Then I met two recently-arrived birders, John and Yen (Yen was from Kuala Lumpur; she couldn't understand why I didn't like the city). John had been here several times before and had seen the pitta himself last visit. He said he'd never seen the Swamp Loop so dry -- it really was almost bone-dry -- usually its almost unbearable with the numbers of mosquitoes and leeches. While we were conversing, and trying to track down the pitta again, we got mouse deer, black magpie and Diard's trogon among others (that was my first trogon. Really really beautiful). On my way out I had good views of the banded pitta, which sort of made up for the bad one of the garnet.
Later I walked the Jenut Muda to try for great argus again, but instead got giant squirrel, green broadbill (my fourth broadbill, and my 130th new species for the trip), and what must be THE bird so far, a rufous piculet, which is a type of woodpecker but only 8cm long. Try to imagine a woodpecker smaller than a zebra finch, tapping away at little twigs, and you'll have some idea how cute he was. Even some passing non-birders that I made look at it were suitably impressed. Woodpecker number eleven. After dark I went spotlighting on the Swamp Loop with John and Yen and got nothing, but found some sambar at the nearby Tahan hide.
It rained in the night, for the first time since I got here. When I turned on my torch to see if my pack was getting wet under the window, there was a big blood-bloated bed-buggish beastie on the pillow. When I get home I'm going to need to get de-flead, de-loused, de-mited, de-bugged, and basically just completely de-verminated.
Tomorrow I leave Taman Negara. I really liked it there.
The Malysian school holidays start on Saturday.