Into the Jungle

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August 18th 2008
Published: September 4th 2008
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Hardware is good. It expands your horizons, it empowers you, and spurs you into action: if you're lugging around a stove, a metal pot, an aluminum wok, a melamine bowl, spoons (3), a spatula and a knife, you'd better be using them.

So, although I'd been reluctant to visit that most prominent of tourist destinations, the Taman Negara (lit. National Park) of "the world's oldest rainforest", the thought of gaming the system -- by showing up with enough food and gear to spend a couple of days in the jungle and avoid the infrastructure established to make sure you pay out the nose -- seemed attractive. I had been relegated to cooking boiled-water foods -- oatmeal, instant noodles with canned sardines, etc -- with a water heater during the 2 weeks spent in Melaka, and I was itching to finally use that 1/2kg of lentils I had purchased (in a fit of irrational hunger) over a month ago.

So, hardware first: a stopoff at the discount supermarket Mydin to purchase a (yellow) rain poncho and low-cut rubber soled canvas shoes (the kind you wear without socks and Janvier hates) for $2 and some dried salty fish minutes before taking the bus. And then, that most frustrating and depressing of pastimes, the hunt for Minyak Tanah, kerosene to burn in the stove. Obviously that's one very key ingredient for success here. In Tampin: no. Not in this town. And I, worried from gas station to Kedai Runcit, trying to smile as my heart sinks every time I timorously ask Ada Minyak Tanah? and am faced with blank stares or a wave of the hand. In a strange way one feels like a beggar: like you're imploring them for help and all doors are being slammed in your face.

Then in Jerantut, T-1, hiking out to remote gas stations to repeat the same story. My trusty Nalgene bottle has now been retired to be a kerosene holder (o how the mighty have fallen!), but if I had known that kerosene would be impossible to find I wouldn't have been so keen on buying my stove. The whole idea was that it was an easily available commodity, and not something special-purpose like gas cartridges. In the half-comic light of failure and the resignation that liberated me to stop and ask at any (un)likely place, I asked a couple of Chinese ladies working at sewing machines. There was furious discussion in Chinese, altercations, gesticulations (and an occasional sign to me that I should keep waiting). They fetched a young girl from a neighboring store who spoke english , and added yet another opinion to the mix. She then drove me to a small shop out on the highway (taking along a chaperon) while "Jesus you're my best friend" played on her stereo and I decided that the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins surely applied literally to my case, and that I should buy as much kerosene as I could get my hands on. And at the back of a dark sleepy "sundry shop" we found some: the man's measuring cup was oddly 750ml, and he informed me that having purchased a litre for 4.30RM at the gas station he would charge me 5RM for 750ml: no-one will work without making a profit. In light of the multitude of blessings I'd received that day, I agreed to 5.30RM for a litre.

And then back back back to town where I stumbled upon a much coveted hurricane lantern which I promptly bought and literally ran and caught the bus as it was pulling out of the station. What a morning! The universe is with us for sure!

And a couple of hours later beyond muddy brown rivers and green green entanglements of growth and the sinister dark-green of palm plantations and the airy rubber plantations the empty roaring bus pulled into Kuala Tahan , the park HQ where I unexpectedly scored when buying rice and onions and a notebook (my remaining necessities) then cursed when paying 1RM to take a boat 20 metres across the stream, and there I was: hopefully self-sufficient and definitely clueless. But Taman Negara, now you have me to deal with!

I decided to skip the campsite at HQ because it was organized, populated, and had an enormous boar napping a short distance away. And I don't fancy dealing with a hungry boar when trying to shamefacedly cook dinner under the disapproving eye of the caretaker. And it was expensive. So I head off to the nearest Hide after meticulously taping up my toes and spraying insect repellent on my feet. Water I meant to drink from streams, and besides my pack was heavy enough to tire out my knees and ankles even without carrying water, and my dirt-cheap shoes (without socks) weren't very confidence-inspiring. I walked carefully and was tired by the time I had walked 3.1km (in the jungle a good pace is 2km/hr) and sat down to cook dinner and lay out my gear. The hide was deserted because most everyone prefers to kill themselves hiking to a much further one while carrying enough water to be miserable but way too little to avoid dehydration during the 2 day return-hike. And naturally, with my radio and hurricane lantern, I didn't see any animals, nor was I looking.

The next morning (ok, around noon) a couple walked in on me while I was running around naked in the hide, and pointed me in the direction of Lata Berkoh "waterfalls" where they were coming from. 5.7km? Piece of cake! By the time I arrived at a campsite I was drenched in sweat, my knees were shaking from fatigue and I was a little disappointed that it was still only about 4pm and not a respectable enough hour to lay my weary (lazy) bones to rest. Here too there were people around, and I didn't like that. An overly-friendly guy pointed to a tin full of "fish feed" and told me I could "feed the fish" which were teeming in a big seething mass just below the surface. I didn't mind if I did. But it turns out this campsite is a "local community" effort (I cursed the clown who taught them to say "local community." Is it supposed to be OK when you're fleeced by the "local community"?) and cost almost as much to pitch a tent as it does to stay in a guesthouse. The official campsite is a short ways away on the other side of the river. Hop on and I'll take you across in my boat. No... I have an instinctive mistrust of boatmen and boat fares. They seem to not follow any rules of logic or economics. I'll ford it. But it's difficult! Ah yes.. I see you don't know me: I'm a real man. You see this backpack full of gear... 10 minutes later I was still about 10 meters away gingerly stepping on the sharp rocks that hurt my bare soles while trying to find an easier spot to cross the deep section with water rapidly rushing through, and fully aware of the devastating consequences if I were to wipe out and wet my gear or sprain an ankle. I'm so glad I didn't try to ford that river inMestia : I would have seriously injured myself. And occupied as I was with thoughts of this nature there was a humming sound and tourists on longboats appeared from around the bend and passed centimeters from me while I tried to put on a brave face and to see myself as the courageous adventurer braving the torrents rather than one of doubtful intelligence and grace wading through waist-deep water, stumbling and waving arms trying to balance on the slippery rocks below. Eventually the boatman decided I was hopeless and came up with the boat which I (very cunningly) held on to to balance as I walked across the deep part and then literally crawled across the foot-deep water on the other side. I forgot my shame in worries about the health and endurance of my ankles and knees as I clambered down steep muddy slopes or (repeatedly) bashed my big toes against protruding roots or tiny stumps. I felt like I deserved my rest when I finally had figured out how to hang up my mosquito net under 4-post shelter and cooked my rice and salted fish (fried. Everything is fried in Malaysia.). And I slept, kilometers away from any humans in any direction, on the jungle floor in the middle of the world's oldest rain forest with all the noise and clamor of the nighttime jungle and the eerie patches of moon-glow shining through openings in the trees. I slept like a baby, thinking of nothing but sleep.

The next day, having run around in my boxers and flip flops and feeling free and seeing that the whole place was mine, I decided to spend the day reading and writing, stretched out on a rock near the waterfall, and give my sweat-soaked pants shirt and shoes a chance to dry in the sun: there are no clearings except for the river, and it's too humid for anything to dry except in direct sunlight. I awoke from my reverie by the sound of a loud knocking behind me. I turned to see a guide with a sheepish look on his face banging with a stone the enormous flat tree roots that rise like a wall to taller than my height, while a white family looked on in half-embarrassment. It's because I can't stand that look that I refuse to have anything to do with guides: that look of amusing retarded children: "see, I'm showing you something authentic. Aren't you pleased? Look, I'm banging roots with a stone and it's making a loud noise! Would you like to try too? Take a picture..." I turned away in disgust. Tourists! I didn't take a boat; I walked almost 9km (in 2 days) to get here. And I didn't even notice that those roots could be used as drums. I returned to my book: An Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad. Not a very flattering picture of Malays... Bang bang bang! Another guide! In fact at intervals of less than a minute nearly a dozen guides with their groups came by, each of them doing the exact same thing with the same tree. It must be on their checklist: Bang tree with stone. Hit on any and all single women. Do your hair in a "modern" way. Wear clothes left behind by group members who thought they were making a connection with "the locals". No more waterfalls for me. I resolved to try to get to a hide about 9km away the next day. And used my problem-solving skills: soaking the lentils in my pot overnight and then carrying them in water in a 500ml water bottle during the day. /Teknik/, I congratulated myself. And pants are seriously over-rated. And why is everyone talking about leeches? There aren't hardly any (none in 2 days). I decided to hike in my boxers. And a nice solid walking stick became my best friend for the next few days, not least while fording the river in the other direction.

It was with joy and exultation that I arrived at the hide at 4pm -- seeing how I wasn't even sure I could make it at all -- not even unduly fatigued, and the first one there. Vaguely hoping I would have the whole place to myself and with apprehensions about officials coming by to check for "reservations" for the hide, I showered and began to prepare for dinner as they began to arrive: exhausted, drenched in sweat, panting and throwing themselves on the nearest bed and loudly exclaiming as they removed their shoes and leeches. Some clown decided it was a good idea to let the latter loose in the hide, and I got a nasty bite: my first! But my revenge was swift and merciless: as they sat down to their inadequate bottles of water and cans of baked beans and white sandwich bread (hardly satisfying after an exhausting day), or now-cold fried rice or fried noodles.. I took my time chopping up the onions garlic and chili, frying them up with the lentils before cooking them into a delicious soup and then cooking an enormous pot of rice. Having only one pot there's a certain amount of space-juggling that's required, but a small price to pay. And as has happened time and time again, I was amazed and daunted by the quantity of food thus produced, and almost inclined to invite others to participate... for instance that cute German girl? No! With a growling stomach I ate and ate and licked the pot clean before sitting down with a sigh of exhaustion and triumph. Made it!

Half-embarrassed by my courage and superiority (yeah this is my 4th night in the jungle.. yeah I'll stay until my food runs out... 3 more nights) and uncomfortably aware that I didn't deserve any of the beds in the rapidly-filling hide, I chatted with my fellow inhabitants. And although it cramped my style (I'd much rather listen to BBC and mutter aloud while writing my diary or reading Conrad) we did what's meant to be done at hides: line up quietly and stare at a clearing and space out hoping an animal will stumble across your line of vision. A keen Welsh couple had rented a powerful torch (which I'm grateful for: normal headlamps didn't light up jack) and patiently waited for a crashing sound before training its beam on the clearing. We thus saw a tapir twice and then a boar in the morning. And tapirs look just like they do in cartoons.

The next day I decided I might just be able to go all the way and walk 14.7km out to Kuala Keniam, the furthest point I was aiming for, then return slowly (averaging 8-9km/day) to base camp in 3 days, having consumed all my food and hopefully with a light pack. And yes, it was tiring and there were no markings and I was worried that my body would break down and refuse to go any further or that I'd not reach camp by nightfall and a dozen other happy thoughts to occupy my mind as I plod along looking at the ground in front of me, avoiding the roots and the muddy bogs and walking across or climbing over enormous fallen trees that blocked the path and stretched on and on never seeming to end, and making regular stops (in patches of sunlight) to remove leeches crawling up my shoes or nestling comfortably in or around my taped-up blisters or to fill my water bottle in small streams. It was beautiful. And even the heat and humidity I didn't find so oppressive. And the aboriginals hunt monkey so the monkeys didn't seem interested in picking a fight with me (that's right, boy!) and I arrived shortly before sundown at a bend in the wide light mud-brown river where a number of fat bellied men wearing sarongs without shirts ("park rangers") were talking loudly and singing and a short aboriginal with curly hair who spoke english showed me to the "campsite" (I admit I was rude because I was afraid of being asked to pay or show proof of having paid) near durian and rambutan trees, and I stuck two sticks vertically into the ground and tied up my mosquito net as a tent (I've always wanted to do that) and had an amazing evening and night, waking up to some crashing about nearby and telling the animals to "Shhh!" before going right back to sleep. In the morning the aboriginal pointed out fresh boar tracks around my tent and I felt very brave. He said elephants and bears crash through without paying attention to their surroundings, and might carelessly trample you in your sleep. Tigers are more cautious by nature. Good to know. I head out before the first shipment of guided groups arrived by boat.

Back the way I'd come the day before, to an enormous cave officially designated a "campsite". The ceiling was at least 2, maybe 3 stories high, there were odd towers rising from the floor and stalactites from the ceilings and rows of little bunches of crumpled toilet paper nicely arranged along the wall. I cursed the clowns who don't have enough sense to not shit where they sleep. True to style (awed though I was and not a little frightened by the sheer size of the cave) I sat down to prepare dinner, a little before the 3 groups showed up in staggered formation. Strangely these "package tourists" seemed less tired out than my independent traveler brethren at the hide (but maybe that's because they walked slightly less). One group plonked down a yard away from me, so we ended up (initially out of necessity) hanging out: twoenglish girls, a kiwi who had just come from Lebanon, and a Canadian open-source geek who is into camping and hiking and with whom I obviously had a lot to talk about. Some clown fouled up the water source with soap (seriously, how can you use soap in a still pond, your only water source?) and at night it rained and rained and I was so glad to be indoors. We went out and the rain didn't even penetrate to the ground (maybe an occasional drop) except for clearings like by the stream.

And in the morning, while I enjoyed my coffee and ate oatmeal with peanuts one guide clambered up an immense tower at least 4 times his height, a pillar of slippery rock, I was convinced he would fall and break something important, but he was incredibly agile and came down in one piece (to my applause) and I kept wondering which chick he was showing off to. And as I later on passed by brethren on the road the Canadian geek said he decided to camp out with me that night (rather than take a boat back) and walk back to HQ the next day. As my food dwindled and I grew more concerned about my remaining store of kerosene, my pack was getting lighter and walking more easy and pleasant. Arriving at Kuala Terenggan, a bend in the same muddy river with a dozen or more abandoned "fishing lodges" and a small pier by the river in the shade and longtail boats going up and down... was truly delicious in the late afternoon sun.

And Jack (the geek) and I then found a porch (it looked like rain, otherwise the pier was a much nicer option) and setup our gear and ate (donated) instant noodles and canned chicken curry and (taken from the hide) canned peas and (my) lentils and rice and (his) cookies. Twas the mother of all dinners. And it rained and rained in the peculiar heavy downpour that is gone in an hour, while we slept on the rotting wooden planks of the porch of a rotting wooden chalet with a view of the river and the jungle beyond and woke up to the beauty that is so easy to take for granted and overlook.

And on our last day, the heavy rain had summoned forth all the leeches of the jungle, and they made up for lost time, and my shoes were crawling with leeches of all sizes every time I looked. And once one is removed the bleeding "wound" becomes an even stronger beacon for the other blood-thirsty ones. And the road was one endless succession of ravines that you slid down and clambered up, and it was truly tiring. Jack and I had that peculiar connection you have with people you've met two nights ago and will never see after tomorrow, yet you feel you should have known them all their lives. And sitting near the entrance to the Canopy Walk, in the tame final kilometer before HQ, cleanly dressed children of cleanly dressed families stopped to gape at the blood streaming down my leech bites (the visual effect of which was slightly augmented by the iodine I had just applied). And again I felt like the pitied beggar, sitting with my now-dissolved white shirt (which met its maker immediately after I arrived at HQ) and falling-apart trusty $2 shoes and muddy boxers and reeking of sweat and with a big walking stick (for snakes) and I once again exulted in the feeling one gets at times like these: to have attempted and, against all odds, succeeded.

Coming back to HQ we came across all the wildlife we hadn't seen in the jungle: monitor lizards, mosquitos, monkeys, the camp-resident boar... coming into full view of the guesthouse-village of Kuala Tahan I passed on my walking stick to the first worthy-looking recipient: Be good to her and she'll be good to you. And Jack and I agreed it was like returning from Narnia: I'm back! I'm back! I'm alright! I'm OK! And I guess (to complete the metaphor) no-one even noticed we were gone.


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