Nov 3, 2021 • 7M

Couchfish Day 277: A jungle oasis

Sleeping under the soft rain of bat guano

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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The superlatives come naturally to Taman Negara. It is the biggest national park in peninsular Malaysia. It is one of the oldest deciduous rainforests on earth (over 130 million years old if you’re wondering). It is home to the tallest peak on the peninsula. Big and old and tall, but more than anything, it makes me feel tiny.

The entirety of our trek is only around 20 km, a distance that will take us two full days of walking to cover. To climb Gunung Tahan, the park’s tallest peak, takes seven days round trip. By the afternoon of the first day, the thought of traipsing through this jungle for a week does not appeal. We often stop for short breaks and there is some chit chatting then, but we walk in silence. It is harder work than I expected.

You can see the trail right? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

As is often the case with jungle trekking, Aa is part guide, part jungle magician. As with the pulp mix he made earlier, he stops to grab some leaves to mash into a residue that keeps mosquitos at bay. He grabs a dangling vine and slashes it with his machete, refreshing water pours out. Later he points to a resin seeping from an enormous trunk and explains Orang Asli use it as a poison to tip their darts. Poisonous enough to kill a monkey, he says.

He delivers these jungle demonstrations and factoids with a flourish. He’s a funny guy and he knows when we’re in need of cheering up. He pokes and prods us to keep us going, asking detailed questions when he knows we’re out of breath.

“Oh, you’re too tired to answer? Tell me next life,” he says, smiling, and not even showing a sweat.

Better here than as a coffee table. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He’s a good guide, and a good guide makes all the difference. He’s not shy about telling us how the trekking guide sausage factory in Taman Negara works. As with elsewhere, a fraction of what we pay ends up in his and Ali’s pockets. At the end of the trek he gives us all his number—“call me directly next time,” he says.

Next time...

We’ve been walking most of the day when it dawns on me we haven’t seen, nor heard, another person. While I didn’t expect to run into groups non-stop, I did expect to see some other people. Aa explains there are many trails, so this isn’t unusual, plus business is slow he says. We sometimes reach spots with signs of people—cut branches, the remnants of a campfire, that kind of thing. Even to my novice eye though, they are days old.

Catching a breath. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

What we don’t see is trash. When we stop for a simple lunch, Aa and Ali pick up everything with care. Cigarette butts pocketed, a can rinsed out then stowed, nothing left behind. This is great to see, but frustrating as well, as so often it isn’t the case. I’ll never forget the guide in Luang Nam Tha in Laos, who gathered up everything after a meal and threw it in a river!

Sigh.

Later we reach a river, a slow and lazy bend almost totally shaded by the canopy above. This is to be our lunch stop and as Aa and Ali start to prepare our meal, we venture in.

Jungle bridge. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The river has an alluvial base, fine sand mixed with tiny glistening pebbles. The water is crystal clear and icy cold. We all stand on a sand bar of sorts, the cold water soothing our aching ankles. It is a strangely beautiful spot, one of those places you could never capture on film.

Shards of light pierce the canopy above us, illuminating coins of water and the pebbles below. There’s butterflies, birdcall, and the steady hum of the cicadas. The water isn’t still, but it is slow-moving—slower than the tiny fish in it anyway. The river wraps around behind us and disappears, all we can see in total is about fifty metres in length. It feels like a jungle oasis.

One of Gua Kepayang Besar’s natural windows. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Aa breaks our pensive moment with a splash and before we know it we’re swimming and swinging off a well-placed vine. Later we eat on the bank, shivering in our wet clothes.

By the time light is fading it feels like we’ve been walking for a month rather than eight hours. Then a short rise brings us to the small entrance of Gua Kepayang Besar. The further in we go the bigger the cave gets, eventually we settle in the yawning main cavern.

Our lodge for the evening. Photo blurry as I was too tired to hold the camera steady. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

At the centre, a massive stalagmite almost meets a stalactite, if they were to, it would be like a natural pillar. We set up camp while Aa and Ali cook. Afterwards, some go off bat and spider spotting, but one of the group and I lay around. Spying what we think is a beagle is actually a porcupine, scattering our dishes as it grabs a quick feed.

Then the group returns and we bed down for the night. We’ve no tents, just bedrolls and sleeping bags so all through the night, a light rain of bat guano falls upon us. Memorable I guess.


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