Malaysian place names are fairly uninspired. FromMuddy Confluence I went to National Park; yes, Taman Negara literally means 'Park National', a whoppingly original name for a National Park, don't you think? I wondered if I'd soon be crossing River Sungai on my way up Mt Gunung on beautiful Pulau Island...
The bus journey from KL to the jetty at Kuala Temering was fairly uneventful; I slept through most of it, thankfully. The only way to get into Taman Negara is by a three-hour boat trip up the Sungai Temering, as there are no roads, a pretty far-sighted move by the environmental department, one of the few nods in the direction of conservation that you'll see in Malaysia. On arrival I sorted out the business of a permit and booking nights in the relevant huts – wading through reams of bureaucratically nonsensical paperwork in the process – rented a cooker and pot, and packed my bag. For some reason it felt heavier than normal, by a long way; I've been on walks much longer than six days, and I swear I didn't need this much junk. Perhaps packing two long novels (Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer), a computer and lots of food was the reason, but I needed my recreation out there in the jungle...
I dined at Wan's Floating Restaurant, recommended to me by an American called John whom I'd befriended in Melaka. Indeed, it proved to be the hotspot of Kuala Tahan (the home to Park HQ and the fancy Taman Negara Resort, the Malaysian answer to Kakadu's Jabiru) and before long I was surrounded by warbling Germans, Dutch, Indians and locals. I chatted to Wan for a bit, but something in me didn't want conversation; it was time I buggered off into the jungle for a bit of solitude among the flora and fauna. Sod the people; I wanted Mother Nature.
And I got her. Because central Peninsula Malaysia has been free of such excitements as seismic activity, ice ages or man's never-ending quest for wood, Taman Negara contains the oldest tropical jungle1 in the world, some 130 million years old, and it looks like it. After 130 million years the trees, vines, shrubs and bush bastards have evolved into something quite, quite different, and a whole lot nastier.
Into the Jungle
The trek into the jungle was pure hell. I'd set my sights on the lodge at Kuala Perkai, some 28km from park headquarters, as a good place to get away from it all, and reckoned that two days' walking, one of 11km (staying the night in a hide called Bumbun Kumbang) and one of 17km, would be fairly acceptable. How little I knew of the rigours of hardcore tropical jungle; the first day took a little over five-and-a-half hours of hard slog, and the second a whopping nine hours.
It's not all unpleasantries in the jungle, though. Despite the fact that the going was tough, it was a unique and quite fascinating walk. My destination, a fishing lodge on the confluence of Sungai Keniam and Sungai Perkai called Kuala Perkai (see the logic of Malaysian place names?), had been described as an isolated paradise by the ever-effusive John, and although I felt that was a bit of an overstatement, it certainly was pretty. Actually, he'd said it would be a perfect place for a honeymoon, but seeing the lodge and remembering that John was from a country whose divorce rate is among the highest in the western world (if not the highest), I remembered too late that objectivity is always subjective when it comes to the opinions of travellers.
The journey was not without its interesting parts. My stay in the hide2 at Bumbun Kembang was considerably enlivened by the presence of a white cat, who had obviously decided he was living there and that was that. As I stomped up the stairs to the hide and dumped my dripping pack on the floor, the cat shot me the look of a superior being, as if to say, 'I live here, so don't get any ideas, buster.'
'Yeah, well I've paid my five ringgit to stay here, which is more than you have, cat,' I replied. 'And don't get any ideas about stealing my food in the middle of the night.'
'Who, me?' yawned the cat, wide-eyed and innocent. 'I'm a cat of the jungle, my friend, and I catch my own food. So there.'
'And no pissing in the corner, either,' I said, noticing an unpleasantly familiar smell coming from the corner where it sat.
'Harrumph,' said the cat, scratching his neck and studiously turning away from me, staring out of the window as if I didn't exist. Not surprisingly he came and went as he pleased, and I hid my food in the mattress locker, which he obviously hadn't mastered yet.
The only tourists I saw were a young couple, fleetingly, whom I met just five minutes from the hide, and a Kuala Lumpur man called Pati who also stayed the night in Bumbun Kembang. I did come across a good example of the tourist trade at Keniam Lodge, a decent-sized collection of luxury huts and central eating areas that looked amazingly tranquil in this, the closed season. All that was left of the tourists was a menu board showing overpriced standard meals, and a sign tacked up saying, 'Closed from 1.11.97 to 31.12.97.' I dumped my pack, discovered flowing water in the toilets, and had a cup of tea, overlooking a picturesque bend in the Sungai Trenggan. It felt like something out of The Shining, this ghost town of a resort, normally bubbling with life but now silent and home only to spiders and piles of leaves. It was strangely moving.
The Fishing Lodge
I was soon back on the trail, getting hopelessly lost and having to ask for help from the locals, but I soon arrived at Kuala Perkai. I spent two full days at the fishing lodge, and it rained for almost all of that time. I found myself writing a lot (luckily I'd packed my computer) and reading a lot (fortunately A Suitable Boy is a monster of a novel). My clothes and pack steadfastly refused to dry out, I ate noodles and pasta in various unexciting combinations, and it wasn't long before I was bored out of my tiny skull.
It takes a special kind of person to really enjoy having nothing to do. Take sitting on the beach, for example; even if it's a two-week holiday between executive stresses, I still get frustrated and bored, and end up getting drunk or going out of my mind, often at the same time. The jungle wasn't quite this bad, but sitting on a veranda, watching the river flow by while the wildlife chorused around me, was only pleasant, not exactly riveting. Despite the fact that I knew I was going to have to go through hell again, I was keen to get back on the track.
On Friday 5th December I hauled out from the lodge, packing my still-wet belongings into my still-damp pack, squelching into my still-sodden boots and starting off down the still-drenched track. The trek back to Bumbun Kumbang was distinctly easier the second time round; it always goes more smoothly when you're fitter, have a lighter pack and know the route, and this time I didn't bother to explore the ancient limestone caves I'd checked out on the way in, so I arrived at the hide with plenty of daylight to spare. This was fortuitous; the leeches had obviously learned a few new tricks, because when I took off my socks, there were maybe five on each foot, merrily sucking away. During the trek I'd had the usual problems, and one had even managed to climb up my leg and suck where the sun doesn't shine3. I needed the extra time to burn them off and tend to my wounds.
There was one more thing that drove me mad, though, mad enough to make me stick my earplugs in when I arrived at the hide. All day – I swear, there was no break – I had something buzzing round my left ear. I have no idea why my left ear was singled out for such attention, or what kind of buzzing insect it was, but however energetically I waved my arms around and swatted the air, I couldn't connect with anything, and instead developed a sympathetic buzzing in my brain that kept going well after the walking had stopped. The earplugs helped, but I couldn't help being reminded of a particularly persistent blowfly that did the same thing as I hauled my way up Katherine Gorge in Australia's Northern Territory. My left side must smell more divine than my right... or is it the other way around for flies? Not surprisingly, the resident cat was no help at all; all he did was look me up and down, sneer and tell me, in no uncertain terms, to buzz off.
I returned to civilisation on Saturday 6th to find that after paying for my cooker and locker rental, I was broke. Whoops. Luckily the local glossy resort cashed a cheque for me – at a rate which had shot up considerably in my favour in the six days I'd been in the jungle due to the developing currency crisis – so it wasn't long before I was able to kick back, relax and enjoy the jungle from a safe distance. There are no leeches in Wan's Floating Restaurant, and I spent a very pleasant evening there with a couple from Perth whom I'd met while cashing up; we whiled away the night chatting about Kalgoorlie and Western Australia, and dreaming wistfully of the dry night air in the Australian desert.
Typically, the weather cleared up for my return, enabling me to see the moon and stars for the first time in ages. I sat by the river, gazing at the constellations, and to my amazement spotted the distinctive w-shape of Cassiopeia, a constellation I hadn't seen since October 1995. I used to know where all the various pointers in Cassiopeia led to, but all I could think of was how much I missed the sky when I couldn't see it. Which now, of course, I could.