Taman Negara, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, was as magical a place as you can imagine.
We stayed in the town across the river, Kuala Tahan, which was small but contained all we needed: proximity to the jungle, a lovely place to stay (Yellow Guesthouse, we totally recommend it), our favourite cheap and tasty breakfast (roti canai, I’m craving it now just thinking about it), and floating restaurants to find my favourite Malaysian dinner (satay, so tasty!).
The night safari was incredible. Even if we hadn’t spotted any animals, driving atop of a truck (literally on top, we were given the prize seating of the roof beside the driver’s son/torch bearer) through palm plantation at night was exhilarating. It was also neat to be searching for something and not knowing exactly what. But we were lucky and happened upon a few creatures. Hands down the coolest was a tapir! One of the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen – it looked like a mix between an elephant, an ant-eater, a warthog, and a panda. It’s stubby snout seemed to wave at us.
The next morning we ferried over the narrow river to finally step foot in the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. And though that title does build up expectations, they were totally met for me (E) and Matt (M)
E.: It was like walking into Jurassic Park. The energy from all the life and the sounds and sights were breathtaking. We climbed up and wobbled across the longest canopy walk in the world (well, the parts that were open, some had been deemed unsafe due to this year’s intense flooding during monsoon season). Though shaky steps were taken, there was never the hint of anything unsafe or the fear of falling….even when looking down…waaaaay down. Each tree landing linking the walkways reminded me of Ewoks. Everything about it was just awesome.
We thought we’d go back and rest during the hottest part of the day post canopy walk, but it was so energizing we were on a nature high and had to keep going. Looking briefly at a map we spotted a circuit. The term “unbeaten track” really rung true here. Parts so steep I had to put all my weight into ropes when they were accessible – when they were broken or caught under fallen trees I had no shame and went down on my bum. Stairs we found were falling apart and more than once fallen trees blocked the sometimes barely visible “path”. We passed only three other people: a couple resting at the base of the super steep part and a man chasing insects in a woody area resembling Fern Gully. All the while we walked, the sounds of the jungle were a loud soundtrack; sometimes musical, sometimes scary, and sometimes real close. It was one of the most tiring and cool hikes ever (and tiring!).
M.: When I knew we were in close proximity to the oldest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, the nature lover in me really wanted to go. After seeing the staggering amount of deforestation across all of Malaysia (and reading the seemingly unfounded but extremely scary-if-true wikipedia claim that the rainforests of Malaysia will be completely destroyed with in the next 5 to 10 years), I knew I needed to go. It was a sad drive into the forest as you see patches of jungle followed by patches of clear-cuts followed by miles and miles of palm plantations. The green lushness of the plantations would almost be beautiful if I didn’t know at what cost they came.
It’s hard to describe just how excited I was to be standing in such a magical place. I have always had a love of nature, but a jungle of this magnitude was something else. The sounds, the smells, the freshness of the air, all so incredible. After years of exploring jungles, I am no longer so naive to think that when you walk into a jungle you will see all of the creatures big and small lounging in the trees or hanging out in the shade (but I still not-so-secretly wish they were).
While walking through the boardwalks and canopy walk was quite amazing, I felt let down that we had neither the time nor proper gear to go much deeper into the jungle to try and get a true glimpse of it, a place where maybe the other tourists realized talking really loudly to one another does not attract the animals you’re there to see… That’s in part what made the highlight of the day the road less travelled. It turned out that after the lookout we hiked to, we could complete a loop instead of retracing steps like everyone else. The path lead down a pretty steep pitch just steps from the lookout, and this was enough to scare most normal people off the experience. Luckily for us, I was not in the normal people mood and decided that, undaunted by lack of supplies or knowledge of where we were going or proceeding into the hottest part of the day, this was the road for us! As we hiked down the backside of this hill, I got the feeling that we were descending into the real forest, the less touristy part of the park. And for both better and worse, boy was I right! As we hiked this forgotten trail, we heard so many more animals (though hiking in the heat, we didn’t see many more) and really felt immersed in the jungle. This trail was much longer than we had bargained for, and definitely required more bush-wacking than anticipated. By the time we finally made it out the other side, we were pretty excited to see the main lodge and the ferry back to our side of the river.
M.E.: When we finally reached and collapsed into our beds in a sweaty mess, our limbs too heavy to move, muscles cramping from exhaustion and dehydration, we turned in pain to look at each other and said, “what an amazing day!”