10 August 2009

Taman Negara – Somewhere in an unknown location in the jungle...

My hair is flying in the breeze under the full moon as my bum is firmly planted on the outside sitting space of a fourwheele drive in the middle of a palm oil plantation in Pahang. With me: Three friends and our night safari guide, perched at the top of the car in what would normally be the luggage boot, on a sponge mat swishing a power torch in all directions.

Pahang, Malaysia's centrally located state is famous for the Taman Negara (National Park), one of the most popular tourist destinations for locals and foreigners alike.

We drive deep into the plantation and after two hours on roads that are all surrounded by identical rows of palm trees, I had totally lost the orientation. Every now and then we spot the odd bird, one with a red cap and one which was as serenely turquoise as a peacock's. As to how the guide spotted it perched sleeping on a twig behind a five meter long and one meter wide heavy palm leaf, I have no idea. He also spotted a worm like small snake wrapped around some reed-like grass. The guide says it's not poisonous and Nathan gets out of the jeep to touch it. Toads would quack loudly in concert around the small pond in the background. We also spot a big family of boars moving around for a snack. Eventually, we spot a leopard cat, at a distance of perhaps 15 meters, sitting and staring nonplussed at us. The guide and the driver do everything to get the cat closer to our jeep and after 15min we tell them that, it's ok, they don't have to make clowns out of themselves for us, we're totally satisfied with seeing it even from a distance. They pick up clumped soil from the ground and throw it at the cat but it still doesn't even flinch. That's when we realise these guys were really into it, and animal spotting was their own hobby. Unfortunately, we didn't see any tapirs or tigers because they are both looong chased out of their habitat.

Luckily, the whole day before had been much more fun. Getting picked up in the morning by three cheery fellow interns that I also count as friends and starting off with some funky music from either the English radio station or someone's Michael Jackson CD with some weird psychedelic Bollywood musical/meditation thrown in to spice it up and starting off by driving around KL's concrete labyrinth of roads and badly signed highways (i.e. signs 5m before or after an exit on a highway where most people drive at least 100km/h and intricate knots of exits that take you into unexpected directions – and we're speaking here of a mixed Malaysian behind the steering wheel) before finally hitting the right road (the one that goes out of town!) – what a great start for a weekend trip!

About two to three hours, 200 km and a nap later, you're woken up because the meandering narrow but good countryside roads make your head bob from side to side and against the window in an uncomfortable fashion. You open your eyes, slide down the sun shades and – look upon miles and miles of palm trees in endless regular lines – oil palm plantations for one of Malaysia's greatest exports. We would drive by hundreds of thousands of palm trees and nothing else on either side, a group of (wild?) buffaloes more closer to the Kampung of Kuala Tahan, at the Southern edge of Taman Negara.

The national park is huge (4343 km2) or roughly ten times the size of Vienna. It has Peninsular Malaysia's highest mountain, Gunung Tahan (2187 m) and is home to tigers, rhinoceroses and elephants if you go deep enough.

We decide to spend the afternoon walking around the jungle (a personal premiere!) which requires an ultra-short boat ride across the river that is lined by a few so-called “floating restaurants” on stilts which generally serve as docking station. Not deep into the jungle, we spot what I call “ant highways” (you can actually hear them crunching leaves), strange flora (something that looks like bamboo with spikes all-over; not anything your cat would want to jump on by mistake; rotan which is used for corporal punishment in Malaysia; really strong liana, squirrels), giant bees making hives in the space between the glass and the actual educational sign, skinks (look shiny-slithery like snakes but with legs and tail, maybe 25cm in entire length) and the roots side of an old, wide (I would absolutely fit into its diameter) fallen tree and wish we'd seen others (like the elephant stump plant or what it's called, a plant that smells so strongly like decaying meat that it makes people pass out if they come to close). As we follow the trail, we occasionally bump into other people, Dutch, French, German, locals in Burung Melayu and hijab, Sikhs in turbans, a guy who looks like an old school German/English travel reporter with polo shirt, khakis, colonial-shaped hat, colonial mustache, super size lens and machete (!) in fitted black leather sheath.

Always the slowest person on hill ascents, I at some point find myself on my own in the jungle with only the unfamiliar sounds of uncomfortably loud crickets and sounds that come from animals you would not normally associate them with (no, that long whistling sound is not a bird, it's another reptile!). Hot and a bit dehydrated (thanks guys for running off with 1l of water!) in the humid heat inside the canopy-covered trail, I decide to take a break on a bench for a while. There's a waterfall somewhere below all the shrubbery nearby. I study the amazing smooth round roots on the floor that just grow wild all over on top of each other and spot a medium-sized light-coloured wiry spider jumping (!) into my direction – Hm, jeng jeng, time to move on! I meet the other guys at the “top” of this trail or the start of the famous canopy walk-way and buy a bottle of water from one of the local male Malay guides manning the closed hut that is the start of the canopy walk-way (you need to get a ticket), drink most of it and pour the rest of it over my hair, careful to bend over so as not to wet the front of my shirt. Luckily, Katrina is the last one behind me, tall, pretty with a British accent but also able to speak Malay, I listen how she tells the curious guide of where she stays in Malaysia, how long she's been here, what she's doing in Malaysia (or in other words, the usual questions one gets in Southeast Asia) and she discreetly mentions her non-existing husband. No, she doesn't have any children yet. He then moves on to ask her questions about me, carefully walking over the rope-tied aluminium ladders past the canopy of really high trees. I, at a safety distance in front and pretending not to understand any Malay, listen to that I am from Austria, that I live there but that my mother is from the Philippines, that my equally non-existent husband also lives with me back in Austria (I guess my strategic “engagement ring” supports that story). Katrina then turns the questions on him, turns out he's married with three children. I am sometimes confused as to where the border is between curiosity towards expats in Malaysia (what the HELL brings you to Malaysia out of all places??) and subdued affectionate interest for women.

A bit exhausted from the walk, we rest in our shared kampung house style bungalow with a bathroom I'd love to take home with me. We were all dozing away for a while, until suddenly there is this loud sound right on top of our roof. I, heavy-boned mumble “Sounds like a helicopter...” into my pillow. 5 seconds later, Nathan shouts out excitedly, “Oh my God! It's a helicopter! It's landing in our yard!!!” and by the time I open my eyes, he had sprung up from his bed and was at the door. I look out of the window and only see leaves flying around. Julie completely passed out due to work-related lack of sleep blinks groggily. Katrina is on her feet to the porch too. And indeed: It's a big-ass helicopter landing in our hotel lawn. What the hell?! The few guests that are actually in stare in amazement and wonder. We walk down and watch as a scandinavian-looking paramedic gets out of the helicopter. He grins amused at all the stunned people and tells us they're shooting a movie. Before I can ask him if he's an actor or a real paramedic, the rotors come to a stop, all four doors of the helicopter are opened and two people get out to fill up the tank with some Petronas oil and professionally clean some parts. We peek into the helicopter, so many knobs and a mysterious red capped button on the “joystick”. Hm! Nukes to get rid of the last shreds of nature and create condo space? ;P KL used to be a jungle too and changed so fast that even Katrina noticed in her mid-twenties. We ask the two Malay guys (pilot&engineer?) what movie they are shooting; is it a documentary? “No, it is a Television series... Something called... thinking for a moment “Get me out of the jungle?? (“Holt mich hier raus, ich bin ein Star!”) - Mumbai edition, produced by ITV (British) and some other channel. “Who's the celebrity?” They (pretend? That they) don't know.


The next day, we set out for a river trip in a long shallow wooden boat and follow the turns of the river inside the jungle where you can swim. It's great and even more beautiful than the first day with huge-ass trees of 2m in diameter robustly hanging across the river at a 40 degree angle, held back by super-roots, super-green trees and lianas entrenching the blue sky, round stones inside the river, micro-beaches (where does the sand come from in a muddy environment??) and really high, light and smooth birch-like trees that would make perfect Maibaeume, I guess.

The others strip their outer clothing and reveal their swims underneath while I pick a good stone to sit on and let my feet dangle in the clear jungle water, enjoying nature and watching the crowd of (Malay) locals that are standing to their chest in the water: The men with soaked T-shirts (one or two top-less) and knee-length basketball shorts, the women with long-sleeved shirts and long pants with stretch hijabs - the kind they use for sports. The cheerful men that were chatting and doing practical jokes in the water before suddenly grow a bit quiet. I follow their confused gazes and see my two female friends in bikinis. I was wondering what was going on, if they were just stunned at the unexpected display of flesh or awkward around us or confused at our weird foreigner combo: one Arab/African-looking guy, one Chinese-looking girl, one white-skinned Malay-looking girl (non-conformist with Muslim dress code but not taking her clothes off either) and one undefinable tall feminine girl with a tan. The single Malay friend of their on our part of the river at that time let her knowing gaze wander into the round of her male friends and us and was grinning to herself; maybe she was assuming there was sth going on under the surface... Eventually, the three jumped into the water, the moment was broken, the guys slowly went back to their day trip playfulness, proportionately increasing with the distance of my friends who started swimming and were targeting a perfect stone for sunbathing 50m away. Of course, once I am “unit = 1”, I get spoken to by one of the men who boyishly asks me, “Miss, can you swim? I can show you!”, trying to make a manful joke among his friends and getting everyone to laugh. I smile, rolled my eyes at this display of immaturity and politely tell him that I knew how to swim and had done this many, many times. 15 min later, his friends are trying to drown him and he cries, “Miss! Miss! Help me! I'm drowning, hahaha!” - So stupid it's actually funny, haha!

On the way back to KL, we pass out soon after spotting a random lemur crossing the road. Great trip!

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