High tea

Trekking in the Cameron Highlands and an aborigine rainforest rescue

The Cameron Highlands is a region in the heart of the Malaysian peninsula famous for its tea plantations, orchards and mossy forests. Its cooler climate provides much needed respite from the otherwise hot and humid climate at sea level. Despite the persistent rain this came as a welcome comfort as I stepped off the coach in Brinchang.

Over two days I trekked through 4 of the main trails criss-crossing the hilly terrain, and they proved to be quite tough work – especially the first. The incline on some parts are as high as 75% which required the use of all my limbs to hoist me up the hills. All of the trails are incredibly muddy. I found using the supplied rope made climbing even more difficult, and it was safer to use the branches for traction instead (though this still wasn’t enough to prevent the occasional fall). Unfortunately the view from the top of the trail is of an antenna tower, but thankfully the route down is far more rewarding. I met a fellow Londoner along the way and we admired the beautiful tea plantations along the way. The vibrant colours of the tea and coffee plants carved into the hills was something to behold.

A very much vertical ascent!

Walking through the tea plantations

On our descent we stopped off at the Boh tea plantation to take a look at a tea factory, and of course enjoy a cup ourselves. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, and the factory was idle – but there’s a nice little museum that gives an overview of the whole tea production process from planting to bagging.

Visiting the hydroponic gardens the following day was also an educational experience. Leafy greens, fruits and vegetables are all grown hydroponically (i.e. in a water-based solution rather than using soil) in the Cameron Highlands. For a while now I’ve been intrigued by the idea of indoor farming and hydroponic systems. As I enjoyed some freshly picked strawberries and hot chocolate sauce, I drew inspiration from the farm and planned out how to build my own one at home.

For the first time on my trip, I stayed at a hotel, Parkland Express – although it was very much no frills. Previous experience on the trip had taught me that it’s worth paying extra for my own room when heading out trekking. A much needed good night’s sleep is more or less guaranteed, and it beats messing up a dorm with mud.

I hardly spent much time at the hotel though. Each evening I’d lounge around at a nearby luxury resort called The Cameron Highlands Resort. It’s a charming place with a lovely warm ambience, and it had been beautifully outfitted with Christmas decorations. Sipping on fresh tea in the lounge helped mull over thoughts while catching up with my diary.

Enjoying tea at The Cameron Highlands Resort

What made my time here special was chatting with some of the waiters, in particular Shiva and Gerrard. They took great care of me and I was interested to hear stories about Gerrard’s long career in the industry. The food is a little pricey (it’s a 5* resort so no surprises there), but finding vegan food was a nightmare in town so I was prepared to pay a premium. And I’m glad I did. The Chinese claypot buffet is essentially a noodle soup loaded with a selection of proteins, vegetables and herbs, all heated right at the dining table. It provided plenty of satisfaction to fill an all-too-often grumbling stomach.

Me with Shiva and Gerrard

A hearty and filling claypot buffet

A narrow escape in Taman Negara

Taman Negara means National Forest in Malay. It’s one of the worlds oldest rainforests, and one of Malaysia’s largest remaining jungles. Getting there took a couple of hours in a minivan descending through the winding roads of the Cameron Highlands, followed by three hours on a bumpy speedboat into the heart of the jungle, to a small village called Kuala Tahan.

On the speedboat to Kuala Tahan

The following day’s trek became the most difficult I’ve ever embarked on. I planned to trek to the 9km checkpoint and head back, but that was hopelessly optimistic. I deeply underestimated what laid ahead of me.

My pace was slow – I was barely managing 1.5 KM an hour. The dirt trail – which runs roughly parallel to a river – was virtually impossible to follow as the markings are few and far between, so I’d often double back on myself to find it when I went astray. It also undulated much more than I expected and it became treacherous to navigate the steep slopes. Too often the brittle ground would randomly give way and I’d end up on all fours.

The trekking became as mentally tiring as it is physically. The tree bark has the same pattern as snakes which can be found everywhere, so I was paranoid to hold on to anything. Once I even put my hand inside a wasps nest which was camouflaged against a tree. The climate was like a sauna; there was no escaping the stickiness and I had to push myself hard to keep persevering on.

The slippery path through the jungle

Alarm bells slowly started to ring as I racked up kilometres without seeing anyone else for hours. The alarm bells became a ‘red alert’ when a monsoon hit . The whole thing was quickly going downhill (pun intended) as I was struggling already to walk in the dry, let alone the wet. Though I was only 2KM from the checkpoint, getting there would have taken another hour at least and it would have been too dangerous to return in the dark. Even just turning back would have been quite an ordeal in the conditions. As I took shelter under a tree, a voice in my head kept telling me, “what would my parents say”. Being alone deep in the jungle and suffering cuts and bruises I reminisced over all the good memories on my trip and how fortunate I had been, and it wasn’t worth taking any more risks. There was nothing to gain in continuing except suffer a very real threat of not making it back in good shape.

I slid off the trail down a hill towards the river, passing through the thick bushes towards where I heard noise coming from an aboriginal village across the water. For half an hour I waved and yelled to get the attention of one of the aborigines. Just as I was about to give up and begin the long trek back, one of the men crossed to a nearby shore and took me to the village.

The village was unlike anything I’d seen before. The Orang Asli, as the aborigines are known in Malay, have a completely unique facial complexion and it was as though they were from another country. Many walked around without clothes. Luckily I met one person who spoke English and introduced me to the village. It took only 10 minutes to browse around the straw huts and it was a little unnerving to be stared at by the locals during that time. Eventually I stripped my clothes off to relieve myself from the heat and rested by the small beach. After an hour a passing tourist boat stopped by to pick me up and take me to Kuala Tahan.

I’m glad sense had presided over me. As it later turned out the trail I was on had been closed due to the danger from rains. Oops!

Looking back at where I made a lucky escape

The Orang Asli village

With a couple of hours of daylight left, I grabbed some lunch and headed back into the forest, but this time without straying too far from civilisation and over a boardwalk instead of mud trail. I stopped off at Lubok Simpon, where a small indentation in the forest revealed a serene river. With no-one around and just nature for company, I jumped in and for almost an hour swam around and absorbed the sheer beauty of my surroundings (ignoring the persistent leeches that greeted me for a second encounter!). Hearing only the strange noises from the thick jungle ahead of me, seeing the fish below and the colourful birds above made this experience something I’ll remember forever. Whenever I feel disconnected from nature in the future, I will cast my mind back here to the most peaceful place imaginable.

A lovely bathe in the river at Lubok Simpon

Lessons learnt

This had been a bloody and bruising chapter on my travels.

My time in Taman Negara was an important reminder that I was not infallible. I was guilty of being complacent, on the basis that my whole trip had been relatively trouble free to date. It is obvious that I should have taken better precautions before leaving and not pushed myself beyond what my tired body was capable of.  During that monsoon, I’m glad at least that I was humble enough to have recognised the accomplishments on my trip so far and how close I was to jeopardising it.

As much as my jaws were drawn open by the serene beauty of the remote highlands and lowlands, I left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Unfortunately my second visit to Malaysia was another reminder of how much of the country is now blanketed by palm oil plantations. Satisfying corporate profits seems to be endlessly taking a precedent over environmental protection of these amazing wildernesses. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a decade that Taman Negara will be devastated too, so I’m glad to have made it there while it still stands.

I cut short my stay in Taman Negara to recover from my experience in the jungle. The next stop was the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur.


Next: The Final Frontier

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