A bloodcurdling scream pierces the soupy humidity of the Malaysian night. Emanating from the depths of the impenetrable forest, it rumbles around the darkness, reverberating off colossal trunks and interrupting the tireless croaking of rowdy bullfrogs. “Someone in other group. See big spider,” whispers Angah, our guide, in colourful staccato Manglish.
My concerns are more snake-related, given that I’ve forgotten my torch and arrived in plastic sandals, a potentially lethal oversight since my surroundings sparkle like fairy dust with the shining eyes of a thousand tiny insects. Angah’s flashlight reveals nests of splenetic black scorpions skulking in a hollowed trunk and spindle-legged spiders astride glistening golden threads. “Natives [sic] say only spider without web will attack. Web spider friendly,” she says.
This is my introduction to Taman Negara, literally meaning ‘national park’. It’s a sprawling natural heartland, extending some 4,343 sq km over three different states, and evolving for a mind-boggling 130 million years, to make it one of the world’s most ancient rainforests. Dense tropical lowlands overlooked by mountainous peaks accommodate a veritable cornucopia of strange and spectacular inhabitants. There are crab-eating macaques and roaring deer, insect-devouring pitcher plants and wheel-sized rafflesia (corpse flower), the world’s largest and possibly worst-smelling bloom (see page 15).
Making it to the National Park has been a considerable test of stamina in itself. My partner and I left crowded Kuala Lumpur early in the morning to travel 200km on a rickety old bus bound for northern Penang and the muddy banks of the Tembeling River. We transferred from bus to motorised longboat and phut-phutted along turbid backwaters for three hours to reach the shabby little township of Kuala Tahan, gateway to the National Park.
Here, we clambered onto a clapboard boardwalk to join other travel-weary tourists gently stewing in the steamy jungle heat while seeking food and shelter under the tin-roofs of floating restaurants. Eventually, a water taxi ferried us to the opposite hillside and Mutiara Resort, our stay for the next three days and the only lodgings located within the reserve. Its bungalow chalets fashioned in dark wood nestle neatly into the margin of the rainforest. At dusk we turned the key in our cabin door just in time to gaze through opened shutters at the river snaking into a resplendent sunset and a sky bruised chilli red and saffron yellow.
Daybreak in the jungle is a momentous occasion, celebrated with a hallelujah chorus of chirping crickets and the ‘yoo-hoo, ha ha’ wake-up call of cheery hornbills. Having survived the night walk unscathed, we emerge bleary-eyed to be greeted by a thick mist curled along the riverbank, obscuring the forest beyond. A hearty breakfast sustains us through the morning as we trail the tentacular paths that radiate outwards from the hotel into the reserve. Neat wooden signposts point us along the eastern bank of the Tahan River toward the natural pools of Lubok Simpon.
At first sight the forest appears a uniform leafy green and tree-trunk brown. But lustrous colours soon appear in the detail. Miniature turquoise butterflies flash their iridescent wings around pom-pom bunches of crimson berries and flowering tree-vine lianas clustered in orange blossoms. We find pink jelly-like fungi flourishing on mossy wood and metallic-silver millipedes concertinaing across the spongy leaf litter at our feet. We take it in at a snail’s pace, over tangled roots and under taut vines that clutch and bend the trees like grasping fingers. The forest choir serenades our march: buzz, tweet, chirrup, buzz, tweet, chirrup.
The forest has a way of drawing you in and sharpening the senses. Every rustling leaf promises a sudden encounter with elusive animal life. My heart leaps into my mouth when a wild boar darts recklessly across our path, startling a fireback pheasant that careers across the canopy in a squawking tussle of black and blue feathers. We freeze at the sight of the bulky frame of a tapir appearing in the half-light between the trees, before it plunges back into the safety of the undergrowth.
As we penetrate deeper into the jungle, heavy floral aromas give way to the steamy odour of damp earth and rotting vegetation. Angah shows us the spikey stem of the rattan palm used locally to fashion sturdy furniture and basketry. Later, she takes water to a bristly melastoma leaf before buffing it into a soapy lather. “This is a natural antiseptic. Rub it on your arms, it will keep away mosquitoes,” she advises. Finally, the tangled thicket parts to reveal a sunlit section of riverbank. We cool our feet in its pebbled shallows under the beady eye of a white-plumed heron. The sky is wide, the heat searing, and there’s a pervading stillness that quiets the mind and lifts the spirit.
Our return journey takes a different turn, as we climb a wooden ladder, emerging high into the treetops. Starting from the summit platform, I grapple shakily at rigging either side and wobble along the wood-and-rope walkway suspended 45m above the ground straight through the leafy chaos of canopy. When I pluck up enough courage to look around, I notice dozens of conical nests dangling pendulously from the surrounding trees, home to colonies of tireless tree-climbing termites. Up amid this infinite sea of emerald green, it’s the airy sense of freedom that stays with me long after my feet touch firm ground.
Down the river
The next day we return to the boat and expertly weave between sandbanks and rapids to explore further downstream. As we go, nature shape shifts; the jungle becoming skyscraper tall. From their buttress roots soar majestic tualang trees — the tallest of the rainforest — furred with fluorescent lichen and lashed with strangler figs. Playful grey macaques shimmy down knotty vines while below, a herd of glossy black water buffalos wallow in the river’s muddy shallows. A breeze caresses my face and I try to resist drowsiness for fear of missing a single moment of the view.
Amid the profusion of life coexisting within the forest, there is human presence too. Along the riverbank we stop at a settlement of the nomadic Batek tribe, one of various tribal peoples still living within the National Park that are collectively referred to as Orang Asli, meaning simply ‘original people’ in the Malay tongue. Despite government efforts to settle them in permanent villages, many of these communities still abide by their hunter-gatherer traditions, relocating to more fertile ground every three to five years to allow their former forest dwellings to replenish.
For the past year, eight families have lived in this village which consists of little more than a small clearing dotted with several semi-open, leaf-thatched huts pitched with hardwood branches and bamboo walls. Almond-shaped eyes, belonging to the women and children who spend the daytime in refuge from the sweltering heat, peer out at us from the shadows. Their appearance is markedly different from the rest of the Peninsula population — they’re darker skinned, with curlier hair and are shorter in stature.
Men are mostly absent from the camp. We’re told they’re out hunting game and gathering wild fruits and edible plants. “Sometimes they leave for weeks at a time,” says Angah. But the tribal chief has remained to greet us. He’s a small but stocky man with jet-black hair and an intense gaze who proudly shows us his blowpipe fashioned from rattan palm and held together with a rubber-like tree resin.
While the Batek used to subsist entirely from the land, many of them now interact with the local economy, trading sought-after forest products, such as sandalwood for rice, tarp and other basic resources. In one hut, a withered man lies motionless, struck down with an infection. “He won’t go to hospital,” Angah tells us. “The Batek have their own healer. Their medicine[s] are the plants and remedies of nature.”
Our fleeting visit has left us hungry to return, and on our final night, over Tiger beer and steaming river-fish curry, my partner and I plot future excursions. I’d like to forgo the luxuries of the hotel to camp out in the nearby limestone caves. He’s dreaming of hiking the 53km trail to Gunung Tahan, Malaysia’s highest peak, in the northwest corner of the park.
In little time we’ve come to feel at ease in the brooding presence of the forest, now hardly noticing the procession of ants streaming past our dining table or the shrill sound of ever-present cicadas. Before leaving, my partner records the sounds of the jungle on his phone — a small but resounding memory of a treasured stay to play back on the long trudge home.
Before you go…
In peak season (April-August), employing a private guide may help you avoid the bulky groups and well-trodden tracks around Kuala Tahan, for better animal-spotting.
Hike it on a shoestring
Take the bus from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan (1hr 30min) for only MYR7 (£1.30). Pay park entry and camera fees, then hike the signposted pathways deep into the reserve.
Embrace the adventure
Tackle the ascent to Gunung Tahan, Malaysia’s highest summit. Enter the park via Sungai Relau for expeditions. You’ll need camping gear and a registered guide.
How to do it: A three-day, all-inclusive package to Taman Negara, staying at Mutiara Resort, costs from MYR780 (£146) per person, including return transfers to/from Kuala Lumpur and park entry permit.
Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)