Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia
Feb 1, 2005
|Written by Ted:
On Jan. 31, we boarded the mail train from Singapore to Jerantut, Malaysia, from where we would explore Taman Negara National Park. The mail train was slow (stopping at every town along the way) and hot (no A/C or fans), but our only means of transportation unless (like most people do) we went to Kuala Lumpur first. At one point a drunk Indian man tried to converse with us, but the cleaning lady discouraged us from continuing to talk to him.
Taman Negara is the largest park in peninsular Malaysia, covering 4343 km2, mostly of pristine primary rainforest. The park claims it is the oldest rainforest in the world, having existed largely as it is for the past 130 million years. Peninsular Malaysia was unaffected by the ice ages, and has been free of volcanic activity and other geologic upheavals. Most of the park (58%) is covered by lowland dipterocarp forest, which supports 14,000 species of plants, 200 of mammals, and 300 of birds. As many as 240 species of trees can be found within a single hectare at Taman Negara, whereas an average temperate forest (such as those found in the mid-Atlantic) contains a number closer to seven. At an altitude of 750m, this is replaced by montane forests of oaks, rattans, palms, and conifers. At 1500 m, cloud forests occur. Among the rare mammals found in the park are 200 tigers, 400 elephants, 12-20 Sumatran rhinoceros, and Malayan wild dogs. Other mammals include seladang, tapir, sambar deer, derow, wild pig, barking deer, yellow throated marten, various cats, 80 species of bats, and 30 species of rats. Taman Negara receives more than 90 inches of rain annually in the lowlands (more in the mountains), but we arrived in the dry season, and it only rained once (for less than half an hour) while we were there. The previous month, the park had been in a drought.
We spent a night in Jerantut at Hotel Sri Emas, which has a travel office that gives a nightly presentation on activites available in the park, and can arrange transportation and accomodation there. The following morning we took a bus to the jetty at Kuala Tembeling, about half an hour away. Once there, we boarded a riverboat to take us 3 hours up the Sungai Tembeling (Tembeling River) to park headquarters. The riverboats are low - you sit at water level - and are powered by an outboard motor. It was the dry season, so the pilot had to navigate around sand bars and shallow water (most of which was marked by floating jugs anchored to the bottom).
There is only a top-end hotel/resort located within the park itself (although it is very nice, it is expensive). However, there are cheaper restaurants and guesthouses just across the river at Kuala Tahan village. Small ferry boats cross back and forth between the park and the village for 50 sen ($0.13). We stayed at a relatively isolated place called Park Lodge, with a great view of the Tembeling River, friendly staff, free breakfast, and few other guests. They gave us rides to the village (about 0.5 km away), but we usually had to walk back. Kuala Tahan village has restaurants floating on the river, and anchored to shore. The food was quite cheap, but not especially interesting.
After arrival, we walked around the park headquarters area. I saw a large monitor lizard digging for food, but the highlight was walking along a trail, and encountering an Orang Asli man walking from the opposite direction, wearing only a pair of old shorts, and carrying a long blow gun. There are 100,000 Orang Asli (Original People) living in peninsular Malaysia, divided into 18 ethnic groups. The Batek tribe are Negrito Orang Asli who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle inside Taman Negara Park. They have been pushed off the rest of their land to make way for rubber and palm oil plantations. The Batek man I met (we exchanged greetings, although did not share a common language) was middle-aged, dark-skinned, had tightly curled black hair, a beard, and resembled pictures of New Guinea natives.
The following day, Karen and I trekked on trails around the park headquarters. First, we went to the Canopy Walkway, suspended 25 m above the ground between huge trees, and stretching half a kilometer, the longest in the world. The Canopy Walkway gave us great views of the tree tops. We didn't see any monkeys, and birds were fairly scarce, but this might have been a combination of heat and noise (we arrived early, but were soon followed by large numbers of noisy tourists). From the walkway, we followed a poorly-marked trail to Bukit Teresik (Teresik Hill), which overlooked the forest. From there, we descended to the Tahan River. The river water was fairly cold, and quite refreshing after all that trekking in muggy tropical heat (humidity was around 95%). After hunger overruled our appreciation for the river, we followed a trail along the river back to park headquarters. We saw two male crested fireback pheasants along the way.
That night, I went on a night drive in the back of a pickup truck, along with some British and Czech backpackers. A guide tried to pick out animals with a spot light. We were going through a palm oil plantation outside the park (no roads in the park), so I didn't have high expectations. Tigers, elephants, and rhinos are rare, and confined to the park boundaries. Logging and conversion of the surrounding land to palm oil plantations has not only affected the indigenous Orang Asli, it has isolated the animals living there, and lowers their likelihood of long-term survival. The plantation we were driving through was only 7 years old, and was primary rainforest before that. We could still see the stumps of large trees. The animals we spotted most often were cows and water buffalos. We did see a leopard cat, which is a spotted wild cat slightly bigger than a housecat. We also saw mice, an owl, sleeping birds, and baby brown bat snakes.
Palm oil is a huge business in Southeast Asia, and is heavily promoted by the Malaysian government. Oil is extracted from the fruit and seeds, and used for soaps, lotions and shampoos throughout the world. It is also used for cooking oil in SE Asia. Recently, a process was developed to convert this oil into a motor fuel. We saw vast plantations of palm oil trees, and also many rubber plantations, while traveling through Malaysia. A Danish couple later told us that most of Malaysia and Borneo was covered with palm oil plantations, and Thailand was becoming that way. Native forests in these areas are fast being cut down and replaced by palm oil monocultures.
On Feb. 3, we chartered a small boat to take us down river to Pengkalan Blau, a landing near the Yong River. Here, we were off the beaten path, trekking along the Tenor Trail amidst huge trees. In fact, we didn't see anyone else the whole time. We heard (but didn't see) some wild pigs, and saw long-tailed macaques, quails, squirrels, and numerous birds. I went inside Gua Telingga cave, which was occupied by a large bat colony. The cave was narrow; I decided not to crawl underneath the bats, as they became disturbed as I approached, and tended to urinate when flying away. I didn't fancy smelling like bat piss the rest of the day. There were pools of water inside the cave also, full of water striders, beetles, and mosquito larvae. The trail ended at a small settlement for park employees and their families. We waved at the taxi boats across the river at Kuala Tahan village, and one picked us up.
That night, we visited one of the well-constructed hides overlooking a salt lick (rangers place salt at these locations to attract animals for the visitors). You can pay to spend the night at any of the hides, but you don't have to pay to just visit them. We went to the one closest to the park resort. Our feeble flashlights were useless at that range, but a tour guide lit up six or more deer with his torch before his group departed, leaving us in relative darkness.