Jungle Trekking in Taman Negara

A peaceful stretch on a very splashy ride!

So the day had come, the day I got to go out in the jungle. Since I did it 10 years ago in Sumatra this had been something I wanted to do again. It was one of these things that I didn’t actively long for during my long absence from Asia, but once the plans for the trip started to crystalize I immediately knew I wanted to do it. We started off by going to the travel agent where we had booked our trek to meet our guide and get our things packed. As you might have guessed we had to bring everything we were going to drink and eat with us. We also met our guide Ajip, and (spoilers) he turned out to be a very good guide that we were very happy with.

An old abandoned Orang Asli Settlement.

First, we had to register at the park office across the river. A rather tedious but also necessary exercise. Since it’s a national park which understandably should be kept nice and clean, you basically have to go to a registration office where you pay a fee and then you will be escorted to another building were they take inventory of everything you bring with you that is non-perishable. However, most of the things were pre-packed by our tour provider were already counted which made the process considerably faster. Obviously, you are meant to take these objects with you when you exit the park. It somewhat reminded me of my basic training in the Swedish military service (which used to be compulsory), when your superior officers inspected your backpacks to make sure that they were properly packed according to regulations. But I completely understand why this process is necessary and fully support it, as I know how sloppy and uncaring people can be about the environment and throw garbage everywhere.

Staring up into the canopy

As soon as we had finished, we boarded a boat and started to go up the river. It was quite a splashy ride and I got completely soaked on my whole upper body, as the French couple had gotten the better seats behind us. As it turns out that didn’t matter very much when we started to walk in the jungle, but more on that later. It was a mighty sight zipping along the river seeing the canopy of huge trees growing tight along the shore and sometimes almost hanging over us. If the river was a little less wide it probably would have felt a little bit like standing in a giant alleyway of trees. Occasionally as we were traversing the river, we would meet other boats serving as water taxis for the local indigenous tribe living in the reserve called the Orang Asli. You could also see them fishing with nets which they placed manually by swimming out in the river. It was about a one and a half to two-hour ride before we reached our final destination. Ajip complained a bit about the boatman and said he was very inexperienced as the trip should normally be much shorter. That might also have been the explanation as to why the people in the water-taxi we met during a particularly difficult spot on the river seemed so amused by us.

Tapir tracks

Eventually, we reached our starting point, a small research station on the national park side of the river. Ajip held a small briefing and off we went. There was a clear trail that we followed which made it reasonably easy to walk, even though at some spots trees had fallen over the trail and we had to climb over. The elevation varied and there was a lot of going up and down and in terms of distance, we didn’t nearly make as much progress as you’d normally expect on a walk in another more easily traversed environment. Now, I had expected the heat and humidity to be almost overpowering in the jungle, but I found it not to be the case. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. However, the combination of exercise, heat and humidity caused me to sweat, and by that, I mean a lot. I don’t think I have ever been sweating so much in my entire life. When we had our rest stops I was literally soaked on my upper body, I could wring out my t-shirt like a fully wet towel causing a small stream of water to emerge. So while it didn’t actually feel that hard physically in terms of being out of breath or having muscular pain, I knew that my body was working hard nonetheless. Although the amount you sweat can vary from person to person, the French couple with us seemed to find the trekking much harder physically but they also seemed a lot drier than me. Elly also had the same experience as she thought that the jungle trekking would be physically much tougher. But I also think that we were really helped out by the fact that we had already been getting acclimatised to a tropical climate for two months.

A very beautiful flower that I absolutely didn’t forget the name of, I’m just not telling you guys.

Along the way, we made several stops when Ajip wanted to point something out to us explaining parts of the workings of the jungle. We also had an hourly rest stop that was around ten minutes. I would say that even though the trekking is a bit like an extended workout session, I was still able to listen and learn from Ajip and observe my surroundings when I saw or found something interesting. During the day’s trekking we didn’t see any specific animals beyond what you really would expect (insects, birds), however, we did see lots of tracks including wild elephant, tapir, wild boar and deer. We also passed by some cameras meant to capture tiger activity but didn’t see any tracks. We definitely heard monkeys in the trees above us but never actually saw them with our own eyes. While this might seem a bit disappointing I was not that bothered. I grew up in a place close to what I would call patches of reasonably wild and untouched nature in Sweden, and I know that you simply cannot walk out into the forest and expect to see animals right away.

The jungle is not a place for arachnophobes

As for the experience of just walking through the jungle? Well, it’s hard to just describe. I have done it once before, but then the whole purpose was to see orangutans so perhaps I wasn’t as focused on the environment itself, and it was quite a long time ago as well. It is a very special experience, you feel very small and a bit overwhelmed in a positive way. It just feels very intense and large, and you feel quite small. You are basically walking along this small path that is made just for the benefit of us humans, that needs to be constantly maintained in order to not be eaten by the jungle. If you would stray and get lost you would basically be like an unprotected small child surrounded by nature that dictates and decides everything around you, at least if you are an unskilled westerner like me. Not something you always experience in most parts of the world developed and used by humans that have shaped the surroundings according to their needs and preferences. In a way, you could describe the jungle as a rapidly moving body of water, there’s just no way you could fight it or bend it to your will, the best you could do is to adapt to it and follow it. It might sound a bit pretentious but I really do think about these things, sometimes also in conjunction with what you as a person need for your mental and psychic well-being. In a world where I am as a middle-class Swede overly safe and protected in my environment that has big elements of artifice created for just for you (as a human being), perhaps you need to go out in the jungle now and then (or some similar experience). Even though that is also somewhat artificial, I have no pretensions of myself being some kind of genuine adventurer just because I paid for an overnight trek in the jungle, my body and mind still react in a certain way to that environment that i find beneficial for my long term stress levels.

Our dinner

After walking for roughly 5 hours excluding breaks, we reached our destination. This was a cave that was used as an overnight shelter for groups such as us. The cave was slightly bigger than I had thought and made for quite impressive sleeping spot. While Ajip started to prepare dinner we could rest or just explore the surroundings on our own. Mostly we just rested and went to a nearby stream to fetch water for dinner, but also to clean ourselves and remove leeches after a day in the jungle. I hade some leeches in my clothing and one that had managed to get through my sock and do some damage. I know that some people really don’t like leeches, but I don’t mind, you really only pick them off and there’s a little blood. Then you clean the wound and that’s it, it was pretty painless in my opinion. After that quick refresher we went back to the cave to eat.

Cave house rules

For being in a cave in the middle of nowhere the dinner was pretty tasty, but most of all it was a very nice experience sitting by the fireplace in a cave eating together and listening to Ajip telling stories about the jungle and Malaysia in general. After that, it was time to sleep. Or at least to try to sleep. Our sleeping mats where pretty thin and we were sleeping on uneven rock. I’m not a good sleeper (unless you count the daytime when you shouldn’t sleep) in perfectly normal conditions, so even though I was pretty tired, I had problems sleeping. There was also something else keeping us awake. Creatures skulking around just at the edge of the illumination our fireplace could provide. They were sniffing and probing, looking for an innocuous way to sneak up and eat our leftovers. As soon as all of us slept we were swiftly and abruptly awoken by something turning our empty pots over looking for scraps of food. A group of porcupines had taken refuge in the cave and were now very interested in our leftovers. However, as soon as we started to stir they swiftly retreated into the darkness. In the morning Ajip told me it had not rained in the jungle for a long time and that they had likely taken shelter in the cave because of the heat. That night, Ajip wisely placed our dishes further away to give us some measure of nightly peace. And so the night went on and I drifted in and out of an uneasy slumber.

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