In the morning we recharged our camera in one of the floating restaurants close to the river bank. After that we took a boat. On the opposite side there were many giant tree with branches hanging over the water. We paid the tickets (just 0,25$ per person), took a map from the headquarter, made a photo of a diagram with the altitude of the base camps and around 12 o’clock we were absolutely ready to be swallowed by the jungle.
National Park Taman Negara Pahang is huge, with hundreds of square miles of forests. Inside it is one of the oldest forests on Earth more then 130 million years old. Thirty four miles away from the place where we were, was peak Gunung Tahan, the highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia (excluding Borneo) with altitude about 7 200 feet. Our expedition would consist in climbing from the south and getting off from the northwest side of the peak. That should take us between 7 and 9 days depending on our physical conditions and speed. The goal is to get used to the jungle for the many future expeditions in Borneo and Indonesia, to learn what is it to be in such an environment and how we can handle hiking and camping in a real tropical rain forest. One of the main motivators to climb the peak is that all recommend in internet to not try this trek since it is extremely difficult and almost impossible to do, with many river crossings, lots of climbing and the like. It sounded just like something for us to do.
More than 170 feet high jungle trees
So, we put on our backpacks and start. In the beginning we were very nervous. We didn’t know if there are any check-points ahead of us because it was forbidden to do the trek without a guide. Fortunately there was no one to stop us. After 2-3 km we passed a sign saying that from this point on one must be with a guide. From that moment all the tourists disappeared. Taman Negara is recommended in “Lonely Planet” and because of that is full of western tourists, but they usually do short walks around the office. The stumbling people in flip flops almost crying because of the hundreds of leeches remained somewhere far behind us.
Our old friends – the leeches
The feeling of walking in a tropical rain forest is something really amazing. Huge trees with bizarre trunks and roots stretch their branches as if they try to reach the sky. The highest layer of the jungle reaches a height of up to 200 feet. Some lianas grow as thick as a man’s thigh. There are strange plants with huge leaves overhanging the path alluring you to just make a wrong step and catch their thorny trunks. Mystic fogs cover the land and a cacophony of sounds deafens you.
We walk cautiously because there are more than 20 types of poisonous snakes (among them King Cobra) besides the tigers and rhinos that also inhabit the park. On the other hand we really want to see some of them. The jungle is also full of hundreds of types of mammals like deers, tapirs, flying squirrels, lemurs, and many others which one cannot see in Europe.
Firstly, of course, we meet our old “friends”- the leeches. Hundreds of them crawl towards us from everywhere. They twist their small bodies madly trying to catch any part of our shoes or clothes and then to suck to some tasty part of our skin. They are starving but we do not want to feed them and this time we are prepared. We put on the brand new rubber boots and continue walking. Not so long after that we lose the track and discover by chance a village with strange stilt huts with curved palm leaves roofs. At first we thought that this is some fake tourist attraction but after we saw that everything had been made very skillfully and only with natural materials.
The stilts were tied with thin lianas; the floor was made from strange bark that looks like plywood. We came to the notion that this is an authentic village of the indigenous Batek people who we have heard live in the national park. They still follow the old and primitive ways of doing things – the same way mankind lived for tens of thousands of years ago: namely hunting and gathering. Batek people hunt in a traditional way using blow pipe with poisonous arrows and spears. They don’t eat ”modern” foods, even rice, and obtain carbohydrates from the roots of a kind of wild plant. The rest that we have read about them is that they do not have any property and they refuse to get any financial help from the Malaysian government.
The reasons their leaders point are that they have everything they need and don’t require any money to be happy. The government accepted the will of the Batek people and let them live freely in the National park, to hunt and preserve their traditional way of living. It was so interesting to go around their village and see what they have: fish traps from bamboo, pipes to blow the fire, an unfinished hut fire place and so on. It looks like, for some reason they’ve just left everything, went out and abandoned the village. As true nomads do.
We continued our trek, excited that maybe we would meet Batek people on our way. Soon it started raining that intensified and penetrated the thick layer of leaves above us so at the end we were absolutely wet. The humidity made the weather hotter and even breathing was really hard. Floating in water and sweat we reached the first base camp Melantay – a wide clear flat land with many places for tents on the river bank.
Finally the rain stopped and we started to pitch our tent and then commenced with the hard task to set a fire. If we don’t have fire we will have no food and water because all the water we get in the jungle should be boiled before drinking. Even though we have a very good experience with setting fire in any conditions it is really extremely difficult this time because the wood is all wet. We have diesel fuel on us but anyway, it still took an hour to succeed.
We wake up early in the morning. The light of the day makes the jungle look even more beautiful then yesterday. The sun rays penetrate through the leaves of the giant trees and fall on us.
Mr. Sushtari in front of the giant tree
We bathe in the river and again start the uneasy task to set a fire. This time we manage to do it faster. We eat a humble breakfast because of the limited food which we have on us and that must be sufficient for the next eight days.
We go back to the crossroad that we saw yesterday but it turns out that this is not the right path and we start to wander and look everywhere for the right one. We found tens of small paths with many animals’ footprints but not the one we need. After searching for quite a long time we go back to the camp from where we started in the morning and we found that the path is just on the other side of the river. We should have seen it when we were there but we were instead looking at the map which didn’t show that we should cross the river.
Where is the pathway?
Thus we loose a lot of time and finally we start walking in the early afternoon. This is not good because the distance between the camps is usually about 8 hours, therefore it is not possible to reach the next camp before it gets dark and we have to find a place and sleep somewhere in the jungle. Today’s trek is called Twenty eight hills. Soon we will find out why.
The path is going straight forward ascending and descending, hill after hill – no bends, no curves – just straight upwards passing on the highest point of every hill. Our backpacks are extremely heavy with all of the food that we carry and the additional 3-4 l. of water per person. We feel like we are about to die. The sounds of cicadas are deafening us, the gibbons scream out, their voices getting louder and louder wuhuuiiiii, wuhuuiiiiii, wuhuuuiiiiiiiiiiii…
A giant ant
Then something rather heavy falls down from one branch and quickly disappears rustling in the bushes. We now understand that if we want to see any wild animal in the dense jungle we never will manage to conceive it while walking with the heavy backpacks and making loud noises with our rubber boots. After a while two guys and an old man appear from the bushes, climbing down from the peak.
We ask them how the situation further is. They are very surprised that we are without a guide and warn us that tomorrow we have to cross at least 7-8 times the deep river and we have to be careful because sometimes the level of the river is unpredictable and can rapidly rise and one can be blocked in the middle of the trek. The old guide was very nice, smiling all the time and saying that everything in the jungle is in harmony and we will succeed. “Tiger, elephant, rhino everything is in a harmony, just walk with a peaceful mind and everything will be fine”. Later we will remember this man’s words and understand how right he was.
A well deserved rest
Hill after hill, hour after hour we walk till it gets dark. Inside the jungle is always darker and at this altitude the sunset is about 6 PM and then the night falls in just a few minutes. We are far from reaching the camp we planned to go to and the situation becomes a little critical when we suddenly see a big bivouac with a sign saying there is water just 10 m. away.
By miracle or by chance it is just what we need. Going up the forest it becomes dryer so this time we set fire easily. We fill the bottles with red, spring water from a bamboo spout. We are totally not concerned with the red color. The water comes from a spring so there is no need to be boiled. We cook and eat some food and listen to the night jungle sounds. Then we fall asleep.
The dry bivouac
Quick preparations and we hit the road (pathway in our case). In an hour we reach the last peak out of 28 hills called Gunung Raja. We descend the steep path that goes to the river where the base camp , that we had to reach yesterday, is. It is still difficult to compensate for the delay from the second day when we got lost.
In front of us there is a pretty wide river. The color is red, as if somebody has slaughtered tens of animals upstream. Giant trees hang out their big branches over the river shores.
We have read that we have to do seven river crossings today. We rush foreword. Few steps and I almost fall down. The river bottom consists of some very slippery stones. It is difficult to see them because of the red color of the water. The sun is being reflected strongly and that dazzles us. The next time we have to enter the river Magy falls down and starts laughing uncontrollably and then lets herself float down the stream. Later my foot gets stuck between two stones, in a few steps I stagger and almost fall down. Our brand new camera is in the water but fortunately we wrapped it very good in a plastic bag. It turned out that for us the river crossing was a really funny endeavor.
The red river
In the late afternoon we find some strange bamboo raft abandoned in the river. The bamboos are fixed with baste fibers and are definitely made by the Batek people who we suppose are somewhere close-by. While we look for the path and suddenly a shadow appears in the distance but then vanishes swiftly and we never saw him/her again. Surely she/he is a Batek. Adrenalin rushes in. We do not know a lot about these people. Are they dangerous? Are they nice or not so much?
It is getting dark. We did not reach the camping place, but we found quite a nice place and we pitched the tent there. Completely exhausted from the hard trek we do not even set fire, do not eat and just fall asleep. We are listening to the sounds and we wonder: does this sound come from an animal or a Batek? Around 10:30 two Bateks appear but they do not see our tent. They wear just short pants and are barefooted. They hold a torch and are laughing. Less than ten minutes later they come back. This time they choose a different path – trough our tent. They carry 10 pieces of big fish, see the tent and discretely go around it.
I feel it is silly to hide so I go out and greet them. They answer cordially and leave. We are very excited. This is the first time we meet indigenous people. They have no possessions and believe that one cannot own anything. Everything that they need belongs to the Jungle and everything that they take is a gift from it. It is so simple. When you need something you just go and take it. There is no tension in their society because they live harmoniously and are united. One day if I do not succeed in my life I will just come back here and become a Batek 🙂
The bivouac where we met the Batek people
Next day as usual we prepare everything very slowly. We have to boil the water then we have to wait for it to cool down and pour it in the plastic bottles. Then we have to cook breakfast, and prepare the luggage. Our food supplies are limited; it is getting late and there is no time to search for the Batek village. It is pity though because they ought to be somewhere around.
After the eighth river crossing we reach the last “comfortable” camp – Kuala Teku. We read that from here on there is no more water available. We take a rest for a while and start the steep ascending. The inclination is more than 45 degrees.
Our bags are really heavy as we now carry additional water. We are breathing heavily. The path is so steep that on the side they have put some security ropes. The appearance of the jungle changes. The giant trees disappear and are replaced by smaller ones, bushes and strange mosses, covering the stones. The path is steep all the way up and we feel like we are going to die.
First Look at the peak
In the late afternoon we as usual don’t manage to reach the planned bivouac. So we make the camp on a small flat place below a big tree trunk hanging above the tent. It was the only available place so we check if the tree is strong enough so it doesn’t fall on the tent while we are sleeping inside. As we eat our dinner in front of the fire a big fat forest rat comes closely without noticing our presence. We are extremely tired; our feet are pulsating with pain. We fall asleep calmed by the fact we have already passed great part of the distance towards the peak.
Our bivouac under the tree
This is the day of unmet expectations! After about ten minutes of walking we reach the detour route. There is a sign that says: “Ponkin Camp”. We compare it to the diagram in the map and we’re shocked. It turns out we have walked 8 hours yesterday and crossed just 3 miles! It is unbelievable. The main part of the ascending just begins. A little bit disappointed we fill in the bottles with water and start climbing.
It turns out that ascending is worse than yesterday. It is getting steeper, almost vertical. Walking becomes rock climbing, mixed with root climbing. There is an alpine rope along the path now almost at every step. Some of the places are so steep that there are even aluminum ladders.
Stairways to heaven
We are exhausted, our muscles ache and due to the limited portions we eat we do not have much energy. We are slowly roving up the path. But the forest is amazing and for the first time we can see the nice scenery near the peak and the mountain edges.
We hear strange animal sounds coming up from below, far in the valley. After a while we come to the notion that these are the shouts and thumps of the Batek people. They are hunting. So now we know that besides the fact that one can’t see a wild anima,l how the Batek people hunt only with spears and blow pipes. Obviously the hunters hide in the bushes on the animals’ paths and then there are other people who shout and yell and thump and chase the animals towards the hunters’ ambush.
Although we are vegetarians and of course we are against killing animals, this way of life by hunting using such means and showing great respect to every single animal seems somehow natural.
However, the main reason for the disappearance of wild animals off the earth are not the Batek people or any tribes like them, but the overpopulation of Earth, deforestation by various greedy businessmen, industrial pollution and our modern civilization marching at the sounds of “victory” over all other creatures of God.
Fabulous views follow one after the other as the steep slopes and stairs follow, one of which was longer than 10 meters. We climb slowly and reach the next peak Reskit. After a few hours and a series of almost vertical slopes, we come to the last peak Gedo. We see our goal – Gunun Tahan. It still seems pretty damn far, but at least we have climbed at a pretty nice height already. The trees disappear, vegetation changes and now there are mainly low maple bushes.
The last hour before dark we descend to a valley just before the ridge to the peak. Good we have boots, because the trail goes through something like dry river bed full of deep mud puddles. We are dead tired, the sunset is close, and we find a rocky but relatively flat place and pitch our tent. The temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), which for us now, being accustomed to higher temperatures, is very cold.
There is no wood so we set small fire of dried maples branches. We are extremely happy.We are close to the peak. Now we know why the name Gunun Tahan means The Peak Of Endurance and why this trek is considered to be one of the most difficult in Southeast Asia. It is unbelievable that it is only 2 187 meters high (7 175 feet)!
Bivouac at the foot of the peak
In the morning everything is wet and it is pretty cold. Quickly we prepare our stuff and start climbing. We are impatient and cannot wait for the final climb to the peak. We are above the layer of clouds and it is incredibly beautiful, like a sea of clouds. Along the way we find a huge puddle of clear water and can’t resist and immediately take a “shower”. We have not showered for a couple of days. After the bath everything seems brighter.
We climbed the peak in about an hour. The battery of the camera is dead after the final shoot at the peak. Everything is covered with clouds that slowly creep towards us. Six days, 55 km, 22 hours climbing, starting from the foot of the mountain. Even after we were in the Himalayas, this will remain one of the most difficult treks we’ve ever done.
Gunung Tahan peak
The land of batek people
The descent is steep, but it is nothing compared to the climbing. In the camp, below the peak, we meet a large group of Malaysian students. They carry on lots of food and had stopped here to rest a day before climbing the peak. We continue going down. We feel like we are flying. The mud and the puddles don’t seem to be an obstacle anymore.
We are entering the wet zone of the high jungle and at dusk we reach camp Kubang. The soil is so wet that some water comes below the fire. We have very little food now. We eat and fall asleep somewhat tired. That day we’ve passed more than 20 kilometers, not counting the climbing we did in the beginning.
160 feet tree
It is the same mountain and the same jungle but they look so different from one to the other side. After a series of river crossings, descends and ascends of small hills, we come to the nice camp Luis where two rivers enter a bigger one. Huge river pools, fallen giant trees and amazing scenes unfold before our eyes. This time we arrive in the early afternoon so finally we have enough time and we can enjoy the place. We pitch the tent, drink tea, chat, swim and relax.
The last bivouac
We take our time. We are cooking beans and been boiling it for more than 5 hours, and the meal isn’t ready yet. Anyway, this is our last meal, so we eat half of the semi cooked beans and put the rest of it in the backpack for later.
Half an hour later we reach Kuala Juran. Here the trek ends officially . The asphalt road leads to the headquarters of the park about 13 km away. We walk around see some strange signs, that describe how to put the fish back in the water after you have caught it. Very weird! It is protected zone in the National park and we do not understand why do you first need to catch them at all?!? Just to make a few selfies with the fish?! What ignorance and mockery with the poor animals!
Beehive of unknown insect
After a while we go on the road and immediately face a terrifying fact. The asphalt road is made in the same insane way, directly passing through every highest point of each hill. No bypass, no serpentine, just straight forward. Now we know why the signs say that it takes five and a half hours to walk a distance of 13 km.
Well, at least the road is asphalt. It is wide and there are excellent views of all five floors of the jungle. All the road is full of all sorts of animals’ excrements. This road is obviously not used by too many people and is privatized by wild animals. We also see giant cow excrements which makes us wonder what the hell do the cows here in the jungle. Later we realize that these are not cows’ dungs but actually elephant’s. What should one do when one meets a herd of wild elephants on the road? That is something nobody has taught us in schoolJ
We have walked for two hours. The sun is setting down. There are no cars on the road. We reach the high observation tower where there are binoculars available. It is very interesting to be at that height among the branches of giant trees and see in every direction. The only problem is that it is getting dark and we do not even know how long we have to walk.
We continue walking and see a cute animal with shiny coat, probably Otter Civet. Because of the wind and us walking silently we’re not heard by it, so we enjoy a few minutes of watching it how does it walk and how does it eat leaves. Further down the road we see the trail disappearing into the jungle and a sign that there is a cottage. We wonder if we should stay here to sleep, but we have no food neither water so we continue.
It is almost dark. We are very tired and walk silently. Suddenly a loud roar literally freezes us to the marrow of our bones. We look at each other in shock. Yes, without a doubt, it is a TIGER. Not further than 200-300 meters away, in the direction of the house where we were planning to stay. Then we hear a second roar. A long one that caused the earth beneath us to vibrate. We “casually” accelerate our pace. Third roar detonates an adrenal bomb in our blood. Quickly we put out our torch lights. I put the machete on my belt, just in case, and with a rather brisk step we start almost running towards the headquarters.
All our senses are open to the maximum, we look feverishly left, right, back, foreword… Maggie pust my straw hat on my backpack to make it look as if my face looks back. We have heard that this strategy works sometimes. The tigers usually do not attack people. That roar was obviously a fight for territory between two males, but it is difficult to convince oneself that everything is fine when you are at dusk in the jungle, having heard this damn powerful roar.
I feel my eyesight and my hearing sharpen and become like those of the animals. As it becomes clear later, we took the remaining five kilometers to the headquarters in just 40 minutes. We go through a bridge barrier and finally end up in “civilization”. Trimmed meadows, street lamps, illuminated buildings. Euphoria erupts within us as we survived and are alive and everything is fine after this incredible adventure. In an hour we go to bed without eating anything, but who cares, we are totally contend.
Insectivorous plant of the genus Nepenthes
Here you are the short movie Into The Jungle that we shot during the expedition : CLICK HERE