- Getting to the gate -
19th - 27th March 2012
Kuantan - Cherating – Marang – Tasik Kenyir – Kuala Koh
2947km – 3305km
Resorting to riding to rest
We all have limits. Christ knows our very first day on this trip was spent cycling almost to the point of exhaustion, to the point that we were actually shaking and felt sick. A month later I wound up physically defeated after our five day push from Yogyakarta to Ciapanas in Java. You know, it got to the point where my body just wouldn't work the way it should; weak legs, fuzzy head. Suffice to say, rest days are essential, and we value them enormously.
So, the morning after we had cycled 145km into Kuantan on the east coast of Malaysia we woke up in a dingy grey concrete room, lying on a mattress about as thick and comfortable as a piece of ryvita. We were on the edge of town, and although Kuantan wasn't exactly unpleasant, it wasn't the kind of place we wanted to spend our two days off in either. Besides, we had a hunch that there would be some nice beaches not too far away. After a small breakfast, some quick internet research, and going against the desperate pleas from our exhausted legs, we set off north out of the city to find one.
The internet had yielded some information about a backpacker friendly resort called Cherating that apparently lay about 30km north of Kuantan. The lady at the hotel reckoned it was more like 20km. After an hour's riding out of the city we passed a sign that said we still had another 40km to go. And so, what was supposed to be a relaxing day of hardcore lethargy became a hot afternoon ride on very tired legs.
The east coast of Malaysia lacks the big settlements of the west, and is much more sparsely populated as a result. The road was narrow, like a country lane back home, and the villages spread themselves thinly along the way; a house here, a shop there, a fruit stand further on, all laid out beneath a dazzling cloud flecked sky.
|Kuantan - Cherating -|
Dungun - Marang
We found ourselves a smart wooden chalet beside a pond in a loping green garden by the sea, and booked ourselves in for three nights. Except for the evening assault of mozzies the place was remarkably serene and beautiful. Making the effort to get out of our nondescript concrete hotel in the city and come out here made a big difference, these were two days off of the highest quality, and like I say, we think it's very important to get a decent day's rest. Reading by the pond, paddling around in the jacuzzi-hot sea, and eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner; yeah, it was pretty decent all right.
After our gold standard double day off in Cherating we set off up the coast road, due north once more, but although we were well rested and feeling fit, all was not well. There was a large grey lump of uncertainty ahead.
The next leg hinged on a Schroedinger's cat of a road that was marked on our map as a highway under construction, but which was entirely absent from google maps. If the highway was completed then it would take us inland and over a lake to the back entrance of Taman Negara National Park. If the road was not completed though we would have to travel several hundred kilometres north to the next turn off and endure something like an extra 500 kilometres of riding in order to get to the park, which would suck.
Despite the uncertainty the ride up the east coast was relaxing and very pleasant. We hugged the coast pretty much the whole way, so during our midday cool-down lunch breaks we had the opportunity to splash around in the sea. I have to admit I'm not usually one for swimming. I never really got into it and Jaws did lasting damage to my sea-enjoyment gland. But confronted with the tawny beaches, pacific-blue water, and prospect of a refreshing salty bath at the height of the heat of the day, it didn't take Liv long to persuade me to jump in.
* * *
It was mid-afternoon on our second day riding after Cherating when we passed a large green sign pointing the way to a highway, recently constructed, that would take us west over the lake. What a relief! Not only did it free us from the prospect of an additional 500km detour, but it meant that we were about as far north up the east coast as we needed to be. Time to stop for the day.
Just a few kilometres up the road we came to a long stretch of beach populated by restaurants and chalets. This place was a bit more grizzled than Cherating, overfull with wooden restaurants and sprinkled with litter, but despite the high-tide line of polystyrene, the beach wasn't all that bad. The chalets here were very basic concrete rooms though, lined up around a gravel car park. I don't think they could technically be called chalets at all really since there was nothing chalet-y about them, and with their fake leopard-print bed linen they looked more like by-the-hour motel rooms. But chalet's what the sign said, and they were cheap so we took one.
Although the beach was a bit grubby, the sea was the clearest we'd encountered since Bintan, clear enough for us to watch a stingray sail past as we ambled along the beach. We decided to spend another day off here, and why not? It is very important to rest you know.
The ride to the lake was nice, beginning with undulating rural lanes which gave way to bridges over fat rivers fed by the distant lake. Tasik Kenyir, as this great big lake is known, is the largest man-made lake in South East Asia. It lies like a massive jagged amoebae up in the hills, surrounded by trees, with the tips of the old peaks serving as its forested islands. Something of the Scottish Highlands about it, particularly the cruel uphill pedalling required in order to get there.
|Lakeside view from our tent, lovely!|
The lakeside was fairly quiet, with only a few groups of Malays camping, and the odd tour group departing from the jetty. We put our tent up, and then splashed around in the chilly water to cool down, before towelling off and heading back up the road to the restaurant for dinner. We were the only people eating, and so we got to enjoy splendid food with the swift service that comes when the waiting staff outnumber the diners three to one.
We pored over our map as we ate our dinner, and realised that we still had quite a way to go to get to the park entrance. The highway ran east for well over 150km until it reached the turning, but then the entrance to the park was still another 60km away. This meant that it could take us up to three days to reach the park, and there was only one village marked on the map the whole way. We were in good spirits and confident though, since we were well stocked with food and water, and relaxed after so much beach-time over the last week. To give ourselves a chance of making it across the lake to the village in one push though, we decided that we'd get up really early the next morning to secure a long, far ranging day in the saddle.
|When it's hammering it down with rain,|
spending an hour undercover,
fixing a puncture isn't so bad.
We finally got going at around 1pm, but then had to stop within ten minutes of riding to make some adjustments to Liv's gears that had been knocked from their sweet spot when we'd fixed the puncture earlier. It was the least early start we'd had in a long time, but since we didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time, and could feed ourselves for three days, we were in no rush. Being organised but flexible, and taking each day as it comes gives us a sense of freedom that's rare to find these days. Knowing we can just pedal down this road and take one day, or three days, we can camp if we want, or we can turn around and carry on up the east coast instead. It's enormously liberating. We recommend it.
|Marang - Pangkalan Gawi - Elephant Sanctuary - Kuala Koh|
When we finally got down to it, the ride along this almost deserted highway was excellent. The views of the lake were great, it was a nice mix of up and down, and the dense rainforest scattered along the sides was home to an array of impressive looking birds such as the hornbill, along with many other unidentified species.
From what we saw of it the sanctuary was a simple affair, with a small office, a sleeping block, toilet, and a large roofed area, like a bus station with two adult elephants stood side by side beneath it. Set beside them was an enclosure for the baby elephant that paced up and down inside it's three concrete walls and waved its trunk at us as we passed the heavy green bars at the front.
Although the staff seemed to have a good relationship with the animals, slapping them cheerfully on the bellies, blowing down their trunks and talking to them, it was hard to ignore how agitated the two adult animals looked the rest of the time, held on their very short chains, endlessly toying with their food and rocking back and forth. The baby had nothing to do in its cage but walk up and down and try to attract the attention of anyone who passed, and it had to spend every night alone, curled up in the corner. Once the initial glee of finding ourselves camping right beside these impressive animals had passed, we couldn't shake how upsetting it was to see them so far removed from their natural habitat and confined like this.
|The baby elephant sorely wanted company.|
The bitter irony in all this is that work elephants are used to clear land, so these guys might well be trained to tear down the habitat of other elephants, who will in turn be forced into close proximity with villages, who will report them to the authorities, who will take them away, train them, and the cycle goes on and on.
A thrill without any pang of guilt was to be found lurking in the toilets after hours though (not like that, you rogue!). Lured down from the trees by the fluorescent lights, a whole panoply of monstrous bugs found themselves trapped in the toilets, ready to startle, amaze, or put the fear of god into any unsuspecting midnight urinators.
We bumped into moths the size of our hands, grasshoppers that dominated the sink, and the shiny black bulk of an Atlas beetle, one of the biggest beetles in the world. Well, actually this one was dead, and had apparently died just because it had landed on its back and been unable to get back up – biggest and most pathetic beetle ever - but the next morning the cat swatted another one out of the air so we got to see a dazed living specimen.
|An Atlas beetle. They're very slow, not very bright, and die if they fall on their backs, but they are massive.|
We were a bit more organised the next morning and left before sunrise. We made our way along the highway, leaving the lake behind us, and heading into yet more landscape traumatised by palm oil. Seeing the towering, dense, and obviously extremely biologically diverse rainforest that had been with us for much of the previous day suddenly give way to hillside after scarred hillside of this one, lucrative tree was shocking.
But the horror of seeing such a devastated landscape was soon to be sidelined by a peril wholly unexpected by either of us as we rode down the quiet, palm lined road. We pedalled along, and pulled over for a cup of tea in a dusty little warung that appeared by the side of the road. We relaxed, nodding polite good morning's to the few oil palm workers eating their breakfast, who nodded and smiled back. We purchased another 6 litres of water to top up our dromedary bags, and we were pretty well prepared for the rest of the day, so we set off again. We had been riding for only a few minutes when we became aware that we were being watched. At the edge of the plantations to our left, just up off the road along a ridge, were a herd of cattle. What they were doing in the middle of an oil palm plantation we had no idea, but we thought it only proper to bid them good morning by mooing at them, as you do.
Several of them leapt to their feet, and all eyes were on us as we rolled by, our moo faltering from its initial gusto. We kept our eyes on them, feeling a little nervous ourselves now as the rest of them got to their feet, and staggered nervously about. In a matter of seconds they all broke into a gallop, matching our speed, and then overtaking us. Realising immediately that this could be a serious problem for us we both began pedalling furiously. The cows, many of them we noticed with sharp slender horns, were dashing all out now, still moving in the same direction as us but going much quicker than we could possibly manage. 40, 50kmph. It sounds absurd to speak of cows moving so fast, and we had no idea they could do it, but there they were, a blur of hooves and horns racing past us along the ridge.
The road had been on a slight incline, but thankfully it eased down now, while the ridge the cattle were bolting along descended sharply. The track was too steep for them to gallop down, but it was leading them down right onto the road towards us. We took the opportunity to overtake, and sped off down the hill, looking back to see them clattering off the ridge on uncertain hooves, growing smaller and smaller as we sped away.
We gasped a few nervous laughs, relieved that they were behind us, and completely stunned by the fact that we had just been, apparently, pursued by cattle. I stopped to snap a photo of part of the herd that had now crossed to the other side of the road, until I realised with horror that the other half were still on our side and were racing straight for us, one hundred metres and closing.
|Just after snapping this photo, I realised the rest of the herd was still charging right for us!|
I took off down the hill again to catch up with Liv. The road now tilted up slightly but we had a good lead on them, and once we hit the top and descended the other side we were pretty sure we were out of danger. Suddenly another flurry of cows leapt up from the side of the road, beady black eyes looking this way and that. We had just enough time to mutter an “uh-oh” when this new herd began bolting alongside us as well. They were at road level already, and got up to our speed in seconds. I noticed a concrete drainage trench that bordered the grassy strip that the cows inhabited and assumed that this would keep them from coming onto the road. I have since modified my estimation of cows' athletic abilities..
The leaders of the stampede leapt over the trench just ahead of us like obese and ungainly impala. They were much faster than us, but in front of us now, so all we could do is stop and watch as the whole herd, twenty strong, sprang over this two foot gap and charged over the road. A metal strip guarded the plantation on the other side, but they just hurdled that too.
All but two made it over. The final couple trotted up the road a little way, but then they turned and began to jog back towards us. They had horns, and it looked to be an aggressive, if nervous move on their part. A couple of cars drove past which agitated them further, while we heard a thunderous drumming of hooves in the plantation to our right where the rest of them now dashed about wildly. Were they coming back to us? Trying to flank us? (All bets were off at this point) And what was going on with the first herd behind us?
We quickly pedalled up the rest of the incline, so we would be able to get away quickly if any of the herds came back, but as we reached the brow we saw a sign for the national park, 70km ahead of schedule. A short cut! Fizzing with adrenaline we followed the road as it weaved up and down through 15km of palm oil tracks under a punishing midday sun. After a couple of incredibly hot hours cycling, the track broke down into a pebble strewn lane surrounded by dense, looming vegetation. We rounded a corner and there it was, the Kuala Koh entrance to Taman Negara.
- Jungle Fever -
27th March - 2nd April 2012
Kuala Koh - Taman Negara - The High Hide
At over 4'300km2 Teman Negara is Peninsular Malaysia's largest national park, but it's real ace card is that it is the oldest rainforest in the world, at 130 million years. By my calculations that means their should be dinosaurs in it, but apparently it doesn't work like that. (Thousand kilometre detour, no fricking dinosaurs) Thanks to its size it is an enormously important habitat for many of the endangered animals in Malaysia; Malayan Tigers, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephants, along with many, many less well known creatures such as Malayan Gaur (a bull that puts the Minotaur to shame), Pangolins (little mammals that look like pinecones) and Pelanduk (minuscule little deer no bigger than a kitten).
The park entrance was tidy and well set up, with a large main building housing the information desk and restaurant, with staff quarters on the other side of the carpark, and a host of chalets tucked away beneath some trees down the way. These chalets were incredible. They had steps leading up to a front veranda, and then inside they had high ceilings, wooden floors, and plenty of space. We felt like we had wandered into some turn of the century novel, and could just imagine sitting out the front at night in our best evening wear, with a glass of whiskey and a pipe, regaling our associates with tales of our jolly close shave with the cattle.
|The restaurant and information centre|
|This Phasmid has got to be one of the most amazing things we've ever seen. Incredible.|
After a day of relaxing and poking around in the bushes by the hut we were eager to get into the jungle. It was guarded by a wide, fast flowing river, so the only way in was by crossing the suspension bridge that swayed high above the water in true Indiana Jones style. Almost as soon as we made it over we came across a gargantuan spider hiding in her burrow, and then just a few steps further was a motorway of ants, thousands of them, coursing in busy, neat lines that zig-zagged across roots, over the path and off into the jungle. We walked slowly along the track, surrounded by creepers and waxy plants, with trees towering over us and shading us from the sun's rays. Our cameras were working overtime, clicking away at all the insects and spiders that lived out their lives in this shady, wet realm beneath the canopy.
Spotting larger animals in the rainforest is unfortunately not quite so easy. You don't survive very long in this environment unless you are an expert at keeping out of harms way. Two excited humans stomping along the path was sure to scare off even the dopiest of mammals, so if we wanted to see any of the bigger beasts, we'd need to change tactics.
The Kuala Koh entrance to Teman Negara is apparently the least visited of all the four entrances into the park, thanks to the fact there is no public transport going here, and there are entrances closer to all the larger cities. To give you an idea, we saw less than 10 tourists over the whole week that we stayed, and on our first day in the jungle, crunching our way down the track, we were the only visitors. We had the whole place to ourselves.
Being the only two people in a dense rainforest might not strike all of you as being a particularly good thing. You will recall that the majority of Malaysia's tigers live here, along with leopards and bears. As we walked along, just the two of us, it was easy for our minds to wander, and imagine watchful eyes following us, waiting for the right moment to pounce...
As it happened, something was following us, and it was out for blood. It lay hidden from view, and began moving silently towards us long before we even suspected it of being there. We plodded noisily on, and didn't hear or see a thing as it lunged out from the undergrowth.
The leech's jaws connected with my flip flop, and it hauled itself aboard and hooped its way over to the juicy bit between my toes. Anaesthetising as it went, the bite went unnoticed, and thanks to its anti-coagulant spit the blood would keep flowing for hours. More leeches came. They are everywhere in the jungle, and by the time we thought to check ourselves we both had half a dozen hanging on to our feet and shins, swelling up with our blood. They're not very pleasant creatures of course, but I have to take my hat off to anything that small, slimy and slow that can make a living off drinking the blood of jungle mammals that the two of us couldn't even see, let alone sink our jaws into. Moving faster now to reduce the chance of leeches latching on, we ventured deeper into the jungle.
About a mile down the track we found what we were looking for. Tucked away at the top of a small valley was a wooden hut built on stilts, with a long rectangular opening in the far wall for spotting wildlife. There was a toilet outside, and four dusty beds inside, covered in bat shit. Perfect.
If you go down to the woods today...
Late the next afternoon we crept back with food enough for two nights, sat ourselves on the bench inside the hut, and settled in to our watch. The high hide had a view down into a small valley about 15m in front where water pooled around a salt lick, a wholly unnatural phenomenon created by the park staff sprinkling cooking salt in the mud, but which attracted animals nonetheless. We could see this well trodden muddy area, and all the jungle around it very clearly, but after hours of silent waiting no animals had appeared.
We spent the first hour pricking our ears up every five minutes at the sound of footsteps rustling outside. One step, two step, three step... pause.... then closer; one step, two step... silence. We knew that elephants lived in the park, and for a time we were convinced these clumsy noises must be coming from elephants trotting around (although they managed to remain frustratingly well hidden, given their apparent proximity). Eventually we realised how wrong we had been. During the day, you see, the jungle is a remarkably quiet place, and sound travels extraordinarily clearly. These noisy rustles weren't the sound of elephants moving through the jungle, they were the sounds of leaves falling through the trees. Yes, it does sound completely unbelievable but I can assure you that even the sound of a leaf floating down from the canopy above, and scraping past branches and plants, travels so clearly that it can easily be confused for a... erm... for an elephant.
Once we tuned out from the regular scrapes and rustles of leaves we began to tune in to the subtler movements amongst the branches, and began spotting little squirrels darting up the trunks and nibbling on seeds, as well as jungle birds flitting from branch to branch and taking a bath in the puddles. These were all very nice to watch for a time, but not the kind of things you spend a night out in the jungle to see. But would we see anything at all? It was perfectly plausible that we could spend several nights out here and see absolutely nothing, and as the light began to fail, it seemed like our first night would be a disappointment.
|The view from the hide.|
It moved on all fours through the mass of vines and bushes just to the left of the hide, making its way into the open ground directly beneath us. Sun bears are not especially large animals, less than a metre and a half tall, so they couldn't even get on the big rides at Alton Towers, but they are stocky fellows, very powerful looking with wide shoulders like enormous pit-bulls. If it stood on two legs it would probably not even come up above my neck, but since they have sharp teeth, strong jaws and very large claws you really wouldn't want to tangle with one. Our bear pounded his claws into the earth directly below us, digging up something or other, and we leaned out of the window and tried to get a good photo of it.
I wondered just then what would happen if it looked up and saw us, and my heart began thumping. The two of us, over the moon in one sense, were suddenly tense as anything and tried to keep as quiet as possible. We didn't think sun bears were known to attack people, but when you're out in the middle of a rainforest with no-one else around, you really don't want to chance anything, so we kept as quiet as we possibly could. This was probably a good move on our part, as we were later to learn they are notoriously aggressive and will attack people without provocation.
The bear moved under the hide and out of view. The light was waning rapidly, and the shadows of the jungle were transforming the place into blackness. Where had the bear gone? We crept over to the door, undid the puny little bolt, and peered outside. We could hardly see anything in the darkness, so I shone my torch down the steps to make sure the bear wasn't climbing up them. Just then an almighty clatter sounded right beside us, and we leapt back with a shriek. I shone the torch at the sound, and there was the broom lying on the floor where it had just been blown over over.
We were jittery as anything, shining the beam all around us, and edging back through the doorway. Just then there came a thunderous wham as something heavy collided with the metal roof of the hide. We ran inside and closed and bolted the door. Bang! There it was again. Bang, bang!
The next day we dozed during the quieter morning, and then sat around alternately reading and keeping watch on the woodland before us. During the afternoon a deer came cautiously into view to get a drink from the water; striding slowly and carefully, eyes constantly alert to the foliage around it, but luckily for us not to the two tourists snapping photos in the high hide above.
As the daylight sunk away and the piercing shriek of the night chorus picked up, we heard a scrabbling in the leaf litter below the hide, and there came into view a pelanduk, a tiny little deer that you could hold in your hands. This guy was as skittery as us the night before, freezing at the slightest movement, and finally bolting as our camera shutter clicked. Only very cautious herbivores make it in Taman Negara, sun bears are noisy as hell, but they've got big claws so I guess that works out for them.
We were used to the nocturnal racket by now, and even the sporadic whamming of hard seeds against the tin roof would only occasionally make us jump out of our skin, so we climbed into bed soon after our sighting of the tiny deer, and settled down for the night.
|The steps leading up to the hide.|
The jungle still had one scare in store for us, and once again our nervous brains and ears would spectacularly exaggerate it for us. The night before I had set a small trap on the stairs to warn us of any approaching sun bears during the night. A broom lay between the two bannisters, and balanced upon it, and against one of the steps was a plastic bucket. The bear clambers up, knocks the bucket off in the process, and we have fair warning to shit ourselves and clamber into the loft. On the second evening we had cooked up a delicious dhaal for dinner, and no doubt the smell had wafted around through the trees for miles, and perhaps sun bears are quite partial to a bit of Indian cuisine, especially when you've been eating jungle bugs off rotting bark all evening. Certainly the thought had crossed my mind that cooking up a delicious smelling meal when there were bears around might not be the greatest of ideas, but we had to eat, and the dhaal was delicious so any misgivings were forgotten as we guzzled it down.
However, as we lay in bed that night there came the unmistakable clatter of the bucket tumbling down the steps. We both turned and looked at each other with wide eyes. From right outside the door came the sound of a large animal sniffing and scrabbling around. Our hearts were in our throats. I crouched down and shone the torch under the gap at the bottom of the door to see what I could see, but instead of seeing the sharp claws of a terrifying bear, I saw the green glint of the bucket, still balanced there at the top of the stairs. Something wasn't right. We flung open the door and watched as the source of these bear-like noises – a small rat - dashed off into the toilet, leaving the plastic bottle it had been chewing rattling around on the floor like a... well... like a large bucket clattering down some stairs.
|A mole cricket|
We shut the toilet door on the rat, and climbed into bed. “Just make sure you don't forget it's in there.” Liv said. Of course, I did. And at 3am I hurried outside, barely awake and desperate for a poo, and was startled to my senses as I opened the door to find a rat standing there on its hind legs to greet me. My nocturnal toilet was spent alternately shining my torch behind me to make sure the rat wasn't about to scuttle out from behind the water tank, and watching the black, shifting shadows of the jungle ahead to make sure no bears, or anything else, turned up and caught me with my trousers down.
|A scorpion from our bathroom. It may look pretty scary,|
but this one was only a few centimetres long.
We headed back the next morning, after two very spooky, but very rewarding nights out in the jungle. As well as seeing the bear, and the two kinds of deer, we had seen many large bats, some of which had even flown in through the window and fluttered around the room. And on the second night a delightfully insane looking mole-cricket dropped in to keep us company. With its head of a prawn and arms of a mole it is one of the gnarliest looking creatures I know.
|The canopy walk|