In the Heart of the Jungle
With a reputation of being one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, dating back to more than 130 million years ago, Taman Negara is an impenetrable forest, abundant with wildlife and birdlife that one needs to see to believe.
A sudden loud screech accompanied by the heavy rustling of leaves in the canopy just behind us, made us stop in our tracks. We looked in the direction of the noise, but all that we could see was a lush wall of trees and shrubs that seemed to encompass us from all sides. Even the dirt track that we had used had snaked its way into the undergrowth after a few meters and was lost. Our guide had informed us about hornbills making this kind of noise when they are about to perch or fly off and thus, we were hoping to spot one. The screeching continued along with what seemed like the flapping of wings against leaves and branches. And then, it stopped. Our senses were on high alert – ready to pick up the slightest noise or movement. The noise began once more, but before we could figure out where it was coming from, it moved away and was soon lost. We stood there hopelessly, frustrated for the zillionth time at being so close, yet so far!
The pier at Mutiara Resort, the only resort which is located inside the forest.
At Taman Negara, one has to be absolutely close to the wildlife to spot anything. Why you could be standing within a foot or two of a full-grown elephant without ever realizing that it’s there! A far cry from the open grasslands of the African savannah or the dry deciduous forests of northern and central India, where the game can be spotted from afar. Located on the equator in northeastern Malaysia, Taman Negara is a pristine, dense tropical rainforest covering over 4,000 sq. km. and has lain intact for over 130 million years now. In fact, environmentalists claim it is one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
A giant squirrel spotted during the trek in the forest.
One simple way to describe this forest would be to state that it is simply very dense – so dense that even on a brightly lit sunny day, which in itself is rare as this is a rainforest, the forest floor is dark. Hence, the mood here is always somber, at times bordering on frightening, especially when dark clouds gather above to cast an ominous look and the slow rumbling gradually builds up into the first crack of thunder. The dark forest floors ensure very little vegetation here. In fact, the forest floor is littered with rotting barks and a huge variety of mushrooms, including one that is called the ‘magic mushroom’. It goes by this name because of the psychedelic effect it creates – these mushrooms are tiny and glow in the night after a rain shower! We saw a bunch of them lying all around during our jungle trek at night.
A large grasshopper spotted during the night walk.
The night trek is only allowed in a tiny part of the forest, close to the main entrance where a slightly elevated walkway has been constructed. This was a slight let down as it didn’t provide the feel of an actual trek in the forest. The situation was worsened by the number of tourists doing the walk, resulting in a half a mile long queue. The experience, however, wasn’t all that bad. We ended up sighting quite a few insects, including a red-headed grasshopper, a giant millipede, and the bird-eating spider!
Mushrooms, usually seen only in the monsoon season, grow throughout the year in dense rainforest.
Reveling amidst serenity
We had stationed ourselves at the Mat Leon Village run by Matt Leone (an experienced local) and his family, on the banks of the river opposite the forest. The rooms may have been basic, but the home-cooked delicacies and the warmth extended by the people more than made up for it – all this at affordable prices and an excellent location! There are a plethora of hotels near the entrance, but there is only one – Mutiara Resort – inside the forest. It is often possible to sight wildlife early in the morning in this resort complex and we did manage to catch a glimpse of a Fire-backed Pheasant on one of our early morning walks. Local cuisine can also be sampled at any of the floating restaurants at the edge of the forest. These humble structures near the river banks provide a vantage point to gaze across the river and can be an excellent place to spend the evening, after a day-long trek, over a plate of local fish and juice.
A giant millipede was seen during the night walk.
Local commute within the forest is on open-air boats. The boat rides through the forest are a different experience altogether. As the boat cuts through the water, a continuous blast of cool breeze often accompanied with sprinklings of water droplets instantly freshens you up. Add to that the fact that you are seated at water level (in fact slightly lower than that) and the entire forest and its tall trees seem to tower above like an ancient castle. The boat rides are also important from another perspective. These forests being extremely dense, the best chance to spot game is actually along the river banks, when animals come out for a drink or birds perch themselves on a nearby branch. Often, you can spot a few kingfishers perched on an overhanging branch, awaiting the opportune moment to dive in or catch a glimpse of a huge monitor lizard as it peeps out of the water and sluggishly climbs up the muddy banks.
The Matt Leone village resort.
Discover a new world
Taman Negara, though teeming with wildlife, has a lot more to offer to a nature lover. The natural beauty of the place is simply breathtaking! The sheer size of the seemingly impenetrable jungle with artery-like rivulets and canals meandering through an endless mass of greenery can hold one in awe. Large tracts of the forest can also be explored by either camping or putting up at the several observation hides located inside the forest. It is an exciting and fun-filled place for even those who are not very keen on wildlife. One can engage in various activities like rapid shooting, night jungle walk, treks in the jungle, and even a swim in the clear waters at the cascade Lata Berkoh. A mere five to six hours from Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara is an easy, must-indulge weekend trip!
The Lata Berkoh cascade waterfall is a popular tourist attraction.
Up above the world so high!
Most of the sunlight in a rainforest is received by the huge trees that often grow to over 40 m in height. Known as the ‘emergent’ or the ‘canopy’ layer, depending upon the size of the trees, these layers harbor most of the life forms of the rainforest i.e. the monkeys, the eagles, a huge number of insects, epiphytic plants, etc. Most species that have made these layers their home remain here throughout their life. This has prompted many a scientist to exclaim that a world of life form is yet to be explored, which is situated about 30-40 m above the ground we walk on. We had a quick glimpse of the canopy as we walked along the canopy walkway – essentially a rope bridge connecting one tree to the next at a height of around 30 m. As we looked around while balancing ourselves, it seemed like a whole new world had opened up right in front of our eyes. From the forest floor, it is impossible to imagine this little world perched high up above.
A trek through the thick forest is an adventurous experience and a must-do.
You can take a direct bus or a taxi from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Tahan, which is very close to the park. Alternatively, if you prefer traveling on water, you can take a bus or taxi to Kuala Trembling and then take a boat to the forest (we did this and thoroughly enjoyed it).
Stay and eat
Mutiara resort, inside the park premises, is very spacious with good quality infrastructure. But it is also more expensive than the other located outside the park and across the resort. Outside the park, there are several hotels, which can cater to the varied needs of diverse tourists. However, for each trip to the forest, one has to cross the river. Most of these hotels have their own kitchen and they serve delicious local food. A visit to a floating restaurant is a must. These restaurants are floating shacks set on the river itself. They are open from all sides and provide fantastic views of the forest across the river as you munch on some fish delicacies.
Must-do and see
Most hotels offer package deals. The shorter package involves only peripheral sightseeing, such as night walks to see insects, morning walks on the boundary of the forest or a trek up to the cascade waterfall Lata Berkoh. Only by taking a longer package will you be able to go for a trek in the heart of the impenetrable jungle. You can either set up camp in a clearing in the forest or spend the night on a watchtower. This would definitely be more exciting and adventurous than staying in a hotel.
This article was first published in the 2015 April edition of Saevus magazine