We had agreed to meet outside of the NKS Hotel at 7:15 am in order to catch the bus to Kuala Tahan, the small town at the entrance to Taman Negara National Park. Taman Negara is Malay for “national park” and represents the oldest and largest national park in peninsular Malaysia, while kuala is the Malay word for estuary and seemed to appear quite often in the names of towns in Malaysia seeing as many of them were built on the banks of a river. NKS had offered to take us to the boat jetty at Kuala Tembeling for $2 per person and then to sell us tickets for the 3-hour boat ride into the park for $12 per person, but we had chosen to take the 90 minute public bus ride from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan for the cost of the jetty transfer. “You are very frugal,” observed the lady behind the counter of the hotel when I insisted that this was our chosen method of transportation. She didn’t know the half of it!
Zach and I had coffee at a restaurant just across the street from the NKS hotel as we waited for the girls to emerge. One thing that had impressed us about Singapore and Malaysia was the quality of the coffee one received from even the dodgiest of places. It, like tea, was typically layered onto a mixture of cream and sugar which filled the very bottom of the glass. Once the girls joined us, we put our packs on and walked downtown to the bus station. The bus was a rundown dalla-dalla type contraption but it was not particularly crowded. It pulled out of the bus station right at 8 am, the same time a considerably fancier bus was leaving for Kuala Lumpur. The bus driver tore through town so fast that, when he slammed on the brakes at a particular stoplight, the water bottles that I had in front of my feet rolled forward and fell out the still open door of the bus. Luckily, his female conductor got out of the bus and went to retrieve them for me before the light turned green. I was not about to get off of that bus without knowing if it was going to wait around for me! The ride got better after we left town and there were no more stoplights to impede our progress.
By 9:45 we found ourselves in the park headquarters reserving “jungle hides” to stay in over the next four nights. These consisted of rustic lodges built on stilts which overlooked clearings where animals were known to congregate. Unfortunately, about half of the park’s hides were closed for renovation, so I quickly came up with a plan for where we would stay. We would start out south of the park’s main entrance in Bumbun Blau (bumbun is Malay for “shelter”) and would then work our way north to Bumbun Tabing, finally ending with two nights in Bumbun Kumbang, the most distant hide from park headquarters. In addition to the $2 per person that it cost for our park entrance plus camera fees, staying in the hides was going to set us back almost $2/person/night. Now, that was my kind of accommodations! Before trekking off into the jungle, however, we decided to eat brunch at one of the floating restaurants along the Tembeling River. We had stocked up on food in town the previous day but figured we should try to make it last as long as possible. The floating restaurants consisted of a series of large flatboats that could be reached by walking across a narrow plank which led to the shore. From the flatboat, water taxis plied their trade, charging a ringgit (33 cents) per person to ferry you across the river. After a nice meal of fried noodles, we hopped onto a water taxi and entered the national park.
We soon discovered that we had to cross yet another river to get to our hide- the town of Kuala Tahan sits at the confluence of the Tahan River and the Tembeling and the main entrance to the national park was actually on the north bank of the Tahan. We walked back to the dock we had arrived at less than 10 minutes before and flagged down a water taxi that would take us across the Tahan. There was a small lodge on this side of the river but not much else, save our trail which soon crossed a small clearing and headed into the jungle proper. After 10 minutes of walking, our trail quickly reached a 45o grade as it climbed over a series of large hills. When planning out our hikes, I had originally developed this grandiose plan to hit most of the main trails. Reality soon hit pretty hard- this was going to be really, really tough! The trails had looked so flat on the few maps I had gotten my hands on before our trip! My guidebook had estimated that it would take two hours to cover the two mile hike to Blau- it took us that long to slog over a couple hills with our full packs on. As I lugged my 60 pound pack over yet another steep rise, I cursed that canned food that we had bought in Jerantut. Zach joined me as I rested at the top of one of the particularly tall hills. “Oh, look- an inchworm,” he observed. While it was true that a small black worm-like creature was moving along the ground in our direction, it was no inchworm- it was our first land leech of the trip!
Four hours after setting out from the park entrance, we finally dragged ourselves up the steps of our hide. We were all drenched in sweat from head to toe and were more than ready to be free of our packs. The hide was much better than I had originally pictured. It had been recently renovated and came complete with running water, including a cold shower. At that point, we didn’t mind the cold water whatsoever! As we napped on the hard wooden bunks that the hide came supplied with, two German guys arrived at Blau carrying little more than a couple of sleeping pads- it had taken them 2 hours to walk the same exact trail. We quickly figured out that the times in the guidebook were true for people with little or no gear and that we had to effectively double the given times for our particular situation. Speaking of Germans, blau is the German word for “high”, had we known that ahead of time, maybe the trail wouldn’t have caught us by surprise like it did!
Soon after the Germans arrived, we decided that we had enough energy to make our way back to a cave that we had passed a mile back. At the time, we had been in no mood to stop for some sightseeing. Now, without packs, it took us about 45 minutes to get to Gua Telinga, an extended cave network with a small stream running down the middle of it. The cave was full of bats, especially in an inner chamber that I was able to make it to. As I climbed over the wet rocks, I realized that another leech had latched onto me and had gotten himself a good suck. I pulled it off and tossed it into the cave- I had not brought any sampling tubes on this particular outing. Besides, we had already collected a few score of leeches that day. By dusk we had made it back to our hide having walked a total of 4 miles in 5.5 hours- we slept well despite our hard wooden beds.