The jungle at Taman Negara is reputed to be the oldest on earth (130 million years old). There have been no volcanoes, no geological activity and even the Ice Age failed to leave its mark on this terrain. The Taman Negara covers 4343 sq km of the Malaysian peninsula with damp, shadowy, impregnable forests. The vegetation can be overwhelming, the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia grows here, but there are animals here too and chances are they will see and not be seen.
Most visitors who stay long enough to do some trekking will get to meet with the resident leeches as well as the flying and crawling insects of the forest.
The best time to visit the park is between February and September; peak season is between April and August. Visitors are required to purchase a park permit whether they are coming for the day, or for longer multi-day treks into the interior. One of the major attractions is the canopy walk, but at peak times the waits can be long because only four people are allowed on each swinging gangplank at a time. The walkway is suspended high above the forest floor, between huge trees and takes at least 40 minutes to complete.
There are a myriad of boats waiting by the river to take visitors upriver to Kuala Trengganu, there are night tours on foot or by 4WD and it’s also possible to visit the aboriginal people of Taman Negara, the Orang Asli.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
There’s a definite advantage coming in early April before the season gets truly underway. The hotels are not full, the people working at the resorts and operating the boats are eager for the tourist season to get underway, and there are very few other visitors on site. I don’t think we really understood how lucky we were about to be; we had braced ourselves for crowds at the park after enjoying the relative peacefulness of the remote eastern coast.
After driving through torrential rain for six hours the previous day, we were delighted to wake up in the morning to crystal blue skies and warm sunshine. If the rain had continued, there would have been no point into heading the short distance to the national park; it would have been impossible to even consider doing the canopy walk in heavy rain.
We reached the Taman Negara after a lovely drive through undulating palm nut plantations, seeing little to no traffic along the way. We had stopped along the way at a roadside café for milk tea, a strong concoction that makes your hair stand on end and your hands shake from the combination of strong caffeine and loads of thick condensed milk. Most of the other customers were local plantation workers and we created a little bit of a distraction from their otherwise routine day when we pulled in.
We arrived at the Rainforest Resort unannounced, hoping to find rooms available. There we were shown lovely accommodations; they were almost empty during the week so early in the season. We had a tasty lunch of chicken and rice and now fortified, we set off for the park headquarters. We expected an overdeveloped resort atmosphere when we arrived at the river, especially because the park is within striking distance of Kuala Lumpur and city folk are known to come for a weekend getaway.
Instead we found a relatively rustic atmosphere, with most of the buildings built on floating barges, moored by the shore of the river. Once we got our bearings, we hired a boat and set off across the fast-flowing water to purchase our park passes. Anil and David stayed in the boat while I hiked up the dozens of stairs that took me up the high banks to the headquarters, built where there was no danger of flooding.
By now, it was after noon and there wasn’t a soul in sight, except for the sole person in the office who sold me the three tickets. What a lovely surprise; I had steeled myself for crowds and long lineups. Before I started down the stairs again, I noticed a sign that showed the high-water mark had once reached the top of the banks in 1971. The boys were waiting patiently for me in the boat, so much for chivalry.
We spent the next half hour zooming up the river, what a thrill. I shot a short video to share with you: Taman Negara River Boating. There weren’t any rapids really, but enough white water to give us a great ride and get us to the canopy walk safely.
Our boatman pulled over to the side of the river near a set of stairs and told us he would wait for us to return from the canopy walk. We started climbing, and very soon we were all alone in the forest. We could hear the birds chirping in the trees above our heads, and the rustling of the wind through the leaves, nothing else. Heavenly.
We had quite a climb ahead of us, but the stairs were well built and there were level sections where we could stop and catch our breath. It was well signposted so there was no chance of us getting lost, and along the way we passed several signs directing hikers on to various paths through the jungle. Eventually we came to the start of the canopy walk and couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the fee was only MR 5.00 each (about CDN 1.50).
Ahead of us lay 10 spans of suspended platforms, each about 50 meters in length. I have had a lifelong fear of heights, and the first few steps were a little daunting, but Anil pushed on ahead of me and that gave me some confidence. David followed behind me and I could hear him exclaiming loudly how impressed he was with the experience.
All went fairly well, we were entirely alone on the canopy walk, until we came to a section that consisted of an aluminum ladder suspended at a sharp angle upwards. For some reason, this seemed to be more daunting and I had to summon up my courage to continue. David took a few steps to follow me, but I heard him exclaim loudly that he was turning back; he had had enough. Fortunately, at the end of each of the spans, there are stairs leading down to the forest floor, for those who do not want to continue. I can see that during the busy season, you can’t have people wanting to turn around and retrace their steps back to the start.
I told David we would meet him at the end, there were only two more suspended spans for us to complete so there was no chance of getting hopelessly separated. I carried on to catch up to Anil, and before I knew it, I could hear David behind me again. He has had a couple of bad falls from ladders and it held him back for a few minutes, but then he summoned up enough courage to face the momentary fear. He was glad he did, the remainder of the walk was uneventful and the views were stunning.
With weary legs, we walked back down the long flight of stairs to our waiting boat. We expected that our boatman would turn around, but instead he pointed the bow upriver and we zoomed off once again. We sat back and enjoyed the beautiful blue skies and the sounds of the water rushing past the boat on either side.
Before long, we noticed that we had travelled beyond any signs of human habitation. It was just the jungle, the river and our boat. We travelled for some time and then our driver steered the boat to the side of the river, underneath a large overhanging tree. We could see a long rope hanging from the tree, with a large knot at the end, just above the water. Harish asked us if we would like to go for a swim, and perhaps a swing over the river, but we laughed and told him we’d give it a pass.
Just then, we noticed another boat coming down steam towards us. It was filled with a group of five young Asian women, all dressed in shorts and t-shirts, with life jackets on. Their boat joined ours at the side of the river and the gals jumped out to try the swing. Of course, we decided to form an impromptu cheering section, and before long, I got out of the boat to film the action with my camera. Anil and David relaxed in the boat and formed the distinguished panel of judges.
What a laugh! The young women were on holiday from Singapore and had never tried a rope swing before. They were terrific sports, and one of them was even able to get herself across the water before she lost her grip. I emailed them a copy of the video once I had a chance to edit it, and now we have loyal friends that we can visit for coffee in Singapore if we ever get there again. Here’s the video so you can get a chance to see what fun we had: Singapore Swing.