Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Jungle Mighty Jungle"

Trekking for three days... sounds great right? Well I shall tell you a story.

It started with the near sinking of our boat. The tiny river boats climb up the ravenous rapids of the roaring river. One wrong turn and the water starts pouring in. I was a bit nervous at first with all our luggage on the boat but our trekking group was positive and our guide sure. Just as I started to relax on our up-stream journey it happened. We took a wrong turn and the water started pouring in. We all started pulling at the life jackets we were sitting on thinking it was all over, no trekking for us. I was thinking about Dan's camera. But somehow the skilled outboard operator steered the boat full of water to the shore. Amazingly nothing important got wet. The driver didn't even seem fazed... we could have lost everything. After bailing, the boat driver left and it was just us and the tangled mass of jungle. Our young guide Eei, Richard and Shelley a heartful English couple, tiny Chinese Yu and us to brave the wilds of the jungle. What attracted us was the advertisement for 'real jungle trekking' adventure seemed synonymous.
The sun pierces through the jungle like red hot needles and combined with the moisture from the surrounding flora a thick sauna resonates. Stepping into the greenery the sweat pricks from every pour. No one speaks too much for the first bit of our journey, trying to stay tough going uphill balancing on gigantic roots, ignoring the trickles of sweat. Eei started to explain different plants and trees, explaining their significance to the Oraing Asli or 'original people' that still live in the forest as well as practical uses to anyone. He cut down a R palm and let us all sample some of its tasty stalk, something between a potato and a water chestnut. Somewhere along the way Eei pointed out with his sharp eyes a distinct print of a tigers paw. "This is baby tiger" he explained as the print was about the size of the palm of your hand. I am not afraid of tigers because I know that to even see one is extremely rare, but seeing the print convinced me that tigers really do live in the area. One of those 'you don't believe it until you see it' things.
In good spirits we continued to trek to the cave where we were to spend the night. First we stopped at a smaller cave that has bats. Dan and I have had our experience with bat caves in Thailand so we decided to go in, Richard led the way as Eei did not want to go in. I thought he does this all the time so he must get bored of the caves. A rope dangles over a smooth rock that you must pull yourself up, a precarious balance of strength and sure footing is needed not to fall. We made it up but I was thinking that I did not want to go back down. The cave was not spectacular but there were tones of bats. My olfactory cells were entirely thankful that the guano stench was not as piercing as in some other caves we have been.
The trick is to clap your hands and all the bats go silent, at least that's how it was in Thailand, but I guess Malay bats are a bit smarter. When it was dark I clapped my hands and instead of silence a roar of flapping wings and a thousand screeching bats filled the cave. I ducked down but they still swarmed all around, the roar deafening. Flapping delicate wings were all but touching every part of my body. Terrified I could not scream, I wanted to look to Dan but I was either closing my eyes or seeing a fluid wall of flying bats. It seemed to last forever, a black bat tornado whirring around me. The only thing I remember next is the thought 'live!' which doesn't make much sense seeing what I did next. I forced myself to stand up and ran toward the only light I saw, the entrance to the cave, I jumped. Five meters down I came to a rolling stop. Eei and Shelley came running toward me but I stood up right away in shock. Then we all hit the ground as the thousands of bats came streaming out of the cave. Like killer bees I could feel that they were seeking revenge for the disturbance of their peace. I couldn't believe it! I always thought that bats attacking humans was a myth but then what would you call it? We hid under a rock a waited until we could hear no more bats. I was worried about Richard and Dan in the cave. I finally came out and surveyed the damage. "You crazy!" Eei yelped. As it turns out Dan was fine in the cave and made his way down, Richard left the cave before I jumped and little Yu had stood unfazed and watched the whole event in amazement. Dan couldn't believe I was still walking but really I was fine.
Forward march in awe with the sun hanging low through the foliage, we carried on towards the cave we were to spend the night. I was not thrilled about this prospect anymore until Eei assured me that this cave was very large with no bats and easy to get into, so big is the opening that it is called the elephant cave because elephants go in sometimes for shelter. I relaxed a bit.
Just before nightfall we reached the cave, open and spacious I was comfortable enough with the surroundings. Eei showed us the prints from elephants that have come into the cave and where we were to sleep. We set out our sleeping bags on a tarp and famished, awaited dinner. Eei carried all the food, so compared to the trek we did in the north, where there was at least two people to carry the food, I think we were all nervous about the amounts of food we would be relaying on for a few days. Richard master cook extraordinaire and Eei with his local verve for the perfect amount of spice took on the task of preparing the tastiest camping meal ever sampled by the likes of yours truly.
Roasted duck, curried lamb with potatoes and veggies, steamed asparagus, and a bed of coconut rice. And that was just the main course! Cucumber and forest mushroom salad and eucalyptus broth soup with celery for starters. Mango pudding topped with condensed milk and crushed walnuts for desert followed by wild ginseng tea that we picked from the trail. Seeing that it was Dan's birthday the next day I presented him (candle included) with an extra desert that I brought of chocolate covered shortbread squares. The meal more than made up for the hardships of our hike and the excitement earlier that day. Caring Shelley kept asking if I was alright and if I broke anything or had any scrapes but I was completely unscathed.
Eei made a fire and we eventually retired. We knew that there were rats in the cave and Eei kept the fire going for most of the night to keep them away, I certainly didn't like the idea of rats crawling over me through the night but as it turns out we had much bigger pest problems.
The lulling symphony of the night jungle entered the cave from outside. The incessant whirr of cicadas and crickets as well as countless bird calls and coos was a unique score. It was the squeaking and scampering of the rats near by that kept me from deep sleep so I tossed and turned in a state of semi-conscientious. It was the dead of night when we were all startlingly awakened. A brutal trumpeting roar reverberated throughout the walls of the cave and shook us all simultaneously to sitting straight up. I thought earthquake? Terror was burned into the very sockets of my eyes. Then again the trumpetus blow echoing through the confines of our space followed by stamping on the ground. The rats then came scoring out of the deepest parts of the cave to the exit, scampering across our limbs. Eei
shouted "Elephant!" and scrambled out of his sleeping bag towards us.
So what do you do when a wild elephant tramples along your cave encampment? Hell if I know, I was so frozen in terror that I couldn't hear what Eei was saying and I could not even move. I would think I was dreaming but my heart was pounding so fiercely that my ears felt that they would explode with the pressure and I know that you can not feel pain in dreams. Terror, yes; Pain, no. I have never in my life been more awake. Tears formed in my eyes and I remember Dan holding me and the glimmer of the beasts eyes as flashlights were being shone upon it. Seeing that foreigners had rudely intruded upon its special spot, it eventually left the cave and us to our shock.
"Cool an elephant!" Dans words to break the silence resonated through my head but I could not bring myself to agree with the statement. In fact, I felt like hitting him at that very moment for not appreciating my terror. The truth was held though that everyone was OK, and after some adrenaline related discussion we uneasily went back to our cave floor beds.
After a delicious and simple breakfast we set out trekking on Dans birthday. I had little sleep but felt anew, grateful for the sunlight and daytime sounds. Right away we stopped by another cave and Eei convinced me to go in and see the bats. Not something I thought I would be doing ever again. We wove through the chambers of eroded limestone and took pictures of the bats on the walls. Gratefully we were not long and we returned outside. But Eei had more adventure in mind and climbed toward the jungle vines that hung from the top of the cliff that the cave dwells within. Testing a vine first he swung off a rock, like Tarzan and came back. We were all very impressed and Richard and Dan took turns giving it a go. Seeing their success I was also tempted to swing like Tarzan from a jungle vine but near disaster foiled my potential fun.
Richard, a bit bigger in bulk than Dan had to say some famous last words: As he was about to swing for the third or fourth time he said after testing the vine again "I'm pushing my luck now" and jumped off the rock.
We all looked on in horror as the vine dropped a meter or so under the beginning of the weight, jerked under the pressure at the most intense pressure point of the pendulum and snapped clean.
Eei, half the weight and size of Richard amazingly leapt up and stuck out his arms to catch him, Richard letting out the faintest of cries fell directly into Eei's arms and they both tumbled to the ground in a ball. Shelley, near tears hoarded over the two of them. Astonishingly, the worst that happened was that Richards fingers (all ten of them) were skinned by the vine as he held on so tight. We all looked to the jagged rocks that Richard could have fallen onto and at Eei for his fast thinking and bravado. No one was hurt. The luck that seemed to have befallen us however, would not prove to stand.
Richard taped his fingers and we all conversed about the crazy stories that we could tell. I was a bit upset that I could no longer swing like Tarzan, but was not willing to take the risk that I may fall. Trudging through we kept a steady and rhythmic pace. My muscles and feet were aching by now but I seem to have gotten more used to the Jungle sauna. We went through many muddy patches and Eei' s trained eye picked out another print of a tiger. This time he said "This one not a baby" and sure enough the print was almost twice the size of the first one that we saw. After a while I thought that I could not take it any more, not one more step for my aching legs and Eei said that we would be stopping for lunch. Our lunch spot was a small clear river that we could bathe in and cool off. We set up on a sandbar in the middle. As we all relaxed and cooled off, though I was the only one to go swimming, I admired the peaceful surroundings. No one herd them coming.
They came out of the Jungle simultaneously, we were caught completely off guard. At least ten of them had blow pipes in their hand, we were completely circled, there was at least one weapon pointed at each of our heads. This tribe of Oraing Asli wore no shoes, almost no clothes, and their skin was almost as black as the most black African I have ever seen. They donned face paint and a few carried spears.Looking like they were such a natural and inconspicuous part of their environment I was suddenly and awkwardly aware of how much I did not fit into this scene. My jaw dropped open, I think I was too amazed to be afraid. Eei started talking to them but it soon became clear that their languages were not mutually understood. Who I understood to be the leader, mostly because of an ornate headdress of beautiful feathers, was talking rapidly while the others, ten, twenty of them? Stood there completely still, poised and ready to react on command. As it became increasingly and frustratingly clear that no progress was being made, as the tension built to a point where I thought that time may stand still, something amazing happened.
First it was just one or two, then hundreds fluttered about us. Monarch sized black butterflies with a white pattern design surrounded us, sometimes landing lightly on our clothing or fingers. I have never been so surrounded by terror and beauty before, everyone was completely silent. It was the most unreal feeling that I have ever felt. It was Yu that saved us all.
Beholding the magnificent sight, I guess that it all proved too much for Yu, maybe she knew that it would save us all but she started to giggle. Quiet and little at first her little Chinese laugh caught on and we all started to laugh, our captors included. It could have been because they thought of the butterflies as a good omen, if they believe in omens or the combination of that and Yu's irresistible laughter, but the headman of the group said some things and all the others lowered their weapons and we shook their hands and smiled and laughed some more. I'm not sure why they had their weapons pointed at us in the first place, why we were considered a threat but Eei later told us that he had never met these Aborigines before and the main tribe that lives by the river that we were scheduled to see were a very different people because they at least knew a little Malay and Eei spoke a bit of their language. We had stumbled upon a completely unknown group of people, related to the Oraing Asli that lived by the river, but unlike in the context of contact with the world outside of their forest. They were amazed at the colour of our white skin and later had us all paint each others faces with a kind of ground up stone make-up. It was a strange and rare encounter and I wanted to take pictures of these amazing people but they refused having the strange devices pointed in their direction and I had to respect that considering that twenty minutes ago they were a serious threat to my life. We left grateful for the unique opportunity to meet these extraordinary people.
It was not long until we came upon the hide that Dan and I were to spend the night. Shelly and Richard and Yu had only arranged a two day trek while Dan and I had planned to spend an extra night at an observation hide that overlooks a natural salt lick where animals come at night time. We said our goodbyes and exchanged e-mails. Since the trail from the hide is not long and we did not need a guide to stay we also said goodbye to Eei who would arrange our boat ride back to the town for the next day. After they left, I noticed the smell. It was faint but pungent and heavy when the wafts went by. At the moment I couldn't decide what it was but it put me off. I was glad that the hide was several metres off the ground and that when inside the smell disappeared. When we got in we immediately saw some monkeys at the salt lick, but for some reason I didn't expect to see anything else that night.
Five other travelers showed up and we all watched intensely through the dark to see any moving shadows or bushes. All we saw was some fireflies off in the distance and bats flying by. By around ten we had pretty much given up and most of us settled down to sleep. I discovered the first rat. It had gotten into a persons plastic bag with food in it. The girls, myself included to a degree, were freaking out while Dan was attempting to free it. I'm still not sure why everyone laughed when I said "put it outside!". The evening was full of Dan chasing away the Rats from our food and us trying to pretend that we didn't care. Then Dan got fed up and threw one out the window.
"What was that?!" one of the girls exclaimed after the laughter died down at Dan's action. It was quite clear, a deep resounding purr followed by soft pacing directly below the hide. I got my LED headlamp and shone it out the window. At first I didn't see anything, but then there were the two gleaming eyes caught by the light. "You're not going to believe this" I said and everyone came padding over to the windows on the south side of the hide and started to shine their flashlights down. I have always felt a connection with cats and this tiger was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. It was playing with the half dead rat that was thrown out the window. I knew that I was extremely lucky to have been able to be one of the few who have witnessed this threatened species, but that did not stop my growing anxiety. Someone whispered "why doesn't it go away?" and just then the amazing creature dropped its gaze from us and started pacing around, again purring deeply, almost like a threat. Then I understood. I shone my light upon a pile on the ground that wasn't there before and got Dan to do the same. It was a partially torn apart corpse of an animal, my guess was a barking deer that live in the area. So that was the smell from earlier, It must have killed it sometime before and hid it in the bushes to finish it off tonight.
I knew that we were not in a good situation. From our experience with bears I know that the only times one will attack are when you are between it and it's cub, when it feels threatened or when it is guarding a kill. We are about ten meters off the ground which gives us some safety in distance but not a comfortable level. I didn't know what to do. Leave the hide? Try to scare it away? I knew that I would feel safer in the man made structure high above the ground than in the unfamiliar dark night jungle at ground level with Mr. Tiger. I also didn't want to scare it or make it feel threatened, that also would be bad. We were in awe but were also confused as to what action to take. We barricaded the door, as the simplest way to us would be the easily scalable cement steps. We kept a close watch, the sheen from its beautifully stripped coat and the blood on it's mouth conveyed a message of unbelievability and feeling of littleness. The beautiful creature paced around, looked at us, picked apart its kill a little and repeated this process. Sometimes it would let out a roar, not defining and bone shaking like in the movies but short and powerful. We watched for a long time and my adrenaline had been going so hard for so long that I felt I might collapse.
I sat on my bed for a bit then almost everyone let out a low scream and flew back from the window. It was over. It was going to climb up the hide, go through the window and tear us all apart one by one in a rage of feline fury. The whole hide shook. The wooden structure was creaking and I could hear its claws ripping out slivers of wood, I could all but see those same claws ripping through my intestines. I think I was screaming, though that could have been some of the other girls, but I could definitely feel the hot tears dripping down my numb face. There is no where to hide, the irony did not escape me. Then it stopped. "Oh God" I thought "Is it inside?" the fear itself was ripping me apart. Everyone was silent for what felt like the longest shortest period of time in my life.
It was some time before I convinced myself that there was definitely no tiger in the room. Apparently the beast gave us a great scare by using one of the support posts of the hide as a scratching post. That's when we shut the shutters to the windows, turned off our lights and pretended that we not scared for life. At sometime I fell asleep and awoke in the morning forgetting for a moment what had happened. One of the others said that sometime in the night the tiger had left and that even it's kill was no longer there. No trace was left in fact of our encounter except faint claw marks on the post below.
We packed our things and left, we had a boat to catch. The morning light cast a long shadow on the seemingly distant night before but I would not leave first in fear of an ambush. But the trail was clear and the only mammal sounds we herd were the gibbons in the distance. On the way back by boat we stopped by the Oraing Asli village by the river, and these people were very different from those that we met, a lot of western clothes and materials. However we did get to take pictures and practice using their blowpipes. We got back to the town only splashed a little from the rapids. Leaving the jungle I was heaver in experience and adventure but also enlightened by the unique encounters that I lived. The jungle proved without fail her fierce and amazing powers of raw nature.

So I know that you are probably saying 'no way!' to all the crazy things in our trek, and you know what? You're right. Maybe there was no near sinking, attacking bats, and nighttime cave elephants. Maybe we didn't actually meet an unknown jungle tribe and see hundreds of butterflies. So maybe we didn't actually have a scary encounter with a tiger. But to me, I thought that would make one hell of a good story and I hope that I have entertained you and not deceived you too much. While on our trek I let my imagination run as wild as the jungle itself and I thought I would share that with you. For a more 'realistic' version read Dans blog.

But I do have some pictures:

Shelley, Richard, Yu and Us

The river

Really big trees

And really big vines too

Cave camp

Swing like Tarzan

Tarzan Dan
Go-Go Tarzan Dan!

Our faithful guide Eei and his jungle make-up

Awesome Yu

Me too

Spiky Rattan

Pretty butterflies

Jungle hide

Oraing Asli Village

These people live very simple nomadic lives

Blow pipe practice, the first shot I hit the target right on!

Really you should check out the other awesome pictures too!

Another really cool thing we did in Taman Negara was the canopy walk way, the highest in the world at 45m and longest at half a km.


The Walkway is just 10 inches wide and suspended by ropes, it sways and creeks as you walk through. Something definitely not for the faint of heart, or fearer of heights. My heart was racing at times.

But the view was brilliant

and the jungle lush

Our whole experience in one of the oldest jungles in the world was surreal and awe inspiring.
Now we are checking into flights to Bali to go to Komodo for the dragons and to climb volcanoes. The adventure never ends...


At 2:31 PM, Anonymous sareen said...

ohohoho my god you had me good! what a story! I don't even care what was real or fantastic. I laughed, I cried, I laughed.


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