I wake up in the middle of a cave, in the middle of a 130 million year-old virgin rainforest, Taman Negara National Park. I’ve just spent the night on a canvas sheet, my girlfriend, three Swiss girls and our guide all huddled together, porcupines, like huge, spiky rats, running round our heads. At 130 million years old, Taman Negara is, in fact, one of the world’s oldest rainforests. It sits in the centre of Peninsula Malaysia and makes for a fascinating and unique experience when travelling in Malaysia. It was the first rainforest I had ever been to. I was totally unprepared and unsure of what to expect.
Getting to Taman Negara, Malaysia
Travel agents in Kuala Lumpur would have you believe the only way to tackle Taman Negara is, of course, with a tour through them. In reality, it’s not too difficult to head there by yourself in a rental car. I travelled, by bus, to Jerantut, Pehang, where we organised transport to Taman Negara Malaysia and spent the night eating delicious Thai-style food, wandering and stocking up on necessities for the rainforest: tonnes of bug spray, first aid stuff and all manner of so-called leech repellents we’d read about online (the best thing is not to worry too much, they don’t hurt badly, and dab an attached leech with eucalyptus oil).
The next morning we travelled to the Kuala Tembeling jetty to get a boat, up the Tembeling river, to Kuala Tahan, which sits across from the Taman Negara National Park. This is a great way to approach Taman Negara: our wooden boat chugged past towering trees and ever-thickening vegetation, aboriginal Malaysians, monitor lizards and buffalo.
Making the most of Taman Negara
This being my first trip to a rainforest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or what to do in Taman Negara Malaysia. After finding accommodation in Kuala Tahan, I spent the next couple of days making small excursions into the rainforest, from the entrance of the national park. The highlights of these self-guided trips were the canopy walk and the unlikely event of spotting a wild elephant from a jungle hide, on the outskirts of the rainforest. Other than these experiences, my girlfriend and I found our attempts at longer hikes, along the paths around here, unfruitful and frustrating. As inexperienced trekkers, the further in we got the more worried we became about getting lost or eaten, mainly by leeches! At first we’d resisted booking a longer guided trek but in the end we took the plunge.
Trekking through Taman Negara
Signing ourselves up for a guided, two-day trek was one of the best decisions we could have made during our stay in Taman Negara Malaysia. The walks around the entrance of the national park are interesting and give you a taste of the rainforest but they are nothing to the experience of getting deeper into the jungle. The tour started with a boat ride upriver, further into Taman Negara National Park. The first boat trip, up to the Kuala Tahan, had been great but this immediately felt like more of an adventure: our small wooden boat crashing against the flow of the river, past Orang Asli (the native Malay people) villages, the trees getting taller, the forest denser.
We were then dropped off at our starting point, to begin our 16km hike through Taman Negara. Even with a guide, who had walked the path many times before, you can’t help but feel a sense of isolation and insignificance when confronted with the enormous mass of jungle: centuries-old trees, giant roots, vines thicker than your entire body falling from a patchwork of ancient green and dazzling sunlight. Our guide pointed out the tracks of wild animals and, at one point, started beating the buttress roots of trees with his machete, to ward of tiger he’d heard through the forest. That night we slept in a cave, our clothes and bodies sodden with dirt and sweat, leech bites everywhere. We rested our aching bodies and finished the trek the following day.
Back to reality
Longer treks, through Taman Negara Malaysia National Park, are possible but this two-day trek, as a taste of what the rainforest has to offer, was perfect. It left us sore and aching, utterly ready for a shower and a bed. We went for a beer with our guide that evening, after cleaning ourselves up, and talked about the rainforest and his life as a guide. Weary and exhausted we went our separate ways knowing that, because we had done the tour, we were leaving Taman Negara with an unforgettable experience, one of the highlights of our trip in Malaysia.