It was 11PM and I was about to go to bed. I got a message on MSN Messenger from my friend Shamraz. We were classmates at the National University of Singapore.
“I’m going to the Malaysian rainforest Taman Negara tomorrow. Wanna join?”
“Sounds cool. At what time are you leaving? How many days?”
“Train is at 5AM. We need to meet at my place at 4. Maybe four or five days.”
In the computer science programme that we had chosen, none of us were allocated any classes in any semester. We had to pick and bid for each class that we wished to take. Shamraz, a Sri Lankan, had been my classmate in my very first programming methodology class and we had shared many classes over four years. He was short and skinny and I knew him to be smart. We had never travelled together before. I was a little surprised and then annoyed that Shamraz had decided to invite me to a trek with 5 hours notice when I was due to go to bed. Nevertheless, I considered for a few seconds and accepted. I was having a particularly relaxed semester. I had no classes for the next four days and could take a short trip. I packed up quickly and tried to get three hours of sleep before I had to move.
At 4AM I met Shamraz and his friend Jem at the lobby of his residential complex. We set off to the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The station was a piece of Malaysian territory within Singapore; a grimy colonial-era building. There was an odd immigration arrangement. Malaysian immigration checked our passports for entry to Malaysia before we boarded the train. They gave us immigration cards without stamping the passports. Singapore immigration came later, at the Woodlands checkpoint. This meant that we entered Malaysia before we exited Singapore.
Now we had a few hours to our destination to catch up on sleep. We had not counted on the train in tropical Malaysia being freezing cold. In the humid tropical heat the train’s air conditioning was unnecessarily cranked to the max. I put on a full sleeve in addition to my shirt and handed a jacket to the unprepared Jem. The train took us to the town of Jerantut. A bus ride took us to the docks for our penultimate stop.
Almost there. All that was left was a boat ride to Kuala Tahan, our base for the trip. We found a boat that would take us to Kuala Tahan. It was long, there was a roof and it and seated two people on each seat. There were brightly-coloured life-vests on each seat which everyone chose to ignore. We traversed over some flat but moving water in a boat filled to capacity, occasionally getting splashed.
The waters were muddy, the colour of milky tea. After a 2-hour boat ride we arrived at Kuala Tahan. A bunch of wooden houses stood by the river. On the river were more floating houses made of wood and bamboo. A line on a wall high up the bank marked the water level on the day of a flood: 74 metres on 4 Jan 1971.
It had already been a long day, so we relaxed for a while. At night we went for a short trek nearby. There were perils in the jungle. I was walking along when I spotted a red spot on my pants, above my inner thigh. As I watched in horror, the bloody red spot expanded. I quickly dropped my pants and saw a leech fall off. They would crawl around on a few of their feet with most of their body up in the air awaiting passing prey. Once something came close enough, they would latch on and find a suitable spot on which to feed. We learned to use a lighter to burn the leeches off as the most effective way to be rid of them, but the problems did not end with that. Shamraz and I got bitten many times over the next few days. I was slightly the worse off. Leeches have an anticoagulant in their saliva and every bite made me bleed for more than an hour. My pants and socks got bloodied and rather disgusting. Absorbing the blood with tissue paper became a tiresome task.
Jem was strangely unaffected by all this. Not that she took particularly good precautions, but the worms just didn’t seem to be interested in her. Jem was an Australian whom Shamraz had met while they were on a university exchange program together. She visited him in Singapore toward the end of a long trip and that was how our jungle expedition came about. I learned that she had survived cancer and that she used the most shocking language that I had ever heard from a girl in real life. “Fuck me; fuck me dead!” were words that she used a few times on that trip. She had some reason to be angry. Shamraz and I slept soundly at night. Jem awoke the next day (if she can be said to have slept) with a horrendous mess of mosquito bites all over her body. Poor Jem said that she counted 200 bites and I am inclined to believe her.
The next day we trekked the rainforest. We started with something mild – a boat ride followed by a canopy walk 40 metres above the forest floor. We were told to stay at least four metres apart while walking the canopy. We walked on single wooden plank. It was supported by bamboo rods, ropes and a mesh that would protect even the most clumsy from an accidental fall. The planks shifted up and down with our movement, but it was gentle and not scary. What was a little scary was looking down and seeing how far one could fall. We were high above most treetops, and yet plenty more trees towered above us.
Another boat took us to the start of a two-day trek. We landed on a platform with loosely-separated planks of wood. Shamraz stepped on the wrong spot and crashed through the woodwork, a plank giving way under him. His right leg had fallen between two planks and he pulled himself out. He had scratches on his thigh but was fine.
We had packed food and water for two days. This Taman Negara (“national park” in Malay) was an evergreen tropical rainforest; wet and dense. Tree leaves above us were thick enough to hide the sky. The trees and plants were of many kinds: leafy, spiky, tall, short, very old, etc. They hid many creatures within and on them. We stepped over the roots of many trees and the occasional fallen tree as we headed to our destination. Many of these roots were vines that stretched downward from the branches until they met the ground and decided on a new approach. On occasion, one would get pricked by a spiky plant as it swung back as the person in front unintentionally dragged a branch forward by getting it stuck on their clothes. A well-trodden trail as well as blue squares nailed to trees told us that we were on the right path.
Our destination was a “bumbun” (hide) named Bumbun Kumbang, 11Km away from Kuala Tahan. The locals placed salt at designated bumbuns in the forest. Animals would visit to lick the salt. We arrived at this place that already had a bunch of travellers hanging around. A concrete structure rose from the forest floor. The bottom was a bunch of pillars that kept the room elevated. A staircase led to the rooms and there was also an outhouse. Inside the room were twelve dormitory beds. Signs around the place asked us to keep our voices low to not scare the animals away. A bunch of travellers lit a fire and started cooking and laughing. Someone yelled at them to shut up.
We had dinner and hung around chatting with the other travellers. Creatures descended upon us. We saw big geckos eating the local moths. Squirrels inquisitively checked out the humans. We tied up leftover food and hung it up to prevent rats from biting into it on the floor. After a few hours of waiting, we finally spotted an animal come to get the salt. A civet had found its way to Kumbang. We observed it for a few minutes before it disappeared back into the jungle.
Things were not great the next morning. Jem was sick. Most of the others in the bumbun had left hours before us. It was almost noon when Jem was able to muster the strength to hike again. We packed up and headed back to base. As before we passed through the forest, the sun speckling it with patches of light. Recent rains had felled a number of large trees; some of these were as thick in diameter as Shamraz was tall.
We noticed that the paths were not very well worn anymore and realised that we had been off the track for a while. We had also not seen the blue plastic squares nailed to the trees. It then started to rain. We must have lost the trail when we crossed one of the giant fallen trees. This was a little disconcerting. We had food rations for a few more meals. We would run out of water in another day. One of the party was sick. It was raining. In a few hours darkness would fall again and we would be outside in a jungle populated with tigers.
I put my backpack down and asked the others to wait. I did an expanding spiral around the others and in minutes came across a place that I had walked past a few minutes ago. We had found our path back to the hide. We tried for a while but could not figure out how to return to Kuala Tahan, so we headed back to Kumbang instead. We had booked the bunk beds for ourselves the previous night. This time there was no booking. Fortunately it was not a busy day. There were free beds of which we made use.
Our two day trek had turned into three days and we were running low on supplies. We also were no longer keen on retracing our previous day’s steps to find the actual route back to Kuala Tahan. We opted instead to do a short trek to the riverside where we could hail a boat to the village. Shamraz advised me to negotiate the price anyone offered. A boat showed up after a few minutes and I was so relieved that I forgot all thought of negotiation and accepted the boatman’s first offer. My friends were a little annoyed, but they did not grumble too much. We boarded. I took off my shoes and looked at my clothes. They were totally covered in mud and blood from the days of walking in the rainforest and dealing with leeches. I had to wash the bloody pants twice before they became usable.
There was one last adventure to be had. After getting back and having had something to eat, we decided to cross the river and have a relaxed swim at a waterhole. Relaxing was not really on Shamraz’ mind yet. He decided to swim across the river to our destination. Jem and I watched as he struggled against current in the muddy waters of the river. After a few minutes without progress, Shamraz turned back and made it back to shore to everyone’s relief. We crossed the river by boat and found the waterhole Lubok Simpon where we took a dip.
In memory of Jem Bamford.