Even superheroes need a break. What better place for Superman or Batman – and even mere mortals – to visit than the action-packed jungles of Taman Negara? A Canadian anthropologist on a trekking holiday in Taman Negara mentioned, in passing, to her fellow trekkers that she was writing a book detailing what people packed when they went on vacation.
The book’s obvious purpose – not surprising coming from an anthropologist – was not really to provide an itinerary of what travelers could fit into a small suitcase, but what their contents revealed about them as people.
Stings and bites
While items such as tea tree oil for stings and bites, sun block and a good book featured high on my Taman Negara list, my five-year-old companion and son Sam saw things a little differently. What is more important to include in your backpack – when trekking, canopy walking, camping, shooting the rapids, or hanging out with bats and bugs are on the to-do list– than one’s superhero outfit collection? We went on a three- day getaway to Malaysia’s “largest and oldest national park”, according to the government’s tourism department, me with a mind to taking a break from work – and for Superman to take a few days off from saving the world.
The park has a few tour operators to choose from. All of them are good, though don’t expect five star luxury. It’s not that kind of place. We ended up choosing NKS Travel, run by a very friendly tour organizer named Kenny who is based in Kuala Lumpur. His operation is reliable and efficient despite the convoluted journey (plane or train, then several buses, a short stay in a Jerantut hotel and then a three hour ride on a raft to the HQ village of Kuala Tahan) involved with actually getting to Taman Negara. My advice: relax and enjoy the journey.
We caught the train out of Singapore which leaves every evening at about 9pm (it is equipped with sleeping berths). The train takes about seven hours to reach Jerantut.
Said to be the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, at 130 million years old, the Taman Negara forests were declared for conservation in 1938 and covers more than 4,343 square kilometres of virgin forest. It spans across three states Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang – and is situated in the centre of the Peninsula Malaysia. It is a haven for hundreds of species of wildlife, birds, plants and, of course, bugs.
Insects for conservationists
Local conservationists are proud of their impressive insect collection, and visitors to the park are treated to regular night treks which focus specifically on bug watching. Creatures vary from fat, fierce red ants which march determinedly along the forest floor, occasionally attaching themselves to passing tourists’ shoelaces, climbing up their legs to take small, vicious bites from the presumably sought-after flesh of the inner thigh, black and yellow creatures of all shapes and sizes which, according to the trek and tour guides, are built to look more fierce than they actually are, to leeches which suck the blood from your ankles before you are even aware of it.
A visit to the “bat cave” – called Gua Telinga (Ear Cave) – is a must. It takes about three hours to get there from Kuala Tahan and involves a ride on a raft, an easy forest walk followed by some energetic cave clambering. It’s easier to negotiate if you are reasonably fit and not too overweight or large as some of the clambering spaces are quite narrow inside the caves. The guides are very good, however, and will happily help you out if you find yourself in a tight spot. The cave ceilings are filled with hundreds of resting bats – much to the glee of the resident superhero (in Batman gear, naturally). Some of them flit about past your face, (yes, just like in Batman Begins) but they are not dangerous and certainly nothing to be afraid of. Apparently, there are also giant toads and bat-eating snakes which have lived in there since prehistoric times, but we didn’t actually see any of those.
Sadly for visitors, there aren’t too many larger animals in the area where tourists visit – even the odd monkey, and certainly no tigers.
The animals have sensibly made their homes deep in areas where tourists fear to go. The canopy walk is one of the anchor activities for short stay visitors. Trek through the forest to the top of hill, Bukit Teresek. On the way, is the canopy walkway, the longest in the world. It is best to take a guide with you if you are a small group as the trail can get confusing.
Running the rapids is a favorite activity, though it is fairly tame. Travel upstream from Kuala Tahan and experience 45 minutes through seven sets of swirling rapids down 9.1km. After any one of these high-energy sojourns, it was good to get back to home base at Kuala Tahan. We stayed in a comfortable, air-conditioned chalet, in the rustic resort of Ekoton.
Taman Negara is a near-perfect combination of quiet getaway, but with plenty to do if you want – just the place to get way from the hurly-burly of city living – and ideal even for Superman to recharge his batteries.