Have you ever got lost in the woods? After following a well-trodden path, have you ever accidentally turned the wrong way, and suddenly figured out that you had no idea of where you actually were? Being lost in the woods is the ultimate adventure, born out of children’s tales and parents’ nightmares. We did get lost once. Only, it wasn’t in the woods. It was in the jungle.
I can’t remember what brought us to Taman Negara. I must have read about it somewhere, and thought it sounded good. One of the last remaining patches of primary rainforest in the country; a reminder of what Malaysia used to be like, not so long ago. Taman Negara means national park; it is the main national park in Peninsular Malaysia. From Singapore, 8 hours on a Malaysian train took us to Jerantut, from where we caught a riverboat and reached the village of Kuala Tahan, the gateway to the national park.
Taman Negara is believed to be one of the oldest rainforests on Earth. The main draw was spending the night in a hide in the middle of the jungle to see wildlife. One of my ambitions was spotting a slow loris, a cute wide-eyed primate that is often found in Southeast Asian forests. Several options were on offer, huts of all shapes and sizes scattered around the four corners of the park. Obviously, we went for it and chose the furthest hide from park headquarters. We decided to ditch guided tours and make our own way there. We were told paths were well-marked and easy to follow, the terrain was smooth and flat all the way to the hide. It was supposed to be a 11 km hike. A walk in the park, we thought.
So we set off. Every step we took felt like we were being swallowed into a giant green living organism. Everything twitched, wobbled, throbbed with life. The path was as soft as a mattress, thick with fallen leaves, rotting bark, decomposing branches. Eyes followed us. We caught glimpses of monkeys, peering through the boughs. Every now and then, the azure flash of a kingfisher. Bugs of all sorts, plodding across the past, slowly nut surely like antique tanks. And leeches! The place was crawling with them.
At first, it was great walking around with no guide, just us and the sounds of nature. There were whizzes and whirrs, the whoosh of leaves, the sudden thud of a branch falling onto the undergrowthWe were able to stop whenever we wanted to try and spot some wildlife, or have a break. It was really hot and humid and I was carrying a big pack, so every hour or so we had a 5 minutes break. The trail seemed easy and safe enough. There were all the ingredients for a wonderful day.
Every once in a while, we crossed paths with orang asli, the traditional inhabitants of this part of Malaysia. Orang asli means ‘original people’ in Malay. There are about 500 in Taman Negara. They follow a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving their settlements across the forest following the cycle of game and seasons.
All went well, until my husband almost stepped on a 4-foot snake which was right in the middle of the path and was poised ready to strike. we exchanged terrified glances; he remembering his Australian upbringing and the dangers of snakes, I convinced that if I moved I would be bitten and die there, in the middle of the jungle. Luckily, my husband had a stroke of genius. With the aid of his tripod he was able to guide the snake into the bushes.
We kept going. The heat was unbearable and the big backpacks full of camera equipment and the gear for the night were getting heavier and heavier. Around 3 pm it started raining, and we were nowhere near our destination. We were starting to feel the inconvenience of having taken so many breaks. The rain was a problem because we had to wade through a river to reach the hide, and rain could make the river swell quickly.
We decided to start running. As we crossed a creek, we noticed the trail was finished. All we could see was shrubbery, trees and fallen logs. The rain kept falling, heavier and heavier, buckets of water being emptied over our heads. We were soaked to the bone and my trousers were ripped into shreds. The leeches were feasting on our exposed flesh, but that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was we couldn’t find the trail.
We spent an hour frantically looking for it, going back and forth from where we lost the trail, adventuring tearing and being teared apart by the shrubbery, where rattan palms scratched and other spiky plants dwelled so deeply into our flesh that we were being pulled back as we walked.
The forest that looked warm and inviting only a few minutes before now appeared looming and daunting, a mass of darkness where light was getting dimmer and dimmer by the minute. After two hours, the option of spending the night out was sadly starting to become real.
As it was getting close to 5, we decided to go back the way we carme and spend the night in another hide nearer to headquarters. We set off and walked as quickly as possible, but we were a long way away and probably wouldn’t have reached shelter before nightfall.
It was frantic, one of those moments where thoughts come out distorted and irrational. I honestly thought we were going to die. The forest is home to elephants, tigers and various kinds of poisonous snakes. Spending the night out, without shelter, all of the above would’ve been a serious possibility. At some point I tripped over and fell face down on the mud. I wasn’t hurt, but I just got a glimpse of my life, a sudden urge to see my family, alongside with the awareness that I might never see them again.
This is it, I thought. This is how it ends. I watched my story from the outside, I imagined my family reacting to the news, fruitless search parties, a newspaper obituary. In the impending darkness of the Malaysian rainforest, I contemplated the idea my life may have been coming to an end.
Then, the realisation came. I just had to keep going. In travel as in life, one has to keep going. So I got up, confident we were going to find our way, and walk out of Taman Negara, one way or another.
After about an hour we reached a river. At first, we panicked, because we hadn’t passed any river before. Then, barely visible behind a tree there was a sign: Bumbum Kumbang, 500 meters. The hut we were bound to in the first place. We found our way. I was so tired and happy I could not stand up. I collapsed on the wooden bedframes of the hut, thick with mould and moisture, my legs riddled with leech bites.
I only got out for a second, that night. Wrapped around a tree branch, I saw a slow loris.