Walking into town from our mock Tudor style guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands, wearing my new sweater (yes it was 19 degrees but felt decidedly chilly!) amongst positively alpine scenery, with the Arabic call to prayer in the background was quite bizarre, I have to say.
Discovered in the late 1880s and developed in the 30’s by the British to escape the oppressive heat, the area is the largest hill station in Malaysia. At heights of up to 2000 metres above sea level, the Highlands are renowned for their tea plantations and strawberry farms – a perfect combination for one of my favourite treats – cream tea!
Sadly, the town of Tanah Rata had become the hub of the tourist trail, and was full of hostels, cheap restaurants and souvenir shops. Our lodgings, however, were a peaceful haven run by a very friendly landlady, Jay, who offered advice on activities, while we sat sipping tea on the porch, surrounded by verdant, very English looking, gardens.
Top of the to-do list were the unescapable tea plantations which surrounded the town. Everything seemed geared towards tourists, but we spent a pleasant hour admiring the views before trying out the Cameron Gold blend tea at a local café, accompanied by a surprisingly good scone, jam and cream (not clotted, but at least not from a can like many on offer).
There were many hiking trails encompassing the surrounding hills, but most were either marked as “challenging”, “lengthy”, “closed” or downright “dangerous”, so we “reluctantly” decided to give them a miss. A half day tour to the Boh Tea Planation (one of the largest and most famous in the area), and the Mossy Forest sounded interesting and our affable young guide, Ahmed, picked us up early the next morning in his Land Rover.
Glad we were in a four-wheel drive, we bumped our way along up the hill, and were rewarded with stunning views of the verdant valleys on the way. Ahmed explained the process of tea making and the long history of the plantations and their workers – who knew so much went into producing the “perfect cuppa”? The Boh factory itself was closed to visitors but the information centre and café were fairly interesting diversions whilst surveying the plantations below.
Next stop was the intriguing sounding “Mossy Forest”, an enchanting woodland tucked near the top of Mount Brinchang, the second highest peak in the Camerons. As the name suggests, the trees and flora are covered in a thick layer of moss due the high humidity, and looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings. As we walked through the unique landscape along the high boardwalk, we spotted wild orchids, huge ferns and carnivorous pitcher plants (luckily, they only eat insects!). It was a good 10 degrees cooler than in town and quite windy on top of the observation tower, so I was glad of my pack-a-mac, but the views were magnificent.
The tour also included a visit to the Butterfly farm – it was amazing to see these beautiful creatures up close but not being fans of captive animals, we gave the rest of the zoo a miss. The final stop was the strawberry farm, where I had to sample the fruit to check it was up to British standards, and am pleased to report that they were delicious. Sadly however, much of the countryside is being swallowed up by huge plastic greenhouses (used to grow strawberries and other tender crops), which were ruining the climate -and the beauty – of the area, along with many new high-rise developments. Such a shame…
In the jungle:
Next on our itinerary was the Taman Negara National Park – the oldest and largest in Malaysia. The long four-hour road trip there was surprisingly easy and uneventful and we arrived at our riverside lodging mid-afternoon. We both sprayed up with anti-mosquito spray as we set off to explore the area. It was a short walk, as the small settlement of Kuala Tahan mainly consisted of a scattering of small hostels and floating restaurants.
Crossing the river by flat bottomed boat the next day (for the princely sum of 1 Ringgit – about 20p) we reached the entrance to the Park Headquarters where we had to leave our details for security reasons (they obviously over-estimated our hiking abilities in the 100% humidity!) and followed the signs through the Mutiara eco-resort towards the Canopy Walkway (one of the park’s main attractions). Following slippery and winding paths through the dense rainforest, we enjoyed listening to the birds and gibbons and felt “as one with nature”!
After what felt like a very long 2km walk, we finally reached the 500m long series of rope bridges suspended 45m above the forest floor. To be honest, we were so focused on gripping the rope “handrails” on either side of the walkway that we barely had a chance to admire the treetop scenery especially as one had a 45 degree slope down to the next base. The path back to the start was urgently in need of repair, and we had to clamber over fallen trees and on some stretches it disappeared completely. I was glad that we had competed the canopy bit before we noticed how badly maintained the rest of the route was!
Our plans for a night safari were ruined by the torrential rain which had set in for the evening (it seemed to be following us around!). It did dry up a little after lunch the following day so we ventured out on the river for a trip to the Orang Asli village – a local tribe of Batek people – where the guide gave us an insight into their lifestyle and a villager demonstrated the use of the blow pipe (used to hunt gibbons) and how they made fire using sticks (basic boy scout skills!). Living so close to “civilisation” must prove quite difficult, especially for the younger members of the tribe. It felt a little voyeuristic wandering around the huts, however, it was fascinating to learn about the villagers’ way of life and beliefs.
The next part of the tour was a thrilling boat ride through the rapids, and we got thoroughly soaked whilst enjoying the river views. Another night of downpours put paid to the night safari yet again, but the wildlife came to us the next day. I discovered a huge scorpion on our patio as I went to recover my sandals, plus was surprised by a small (thankfully!) Huntsman spider who seemed to have made a home under our loo seat.
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, we were unfortunately involved in a car accident while travelling back down through the clouds to Ipoh later that morning. We’d had a few near misses with locals who had a tendency to cut the corners of the ever winding road back down, and one took it a bit too far managing to clip the front of our hire car – the Saga “saga” continues! Fortunately, no one was injured, although we did spot a recently overturned car down the ravine from where our incident took place, so this corner was obviously a bit of a black spot. Regrettably for the culprit, we insisted the police were called but after a few phone calls with our hirer, the matter was considered “closed”. Luckily the car was sound enough to make it back to Penang the next day where we gladly dropped it off, before our flight onwards to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The experience has convinced us that driving out here is only for the brave of heart!
Next Stop: Bright lights, big city…