Tropical treats

Tropical treats
It is pitch dark and there is no moon. The air hangs heavy with humidity and the smell of luxuriant wood. In the weak glow of a few torch lights, do I see a swift shape cloaked by night, scurry past me! A many-legged quiver of fear slithers up my spine as the dark wall of trees merge with the darkness of night to look like the ramparts of a sinister castle. Add to this the eerie silence that is broken only by the sounds of the jungle. I might as well be in the thick of a menacing thriller plot!

Even as I wonder if I had made the right decision to come out on this nocturnal journey, a six-year-old in our group squeals with glee having spotted some creature up a tree trunk. A fluttering in my belly threatens to grow into a paralysing weakness as I imagine this creature, whatever it is, pouncing on me. Our guide cautions us to silence and flashes his torch on the tree to reveal a furry spider, one of the deadliest of arachnids species. He remains immobile, majestic against the trunk’s mossy background, seemingly impervious to the streaks of light flashed upon him. Our digital devices click away furiously as he seems to oblige us by remaining motionless.

A little more than a dozen of us, tourists from all over the globe, of all ages, are on a Night Jungle Walk at Taman Negara, Malaysia’s largest national park and one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests. Skirting the forest for a short distance is the resort where we are staying. The jungle tour begins barely 200 m from our cottage as we step on to a well-laid elevated wooden pathway that is actually a cleavage through the maze of a dense forest.

I calm the tremor in my limbs, wishing my visual senses could have been a match for these nocturnal beings! However, I continue to follow our guide who has his ears and eyes keenly perked to identify sounds and sights to point out to us little-known inhabitants from the insect world. Taman Negara, our guide tells us, is a haven for several endangered mammalian species including the tiger, leopard and the Asian elephant. “But you’d be lucky if you get to spot anything more than some deer, or a tapir, perhaps,” he adds. Paradoxically, I feel a sense of relief and disappointment in equal measure on hearing this.

We see a couple of scorpion species, a centipede or two, and a few other insects including the stick or twig insect, which kindles our curiosity. Well, the creature could easily be mistaken for twigs, from which it derives its name. We learn that it’s a slow-moving creature that mostly confines itself to the ground level and can remain motionless for hours together. We are fine with this for we are able to leisurely capture him on our lens without fearing he would scuttle away. Our destination for the night is the overlook or observation deck from which we could spot the more challenging natives of the wild, should we get lucky.

Of course, we don’t! The deck overlooks a waterbody, and far away on the other side, our guide points out to what looks like a pair of headlights. There is a rush of adrenaline as we flock to a corner of the platform to catch a glimpse of the majestic feline as our fertile imagination supposes the creature to be. Only to discover it is a deer come out for his nightcap!

I am happy and relieved to get back to the safe confines of our chalet at the end of an hour-and-a-half of jungle trekking, only to return to it the next morning, albeit along a different and denser route.

Morning shines pearly light on the mist-kissed rainforest as we embark on the three-hour trek to experience the world’s longest hanging-bridge canopy walkway. We take a five-minute boat ride from the cottage to reach the base of our trekking trail, which is itself at an elevation of a few hundred feet. The menacing woods of the previous night take on a different hue as nature unveils herself in all her stunning glory. The rays of a morning sun ignite the treetops in a burst of myriad shades of emerald. Beneath hugely tall and ramrod- straight trees flourishes a whole world of closely packed flora that includes climbers, creepers, palm fronds, foliaceous and variegated plants.

Wilderness for company

We are a lot more Homo sapiens undertaking the hike this morning, suitably attired in trekking shoes and summery cottons. Loud whooping bird call rings through the trees, signalling the beginning of another busy day in the life of these jungle avians. The ambience looks less intimidating than the previous night. But even now we do not get to see any creatures of the wild, but the journey itself is a revelation. We are stunned by the amazing variety of forest flora, the insect world, and not the least by our own physical well-being to negotiate steep inclines, almost vertical in places, against slippery soil made wet by dew. Of course, there are a couple of tricky stretches that give me goose pimples, and my heart is in my hand because there is no rope or support to hang on to! A little slip and I would go diving into a fathomless abyss.

As we prepare to make our first halt in the midst of the thicket, we see some creature dash up a liana and quickly disappear from view. Awo, our guide for the morning, tells us it is the common agamid lizard on the lookout for his breakfast.

An hour into the canopy trail, it is a trudge for many of us. Following brief breaks at two or three vantage points, we are finally at the base of the canopy walk. We gingerly climb a flight of wooden steps to enter a cabin on stilts. It opens out to the half-kilometre walkway, the world’s longest hanging bridge suspended at a height of 40 m. We are advised to keep a safe distance of at least five metres from each other while walking on this ‘dancing’ walkway, and not indulge in any acrobatics.

Speeding on water

It doesn’t matter that I have walked the Lakshman Jhula in Rishikesh several times and the walkway in Karnataka’s Nisargadhama. Butterflies somersault in my belly as I step on to this swinging bridge, hoping to reach the other end in one piece. A few tens of metres into the walk and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, absorbing the brilliant vistas of the greens and the muddy waters of the Tembeling river below, dotted with several boats and rafts. Three hours of trudging, half an hour of walking in air and I’m now ready to take on the rapids. A whirring sound and our wooden raft throbs to life, coursing smoothly on the still-muddy waters. There is a rush of adrenaline as we come upon the first of the rapids. Six more follow by the end of which we are drenched and tipsy from the thrilling experience.

Of course, no stills or video on this aqua trip to capture our squeals and shrieks as the boat threatens to turn turtle. We and our digital devices are safe and happy for our adventure in Taman Negara National Park, established in 1938-39, covering the three peninsular states of Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.
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