There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Cameron Highlands, A Rainforest Walk, BOH and Curry: Part 4 of the Malaysian Peninsula

I cannot be sure it rained all night, but it was raining when I went to sleep, raining when we had a cup of tea at 4.30 (after being woken by the rain) and raining when we got up.

It was raining when we dashed to breakfast, skipping lightly (as I don’t) round the puddles. A ‘Forest and Farm’ walk was scheduled for the morning but over breakfast we considered the need for a plan B.

The cool, wet Cameron Highlands in the centre of the Malay Peninsula
When we met our walk guide, Francis, the rain had actually stopped. We asked about the forecast and he pulled a face, but we went anyway - why come all this way and be put off by a little rain?

Francis drove us down into Tanah Rata and out the other side, parking his Land Rover where the tarmac finished and the jungle started.
Lynne and Francis at the start of the walk, near Tanah Rata
We set off into the trees on a flagged but slippery path...

A flagged but slippery path into the jungle
…which took us past a Poinsettia tree. A native of Mexico, it derives its English name from American diplomat Joel Poinsett who took it to the US in 1830 from where it has travelled the world. Familiar as a pot plant, we had never realised it can grow into a small tree.

Poisettia Tree, near Tanah Rata
It is always nice to know where you are going….
So that is where we are going.
….when you are following an awkward path along the side of a heavily wooded valley. Down to our right we could hear a rushing stream, but no waterfall as yet.

Along the valley edge above a rushing stream, near the Robinson Falls
Francis was good at spotting flora; Poinsettia may have become a citizen of the globe, but Golden Balsam, impatiens ocidioides is endemic to the Cameron Highlands.

Golden Balsam, Impatiens Ocidioides, near the Robinson Falls
He was good with fauna, too, spotting a giant snail which had climbed a tree to well above head height….

Giant snail hauled down to head height, near the Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
 ….and a small multi-legged creature, presumably a caterpillar. We had never seen anything like it, and even Francis was stumped.

Unidentified caterpillar(?) near Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
We had been walking for half an hour before the final 20m drop of the Robinson Falls came into view. There are, apparently, more tumbles upstream but this is by far the biggest and the only one visible from the path. Herbert Christopher Robinson was Director of Museums for the Federated Malay States from 1903-26. After retiring he started the massive five volume Birds of the Malay Peninsula, though completing only two before his death in 1930. I cannot guarantee the falls were named after him, but I know of no other likely candidates.

Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
By now the flagged path had given way to a muddy track, sometimes wide and easy…

Sometimes the path was wide and muddy, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
… sometimes tucked into the edge of the steep valley. In places trees had fallen across it; we ducked under some, climbed round others.

Sometimes the path was tucked into the edge of valley, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata 

We paused to admire fungus growing on a rotting log and then,…

Fungus on a rotten log, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
…but for Francis’ sharp eyes, would have walked into the little creature below, or at least its web. (S)he is one of the spiny-backed orb-weaver spiders, the Gasteracantha. There are many species, a dozen or more resident in Malaysia, but I think this is Gasteracantha Kuhli. They are common, Francis said, but difficult to spot.

Spiny-backed Orb-weaver spider, Gasteracantha Kuhli, Cameron Highlands
The gasteracantha come in a variety of shapes and colours. Kuhli is almost identical to Gasteracantha Cancriformis which is widely distributed throughout the Americas. It easy to know which is which - provided you know which continent you are on (and not all internet users do, apparently).
No rain had fallen the whole time we were walking, and I removed my jacket as the day warmed up.

The path had been dropping from the start but now began to descend more sharply as it twisted along the valley side.

The path begins to drop more sharply, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
As we rounded the bend we saw an old man walking towards us, naked except for a blanket slung round his neck, the loose ends dangling down his back. He was plodding up the path barefoot and muttering to himself. As he drew closer I realised how small he was; he passed me by, his head lower than my shoulder. However much I wanted a photograph I could not bring myself to stick a camera in his face; these were his hills not mine and a guest should not be so rude. He continued up the path. Lynne turned hoping to photograph him as he walked away, but he turned at the same moment and stood motionless staring down at us. Lynne waved, he waved back and was gone.

‘Orang Asli,’ Francis said. Most of the local members of Malaysia’s ‘original people,’ he told us, had moved into town. Three old men continue to live in the old village – Francis pointed up the valley side – they cultivate some land and hunt a little. Occasionally one of them ventures into Tanah Rata to collect plastic bottles in return for a few coins from the recycling company.

A little further along we marvelled at the steep, almost imperceptible, track on which the old man had descended the valley side. Francis had been young, he told us, when he first encountered the man who seemed old then. Now admitting to be well over forty, Francis had no idea how old the man was.

The traditional world of the Orang Asli was as incomprehensible to us as our world was to him, but he was also a source of wonder to Francis; he may have lived close by geographically but his life style was much closer to ours.

So I have no picture of one of the Original people, but I offer some wild ginger flowers, instead.

Wild ginger, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
An hour and three quarters from the start Francis turned onto a path dropping steeply into the valley….

The start of the steep descent
….from half way down we could see the trees gave way to cultivation on the valley floor.

Cultivation in the valley bottom, Cameron Highlands
We were soon down among the cabbages. They looked healthy to me, but Francis lamented that it was a poor year and the hearts should be twice the size – which would make them monster cabbages.

Descending through the cabbages, Cameron Highlands
We reached a lane running between the fields. ‘Japanese cucumber,’ Francis said, pointing to the verge. He told us that most farm workers were Bangladeshi seasonal migrants who planted these little extras on the roadside to sell for a ringgit or two. At the end of the month they might have 50 or 60 ringgits to send back to their families, roughly £10 – hardly enough I would have thought to be worth working thousands of miles away from home. ‘50 Ringgits goes a long way in Bangladesh,’ Francis observed.

I spotted a huge centipede working its way along the gutter. Scolopendra is a large genus of large centipedes and Scolopendra dehaani or Malaysian Cherry Red as it is known locally (other names occur throughout SE Asia) is famed for its painful, poisonous bite.

The extremely unpleasant Malaysian Cherry Red Centipede, Cameron Highlands
This was as close an encounter as any sane person could want

Finding a waiting Land Rover, we hopped in and were delivered to Francis’ office in Tanah Rata to await our own driver. We said goodbye to Francis and thanked him for a fascinating walk which had been entirely in the dry. As he left the drizzle restarted.

‘Lunch,’ said our driver when he arrived. ‘No,’ we said, as one. After a couple of hours slogging along muddy paths in high humidity ‘shower’ felt a more immediate need.

He returned us to our hotel and when we emerged, clean and refreshed we went not to lunch but north past the Big Red Strawberry Farm (strawberries – considered extraordinarily exotic in Malaysia - are a major local product) and on to the BOH tea plantation.

The BOH tea company was founded by JA Russell in 1929 and is the biggest tea producer in Malaysia responsible for 70% of the country’s output. The name probably refers to Best of the Highlands, but other derivations have been suggested.

They have four ‘tea gardens’, three of them in the Cameron Highlands, and we visited the largest, Sungai Palas. We have seen several tea factories recently in Sri Lanka and India and from what we could observe through large Perspex windows the production process varies little.

BOH tea factory, Sungai Palas, Cameron Highlands
After a wander round and a visit to the shop (and the inevitable purchases) we had a pleasant cup of tea on a platform built out from the hill to give impressive, if misty, views over the rest of the estate.

BOH Sungai Palas Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands
Here, too, the pickers were migrants. BOH makes a big play of treating their workers fairly, supplying accommodation, recreational facilities, and mosques and temples for all persuasions.

And then we did go for lunch. It was nearer 3 o’clock than 2 before we were sitting outside the Restoran Sri Brinchang in Tanah Rata. They promised the best south Indian food in town (hardly an extravagant claim in such a small town!) but also offered clay pots (Vietnamese) and tandoori dishes (north Indian) among other delights.

Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
We went with the south Indian theme ordering mutton varuval, which was served on a banana leaf with appropriate accompaniments. Varuval is a Tamil dry curry, suitable for a banana leaf, but this came in a pot with ample sauce. No matter, it was an excellent lunch. While we were eating, the sun came out and I removed my sweater. The climate is described as cool and damp with an average high of 23 or 24° - and today had been a perfect example, the ‘high’ being reached for some 30 minutes before ‘cool’ reasserted itself.

Mutton Varuval, Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
After lunch, we walked around Tanah Rata, there is little to see, and made some purchases. Clean and prosperous, it is a typical Malaysian small town – apart from the climate.

Tanah Rata, unofficial capital of the Cameron Highlands
The temperature dropped and the rain reappeared as we returned to our hotel.

In the evening we found the hotel bar occupied by a Dutch tour party. We squeezed onto the two remaining seats in time to see the barman lighting the fire; the evening looked more cheerful with a roaring blaze. Finding they were offering Pernod at a reasonable price we ordered two glasses. Apparently few French groups come this way as they had no idea how to serve it, but they had the sense to ask rather than blunder on and spoil it. We dined, almost alone, in the hotel’s Thai restaurant where they managed a very decent red curry.

1 comment:

  1. Reminded me of the surprise when we discovered a poinsettia tree in the garden of our first home in Mexico, growing happily in Pachuca at 8000 ft altitude.