Hiking among a company of good people is unbelievably fun. I have almost forgotten how it felt after these kinds of activities became absence in my life while I engrossed myself in work, building a career which is fueled more by greed rather than passion. My last real hiking trip and in fact my first, was on the other side of the planet, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, within one of the crown jewels of the United States national park network, Yosemite. So beautiful the wilderness there that after all the suffering and pain, it energized me for a new semester, a new determination to undo all the problems I had foolishly created for myself. After graduation at Michigan, my confidence markedly subsided as I lost the environment that nurtured me to fight on in the face of seemingly impossible odd. I only started to realize how low I felt one day in my office, doing mediocre tasks that did not inspire. I needed an inspiration and I remembered how the Yosemite Valley, the Half Dome, El Capitan, Hetch Hetchy, Tuolumne Canyon, Tuolumne Meadows, White Wolf, Merced, Waterwheel and Glen Aulin among others inspired me to be larger than myself, to achieve the impossible and open up a window of endless possibilities. I needed that injection of energy and I found it in the wilderness of Endau Rompin in Johor.
I joined the Malaysian Nature Society partly because I felt I needed an association to be with, just as when I was in the United States. I wanted to do something good, something, some venue to contribute through. The first event was the Big Green Bash in Kuala Lumpur. It was okay but given I was new, I had not known too many individuals. Apart from watching the An Inconvenient Truth and a few other documentaries, I observed the society quietly, thinking if joining was the right thing to do. Being unable to decide there and then, I volunteered for Raptor Watch at Tanjung Tuan, Malacca and that convinced me that I made the right choice. So excited was I upon such realization that immediately after I reached home from Malacca, I logon the internet and registered for an expedition with the society to Endau Rompin National Park. That was back in late March.
Day in and day out, all I could think of was Endau Rompin, imagining new experiences in the wilderness with endangered species roaming the area freely. When the day became progressively closer, I was getting noticeably excited. In the week before the trip, I shopped for the necessary equipments. I needed not purchase for too many stuff however as I had them since my stay by the Dungun River, helping out to save the endangered river terrapin. Or even, from the Yosemite trip! Several articles that were with me at the top of the world were my cargo pant though it has been badly battered throughout the years, my trusty boots, my goggle and backpack.
Saturday April 28, the departure day, started far too early. I and three other persons agreed to carpool from Kuala Lumpur to the national park and we were to meet up at Wangsa Maju by 06:45. By train, it usually takes me 30 minutes to get from my place to the meeting point and so, I had to wake up before 6 o’clock. While I dragged my feet off my bed, I made it on the dot and we left for a new adventure well before 07:00 into the wilderness in a Mercedes. Riding a Mercedes would prove to be minor but fun folly later in the mud of Endau Rompin.
By coincidence or design, Patricia, the driver that drove me to Tanjung Tuan for Raptor Watch was my driver of the day. She volunteered for the terrapin conservation project by the Dungun River with me too earlier last year. So, I know her. Two other passengers were German-speaking Malaysian siblings, Katrin and Christian. Yes, two Malaysians with German as mother-tongue. At one point or another, I cannot help but be amazed at the multicultural state inside the car.
The journey to Endau Rompin started out under cloudy sky. It rained earlier in the morning while most folks in the city were sleeping. The streets were soaking wet. The rain made waking up a chore.
Patricia is an adventurous old lady with a young heart. She is perhaps well in her 60s or maybe 70s but she travels extensively. She has hiked through Europe, the ancient growth of Belum-Temengor, Bali, Borneo, here, there and everywhere. In fact, she has just got back from a trip to Melbourne all alone by herself.
Despite being a wonderwoman, she told me that she had doubt about embarking on this trip. She lamented why would an old woman doing all this sort of things when she should be in bed, resting.
I understand her completely. While I am still young, I too had that uneasy feeling of going out of security and exposing myself to uncertainty. Furthermore, waking up in the wee hours is certainly not my cup of tea. Yet, a monotonic life does not produce anything memorable. Living the same day over and over again could drive me to insanity and I would not want to be a raving mad man. I need change. While changes are unpredictable, I certainly welcomed the break from routine. We only live once and I want to make my life as memorable as possible before it is too late, when I would be bedridden, unable to move and enjoy the sugar of life. I am sure Patricia was thinking of the same thing.
The first leg of the journey was uneventful, with cities passing us by. Soon, the typical landscape of oil palm and rubber trees were common. By the time we got to Seremban, we found ourselves listening to Aborigine songs that almost sent me to slumberland.
When I first returned to Malaysia not too long ago, I noticed that the highway was being widened, from Kuala Kangsar to Johor Bahru. One more lane is being added to each direction, increasing the capacity of the highway.
If the Titiwangsa Mountains is the geographic backbone of the Malay Peninsula, then the North-South Highway is the economic backbone of Peninsular Malaysia. This network of highway no doubt fueled the Malaysian economy, aiding the country blazing through the 1990s. The Mahathir administration has its flaws but it also has invaluable contributions to the country and the highway system is one of them.
Yet, I cannot help but cringe at signboards at the side that declare the widening of the highway as another project by the Barisan Nasional government. Clearly, the incumbent is misusing power to create an illusion that the state and the political party in power are one while as it should be, there are of two different entities. The funding for such projects come from everybody, be it from the supporters of the incumbent or the opposition. Everybody pays tax. From the look of it, that fact is lost, on purpose or else, upon the incumbent. This says a lot on our maturity as a democratic society.
While the widening project is almost done, lines of orange cones signal that the lanes are not opened yet. Dummies standing by the road, complete with construction wares with moving arm flying red flags, adds touch of humor to the engineering exercise.
The route from KL to Seremban and Malacca was dull because in many ways, it is the most developed area in Malaysia. On top of that, almost every year, I would follow this path back to Malacca, visiting my grandmother in Alor Gajah.
The Johorean half of the highway was dull as well due to the lack of geographical features. The flatness of Johor is both a boon and a bane to the local population. On one hand, it is a suitable for agricultural activities. The famed pineapples of Johor prove the state’s position as a major agricultural player in the country. On the other hand, the recent flooding shows how vulnerable Johor is to natural disaster.
After about 200 or 300 km later, it was the end the first part of the journey. By around this time, the sky was blue, bright and clear.
The second leg of the journey started at Ayer Hitam, Johor. We got off the highway and headed for Kahang, the last town with gas station before Endau Rompin National Park. The road to Kahang has too many curves, “seperti ular kena palu“. This is remarkably different from roads leading southward to the city of Johor Bahru. The roads that I had traversed in Johor previously were always straight. Through that knowledge, I formed a broad generalization that most roads in Johor are straight. The road to Kahang undoes that perception.
The zig-zagging passes through a few town and the only town we passed that worth mentioning is Kluang.
Kluang, to use Patricia’s word, is a quaint town. It is old, little and slow. Old architecture that belongs to the 1960s or earlier could be seen without much effort here. I wish I had spent time at Kluang town with my camera. I feel a day stay or two there would be worthwhile. But we rode on. We had a little under 100 km to go to Kahang through a stretch of road that could cause motion sickness under the ever bright merciless tropical Malaysian sun. We would not want to be late.
At one point, we went through Sembrong. A signboard with a poster of Hishammuddin Hussein, the current Malaysian education minister greeted us as we entered the area. Now I know which area the minister represents. Apart from farms and construction of what looks like a warehouse, Sembrong, at least along the road, does not offer anything interesting. So, we rode on again.
Sooner or later, the second leg had to end and it did. We reached Kahang at about 11:00 and were the first to be there among members of the expedition. We were advised that we should leave Kuala Lumpur by 07:00 and reach Kahang by 11:00. By noon according to the expedition leaders, everybody should be at Kahang by noon and at 13:00, off to the wilderness.
Being first was not fun. The town of Kahang is so dead, with wooden rows of shophouses occasionally pops out here and there. The fact that most shops were closed gave me the impression that the town, or perhaps more suitably, the settlement is godforsaken. There was almost absolutely nothing to do there. I wonder how a youth would grow up here, deprived all the modern sins. I wish we were late.
We were also told that the team should meet at the only gas station in Kahang which is located on the other side of the town. It did not take long to get on the other side of the town once we entered the town.
The Shell gas station at Kahang.
Patricia pumped up gas into the Mercedes, full tank. Once that was done, we went on a hunt for lunch. One Malay shop was opened and the shop had limited choice. Really, no choice at all.
After lunch, we waited for some time before a 4WD with an unmistakable tapir sticker that forms the logo of the Malaysian Nature Society came within our view. I was excited and quickly waved to the incoming vehicle. And then, there were eight of us.
It took a while before a total 11 vehicles, nearly 40 members gathered at the gas station. While waiting, we introduced ourselves to each other, pushing the word strangers out of our vocabulary.
At 13:00, we were off in a convoy. Each vehicle had a number on it, from one to eleven so that we could track each other and not lose our way. For about 10 to 15 minutes, we veered off the tarmac road onto typical unpaved red earth plantation road. If we had stayed true to the paved road, we would have gone straight to the coastal town of Mersing in the east, facing the South China Sea, no more than 150 km away.
Only a bumpy and dusty unpaved road cutting through vast sea of oil palm trees links Endau Rompin with the Kahang-Mersing road; this is the easiest route into Endau Rompin. The oil palm trees on both sides of the road were covered with red dust, a sign that this stretch of road is heavily used. It seems though that it is used mostly by local working on the estate and the Orang Aslis while the presence of outsiders is limited.
Sea of oil palm trees as far as the eye can see.
The distance between the boundary of the national park and the entrance of the plantation is about 45km. In between, oil palm dominates the scene, with intermittent reign of banana and rubber trees. While just 45 km in distance, the potholes and mud made the third leg seemed to last for eternity. It took us probably two hours to get done with it. With the sun up high in the sky, I swear that I suffered from sunburn just by sitting in the car. The only thing that comforted me was the air conditioner of a Mercedes Benz, a Malay speaking Brit and two German speaking siblings!
On the way forward, we noticed a bird hovering a few meters from the ground. I am unsure what kind of bird it was for I am no birder, not even qualified to wear the title amateur. Still, its behavior attracted our attention. As a matter of fact, it seemed like it was trying hard to attract our attention. According to Patricia of whom is a birding enthusiast, the bird might have a nest somewhere and it might think that we were trying to invade its home. Hence, the diversion. We slowed down, amused but moved away onward to Endau Rompin, which no intention whatsoever to transgress its nest.
A few moments later, we come up a hill and I saw a small settlement of planters. More impressively, far on the horizon, the border of the national park was visible. Rows of oil palm trees stop at the border and tropical jungle forms seemingly impenetrable green wall. But such wall is never impenetrable. We humans have moved mountains at our wimp. Trees pose little problem to us, if we want to remove it, especially if the destructive lumberjacks have the opportunity to pouch on nature.
I welcomed the change of scenery, from oil palm to tropical rainforest. A small sign greeted us, confirming that we were indeed in the national park. The greeting however was a bit confusing because there were logging going on.
There but not there yet.
But we were not there to campaign against jungle destruction but to appreciate what still left before it is gone for good to quench our unquenchable greed. The fight against deforestation is for another day, along, together with heavy calvary. We were mere scouts today.
We crossed several wooden bridges that might tumble down the river each time we passed it. The road after that changes direction from left to right and left again, up and down with tree canopy providing shades over the road, making the atmosphere surreal. If the road to Cameron Highlands is eye-pleasing, the route through Endau Rompin is as great but wilder, less traveled, less sign of civilization. The sense of being isolated so profoundly prevailed here and that feeling is priceless. No phone, no internet, no nothing. Nobody could contact me and ask me for report, papers, information or other dull matters.
End of third leg.
Finally, the third leg ended and the final leg to base camp began. Of all legs, the fourth one was the most difficult, relatively. It was so difficult that I think I will write about it at another time soon.
On 4WD, some readers might be familiar with my opposition to SUV and, seeing SUVs in an expedition such as this might prove me as a hypocrite. I violently beg to differ. I oppose usage of SUVs in places where other mean of efficient transportation is available, e.g. inside a city for instance. In a jungle such as Endau Rompin, hard to imagine how a car could be as efficient as an SUV bulldozing through the mud. Environmentalism after all is not about not consuming. Rather, environmentalism is about consuming efficiently.
p/s — there is an article that you might interested. The author describes his experience in Endau Rompin:
It was the dwindling numbers of rhinoceros that spurred the 1985/86 research by the Malaysian Nature Society that ultimately led to the park’s creation. Ironically, it was a road that allowed them to do it by providing access to publicly funded volunteers who documented hundreds of unique species of plants and animals. It was a daunting task. Fashioned by volcanic eruptions 150 million years ago, Endau-Rompin’s terrain alternates between steep mountains and sandy plateaus, a factor which has thus far spared it from developers, but which made the conservationists first forays into the forests that more problematical. The park is divided into three zones on the recommendation of the MNS: an area for tourists and trekkers offering basic A-frame huts, campsites and marked trails; an area for researchers and park rangers that is to remain undeveloped; and a retreat for the reclusive rhinoceroses encompassing over half the entire park’s area. In high isolated ridges, days of walking distance from permitted paths, are where the rhinoceroses roam, estimated at the time of the MNS study to number—sadly-between five and twenty. It is unconfirmed but believed that the rhinoceros count has not increased. [Beyond Trees: Malaysia's Endau-Rompin National Park. Leslie Nevison.]