A CAT Walk Adventure
by Barbara de Waard
My CAT walk was a long awaited event. Although Malaysia had been my home for more than 10 years, I now lived back in the U.K. So any long-haul visit had to be carefully planned to coincide with the CAT walk calendar. Since leaving Malaysia, I had promised myself to return every year. I have a strong personal bond with the country and its people. This developed over the time I lived there, not in the least because my house was surrounded by dense, lush, tropical jungle. Almost every day, there would be visits, not always welcome, by scavenging macaque monkeys or the quieter white-faced gibbons. Large monitor lizards could be seen crossing the road at their agonisingly slow pace. Wild boar with their young were regularly spotted in my headlights at night, as I returned home. And all this at only 15 minutes’ distance by car from the centre of Kuala Lumpur and the site of the well-known twin towers. I became emotionally attached to the sight of the majestic outline of the virgin jungle canopy in my neighbourhood and I am still touched every time I see this stunning natural silhouette, in Malaysia or around the world.
So my jungle walk with the MYCAT guide Ashleigh was certainly the highlight of this year’s visit and the outline of the Taman Negara jungle, typically covered in mist in some parts, reassuringly appeared after a long drive from K.L. We were joined by a group of 8 Swedish volunteers, who had also made their way from several areas in the greater K.L. conurbation, where expats are typically located. Some members of the group were quite experienced trekkers, with all the professional gear and giant cameras in their backpacks. Others were beginners, like myself: definitely less well equipped, although I had invested in a light backpack and leech socks, just before leaving the city. Fortunately, after setting off early the first day to reach the national park entrance, I found that my modest equipment was sufficient to keep up with the group. Unlike most of them, I had decided to fast during the walks, so was carrying only my water bottle, towel and not much equipment, apart from my phone, well wrapped in a water tight bag. I knew we would be drenched in sweat soon after entering the jungle, so my very light layered tops, leggings and trainers proved sufficient to keep the leeches at bay for quite a while.
I found it reassuring that everyone in the group paid careful attention to Ashleigh’s instructions, and fell very silent upon entering the forest, making sure we did not scare off any wildlife. We were also told to keep a close eye on the person in front and behind, so that nobody would get left behind. Because of this common silent focus, a bond quickly began to form within the group. This was reinforced even more, when we had to cross a river, which was about waist high and with a strong current of brown muddy water. We went across in teams of 3 to 4, linking arms and moving very slowly to avoid being washed away by the current.
In all, we crossed three rivers and saw some beautiful jungle scenes, with pebble beeches, amazing lichen patterns and of course, lots of massive tropical trees. Our wildlife sightings were limited to some tapir tracks in the mud, distant views of flying squirrels and signs of wild boar activity, evident from their specially dug heaps of soil with leaves. Most of the really interesting animals, such as tigers and leopards, only come out at night. That experience would be for next time, when a jungle camping trip was on the cards. For now, we returned to the base camp, after an intensive 5 hour trek.
The group was keen to see Ashleigh’s presentation of the camera trap footage, which showed night time images of tigers, leopards, tapirs, sambar deer and various other animals which had roamed the CAT walk zone in the past months. But the images also showed the regular presence of poachers. This triggered questions from our group about the conservation activities and the many issues surrounding poaching. Fortunately, we had not found any active snares during our walk, although Ash had pointed out several poachers’ camp sites along with his own regular camping spot, complete with rainforest hut.
On the second day, we were guided by a group of local aboriginal women from the Batek tribe living in the area. The name Batek means ‘forest people’ in their language and they truly are the original inhabitants of this landscape with a direct lineage going back some 40,000 years to their African ancestors. This lineage is apparent, not only from their colouring, but their curled hair and lean appearance. Ash provided us with a lot of information about the Batek and their life today. He is clearly concerned by their plight, since they seem as threatened with extinction as the tiger and other forest wildlife, which they generally respect (they do not hunt any large forest animals). The women were all colourfully dressed in makeshift outfits made up of ethnic and western clothing and were equipped with machetes, with which they displayed amazing skills, such as making a fishing rod from forest materials in a few minutes. They managed to catch quite a few fish in the jungle stream, even though the water level was not favourable at this time of year. Other forest skills included chopping and skinning tree branches, to be used as raw materials for their basket weaving and cutting forest leaves to light up and smoke. It was quite a peculiar sight to see one of the senior women sitting and puffing at her leafy cigarette in the middle of this natural beauty spot, but I was not totally surprised, knowing that the practice of smoking was actually invented by native Indian tribes in America.
The method of reimbursing our guides was pleasantly simple and transparent. Ash asked us to pay the 5 women a total of 200 Malaysian ringgit (about 40 pounds) and encouraged us to buy their handicraft products. I had taken a particular liking to the older smoking Batek guide and tried to negotiate in my limited Bahasa, which is more or less as foreign to the Batek and to it is to me. Their handicraft consisted of carved hair combs and woven wallets and baskets. My guide agreed to sell me her own backpack basket, which I particularly liked because of its bright green rainforest pattern and because she had been using it for this trip, slung over her back with two basic plastic drawstrings. When we returned to the Batek village to drop of our guides and say goodbye, I could not resist asking for a photograph of me together my guide. Our return journey by car took us past miles of barren palm oil land – awaiting replanting- and other areas, where loggers were clearing large swathes of forest. I was acutely aware of the imminent threats to this fragile region.
Now that I am back home in the U.K., the forest of the Batek and the Malayan tiger, both living on the edge of extinction, may seem a world away. But the green woven basket, which I have put on my bedside table, reminds me constantly of my resilient Batek guide. My personal reminder to continue my efforts to save the Malayan tiger and its forest, in my second home: Malaysia.