As a CAT Walk Leader, I’ve taken out countless volunteers and led them through state forest reserve in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor just south of the Pahang-Kelantan border near Merapoh. Usually they’re a mix of individuals and corporate groups; this would be my first group of students….
There were 10 in all, mostly female but all veterinary students in their second through fifth year at Universiti Pertanian Malaysia(UPM). Their participation in MYCAT‘s CAT Walk was part of the faculty’s annual activity. Joining them was Emma, Matt’s friend from home, who was in Singapore for business and decided to pay us a visit.
Saturday 7 November – Day 1
Emma and I had arrived in Merapoh at around 9pm, the students at 2am, but despite this, everyone was up tucking into a plate of nasi lemak or roti canai in front of Speleo Inn hostel at 8am as scheduled.
Led by the bubbly Hannah, the students were a well organised group, with a pair of walkie talkies between them, a van, a 4×4 to move them about and 2 administrators to take care of them. They also brought with them a lot of positivity and an unbeatable up-for-it attitude. That’s the way to go!
Having discussed suggested routes with Ashleigh Seow, MYCAT’s Programme Officer, the plan was to ply the forest around the highway’s eco-viaduct, and after a lengthy safety briefing by me, we quickly crossed the railway tracks and temporarily ducked underneath the forest cover before emerging on the other side on an old logging road. Mayam, one of the local Bateq guides that MYCAT engaged led the charge.
Seasonal rains had softened the ground providing the perfect mould for prints and it wasn’t long before we spotted signs of wild boar and a Malayan sun bear; the print left by their rear paws can easily be mistaken by the uninitiated for the bare footprint of a child.
After an hour of walking under the steadily rising sun we were grateful to enter the forest and crossed a small stream. Mayam had been through here several months before but it was not yet a trail and as such the route was thick with undergrowth.
This is my least favourite kind of forest – dense, dark and damp, a place where I imagine snakes and spiders lurked and tigers avoided. Mayam disagreed. ‘Where men walk cats won’t,’ he said and pointed to dry leaf litter on the ground. ‘This is where a tiger might sleep.’ Mayam would know. He has seen them before. One sitting under a tree caught unaware. When the cat eventually noticed Mayam, Mayam left. I know what I’m trained to do in the same situation but I wondered how I would react – whether I’d be excited or scared.
If the tangle of roots, vines and branches made the going tough, having to push our way uphill only made it tougher. With a flick of his parang, Mayam cleared a trail just tall and wide enough for us. Excessive clearing was not something MYCAT or the Bateq advocated.
We stopped for lunch on the top of the ridge. Mayam had spotted deer here before, which is always a good sign. Deer is tiger food. The rest of us were trying not to be leech food, but one nearly ended up being mine!After working through most of my nasi lemak I spotted a leech looking a little confused at the edge of my rice. Bleh. Time to move.
The remainder of our journey was mostly downhill, but it was steep and slippery. From up in front I’d hear a thud then another followed by squeals of laughter as one student after another lost their footing and fell bum to the ground. Mayam was smiling too. Used to treading jungle paths alone, he explained – when the jungle is filled with laughter and people enjoy what he gets to experience every day, that is something special.
It was just as we were on our way out that we came across a large abandoned campsite. My first instincts told me ‘poaching camp’ but the thatched roofs suggested otherwise. I had seen this before.
As it turned out it was a makeshift Bateq camp. Set up by Bateq kids and overseen by Bateq women and elders, its location changes every year, but its purpose is the same – to teach the young ones jungle skills.
Just one more obstacle to surmount – crossing the Sungai Yu. Despite the night’s downpour, the river hadn’t risen but there was only one thing to connect either side – a large log. Wading across looked equally treacherous so with a sense of trepidation we nervously inched our way across one by one. It was an exciting way to end an adventurous day out.