“Let’s go hiking in Malaysia!” I pestered my old hiking buddy from my university Trekking Club. A club that had long disintegrated after we left university years ago.
I had just returned to Malaysia after nine months of exploring the mountains of New Zealand. Two Great Walks, nine National Parks, countless nights of camping, and hundreds (maybe thousands) of kilometres climbing up New Zealand’s mountains later, I was inspired, nay, determined, to revive our old Trekking Club.
All those hikes up alpine mountains made me realise how little I’ve seen of Malaysia’s. I saw and learnt so much about New Zealand’s forest that I was feeling out of touch with the one’s in my own country.
During peaceful, quiet nights camping, I’d annoy my tent mates with stories about hiking in Malaysia. “Hiking in New Zealand is so different from back home!” They were probably rolling their eyes at the 100th time they’re hearing this.
I couldn’t help it. I was amazed at how well-marked and maintained the trails were in New Zealand. “I would never go hiking in Malaysia without someone who knows the trail,” I’d say, pulling statistics out of the air. “There’s a 99% chance you’d get lost!”
On my very last hike of 2015, I stood at the top of Gertrude Saddle (an amazing six-hour hike through snowbanks) and made my one and only New Year’s resolution – get the old Trekking Club up and running again.
My old hiking buddy Meng Chwen was obliging. Our first hike would be somewhere nearby, short, and simple enough to ease me back into hiking in Malaysia – Bukit Tabur.
I remember Bukit Tabur from my last trip there in 2008. A very popular hiking spot amongst locals, it’s located in Taman Melawati, Gombak. It’s a short two-hour return climb up a quartz hill. There are ropes and actual climbing involved to get to the peak. Up there, you’ll see the beautiful Klang Gates Dam and a panorama of Kuala Lumpur that is better than any r00ftop bars.
I was buzzing with excitement. The night before, I packed nothing but water, chocolates. and a camera. Rule #1 of hiking: pack light.
True enough, the start of the Bukit Tabur East trail was obscure. We navigated through a housing area, a river, and a water pipe to get to the trail.
“I can do this,” I told myself as we started the hike. If I can do 1,833 metres up Avalanche Peak (an insanely steep mountain in Arthur Pass National Park) in six hours, this 275-meter hike is nothing.
Half an hour later I was slumped on a rock, covered in dirt, sweating bullets, heart beating so fast it might as well have jumped out of my mouth.
It didn’t occur to me to bring a hand towel to wipe the sweat that was now stinging my eye. I was being devoured by mosquitoes. I forgot the insect repellent. And, I didn’t bring a fresh shirt to change into after the hike. My car is going to stink.
Gosh, I forgot how difficult it is to hike in Malaysia.
I’ve been so used to New Zealand’s comforts. That’s the word to describe hiking in New Zealand – comfortable. It’s so easy to hike there; bring a bottle of water, wear sturdy shoes, maybe a jacket, and you are ready. There are no insects, leeches, or dangerous animals to worry about; it’s impossible to get lost unless you deliberately go off the path; best of all, you don’t sweat. The weather is so dry and cool that you can camp for days without feeling dirty.
New Zealand, undoubtedly, has some of the best trails in the world. It’s minimal effort (and sweat) with massive rewards. The view at the end of every and any hike, even a short 30-minute stroll, is always mind blowing.
Hiking in Malaysia’s tropical jungle is a whole different ball game.
The weather is so hot and humid you get tired easily. The trails are confusing and not well maintained. The safety ropes do not look very safe. There are snakes, leeches, and other wild animals to look out for. It’s just sweaty, dirty, itchy, and muddy.
“The view better be worth it,” I whined as my group waited for me to catch my breath.
A painful climb later, I was finally peering down from the peak of Bukit Tabur, looking at the Klang Gates dam and the KL panorama that I was promised.
“This is it,” Meng Chwen said.
I fell quiet. This was it, and more. I’ll be honest – the view isn’t as great as New Zealand’s Lord of the Rings-worthy scenes, and I’ve sweated and panted more on this hike than all my hikes in New Zealand combined. But I had the biggest grin on my face.
“Do you hear that?”
There were gibbons in the far distance, singing a melodious ‘whoop whoop’ sound. There were insects buzzing in the background; happy chirping birds; half-eaten rambutan and durian trees left over by monkeys. I also saw a giant millipede and a very weird insect that I’ve never seen before.
The mountain was alive with nature’s orchestra playing, the kind you can only get in a forest like Malaysia’s.
The sound of the forest was the one thing missing from New Zealand. You’ll hear the occasional birdsong; If you’re lucky, a rare kiwi call in the night; but beyond that, it’s a quiet’s night sleep in the most literal sense.
I flashed back to all the amazing signs of wildlife I’ve seen on my past hikes in Terengganu – elephant droppings, bats, tapir nests, hornbills, viper snakes… I’ve even bumped into siamangs, elephants, and once when the universe was aligned- a Malayan tiger. One amazing fact a lot of Malaysians aren’t aware of is that our country is ranked as the 12th most megadiverse country in the world by the National Biodiversity Index.
I took in the music in the background. Wasn’t the most beautiful sound in the world a recording of a frog singing in Sarawak’s Taman Negara Kubah?
The next time you go hiking in Malaysia, stop and listen. That is the magic of Malaysia’s jungle. And one that not even the world class trails of New Zealand can beat.