“Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!”
The famous quote from The Wizard of Oz isn’t as far-fetched as you may think. In fact, the Malaysian jungle is a host to some of the Earth’s most feared species. With Malayan tigers, black leopards, and an array of snakes, an evening in Taman Negara National Park is not to be undertaken without caution.
As you enter one of the world’s oldest and best preserved tropical rain forests by motorized banana boat, a daunting abyss of flora and fauna awaits. Many travelers descend upon the six-hour trail that winds through the jungle’s most famous sites, including the longest suspended canopy walk on earth. For those unnerved by lurking dangers, the real adventure begins after dark.
And if you’re considering spending a night in the jungle, there are a few things you should always know.
The first question to address: where will I sleep? Located on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Taman Negara is a protected National Park. Because of this, travelers are required to register with park rangers upon arrival. During registration, you can sign up for a bed in one of the jungle’s six hides. (A hide is a fancy term for a jungle hut.) These wooden huts are built above natural salt-licks, where animals journey to feast at night. The hide’s most essential feature is an open panoramic window with a bench below it, providing a wide view of the feeding ground. The huts sit on stilt-like planks of wood, to help avoid any unfortunate encounters with one of the jungle’s hungry cats.
Don’t get excited at the thought of having an inviting bed to sleep in. By bed, the park rangers are referring to a 5×3 foot space on the hard wooden floor. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll find yourself in a hide with wooden bunks. Be sure to bring your own sleeping bag or blanket, as nothing is provided.
As far as powder rooms go, look forward to the old “dig and crouch” method, and be sure not to hold it in for very long unless you’re there to mingle with the wildlife. Some luxury hides may boast an ancient, often clogged, and always rusting toilet, so it can be safer to just step into the wild.
Now that you know what you’re in for — if you’re still willing to spend a night in the jungle — the journey to your hide begins. Be sure to procure a map or a clear description of the route from the rangers. Based on your chosen hide and availability, the average hike to your new jungle dwelling can take anywhere from three to eight hours. Remember, you’re leaving the beaten path and advancing to the heart of the jungle.
The hike is a feat of its own. Taman Negara is anything but flat, and most travelers will find themselves climbing steep mountains one moment, then descending long stretches of slick, marshy earth the next.
Fact: you will get dirty.
The jungle contains so many microclimates that it’s often hard to properly prepare. Wear clothing that you won’t be upset to part with upon your return to the real world. Light layers are beneficial. You’ll tiptoe across thin logs sprawled across rocky creeks, trapeze over mud-clogged swamps, and skid down sunburnt inclines.
As you make your way to the hide you will witness some of the world’s oldest and grandest foliage and you’ll bump into Malaysia’s many species of monkeys. Another, much smaller, creature you’ll encounter is less favored and often forgotten: the leech. Unlike the monkeys you’ll spot high in the trees, leeches are not afraid of you, and will be happy to shake hands with your big toe. In fact, they’ll be happy to greet each of your toes, plus your ankles, and sometimes even your lower calves. Wear protective footwear and check your shoes at each water break, because these little suckers (literally) will wriggle their way right through your sneakers.
After emerging through the bush and spotting the hide, a sigh of relief washes over you — you’ve made it. Propane burners and cookers are banned in the National Park, so ready-made food is a must. Unfortunately, the height of the hide doesn’t protect you from all creatures in the Malaysian jungle, as many are great climbers. The last thing you want are strong-jawed furry friends snooping around your hide after dozing off, so wrap your remains and store far from your sleeping area.
As the sun sets, the noise of the living, breathing jungle is unnerving, as you wait for the creatures of the night to slowly emerge. When the sun disappears, your flashlight becomes your new best friend. Get well acquainted, because you’ll be cuddling with it later. From your perch in the hide, you’ll scan the trees and the ground below, and as luck may have it, you’ll spot an animal. Deer, slow lorries, and leopard cats are commonly spotted in Taman Negara, as well as a few slithering pythons. If you’re lucky (or unlucky?) you may even spot a tiger or a jaguar. If you can stay awake, spying can continue well into the morning hours. Often, sleep overcomes you.
Lying on your stretch of hardwood, the heat of the jungle on your face and the alarming sounds of the wild creeping in, you’ll wish you were able to close that panoramic window you once enjoyed. You’ll convince yourself that the scratching sounds on the side and floor of your hide are real. And is there really something crawling over your legs? You’ll turn on your torch just to check, and you’ll see that they are real, and there is something moving near your foot. With rats doing acrobatics along the windowsill, and giant spiders making nests in the corner near your face, reality sets in.
And then it happens. Your flashlight dies.
As the scratching continues, you wish you never turned it on in the first place, and pray that a tiger doesn’t jump through the window. With your imagination racing and your now fully covered body sweating and convulsing in your sleeping bag, the hours tick by.
Finally, at the first sign of sunlight, after about 45 minutes of sleep and a full bladder, you’re ready to start the trek back to civilization.
Through the swamp, up the mountains, over the creeks, down the dusty slides, with leeches in tow. As you fearfully glance over your shoulder for signs of last night’s wildlife, the magic path comes into view. Your exit to the other — safer –side of the river. You’ve done it. You’ve really done it! Give yourself a pat on the back; you’ve just survived a night in the Malaysian jungle.