Visit Malaysia Year 2014 Unmissable Attraction: Endau Rompin National Park
The remote Endau-Rompin National Park is one of the last wild places left in the Peninsula. It’s the perfect choice to be placed high in the list of must-visit natural attraction for the Visit Malaysia Year 2014.
Mist hangs over the tree canopy and rises from the river surface, the first rays of dawn light bringing the forest to life. The hoot of a gibbon breaks the morning stillness. Soon it is joined by the joyful whoops of other gibbons. Cicadas and birds join in the chorus, and above the crescendo rises the penetrating ‘kuu-waw’ of the Great Argus pheasant.
Waking to a dawn in the rainforest is always a magical moment, and this one was no less special.
We were in Endau Rompin National Park for a three-day trek into its remote, ancient wilderness. This is the quintessential tropical rainforest, a mysterious and seemingly endless expanse of dense green foliage. It is also one of the finest areas of lowland rainforest left in the Peninsula, and home to an exotic cornucopia of flora and fauna: a world that has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years.
The seven of us, a mixed group of trekkers from Kuala Lumpur, were here to enjoy a little of its untouched beauty. The previous afternoon we had placed our bulging rucksacks into a motorised longboat at Kg Peta, the gateway into the Park, and travelled an hour up the Endau River just before it meets the Jasin. A further hour’s walk through beautiful riverine vegetation brought us to our campsite at Kuala Marong.
Here the Jasin and Marong rivers meet, a tranquil setting that is also an ideal spot to appreciate the sounds, smells and rhythms of the rainforest. The richness of the Park’s environment is well-known to scientists: plants found nowhere else in the world; wild populations of elephants, tigers, tapirs, seladang and Sumatran rhinoceros; and river water of exceptionally pure quality.
The Marong has reputedly the purest water of any river in Malaysia, so clear, in fact, that you can see carps like ‘sebarau’ and ‘tengas’ and the Mahseer (‘kelah’) glide over the cobbled streambed. But if you’re thinking of taking a dip, there is an even better place, about 10 minutes’ walk upstream. It is called Tasik Air Biru for its blue-tinged water.
Machang, our Orang Hulu guide, happened to be going there for a swim, so we tagged along. The lake was indeed what the brochures had said: crystal clear water, perfect for soothing tired feet. Several sluggish pools, dark and deep, added to the allure.
It was getting dark, and a cicada was beginning its distinctive rasping call, as if to herald nightfall. Without so much as a word, Machang quickly gathered his things and indicated it was time to go. The Orang Hulu reveres this cicada, calling it their ‘penghulu hutan’ or the forest’s guardian. They believe dusk is also the time when spirits roam about in the forest, looking for potential victims (usually, but not always, people who are “weak-spirited”). We understood, and followed him back, out of deference to his ancient wisdom.
That night most of us slept early, oblivious to the gurgles of the Marong river and the night orchestra, for the forest never sleeps. Machang pointed out the strange sounds: the trills and whoops of frogs and toads, the mournful hoot of an owl, the chirping of grasshoppers.
Machang never made any allusion to jungle spirits throughout our trek. It was only later, when we were safely back at Kg Peta, that somebody volunteered an explanation. It came from 42-year-old Aming, Machang’s brother-in-law. “We believe there are three kinds of invisible beings out there: ‘orang halus’, ‘orang bunian’, and ‘orang dalam’. Some are merely mischievous (like stealing your lighter), others can be downright evil – the sort that can enter your body.”
The last time sacrificial offerings were made in the forest to placate these unseen powers was five years ago, so we had to be extra careful when trekking in certain areas of the park, he said. “Never do three things around dusk: throw stones, swim naked, and make loud noises, so as not to offend the guardian spirits. And if you need to urinate under a tree, always ask permission first. This is their territory, after all.”
Do you carry something to ward off the spirits when you are out hunting, I asked. He showed me a blowpipe dart. “We just burn a bit of the poisoned tip,” he said. “The acrid smoke seems to deter them.”
The poison is made from the sap of the ‘ipoh’ tree (Antiaris toxicaria), used by indigenous people throughout Malaysia to lace their blowpipe darts. “Kills a monkey in half an hour,” added Aming. “Also squirrels, deer and birds.” What about humans? A slow and agonising death, he assured me.
Kuala Marong seems to be a popular destination for kayakers – we saw five on our second day – and trekkers on their way to more remote parts of the Park. One morning a group of 40 trekkers rushed through the campsite. They were factory workers on a team-building trip; apparently, they took only three hours to reach Buaya Sangkut, the park’s star attraction, and rushed back again.
Our own Buaya Sangkut trek was a much more leisurely affair. We took a whole day, in fact, as there was much to see along the way. First stop was Pulau Jasin, a small island consisting mainly of boulders on which ferns, orchids and stunted trees have gained a foothold. There are gnarled Leptospermum trees here too – unusual because they are normally found elsewhere on mountain tops.
Further up the river, the picturesque cascade at Upih Guling beckoned. At the top, a futuristic landscape presented itself: huge boulders with depressions a metre across and perhaps 2m deep, reputedly formed by pebbles scouring the underlying rock over the aeons. No wonder they are referred to as ‘bath-tubs’.
The large rock slab at the riverside called Batu Hampar (Carpet Rocks), with its playful cascades and gigantic boulders, was another pleasant diversion, but nothing could compare to the stunning Buaya Sangkut falls. Tons of foaming water plunged down ragged cliffs, a vertical drop of 120m. It hadn’t been raining for a while but the sight was still impressive, especially at the bottom. Here water falls down a 40m-high cliff face, at the rate, so the brochure says, of a million gallons a minute.
Had time permitted, we would have liked to visit two other places in the Park: the Janing Ridge, where the amazing fan palm Livistona endauensis grows in profusion; and Padang Temambong, with its eerily quiet heath forest that is said to be haunted.
For the scientist, though, the park is more than just scenic vistas or spectacular waterfalls. The place is special because it is located in what is referred to as the ‘Riau Pocket’ – a meeting point of West Bornean, Sumatran and Malayan flora, characterised by a high degree of endemism (i.e. plants of restricted distribution). At least eight plant species are found in the Park and nowhere else; and 10 species found in the Park, including Livistonia endauensis, are restricted to the south and east of the Peninsula.
Back at Kg Peta, as we were relaxing at Machang’s palm-roofed, bark-walled home, we met his elder brother Buyin, who is something of an entrepreneur. He now runs the canteen at the Park visitor centre and is also building a hostel nearby, entirely with local materials: the poles from ‘petaling’ and ‘kulim’ wood, the flooring from the bark of ‘kepong’, and the wall panels of ‘bertam’ palm. Tellingly, Buyin’s e-mail address on his business card starts with ‘endau2002′, as if to proclaim his attachment to his ancestral land and a stake in the present.
In the garden, Aming was readying some animal traps, for the benefit of tourists who were coming the next day. There were nooses and pits to snare game such as deer and porcupine, and an ingenious contraption made of rattan for snaring birds and squirrels.
It is comforting to know that wild places like Endau-Rompin still exist. But just how long will its pristine beauty endure? Cynics may say that it has been spared from development mainly because of its rugged terrain of steep hills and sandstone plateaus.
The Johor portion was gazetted as the Endau-Rompin National Park in 1989, and is under the administration of the Johor National Parks Corporation. Tourists and trekkers are permitted only in certain areas with marked trails; a second zone, for researchers and rangers, will remain undeveloped.
The rest – over half of the Park’s total area of 870 sq. km. – is out of bounds.
Machang, Aming and Buyin – descendants of the original Jakun hunter-gatherers but now permanently settled in Kg Peta – are the stewards of this ancient wilderness. They have embraced a low-volume, low-impact approach to tourism as a way to sustain themselves, yet maintain strong links to the natural world around them. Such sensible and sensitive use of their surroundings may well be the key to preserving this important national inheritance.