Wonder Fall

24Feb06

as published in Virtual Malaysia Magazine [January / February 2006]

Braving leeches, bees, narrow trails and tree-trunk bridges, Majidah Hashim and the VM team set out on an adventurous search for the legendary Lata Tujuh waterfall.

If there’s one thing Kueh can’t do, it’s wear shoes. At 70, he can carry a 12-kilo rucksack for hours on end through the narrow trails of the Krau wilderness; he can name just about every plant in the forest along with their medicinal properties; he can tell exactly when an animal has passed our trail just by looking at the shadow of their prints; and he can chatter on for hours about the legends of Krau and Lata Tujuh on just one cup of tea and a rokok daun (cigarette made from tobacco rolled in leaves).

Don’t try to make Kueh wear shoes. Not only will he refuse, he might just quit on you. “I step on thorns when I wear them!” he quips, much to our surprise. Lah, our trail guide explains that Kueh uses the soles of his feet to ‘feel’ his way through the forest. The conditions of the earth, roots and fallen twigs tell him which part of the forest he’s in and what sort of vegetation exists there.

Kueh is chief of the Che Wong orang asli (native) tribe that lives in the Krau Forest Reserve. Che Wong means ‘young children,’ a name symbolic to the continuing generations of the tribe and the preservation of its culture. The tribe is only found in this reserve and maintains sparing contact with ‘the outside world.’

They are a shy lot, the Che Wongs. We visited them at Kampung Bayek, about an hour’s hike from the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, only to find them huddled together when they heard us coming. They had frightened eyes and spoke little. Their diet consists mostly of tapioca. Though not nomadic, the men gather and hunt, and are sometimes gone for days.

The houses in the village stand on stilts, and each house is really just a room. Every unmarried youth has his or her own house-room, which clearly indicates the number of unmarried youths in each village. The house-room of a girl will have a batik cloth draped over its entrance.

The trek deeper into the forest got progressively tougher. We encountered a number of ‘bridges,’ which were really massive three trunks across rivers. The tiptoe over the trunk-bridge was quite a balancing act, for me at least, being horrifyingly afraid of heights.

It’s a jungle out there!

The thing about going into a forest is that one needs to accept it in its entirety, icky creatures and all!

Lah pointed out the different characteristics of forest plants. They all looked the same to me, but Lah said that these types of foliage differ greatly from those at the edge of the forest. There are more thorny plants deeper in the jungle. Trees are also much taller and have thicker trunks deeper in.

Kueh smiled at the mention of thorns.

And then there are the animal inhabitants. Ajax, our tour operator, told us that there are a number of rare and endangered creatures in this forest. Among them are wild boars, gaurs, snakes, elephants, gibbons, tigers, a host of insects and a variety of birds, including the hornbill.

We happened to be visiting Krau during the honeybee season, so there was a lot buzzing in the air. We also encountered a number of sigai – bamboo structures put up by the orang asli to harvest honeybee hives, which are built on very tall trees. In order to harvest the combs, a structure is built on the nearest trees and linked to the hive tree via bamboos. The hives are harvested on a calculated moonless night and require the cooperation of a number of families.

Numerous animal research centres have been established on the edges of the Krau Forest Reserve. Nonetheless, the most effective research is done in the wild. Krau receives a hefty number of local and foreign researchers annually, and a good number of them don’t stay at the research centres, but in temporary huts or camps in the forest. Some stay for months on end, just to get a sighting of an elephant or a rare tiger.

And where there are mammals, there are leeches. They don’t really pose a serious threat to humans, other than to seriously gross you out, especially if you have several stuck on you. We learnt that squeezing tobacco soaked in water over a leech gets them off most painlessly. A leech wound continues to bleed even after the leech has fallen off and it’s possible for a leech to bite the same place twice. They target places where the tissue is soft, like ankle joints and between the toes. It is also a myth that leeches are unable to squeeze themselves through most socks.

Kueh’s feet are covered with scars from leech bites, and he laughs at our desperate attempts to get leeches off our legs. Lah said the reason Kueh is so fit at his age is suspiciously attributed to the leech bites he gets on a daily basis.

Kueh smiles.

Back to nature.

It’s true what they say about being fit for the jungle. Our muscles were already aching, but Kueh, Lah, Kamal and their orang asli friends who joined us along the way, Temai, Sempah and Agus, were as energetic as they were the day we met them.

Trekking the jungle at night is really more dangerous than it sounds. Our rather sizeable group sandwiched ourselves between our forest-savvy guides and walked cautiously through the uneven terrain, tightly clutching our flashlights. It’s in situations like these that a headlamp is most ‘handy’ – it freed our hands so we could navigate through the thick overgrowth.

We set our tents on the banks of Belang River. On a small clearing were the remnants of researchers who previously occupied the grounds. More importantly, the river water was crystal clear and COLD!

The night was so warm that most of the VM team members spent the evening chatting with Kueh and listening to his stories about the Krau Forest and Lata Tujuh, our destination. There was a story about a great snake.

Kueh said his forefathers had battled this snake. Its body as the width of a three trunk but no one knew its immense length. It was an old snake, one that had shed its skin until it could not shed anymore, turning its scales black and growing horns on its head. The snake lurks in the darkest abyss of Krau and is said to still be sighted now and then.

Smaller steps uphill, bigger steps downhill.

We woke up the next morning to an amazing symphony of the feathered kind. It was a cool morning; every step down to the river sent chills through our bodies. We cleared the campsite quickly and set off early. Today’s destination: Lata Tujuh.

The second day’s track proved to be much trickier. A good many hours were spent hiking up and down very narrow slopes, covered with layers of weed, bamboo and trees of all sizes. Lah was right, the trees and plants were getting thorny! Kueh avoided them with ease, though.

The heavy morning dew made our track muddy and slippery, so the guide gave us pointers for hiking on hilly grounds: smaller steps uphill, bigger steps downhill. Having slid down many little hills already, I quickly learnt the importance of keeping a steady momentum, not to mention the importance of a good pair of hiking shoes.

That second day saw almost seven hours of continuous trekking with only momentary stops for water and light snacks. Close to four in the evening, we arrived at Lata Tujuh.

Don’t call a forest a jungle!

According to Che Wong legends, a man from their tribe once had a dream of a waterfall extending into rapids. He dreamt that he saw seven fairy princesses playing and bathing at the rapids. When he woke up, he told his friends about it, but they laughed at him.

Off he went in search of this mysterious waterfall. His friends went with him, and they actually found the waterfall with the rapids. He named the place Lata Tujuh, meaning ‘seven-step waterfall.’

We stood at awe before the wonderful rapids. The water flowed smoothly down into a shallow pond, flowing quickly through a maze of rocks downriver. A massive rock stood beside the rapids. We scrambled up the rock and walked onto its other side, which revealed the Lata Tujuh waterfall.

The waterfall was a high drop into a deep pool of cool, crystal clear water, which we were told is spring fresh and good to drink. The sight was breathtaking. Tall trees canopy the top of the waterfall, which splashes onto smoothened rock outcrop. The rock spreads the waterfall, creating an erratic branch effect, which then collects at the bottom.

The water is wonderfully deep and safe for diving activities. The rapids have created a smooth ‘slide,’ which all of us enjoyed immensely.

It had been a long hike through the forest, and each of us had our share of leech bites, bee stings and foot blisters. As the sun began to set, we stretched ourselves on a warm rock, beside a crackling fire. As shoeless as Kueh, we gazed at the stars, as the forest lit up with an orchestra of nocturnal insects, and a dance of a thousand fireflies.

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