Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wild Perhentian: Trekking the Big Island

Perhentian Island has always been one of my favourite places. Before work became life, I visited the island each year from 1995 to 2000. And in all those visits, it never crossed my mind to go jungle trekking. That is until now.
Normally when you go to an island, you want to go snorkeling or play in the water. The mainland is for jungle trekking. But on my last visit during Chinese New Year holiday, I was really excited about re-visiting Perhentian, the island that holds a lot of memories for me. And this time jungle trekking was on my list from day one.
Upon checking in at Perhentian Island Resort on the Big Island, we asked about trekking activities and found out that two types are available. The first one is on your own, for 45 minutes, going through a very short route near the resort where you can see some nice forest trees along the way. The second one requires a guide, for about two hours or more, depending on your "durability". Of course the latter is more challenging and potentially more interesting with a lot more natural flora and fauna to see.
Three guides accompanied six of us. As employees of the resort, they are experienced in taking tourist on various trails in the forest. We choose a trail that was considered medium in terms of difficulty. As we started our journey, we saw that the trail was well maintained. A few meters from the entrance, the trail started to go uphill and the jungle was still pristine. As we passed by a creek, the chief guide pointed towards it and said, "Snake."
It was a vine snake (probably a Bronzeback species). In its mouth was half of what looked like a little orange frog. I could not believe we saw a snake; it was exactly what I wanted to see. I love reptiles, snakes especially, because they are fascinating creatures and very unique in their own way. Sighting them in action in the wild is just priceless.
I tried to get a closer look but the guide didn't think it was a good idea.
They have a few rules during activities in the jungle: No cutting trees. No disturbing or killing wildlife. If you see something unusual or different, just look and don't ask anything about it. Malay beliefs say that something that is strange may not be what it appears, so it's best to leave it alone. Defiance will only bring you bad luck. If the guide says to turn back, do not argue and do exactly as he says. Overall I think these are very good guidelines, especially if you don't know what you're dealing with.
The first set of trails were not too difficult, not as hilly as the ones up ahead. Huge rainforest trees surrounded us on each side. We could feel the freshness of nature and hear the sounds of birds and insects in the air. After 15 minutes, we came upon a stream. The water was very cooling and refreshing. It was our first "checkpoint" and after a 5-minute break we continued the second leg of the journey. Our guide mentioned that there was a cave - Gua Kelawar or bat cave - on this trail, but that it was farther off from the route we were taking.
The trail became more difficult as we climbed up from one ledge to another, holding on to tree roots and branches. At times we noticed arrows on trees pointing in the right direction, but placement was inconsistent. The forest became thicker with shrubs and smaller trees as we reached the fence that marks the boundary of the water reservoir. We then reached a well-paved road before heading towards the beach, where we encountered the mangroves.
The guides told us that monitor lizards inhabit the mangroves. According to them, the lizards are as big as a crocodile. A midsize crocodile maybe, but then again, anything is possible in a place like this. I don't mind seeing big lizards, but my other family members aren't exactly as crazy about reptiles as I am. My elder sister tried to stop me from catching a skink earlier and made a pickled face when I picked it up with my bare hands.
When we got to the beach, I was stunned at its beauty. It was isolated with white sands and a breathtaking view of the horizon and the Small Island. During high tide, the beach is inaccessible, except by boat. After resting, we walked along the beach, passing a small resort where locals hung out. The guides exchanged greetings. On an island like this, everybody knows everybody else; it's like one big family.
Upon approaching an old and empty dive centre, we reached the forest edge again and got ready to start the second part of the journey. This time we saw exactly what was waiting for us, a near vertical hike up a hill. Everyone was taking it slow and easy. Big tree roots, facilitated the climb, lined up the trail. I noticed a very distinct tree species with a flaky bole, blood red in color.
Unfortunately, the guide didn't know the tree, but it dominated the whole area on each side of the trail. As we inched our way up the hill, we just hoped to make it to the peak. When we arrived at the top, relief overcame everyone's face. I am not unfit but the climb was slightly challenging. Next, we descended to another beach.
On our way down, the flora changed from big trees to smaller ones. Then, before realizing it, a sea of shrubs and tall grasses swallowed everyone. The shrubs are thicker here since the tree canopy is open, not like the tight formation of the hill forest. As we got closer to the beach, wispy, casuarina trees whistled in the breeze and coconut palms bent over to greet us. We stopped at a well to take some water to freshen up.
The second beach was not as isolated as the first one. The guides asked us whether we want to continue on foot back to the resort or take a boat that was already on standby. By foot the trek would take us through three more beaches and three flights of stairs connecting them to our resort. At this point we'd hiked for 2 hours, and the trip back wasn't really trekking anymore, just walking.
So we all decided to take the boat.



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