Taking good bird photographs in Malaysia is tough. Not only do you need to be in the right place at the right time, invariably the birds are high up in the canopy or deep in low dark foliage. Most of the time 95% of the shots are worthless and have to be trashed. So it takes a lot of trips and buckets of sweat to get a few good shots. Frasers Hill is a good bird photography location and it’s nice and cool, but its tiring driving up and down for a few photos. Kuala Selangor is equally not too bad a location but it’s hours of hot walking with a heavy lens and tripod.
So for a while now, I’ve been thinking about finding alternative places to go. To kick this off we decided its time to check out Taman Negara, Malaysia’s premier National Park and home to the oldest rainforest in the world. Normally visitors stay a few nights, but time being short we decided to do a one day recce and check out whether it is really worth a longer trip.
Leaving home at six we arrived at a very overcast and wet Kuala Tahan about 9.30, after an easy drive on surprisingly good roads. Kuala Tahan is a small village-cum-boat station where the Sungai Tahan (Tahan River) meets the Sungai Tembeling (Tembeling River) and is the main entry point to the park. Accross the river the jungles of Taman Negara look fantastic. The Sungai Tembeling is a big fast flowing muddy brown river that meanders down the eastern boundry of Taman Negara from the highlands, before discharging into the East China Sea. The boat station at Kuala Tahan is the focal point of riverboat traffic up and down the Sungai Tembeling serving both tourists coming to the park as well as connecting locals to outlying villages along the river.
Riverboats on the Sungai Tembeling waiting passengers.
The view accross the river from Kuala Tahan towards the mouth of the Sungai Tahan and boat landing for the Mutiara Taman Negara Resort.
Judging from the number of foreign visitors, mainly young backpackers, Kuala Tahan obviously thrives on offering low cost accommodation and cheap food to those wanting to enjoy a jungle experience but not prepared to pay big bucks for a comfortable room in the Mutiara Taman Negara, the main resort hotel in the national park.
Local boat traffic on the Sungai Tembeling downstream from Kuala Tahan
Although the weather was not good and heavy jungle mist was hanging down into the top of the jungle foliage we decided to hire a boat and take a ride up the Sungai Tahan which is a much smaller and less fast flowing river, and which we were assured was more scenic than travelling down the big river. The boat we hired was long, low and narrow and powered by a small outboard and piloted by two young Malays who judging from the different ways they approached each section of rapids were obviously well versed with every section of river.
The advice was good. The Sungai Tahan meanders deep into dense virgin jungle which crowds down and overhangs the banks. All along huge trees many with trunks two to three meters in diameter hang out over the river shading the water. The river didn’t seem to be too deep and comprised long sections of calm slow flowing water with short sections of faster shallow rapids. So the ride was interesting.
About 45 minutes up river we reached a spot where the river becomes impassable to boats and we pulled ashore and climbed out and up a stony bank to stretch our legs while the boat guys waited for us.
From the landing spot a small trail followed the river upstream. We followed it for a kilometre until we reached a shelter where we stopped for some lunch. The trail itself was quite fascinating as we got to see the root structures holding back and anchoring the tree’s hanging out over the river.
The pictures show the roots penetrating back into the banks of the river but what they don’t illustrate is the fact that they are stabilizing trees that are at least twenty to twenty five meters high. Some of the roots structures as shown by the photo below were incredibly complicated but obviously effective in what they have to do given that the soil was sandy clay.
Other species of trees stabilize themselves by developing a huge triangular base that extends up the trunk three meters or higher. Its only until you see Lynette standing in the base that the whole scale of things takes shape.
Many of the tree roots are covered in green moss and creepers and mushrooms, all testament to the hot and humid environment in which they thrive.
Anyway, enough about flora and fauna, and back to birds. All the way along the river we came across various species of Kingfishers who would fly off, low across the water as the boat closed in. As the trip would not have been worth it if I didn’t get at least one good shot, we tried to get close enough for a shot on a few occasions, with not much luck. My problem was I left the big lens in the car and had only the smaller handheld one with me, meaning good shots from a distance were difficult. Anyway after a few tries, and having the boat turn around and go back I managed the following shot of a Stork Billed Kingfisher, which promptly flew off as soon as I got this shot done.
Now, anyone who knows me, knows that when I’m driving I can position the car perfectly for a good photo without sticks or things in the way. However, when someone else is driving they have to “…..move forward a bit,…stop…STOP, STOP!!!,…back a bit ….” until we get the perfect position. Often, by this time the bird or Lion has moved on in frustration at having to wait for us to get organized. It was the same with our Boat Guy. His main aim was to get us up river as fast as he could; meaning the first we spotted any birds was when they took off in fright. He just didn’t seem to get it that with bird photography, slow and quiet is best, and for some reason couldn’t adjust his boat position, invariably in the middle of the rapids so I could get my shot.
Nevertheless, he did spot a Lesser Fish Eagle (we think) which flew up and perched high up on a broken section of tree overlooking the river. The surprising thing about this bird is that it is the only one which matches anything in the bird book, but Lesser Fish Eagles are mainly coastal and mangrove raptors, so seeing it so far upriver in the middle of the jungle is a surprise.
The trip back down to Kuala Tahan was basically uneventful. Apart from drizzeling rain and Kingfishers and other waterbirds dissapearing before we could get near them the only break were other boats plowing upstream against the current.
First impressions of Taman Negara. Clean, no rubbish lying around. An organised local community and worth a few days visit at least. Would I do this trip again? Probably yes. But next time I think we would try a stopover for a night, and make an early morning bird photo boat departure with a more sedate driver. More time on the river very slowly going up or coming down would for sure result in lots good Kingfisher shots. I also think a slow hike along some of the jungle trails would also result in some good bird shots and with a Macro lens and a good look at the vegetation, probably some good insect and fauna photos as well.
Finally, some advice for would be travellers there. Watch out for Leeches. Later in the evening, hours after we were in the jungle I noticed I had bloody feet. Some bastard Leeches had obviously been sucking my blood and I never felt a thing! The fact is when we got back to Kuala Tahan we stopped off at the Mutiara resort for a cool glass of orange juice and we noticed one guy returing from a jungle trek with blood all down the inside of his pants. I actually checked my legs then and found nothing, but they were busy sucking inside my shoe all the time and I never felt a thing.