Saturday, 26 November 2011

KL and the Cameron Highlands

4 – 13 November 2011
Despite being a little gun shy about Malaysian bus travel we really had little choice but to give it another go if we wanted to move on from Melaka. So with trepidation we found ourselves back at the terminal faced with a confusing array of over sixty ticket windows of different companies all competing for our money.
Looking outside we saw a particularly new looking bus amongst the thirty or so parked along the row of bays. We then headed for that company’s ticket window with our series of questions. Do you go to KL? Yes. How much? 34 Ringgits ($11 Aus) Are your buses no-smoking? Yes. Are your drivers allowed to smoke? No, bus no smoking. (accompanied by quizzical facial expression as to why we would ask) Having made our huge investment we were soon on board for our quite pleasant but uneventful trip to Kuala Lumpur.
One question we should of asked however was where in KL they go to. We had booked budget accommodation in the centre of Chinatown two blocks from the central bus terminal. Unfortunately our bus went to the big new terminal on the southern outskirts of the city and we then had to catch a train four stations into town. When travelling, these are the lessons you can only learn by experience unfortunately.
The platform was filled with people waiting so we hoped the train wouldn’t be too full when it arrived. No such luck. The trains only have three carriages of which the middle one is reserved for women and children only. Karen and I joined the throng literally squeezing into the rear carriage. It was a case of clinging onto to whatever handhold we could find with our backpacks between our feet and a human body pressing in against us from every side.
Halfway to the first station Rob came to the realisation that a crammed train like this was the perfect set up for pick pockets and felt down to make sure his wallet was still happy deep in his shorts pocket secured with Velcro fastening. All good.
As the train pulled into the next station an Indian guy in his mid twenties pushed through from behind us to get off. Unfortunately we subsequently realised that Rob’s wallet went with him.  Despite being aware of the risk and on the lookout, Rob never felt a thing untoward. These guys are very skilful, unfortunately. As a precaution against such an eventuality, our credit and debit cards were spread between Rob and Karen’s wallets and Rob’s backpack so at least we weren’t stranded without access to money. However it was particularly galling that Rob had just topped up our cash with an ATM withdrawal at the bus terminal. But for that our thieving scum would of scored all of about $20 Aus. Instead he is probably still smiling widely to this day.

Unfortunately we saw this scrolling  sign in KL too late
When we reached KL Sentral Station we joined a cue of people at the Police office making reports of stolen wallets and started making the calls to cancel credit cards. Also gone were Rob’s license, Australian phone sim card, business cards with contacts for a number of the yachties we’d become friends with and a photo of our kids he’d carried in his wallet for over twenty years. All bits and pieces worth nothing  to the thief but invaluable to us. Bugger!

So, moving on, our strategy of booking accommodation in budget motels and hostels just above the normal backpacker level continued to pay dividends. Our room in KL was located right in the middle of the famous Chinatown street markets and despite being only a few dollars dearer than backpackers was air-conditioned, nice and clean, had its own bathroom rather than shared facilities and was surprisingly quiet despite being only three floors above the mayhem of the markets.

Observation deck of KL Skytower
 We had spent time in KL a few years ago when we managed a drag racing demonstration at the city’s famous Sepang F1 track and had seen many of the main sights then so we only spent two nights in the capital this time. You can’t help but love the vibrancy of the night markets and despite not intending to buy any ‘stuff’ we still managed to part with a few Ringgits on a couple of things we then had to squeeze into our already bulging backpacks. Sampling the range of food in the markets was also fantastic. We did take the opportunity to go up KL’s Skytower which we’d missed last time and really enjoyed seeing the whole city laid out before us.

After our brief stay in KL we were on yet another bus, this time four hours up to the town of Tanah Ratah in the Cameron Highlands. We had been able to exchange a week’s timeshare we own on Bali for a two bedroom apartment  in a four and half star resort in the highlands. We’d been in constant contact with crewmate Marc, and while his infection had proved stubborn he was now expecting to be out of hospital able to join us on the Monday and make use of the second bedroom for at least most of the week. Our idea was to spend seven days kicking back doing nothing, a week’s holiday we needed so badly after all the strenuous business of sailing, travelling and touristing. Life’s tough.

Highest peak in Camerons viewed from our suite.
The Cameron Highlands range between five and six and half thousand feet elevation and were named after William Cameron, a British government surveyor who stumbled across a plateau in 1885 during a mapping expedition on the Titiwangsa Range. Cameron must not have been too brilliant a surveyor  as he failed  to mark his discovery on the map, so the location of the plateau was finally confirmed by subsequent expeditions.  A narrow path to the highlands was then cut through the dense jungles of the highlands.
Nothing much happened after that until 1925 when Sir George Maxwell visited the highlands and decided to develop it as a hill station to take advantage of the mild temperatures. Cameron Highlands became a haven for the British who were stationed in Malaya as it provided relief from the hot and humid tropical climate of the lowlands. 
We visited the original  Boh Tea Plantation
Once the road was constructed, wealthy residents and British government officials started building retreats on the slopes of the highlands. Later some settled here permanently and a business community developed. Farming was the main activity here at that time. In 1929, John Archibald Russell, who was the son of a British administrative officer started a tea plantation which is now the famous Boh Tea Plantation.
The highlands developed successfully until the outbreak of World War II when the Japanese invasion in 1941 forced the British troops and civilians out of the highlands. When the Japanese troops retreated from Malaya in 1945 the British gradually returned to the highlands until the independence of Malaya from the British in 1957.

That's our room way up there.
When we checked in to our resort we were informed they didn’t actually have any two bed room apartments available so they had given us two adjoining suites instead. Typical of the trials we have to endure. The resort was located high on a hill overlooking the town but only a simple five minute walk down to the huge range of restaurants. Even if it was most certainly a ten minute walk back UP the hill, the exercise had to be good for us, didn’t it? . After many months in the tropics a pleasant change for us were the temperatures. At these high elevations we actually needed to wear jeans and often our spray jackets were definitely required.

We let Marc (Meerkat) know what was waiting for him.
An increasingly depressed Marc reported each day that his arrival was to be further delayed as his infection continued to resist the strong anti-biotics being pumped directly into his veins. We’re not sure whether sending him photos of  the suite that was sitting empty awaiting him free of charge really did cheer him up or simply made him suicidal but it was the thought that counted.
We broke our rule of doing nothing but eat, drink and slack off only once to do a tour around the sights on Wednesday. It was well worth it. The first stop was a huge tea plantation and processing factory. We were amazed at the steepness of some of the slopes under cultivation and marvelled at how the pickers and pruners could possibly work on them.  We were also surprised to find out the actual tea plants are simply a variation of the camellia bush so common in Australia. They are constantly pruned to waist level for easier picking and it’s only the small, newly sprouted leaves which are used for processing into tea.

Click on any image to see larger version
Next stop was a lookout on top of the highland’s tallest mountain. At 6,600 feet elevation the views are incredible, so they tell us. We found there wasn’t a lot to see when they cloud cover extended down to 6,000 feet but that’s the luck of the draw. On average the mountain is only clear one in three days.
Just below the peak we then trekked through what is referred to as the mossy forest with very good reason. A few years ago in New Zealand we had done a five hour trek through an amazing high altitude rain forest but this was something else again. Everywhere you turned it looked like something straight out of a movie set because surely it couldn’t be real. With high rainfall but consistently low temperatures, decomposition is an extremely slow process. As a result the leaf matter etc on forest floor was more than a foot deep and literally springy to walk on, unless you stepped on the wrong spot and sunk to your calves. Yuk! Good news though, it’s way too high and cold for leaches to exist.

The Mossy Forest has to be seen to be believed. Unreal!
Vegetation was so thick that seeing more than two metres off the narrow path was simply impossible. Every tree trunk and branch, live or dead, every rock and anything else you can think of was coated in thick green moss. Insect catching, carnivorous plants hung from the trees while beautiful wild orchids clung to host plants at every turn. A number of species of spice plants grew wild and by peeling off a small section of the bark and rubbing it between our fingers we were able to release the strong scent and taste of cinnamon for ourselves, no bottle from a supermarket required.

These plants eat insects.
There is an elevated boardwalk that was closed for repair during our visit but I can’t imagine it would be anything like actually immersing yourself in the living forest on a narrow, little used track like the one our guide took us on.
While the Mossy Forest is well named it could just as accurately been titled Mystical Forest because it is truly the most amazing vegetation we have every experienced. Neither words or our photos can accurately portray what you see and feel surrounded by this centuries old forest.
On the way back to town we stopped at an excellent butterfly aviary where we were able to stroll around surrounded by thousands of colourful butterflies  and see some absolutely amazing examples of natures camouflage in a range of insects, frogs, snakes and even chameleons.  Looking at the leaf frogs in their pond you would never ever think they were anything other than a dead leaf floating on the water until they began to swim.

A final call into a strawberry farm for a huge feed of strawberries, icecream and waffle washed down with a milk shake  made out of cold fresh milk and strawberries, no flavouring syrup used,  saw our one strenuous day come to end.  Time for sundowners on our balcony and then the stress of picking somewhere to eat anything and everything from Indian to Japanese. Good thing we had another few days to get over it before we moved on to Panang.
Unfortunately Marc finally had to run up the white flag of surrender and admit he wasn’t going to make it up to the highlands. What started as a simple insect bite, scratched enough to become a small open wound, progressed into full blown septicaemia which cost Marc ten days in a Panang hospital on an IV drip. If left untreated it would of almost certainly cost him his leg and possibly his life. 

Karen enjoying breakfast in bed Cameron Highlands style
as she works hard on our strategy of doing very little.
His experience was a perfect example of the dangers of tropical infection and the need to treat quickly and thoroughly any cut, scratch or bite we had spent the whole Sail Indonesia Rally warning, American, European and even some Australian crews of.  Amongst the Rally fleet we are aware of at least five cases of serious infection that required extensive medical treatment. Marc  was now not going to get out of hospital till the Friday and it was hardly worth a six hour bus trip up for one day before another six hour trip back. We would meet him in Panang on Sunday.
That settled we got back to the serious business of doing not much. Life is good!

Rob expected the Butterfly Farm to be a bit boring but check these photos

This Rhino Beetle was about six inches long. Good thing our son wasn't around.

This guy was just flat out at the Butterfly Farm

Leaf Insect was almost impossible to spot once amongst the leaves of a plant
They grow them big in the Cameron Highlands

Nasty Bugger
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