Despite an unerring (some would say worrying) devotion to the BBC’s endlessly wholesome Springwatch and a penchant for lengthy country walks, my wildlife spotting skills are distinctly average. I try to put it down to bad eyesight, but the fact is I’m just not properly clued in on birds and other fauna to be able to tell a cuckoo from a chiff chaff at one hundred paces.
That’s not to say this isn’t something I’ve been desperate to remedy for a long time. And fortunately, in Malaysia’s gorgeous Cameron Highlands, I was afforded the opportunity to do so courtesy of some lush rainforest and guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s plant and bird life.
Having just 48 hours in the Highlands, which are a four hour drive from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur, we turned to our hosts at the friendly Gerard’s Place guest house for inspiration. Jay, the owner, hooked us up with Cameron Secrets, a tour operator that’s focused on ethical trips in the area. These aren’t about seeing everything around in a few short hours, but focusing on the very best sights over a longer period.
On our first day, we are met by Francis, our guide, at 8.45am, and driven through the lush, cool Boh tea plantation and onwards up Guran Brinchang, the highest mountain in these parts, at over 2,100 metres. Just shy of the summit, our Land Rover pulls over and Francis begins to talk us through forest survival techniques.
Being a bit of a Bear Grylls himself, having survived a month on his own in these isolated climes, he knows a thing or two about what to eat and how to shelter. And so we’re shown the correct way to cut bamboo (always down and through, not straight across), how to extract tiger balm from bilberry leaves (rub them to a pulp and then use to soothe aching joints) and the best way to cut leaves and see if they’re poisonous, cutting the stalk and trailing it across your skin to check for itchiness.
This brief lesson finished, he takes us into the Mossy Forest, on a path designated for use only by Cameron Secrets. What we find is nothing short of mind blowing. This forest is around 280 million years old, the three metre deep moss adding a spring to our steps as we duck under vines and branches. Tiny orchids and insectivorous picture plants abound, as Francis explains that this fragile ecosystem is the most accessible forest of its kind on the planet. Millipedes and cicadas all make their home here.
The next day, we are up early again, this time with Suriya, a Cameron Highlands native and field biologist who works as a guide when he’s not travelling around Asia studying fragile ecosystems. He’s taking us birdwatching. The Highlands have over 2,000 different species of birds. And we only have to pull into a car park to spot over 20 of them in just over three hours.
Admittedly, this is a car park surrounded by dense rain forest. But with the aid of Suriya’s eagle eyes and some powerful binoculars, we see a stunning bright red Trogon, the brief flash of a Minivet perched on a high branch, Cuckoo-Shrikes calling from the top of dead trees, a streaked spidercatcher sitting proudly in the canopy and blue-winged mesias flying across the potholed road. This is all part of the bird wave, a twice daily phenomenon which occurs just after sun rise and in the hours before sunset.
As the bird wave subsides, we stride into the forest, along to the Parit Falls. The water here is silty, and rubbish lines the banks. “This used to be the cleanest water in the Cameron Highlands,” says Suriya. “Now poor conservation and intensive farming have ruined it.” It’s not his only environmental concern about the area. The Highlands had 3.2 metres of rain last year and during our visit, ostensibly in the dry season, it lashed it down every afternoon for at least three hours. “Climate change is having a huge impact here,” he says. “Of that I’m absolutely certain.”
Back on the bird trail, we drive across to the Boh tea plantation again. Although little seems to be happening, Suriya soon picks out a montane bulbul, nestled in a fig tree by the side of the road. It’s the sort of thing I’d have never picked out on my own. Its beautiful plumage, in this lush setting, were enough to show me that paying a little more for clued in guides with a passion for their area, is essential when on the road.