From sleepy Bekok, Zulkifly Latif embarks on a nature excursion via the Selai entrance to the Endau Rompin Johor National Park
“BEKOK Station”. I feel a light touch on my right shoulder, waking me from sleep. Opening my eyes, I see a man standing next to my seat, holding a piece of paper and wearing a jacket sporting an embroidered KTMB logo.
“Bekok Station. Your stop,” he says smiling.
I graciously thank the conductor and step off the coach, making the mistake of thinking that it’s similar to stepping off a commuter train at KL Sentral.
It’s not. There's a 30-60cm difference in height and I almost fall flat on my face on the railway station platform.
The conductor pokes his head through the door, asking if I’m all right.
I shrug and pretend that I’m still sleepy from the four-hour train journey from Johor Baru.
The train rolls away into the night and I find myself alone at the station.
At 2.30am, Bekok Railway Station is not much a sight: A small wooden building containing a Muslim prayer room next to a larger brick building that houses the main office. There isn’t even a vending machine.
Across the train tracks are a row of old wooden shop houses, all of which are closed up for the night. It seems that I had underestimated the small town label of Bekok when making my travel arrangements by railway, since I had hoped to see a 24-hour eatery where I could nurse a cup of coffee (and maybe charge my smart phone) before heading towards the national park’s office in the morning.
Apparently that is not going to happen. Somewhere out in the dark beyond the train tracks I hear dogs barking and howling.
Wary of being mauled in unfamiliar territory, I decide to sleep on the chairs of the station until daybreak.
From Bekok Railway Station, it is a 20-minute walk to the Taman Negara Endau-Rompin Selai’s office that takes me straight through the small old town of Bekok, in Segamat, Johor. It is 7am and the rustic town is slowly coming to life as locals zip through the roads on motorcycles.
Most are not even wearing helmets which merely emphasises what a small town Bekok is.
The sweet and savoury scent of breakfast from the little warongs and old kopitiams lining the main street wafts through the crisp morning air.
Bathed in morning daylight, the initial dread of the previous night fades as I take in the rustic and quirky sights.
During breakfast at a restaurant near the park’s office, I meet up with Adni Md Som, a local nature guide who has been guiding at Endau Rompin National Park Selai for the last 15 years.
There is some administrative papers to be filled at the park’s office and then luggage transferred to the off-road vehicle parked outside.
The off-road journey takes about an hour or so with a view that shifts gradually from palm oil estates to Orang Asli villages and finally pristine jungle interior.
Adni leads me straight to the main visitor complex which is also where the more modern chalets and dormitories are located nearby.
He hands me the keys to what will be my lodgings for the next two days, a pleasant wooden chalet with attached bathroom that looks like it’s transplanted from a secluded island resort.
Further down from the main complex and right beside the Selai river are the more basic types of wooden huts typical of jungle lodgings. After sleeping at the train station, I tell myself that I deserve the chalet’s extra offering of comfort.
It is around noon that other guests to the park finally arrive. There are only six guests, including myself, who will be staying at the chalets for the weekend. If one was searching for solitude or something close to it, Taman Negara Selai will not disappoint.
GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH
After lunch, I join the other guests and Adni’s son Latif who is also a guide for a bit of jungle-trekking.
Looking at a signboard near the starting point of the jungle trail, I count the names of four main falls and one river.
Taman Negara Selai, which takes its name after the Selai river that runs through it, is brimming with waterfalls.
Latif says that we will take the easiest trek, which is a one-hour journey to Takah Pandan.
Barely 10 minutes into the trek, two members of the group are squeamishly removing leeches looking for a meal around their ankles. This will be a two-hour trek, I jokingly tell Latif.
Although relatively short, the trail to Takah Pandan requires substantial uphill scrambling, with a few parts of the trail needing the use of fixed ropes to help with climbing.
Underfoot, the soft and moist ground covered with dead leaves of the forest canopy gradually gives way to tree roots and craggy rocks as we go higher and closer towards the waterfall.
An hour later, we reach Takah Pandan, a magnificent waterfall that is easily over 40 metres in height.
Takah is the word for waterfall in the language of the Jakun people, the aboriginal tribe that calls Selai and the nearby areas their home.
There is another waterfall on the left of Takah Pandan, but according to Latif, the fall is formed by heavy rainfall and so is a seasonal sight.
Nevertheless, the sight of two waterfalls flowing into the same river is a marvellous and rewarding sight, well worth the trek and leech bites.
The rest of the group sit near the pool of Takah Pandan, taking the usual group photos and selfies. Occasionally they break into strange yoga-like poses and outstretch their arms in front of the falls.
I have seen stranger things and their visible excitement and admiration for the falls are endearing.
Nicole, a sporty-looking type from the group, tells me that I should sit closer to the falls for better health.
“Waterfalls have negative ions. They are good for you!” she says enthusiastically.
Seeing no harm in that, I find a vacant boulder closer to the cascading water to sit on.
It is somewhere around 5pm when we return to the chalets.
Kak Aishah, who is Adni’s wife, has prepared a light meal at the common dining hall of the visitor’s complex for tea break. She is an excellent cook. Adni jokingly warns me not to say that or he will have to give her a raise.
After tea break, we walk towards the Selai river near the park’s activities centre. It is here that each member of the group is given a paddle, safety helmet, personal flotation device jacket and a giant inflated inner tube. There is a net that’s been secured in the middle of the tube.
Latif demonstrates how to equip all the provided safety gear as well as how to sit on the tube and paddle.
After the safety briefing, we carry our gear towards the river bank near the starting point of the previous jungle trek.
Latif goes in the river first and in mere moments he’s down the rapids and floating in a pool.
Other members of the group go down but find it’s a little trickier than what Latif demonstrated.
As I look at Latif standing in shin-deep water trying to free a hapless paddler whose tube is wedged tight between the river rocks, I must admit that tubing down the Selai river is not as adrenaline-pumping as, say, white water rafting but it is definitely fun and a wonderful excuse to get wet.
NOT REALLY CHILD’S PLAY
Dinner is a wonderful spread of barbecued meat, fish and fried rice, a far cry from the tin can meals I’m familiar with during jungle adventures.
I compliment Kak Aishah’s culinary skills again and she announces that she wants a new power bank for her phone.
Adni gives out a little chuckle and shakes his head, feigning disapproval. All of us at the dinner table begin to laugh.
It is a charming little moment and only reminds me that the people we meet are as equally interesting as the sights we see.
Immediately after dinner, the group then embarks for a night walk into the park’s Arboretum, which is a fancy word for botanical garden.
Located next to the Selai River, the Arboretum has a plethora of tree species informatively tagged and is the perfect place to further learn more about the general forest type of Selai.
As such, the main purpose of the night walk is to spot animals and creepy crawlies. At least one member of the group gets bitten by leeches again.
Back at the dining hall after the Arboretum night walk, Adni has taken out and spread pieces of tied and coiled rattan wood on the counter.
I immediately recognise them as Kercang, traditional puzzle type games invented by the Jakun people.
The purpose of the game is to free the loop of rope from the tangle of rattan. I have been told this symbolises a person trying to escape from being lost in the forest.
Having futilely attempted to solve the puzzle a few years ago when visiting Taman Negara Peta, another part of Johor’s Endau Rompin National Park that also has a Jakun settlement, I continue to remain “lost”.
Unwilling to be frustrated again and lacking confidence and patience, I give the games a pass. The other guests are more enthusiastic, and occasionally they break into laughter when one of them solves it.
IT’S A WALK IN THE JUNGLE
It is the second and final day to my weekend trip to Selai. I have an early breakfast alone since the other visitors have yet to emerge from their chalets.
It is a beautiful and cool morning, with mist partially blanketing the hills behind the visitor’s main complex.
Having some free time before the start of the activities for the day, I decide to walk into the Arboretum.
I am a few metres on the little pathway of the Arboretum. The morning sun has yet to fully rise and the jungle is still a little too dark and foreboding for my liking.
Even though I was here the previous night, I was in the company of seven other people and one of them was a nature guide with a sharp parang.
I only have a camera at the moment, which doesn’t have enough heft to it to even pretend it’s a blunt weapon.
Changing my mind, I decide to walk along the much wider and brighter main road, justifying to myself that it’s technically still jungle.
Walking along the main gravel covered road and feeling much more confident, the view before me is still that of a mist-covered jungle. Similar to the Arboretum, many of the large trees along the road are tagged.
Occasionally, villagers on mud-splattered motorcycles pass by, on their way to work at the main visitor’s complex. They smile and wish me good morning and I take their passing by as a sign that there’s no dangerous wild animals up ahead. And so I walk farther until I lose interest.
Regrouping with the other guests, we walk to Lubuk Merekek which is the national park’s main camping grounds.
Located on the river banks of the Selai River, Lubuk Merekek is a well-equipped campsite, with cooking halls, bathrooms and prayer huts.
Having arrived earlier, Adni has arranged various traditional games such as blowpipes and archery bows for the guests to try.
As fun as the games are, I am more interested when Adni begins teaching basic bushcraft skills such as how to start a fire.
He demonstrates various ways to start a fire using a magnifying glass, magnesium ferro rod, the reflective inner part of an old torch light and even the bottom of a butane gas canister through the use of the sun’s rays.
One particularly interesting way is the use of an ancient device called Api Lantak or Fire Piston. Used by the Selai aboriginal people in the old days, the fire piston looks like a small dynamite detonator, the kind Wile.E Coyete used while trying to blow up the Road Runner in those old cartoons.
Made of hard dense wood, the fire piston works by compressing air until the tinder inside it combusts.
According to Adni, one must be quick and careful else the tinder will not light or the piston breaks.
Adni even explains what kind of tinder is used, which is the dried cotton-like material of the Tukas palm or fish tail palm.
Officially opened to the public in 2003, Taman Negara Endau Rompin, Selai is fairly new as an eco-destination.
Despite that, the park boasts a majestic ecosystem that is 240 million years old. Selai is less touristy and with nature guides such as Adni Md Som, who brings their own personal touch to a visitor’s experience, Selai is worth multiple visits.
A simple weekend escape here will undoubtedly be memorable but with various attractions such as the many waterfalls requiring longer and more difficult treks, a multiple-day stay would be an adventure.
Taman Negara Johor Endau-Rompin (Selai)
8, Jalan Satria 1, Taman Berjaya, Bekok, Segamat, Johor Darul Ta’zim
TEL 07-922 2875
Nature guide Adni Md Som can be contacted at 019-7320262 for activities, camping and catering.