Monday, February 21, 2011

Tapir Heaven, Food Hell

The two-lane country road ahead is steaming like a hot coffee, vapour rising from the asphalt as the afternoon tropical downpour stops as abruptly as it began. It all seems so perfect, as we wind our way to Teman Negara, a forest older than the dinosaurs.

The trip has been relatively easy, a three-hour drive up modern divided highway north of Kuala Lumpur. We visited an elephant sanctuary and a petting zoo earlier in the day. The boy is still smiling at having been able to touch a sun bear at the zoo. It's a black, hairy bear with a flattened snout, and about the size of a pig. Apparently it's the tamest of the bears, though to date we've only seen it from a safe distance in a cage at the zoo.

After the eventful morning we're on the last leg of the journey, a 100-kilometre drive past palm oil plantations and small towns, to the forest edge.
I am sure there is a power-up in there somewhere...

 The landscape, the boy notes, looks like a scene from Donkey Kong Country: identical palm trees clone-stamped in repeating patterns into the distance.

The driver cruises along at a speed just under the limit for inducing nausea on the winding, hilly route. We finally cruise into Kuala Tahan, a town on the river that borders the park.

Tired, and a little sick from a chest cold we both have, we crash for an hour or two at the hotel. Then it's off to dinner and an orientation video, then a night walk in the park itself.

Teman Negara is considered the world's oldest forest. For 130 million years nothing has erased it- not asteroids or ice ages or human greed. A third larger than Algonquin Park, the park is effectively protected from development by the Malaysian government, which unlike many in SE Asia, seems to put teeth to its environmental legislation.

Kuala Tahan is an outpost, a tourist centre, on the edge of the park. It borders a small, fast flowing river, its few streets on one side, Nature Red In Tooth and Claw on the other.

Our package has us eating at a local restaurant that evening. MamaChop's has everything going for it. A floating restaurant on a fast-moving stream; exotic surroundings, animal calls in the distance and dim lighting as the tropical sun sets.

Everything going for it, that is, except the fact it's trying to feed people. For MamaChop, it seems, has no desire to run a restaurant- or at least put any effort into it.

We're paying about $120 US a night for this trip, all included. Sure, you don't expect five-star treatment, but a bit of effort would be nice. The drivers, the trip, the hotel, were all adequate for our money. Then we are served a three-item 'buffet'- cold white rice, plain roasted chicken, and lukewarm veggies in cocoanut milk.

I choke it back without enthusiasm. The boy turns his nose up.

I ask to consult the menu, to order something for him 'a la carte'. 'Spaghetti baloonisi' is probably not the best selection. I run down the rest of the options, and finally ask the waiter about a hambuger. 'No', says the teenager, not available. What about the chicken fingers? No again.

Going through the rest of the menu quickly reveals that the entire 'Western Dishes' side of the page is a sham. There are no western dishes to be had. I order plain rice and chicken for the boy. The youth runs back to the chef with the order. About five minutes later, I realize I just ordered a $3 version of the meal we had just been offered free as part of the tour.

After our meal the local guide fires up a bootleg of a video about the park on the restaurant's big flatscreen TV, which up to this point has been playing Malaysian love songs and hip-hop.

The boy wants to go home, but after that meal I want to get our money's worth from the tour company. I insist we'll spend the hour going on the night walk. Our group piles into a boat, and in less than a minute we're across into the park proper.

Our guide takes us on a short walk in the dark; we see fluorescent scorpions, sleeping birds, and the glowing green eyes of what are supposed to be mouse deer. Sure, we're only on the very edge of the park, and we've only been there for 45 minutes. But it's a quiet night in the forest, and we can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Then on the return trip, magic. A screeching sound, short and high. 'Did you hear that?' the guide says. “That's a tapir.”

Cole's eyes light up, and we start peering into the dark. As we walk along the path back to the boat, out of the gloom, two large pig-shaped creatures emerge and head towards us. They are tapirs.

Enjoy the show, try the veal...
Now, maybe the best way to describe a tapir is if a pig had tried to grow to the size of a deer. They are ancient-looking animals, with a long snout and odd half-black, half-white colouring. For you old folks, these are the creatures killed by the ape-men at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (trivia note, courtesy of the boy- that scene was impossible, as there were never tapirs in Africa).

The giant pig-elephant-deers snuffle around us as a security guard and our guide warn us to be careful. But the animals actually seem curious and friendly, one even lying down to get a cautious rub from the tourists. Cole is in heaven. He rubs the creatures, gets his picture taken.

Yeah, I went there. They feel like cheap tight-pile carpet from the 1970s.

But something smells here, and it ain't just the tapir. It's almost too good- this refugee from the Miocene just happening to show up, a security guard in tow. The surprise of our guide. All a little too perfect.

Later, I learn that the tapirs actually show up about twice a night, in about the same spot. They have been relocated from somewhere else in Malaysia, and are being acclimated to humans. It's good for tourism, if not exactly the purest of wildlife encounters.

But it doesn't matter to my boy. He is in absolute heaven, that he's been able to pet a wild creature that up to know he's only seen sleeping in mud baths in zoos. He will talk about this the rest of his life.

The lousy food, the head cold, the iffy washrooms, are all forgotten. The trip is officially worthwhile because of this close encounter with 'wildlife'.

And that's good enough for me.

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