Taman Negara Oct 2012
Early October 2012 i visited 2 locations at Taman Negara, the largest preserved area in Peninsular Malaysia. With over 4000 sq. km of more or less pristine rainforest, an elevation between 100m and 2187m at Gunung Tahan, the park boasts a unique biodiversity with emblematic species such as Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian elephant, and close to 400 species of birds.
Dubbed the “secret entrance” to Taman Negara, Merapoh is overlooked by most visiting birders. It takes just a bit longer to come from KL airport if driving a car (5 hrs drive instead of 4 to Kuala Tahan), but Public transport to the place is long and inconvenient. There is a basic accommodation provided nearby the Park HQ, right at the edge of the forest, and good birding starts just a couple of steps of your room. A bridge crosses the Relau river and a sealed road, that runs for 14km until a place called Kuala Juram, takes you into the heart of Taman Negara. You can’t drive your own car into the park, but you can have a 4WD drive arranged with the Park staff. I did not try this, as very good birding occurs along the first 2km of the road, and along the side trails : the Negeram trail (4km), that starts from the HQ grounds before the bridge to the left and follows the river upstream (not so birdy but we found Diard’s Trogon and Red-bearded Bee eater there), the Palas trail (1.6km) and Interpretive trail (0.5km), that start to the right just after the bridge (very good birding on both).
I came on my own to Merapoh and was surprised to find myself the only guest around the first day. Then in the evening i made the pleasant acquaintance of Chris Hill, a Singapore based birder and photographer (http://www.chrishillwildlifephotography.co.uk), with whom we had a nice day and half of team birding before me leaving for Kuala Tahan.
The star birds of Merapoh are said to be Garnet Pitta and Large Frogmouth, they both obliged after some work. A Garnet Pitta was heard calling frequently on the left side of the road 600m after the bridge, but was not willing to come out; so the second day i very carefully made my way inside the undergrowth toward the calling bird, and after a few minutes it perched on a vine in good view and serenaded me for a couple of minutes. There were however so many twigs and branches between me and the bird that it took some advanced level yogic contortion to snap a decent shot. The large frogmouth, that usually occurs along the Relau river nearby the bridge, was desperately silent the first evening. We soon found why : after hearing some calls nearby we playbacked Buffy Fish Owl and immediately got a pair of birds in full view, one holding a huge frog it had just caught. We thought the frogmouth might not get along with them that well… trying again in the early morning hours, we soon had a bird calling nearby, after some more waiting it finally came to perch right above us, a very decent view for such a desirable bird.
Other notable sightings during the stay included Malayan Banded Pitta, 3 Trogons (Diard’s, Scarlet and Cinnamon-rumped), Great Slaty Woodpecker, Chestnut-naped Forktail, a fine selcetion of Babblers (including Black-throated and Grey-headed) and Bulbuls (including Hairy-backed and Cream-vented). A slight disappointment came from the canopy : it was hard to get good views and if we had some, not much was going on there. The only Hornbills we saw was a flock of Bushy-crested (Helmeted and Rhinoceros were calling nearby though) and, amazingly, Chris just saw a Green Imperial Pigeon zipping by and that was it for Columbidae. Outside the realm of birds we had good views of Siamang and Dusky Langurs, and a night drive through the palm plantations along the access road produced a few Common Palm Civets. After my departure Chris got more luck with a Leopard Cat. But the best sighting among mammals was a Sun Bear coming down a roadside tree at dusk, less than 20 meters away from us. It then went on foraging nearby the road, seemingly taking no notice at all of our presence, and we simply had to leave him when it got too dark.
Kuala Tahan is “the” entrance to Taman Negara. It takes a bit over 4 hours to drive there from KLIA, but there are also regular Bus services from KL that can take you there. There are plenty of accommodations on the village side of the road, but then you need to cross the river to access the park (easily done however, as a few boats are available all day for ferry, for 1 RM). There is only one accommodation on the park side : the Mutiara resort, and that’s where i stayed. As expected, the privilege of staying just at the edge of Taman Negara’s rainforest translates in inflated accommodation and food prices, but still it’s a privilege : wild animals (boars, muntjac, sambars, long-tailed macaques…) come feeding in the resort area even in day time, and fruiting trees in the garden are a good way to start your birding day with plenty of ticks : bulbuls, barbets, leafbirds, blue fairybird, spiderhunters, sunbirds, flowepeckers….. A major attraction for visiting birdwatchers is the Crested Fireback, a pheasant that anywhere else is exceedingly difficult to see, but it usually comes in flocks grazing at the edges of the resort just before twilight only meters from bystanders…. but somehow i managed to miss it.
A great choice of trails starts from the Resort, that take you into various forested habitats : swamp, hill, river sides. The main trails have now been fitted with boardwalks, making the walk more comfortable especially after rain, and more importantly, less exposed to lurking leeches. I found the “swamp loop” trail, a short 600m loop just outside the resort and a birder’s favorite, quite disappointing and i ended up spending a good part of my 2 days and half on the Jenut Muda trail that climbs up a small hill. There i had good views of Garnet Pitta, Crested Jay and Large Wren-babbler to name a few, but the main draw was a tauntingly calling Rail-babbler… Overall i probably spent 6 hours only on this guy, going all the way from Plan A to plan Z, but simply could not catch a glimpse. I also invested the best part of one morning (and also 180 RM) for an early (departure 7am, well before the crowd) boat ride up the Tahan river until the rapids of Lata Berkoh (roughly 10km), in the crazy hope of finding a Masked Finfoot… it did not materialize, and Lesser Fish Eagle and Rufous-collared Kingfishers were the only rewards. Other notables in Kuala Tahan included Black-and-Red Broadbills, Rufous Piculet, Chestnut-naped and White-crowned Forktails, and another bunch of bulbuls and babblers. Ah, and there was also a Tapir foraging at the edge of the resort along the river. I surprised him the last morning and it went trotting ahead of me on the Boardwalk before disappearing in the forest. The total bird count for 5 days in Kuala Tahan and Merapoh stayed just shy of 100.
I could not help but leaving Kuala Tahan with a slight sense of disappointment, especially in comparison with Merapoh. The forests surrounding Kuala Tahan have the potential of great sightings (Rail-babbler, Great Argus….) but birding is generally slower and harder. I only met one large mixed bird flock in Kuala Tahan, against several in Merapoh, and there were long periods of simply nothing. In addition Kuala Tahan is a busy place, visited by many tourists, and during the day the constant noise of motor boats roaming the rivers spoils the rain forest experience somehow.
Few additional tips and info :
– I could get a booking for the accommodation in Merapoh by email at email@example.com. Got a reply within 48 hrs. The best rooms (with A/C) go at 70 RM/day, basic but clean. In addition you need to pay 1 RM for entrance fee and another 5 RM if you take pictures (only once for the length of your stay).
– At the time of my stay there was no food provided at the HQ, so had to drive back to the village (7 km) for dinner (Nasi goreng that is). There are few shops along the main road but not much was on the shelves, so make provisions on the way from KL.
– Merapoh-Kuala Tahan is approximately 220km/4 hrs drive. A comfortable but depressing one as all remnants of rain forest outside Taman Negara seem to be on their way to be converted to Palm Oil plantations sooner than later.
– When booking the car rental from KLIA i requested a GPS. I did not regret it, it made the travel much easier especially through the web of highways around KL.
– Beware of leeches when venturing off the sealed road/boardwalk. There were a few “hot spots” both in Merapoh and Kuala Tahan, especially along the rivers. Some mosquitoes as well.
– Avoid Week-ends in Kuala Tahan.
– On the web you’ll find plenty about Kuala Tahan, but little on Merapoh. A few useful links : http://www.rainforestjournal.com/taman-negara-sungai-relau (very informative also about the overall ecology of the place) and http://www.wildlife.gov.my/index.php/taman-negara-pahang-sungai-relau-merapoh-pahang#top-toolbar-article