BOH tea plantation, Cameron Highlands (photo by Irina Stelea)

Farms, cables, and automobiles: the Cameron Highlands

Before arriving to the Cameron Highlands, images of undulating green fields lured me on the Internet. In reality, the region is a never-ending construction site. The rush to build and the hilly nature of the area have resulted in a deformed landscape, where neatly rectangular structures, like greenhouses and plants, seem to topple over or poke at each other with their straight lines. I arrive here one evening with the great plan to hike on Gunung Brinchang (the second highest peak in the area) the next day. However, there is little information available about going up the mountain on one’s own, so I decide to postpone the hike and do a little research first by joining a mini-tour in the proximity of the mountain.

The next morning, the tour operators forget about me; after some waiting, a hurried driver comes by and takes me to the whereabouts of the group, offering in compensation a full day tour for just a little extra cash. I check my pocket and realize that is exactly the amount I have, so I agree. Our guide is a local with very gentle manners who patiently answers all our questions while driving us to more or less touristy places. I see my first tea plantation, which looks like the sun and the clouds are having a green-themed orgy, and visit my first tribe, the Orang Asli, where a man who aptly calls himself Michael Jackson puts on the kind of performance that he knows will make it to the Facebook of his audience in no time.

The guide advises me to hike on a mountain together with another group, simply because “you never know what can happen in the jungle.” The next day I wait in a shaded ditch at the trail’s start for someone else to show up. Less than ten minutes pass and I join three French guys. My fitness level is that of a couch potato (superior version), and nevertheless the hike is surprisingly easy. This leaves me with enough energy to properly say hello to the jungle on our first encounter. The air is still and suffocating, and yet life pulsates everywhere around. I stop frequently and close my eyes for the signs—the jungle is a soundscape before anything else. The sounds are all new to me and I associate them instinctively with more familiar ones: a dental drill, a lawn sprinkler, an owl, more dental drills. I would hear some of these sounds on various occasions throughout my trip, especially the cicadas, whose hypnotic songs would blanket the outside world on many sweltering afternoons.

The mighty jungle
The mighty jungle

Every couple of steps my French companions find a reason to laugh. Two of them, a couple, own a fast-food restaurant that they close down for the winter and use the time off to travel. Without this yearly routine (not even a baby was a reason to interrupt it) they admit their lives would be much poorer. A yellow dog appears out of nowhere and assists us on the way up, showing us the path where twisted vines or roots conceal it. This is the more complicated part of the trail, where the mountain becomes steep, the terrain turns into mud, and roots contort to the extreme. A little acrobatics is necessary to overcome it.

After about two hours, we emerge muddy and wet onto the peak. It is quiet and a layer of fog prevents us from seeing anything below. The French stop to rest, while ‘Dog’ and I continue on an asphalt road, 12 kilometers long, that brings us back to the bottom. We take our time. Dog happily cools himself in some puddles. I take a detour of 5 km to delight again in the sights of the tea plantation, while Dog patiently waits at the entrance. The afternoon becomes hotter and hotter, and my pace slows down. I sit on a cliff to look at the view, and Dog sits next to me. He reminds of another dog, small and black, that appeared out of nowhere and led the way on a different mountain, on a different continent. We move on; locals who drive down from the tea plantation pass us by and honk like crazy just to share their happiness. I stop again somewhere on the edge and take off my shoes to cool down. The view is breathtaking, so I pull up my camera for a souvenir selfie. Dog catches up, gives me a look, and promptly occupies the other part of the frame, as if he has always belonged there.

  • One of the many construction sites in the Cameron Highlands (photo by Irina Stelea)
    One of the many construction sites in the Cameron Highlands

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