Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | May 30, 2012

Pangkor Laut: Vipers and bats with the ‘king of the jungle’

Not lost yet: Shahdan and I at the signpost for the two jungle trails

As 80 per cent of Pangkor Laut island is covered with 130 million-year-old rainforest, it would be churlish not to take advantage of the free guided daily walk.

A bunch of bushy trees can look totally unexciting until someone who knows what to look for points out the deadly creatures and interesting features lurking within. It’s gratifying to see more than 15 people tear themselves away from the pool and gather for the Jungle Trek to immerse themselves in nature.

Our guide is Shahdan, a forestry scientist and wildlife expert who recently returned to Pangkor Laut after a stint working in conservation for the Malaysian government and aggravating monkeys. He has been wandering the jungle since he was a child and not only knows a lot about bushy trees, but is very entertaining as well.

He tells us that Shah means king in Persian, ‘so you could say I’m king of the jungle!’ He announces this with a chirpy earnestness that makes me smile  straight away.

‘You’re funny,’ I tell him.

‘I’m a serious guy,’ he laughs. ‘Seriously!’

Shahdan insists he is a sombre scientist, but I have a science degree and used to write about comedy, so I don’t see why the two can’t mix.

He gives us a quick briefing, advising us not to swim in a certain area because it harbors coral and spiky sea urchins.  ‘The Japanese say the sea urchin is a delicacy,’ declares Shahdan, ‘but it is not a delicacy when you step on it.’

Everyone is laughing now.

Wagler’s pit viper: Don’t grab him by the tail

In a jovial mood, we wander through the resort in search of fruit bats. We find some sleeping in a sea almond tree, then ogle a poisonous viper on a branch. Just a small one. Its venom is a nerve toxin that will rot your flesh, but anti-venom isn’t too far away. And if we don’t attack the reptile it won’t bite us anyway. It is, apparently, very sensitive to temperature and can tell that we are too big for it to eat. Thus it will wait until a more suitable bug comes along.

‘It’s been here nine days,’ Shahdan announces.

‘You found it?’ asks an amazed woman in a sun visor.

Shahdan gives her a jungle-wise grin and says: ‘I have snake eyes.’

Jumbo recharge: Chunky monitor lizard

We examine the wild mangosteen that the monkeys don’t like, a bush with cats whiskers flowers that can be used for tea that may alleviate diabetes and a fat monitor lizard on a rock.

‘He needs to recharge his battery,’ Shahdan says. ‘Big body means big battery.’ Monitor lizards eat mainly dead things, with a touch of cannibalism, but poking them is not advised.

We haven’t technically left the resort area yet, but we are on our way. Next we have to stop and examine a tropical wood called cengal, the hardest in the world, which only grows on the Malay Peninsula and is so tough even the termites can’t eat it. A protected species, there are very few left and Shahdan was very excited to find a rare seed which he planted on the island.

Finally we reach the forest, and a marker for two different trails. We take the shorter one and climb a steepish but easily conquered path.

We stop to admire a giant tree of 200cm in diameter. As trees in the tropics grow about 1cm in diameter a year, that makes the tree nearly as old as I am.

Shahdan explains that trees here don’t have rings because there is only one season in the tropics, with maybe a little variation to indicate a wet season. Cengal, however, only grows 0.4cm a year, so it will be a while before Shahdan’s seedling becomes a giant of the forest.

Shahdan and his Cengal sprout, I mean tree

Shahdan points out a palm we can eat if we are lost in the jungle (pull out the shoot and nibble the white end).  Then we find evidence of  a wild boar snuffling for grubs. We shouldn’t walk in the jungle too late because of the wild boars. Being trampled by a wild boar in the dark is not the kind of experience that will enhance a holiday.

Then we examine a mushroom used by Chinese herbalists, and Shahdan compares lines of termites demolishing some dead wood with the traffic in Kuala Lumpur.

When we arrive at Emerald Bay on the other side of the island, Shahdan tells the group: ‘I hope you learnt something.’ Pointing at his head he adds: ‘There’s plenty more to download in here.’

Chew it: Pull out this palm sprout and eat the end of it when you are trapped in the jungle and can’t get back to your villa

Later on I see Shahdan back at the resort and he explains how monkeys trashed his car when he was working for the government ‘because they knew I was involved in a relocation programme’.

Then we move onto romance. He tells me about a training trip he did which was a camping/trekking expedition up Gunung Tahan, the highest point on peninsular Malaysia.

Five days into the trip, all the knives were broken which was impeding the process of preparing food. Then Shahdan saw a woman attack some onions with a machete. When he saw her chopping the onions like that, he thought: ‘This is the woman for me.’ Between the cleaver and  the vegetables, Shahdan was in love.

At the summit of Gunung Tahan he proposed. She didn’t push him off the mountain, but said yes, and five months later they were married. Seven months later, she is seven months pregnant.

Shahdan beamed when I said: ‘You really are a man of action. In and out of the jungle.’

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