Kayaking adventure, exploring limestone caves and visiting Batek tribe Orang Asli village are among the activities Dania Nabila experienced in Merapoh, Pahang
"NO way! Can I not join the kayaking activity? I cannot swim. What happens if the kayak capsizes? Kayaking isn't for me," I blabber on and on at the sight of the life jackets hanging from the hands of our guide.
He has left us to enjoy a unique snack of half-cooked dodol slathered on a slice of white bread, after watching the making of Dodol Warisan Gula Kabong in Kampung Sungai Temau in Merapoh, some 80km from Kuala Lipis.
"It tastes like kaya, a bit sticky and chewy. It is delicious!," I excitedly tell the team, before my eyes land on our guide and the life jackets in his hands.
The dodol-making demonstration is the first item on the second day of the three-day ecotourism programme, organised by Improving Connectivity in the Central Forest Spine (IC-CFS).
IC-CFS is a collaboration between government agencies and international bodies to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem in the green lungs of Peninsular Malaysia.
FACING THE FEAR
As I reach the starting point of our kayak expedition — at the bank of Sungai Tanum which is part of the Sungai Yu ecological corridor — I suddenly feel the urge to retract all the words that I had said earlier.
At the sight of the mesmerising teh tarik-coloured river that looks more like a lake, I decide to put on the life jacket, grab the canoe paddle and hop onto the kayak.
At first, it glides smoothly until we reach a point where we have to quickly row the kayak to the left and right to steer clear of the floating woods.
Obstacles, like woods, can cause the boat to tip over. After witnessing one kayak after another capsizing, I start to panic. My kayak sits in a horizontal position, in the middle of the river.
The river current underneath my kayak is very strong and out of fear, I hold on tightly to the block of wood. Thankfully, I am paired with a kayak expert.
Along the way, my kayak buddy, Kak Tira, guides and calms me down, especially when we are on the verge of capsizing as our boat is swept by the strong current.
Thankfully, we manage to correct the boat's position and continue with our expedition.
Being one of the first boats to survive the challenge, Kak Tira and I hold on to a tree branch for almost 15 minutes as we wait for the rangers to rescue the rest of the team members.
The 1½ hours kayak expedition takes us to a peaceful setting of Sungai Tanum that greets us with the sound of flowing water and birds chirping.
FIRST DAY'S ADVENTURE
It was partially raining when we arrived in Merapoh yesterday. We reached after a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur.
Located near the Pahang-Kelantan border, Merapoh sits just outside the boundaries of Sungai Relau National Park, which is part of Taman Negara, the country's oldest national park.
Our first stop was Gua Sisik Naga in Kampung Kubang Rusa. As soon as geologist Muhammad Othman finished the briefing on the do's and don'ts in the cave, we proceeded to walk along the many narrow paths in the dark.
As I explored the cave chamber, I was blown away by the texture that resembles the backbone of a dragon.
Muhammad said the cave makes visitors feel like they are living inside a dragon's stomach.
"In the 1970s, people used to enter the cave to collect guano.There are shovels lying around as proof. Recently, I was informed that porcupines could still be found here!"
On the way out of the cave, he took us to a hidden place where we have to bend to enter.
"Try knocking on this part," he said as he pointed to a part of the cave.
"Wow, it produces music! It feels like playing the Wooden Tik Tok."
I kept knocking until suddenly I heard someone said from afar : "You are holding a concert here, aren't you?", which stopped me.
We were then taken to the second cave, called Gua Tahi Bintang.
The path leading to the cave was rather challenging as we had walk through a long route of thick weeds.
Upon arriving at the cave, I was reluctant to enter, enter at first, after being told by the officer that there are a lot of snakes in it. But somehow, I did and saw millions of bats instead.
"Can you see the thing hanging over there?" asked Muhammad.
"Yes, clearly," I answered.
"That is a snake's skin."
"Oh my God!" I uttered in surprise.
"But do you see any reptile around?"
I looked around me anxiously, hoping that I would not step on any.
Gua Tahi Bintang gets its name from a wall that is adorned with streaky formations that resemble meteor showers.
There are also cave drawings, believed to have been drawn using charcoal some 100 to 200 years ago.
Discovered in December 2012, the 500m-long cave is categorised as a show cave and is located in the Batu Kapur Gua Tekong complex.
Muhammad then proceeded to show us the "flow stone" of the cave that features bubbly paths texture on it.
Gua Tahi Bintang also houses geological formations and fossils.
"The cave contained minerals too," Muhammad said as he gestured for me to touch the speleothem found in the cave.
"Guess why is it rooted? This formations are called helictite... no other cave in this area has these."
Amazed by the sparkling steps as I looked at my feet, Muhammad showed me the source of water in the cave.
"These sedimentary minerals will swirl in the water and form multiple cave marbles."
VILLAGES AND CRAFTS
Besides the delicious Dodol Warisan Gula Kabong produced by entrepreneur Shaidah Abdullah, our group is also introduced to boat builder Abdul Hadi Sulaiman in Kampung Chegar Perah.
Upon arriving at Hadi's house, we are immediately taken to the back where the boats are made.
Unfortunately, he has just sold a long boat and has no other examples left to be shown.
However, he compensates us with a lengthy explanation on the process of the making of long boats.
Next, we head to another cottage industry that crafts tables, vases and plates made from wood.
Carpenter Mohd Faizuri Abdul Kadir says tables are the bestselling products so far.
"The price can reach up to RM6,000. I make these wood-based products upon request. If anyone wants it, I'll make it for them," he says.
From Kampung Chegar Perah, we are transported to an Orang Asli village, located about 15 minutes away.
We are welcomed by a group of girls with garlands on their heads, who present each of us with a plaited bark headband.
Then the headman, Tok Batin Harun Kabu, introduces us to the community.
There are several wooden houses and a gazebo where the elderly are seen having fun making musical instruments.
Harun then goes on to show and explain to us the herbal leaves that village folk use as medicines.
"Each of these has its own benefits. This one is called jaalghang. It is for married couples who are practising family planning," he says.
Later on, we are entertained with an Orang Asli song by the elderly but they have to pause every few minutes due to exhaustion and short of breath.
As I am watching a rare black hornbill that perch on top of the gazebo, my ears pick up a familiar intro of a song through the village's speaker.
The feeling heightens when I turn around and see the girls, who welcomed us earlier, sing Mas Idayu's Cintaku 100% and dancing to the tune.
Just when I think that they have finished singing, they break into another dangdut tune, Senggol Senggolan, Cubit Cubitan.
It is surreal to see one of the shiest Orang Asli communities entertaining their guests this way.
Waving them goodbye, we only have two hours left to freshen up at the homestay and help the villagers prepare dinner.
On our final night in the village, we are entertained with traditional music featuring Gendang Ketawak Bukit Bentong, and some traditional games such as congkak and batu seremban.
We are also presented with two silat perfomances and a karaoke session while dinner is served.
Preoccupied with dinner, among other things, I am brought back to reality when I hear someone calling out for me.
"Dania, sing us a song please!"
I refuse, at first, but after rounds of coaxing, I finally grab the microphone and sing.
Without realising it, the clock strikes 11.10pm when I finish my fourth song.
Time surely flies when we are having fun.
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