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Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Problem with Leeches, Malaysia

Written by Charlotte Halligan
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Charlotte Halligan gets to grips with the blood-sucking fiends in the world's oldest rainforest.


I have learned something new: leeches move like ‘Slinkys.’ And when they sense you approaching they stand to attention and wave backwards and forwards like a finger beckoning you toward them.


They don't look like the large slimy slugs that TV has led me to believe. Instead they are nimble and lithe; they are contortionists that can climb, wriggle, and burrow, finding any and all means possible to break through the barrier of your clothes to the feast beneath.


If you're lucky, the first realization of a leech attack is when you look down and see a circular blood stain spreading outwards on your clothes, meaning the leech has come and gone. If you are less fortunate, you will actually find one of the little bloodsuckers latched on, its black body pulsating with your heartbeat as it gorges itself on your vital fluid. When this happens you are faced with three options:


1. You can pull the sucker off. This is not advised, as they have a vice like grip and tend to leave teeth behind to get infected.

2. You can be compassionate, let the little guy have his fill and drop off naturally, and then squish him as he crawls away.

3. You can burn it off, although this carries the inevitable risk of singed leg hairs.


I learned all these fascinating facts during a 14 kilometer, 2 day hike through the world’s oldest rainforest in Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.


The best laid plans...

The Problem with Leeches, Malaysia, Taman Negara National Park, Bukit Teresek, Yong trail, Yong hide, leeches, travel Malaysia, native tribes’ people, Orang Asli, Charlotte HalliganIt seemed like a good idea at the time. We were going to start the day with a relatively easy hike to the top of Bukit Teresek, enjoy the view and have some lunch before trekking across the river on the Yong trail. Once we were there we would set up camp in a hide and stay awake, silently watching for the jungle's inhabitant deer, monkeys and tigers.



There were one or two things that we failed to take into account before setting off.


The previous night we witnessed a tremendous storm. The lightening struck every few seconds and seemed like a light show that was held just for us. The thunder was so loud that it ricocheted inside my head, and the rain came down in an unrelenting blanket of water. We were so relieved when the rain stopped in the morning, that we forgot the detrimental effect that such a downpour might have on the jungle trails.


Despite the rain, the heat under the jungle canopy was oppressively hot: over 30 degrees Celsius with 90% humidity. 14km over two days might not sound like much, but over difficult, steep, and muddy terrain with every pore of your body sweating profusely, the task seemed Herculean.


The added difficulty of an overnight trek is the need to carry provisions. Six liters of drinking water, two sleeping bags, enough food for two people and a gas stove to cook on. As we started the journey, the bag felt light compared to our usual backpack loads. But as the trek continued, the light feathery feeling turned to lead weights, dragging us down making each step feel more and more impossible.[Okay, okay, I confess: I did not bear any of the burden - my boyfriend played the valiant man role well and carried the lot.)

pit viper, The Problem with Leeches, Malaysia, Taman Negara National Park, Bukit Teresek, Yong trail, Yong hide, leeches, travel Malaysia, native tribes’ people, Orang Asli, Charlotte Halligan

Pit Viper

The relative meanings of the term 'basic'


When we finally arrived at the Yong hide, after what had felt like an eternity, we were exhausted, smelly, hungry and very grumpy. The state of our night's accommodation did nothing to alleviate our mood.


We had expected it to be basic. We were prepared for basic. Basic would have been a luxury compared to what we found.


It wasn't simply the very large, very dead, spider I found on my 'bed': it wasn't just a toilet bowl filled with human excrement and no running water to wash it away: nor was it the fact that we had to string our food up from the roof to ensure that it wasn't eaten by the rats and cockroaches. Any one of these things alone might (and I stress *might*) have been tolerable. But combined they made for a rather sleepless and uncomfortable night.


It only occurred to me once we had arrived that seeing a wild tiger stalking around your campsite in the middle of the jungle might not be as wonderful an experience as I had anticipated. In this we were at least lucky, but a little disappointed - we saw nothing except some fireflies and monstrous mosquitoes.



A trip to remember


The Problem with Leeches, Malaysia, Taman Negara National Park, Bukit Teresek, Yong trail, Yong hide, leeches, travel Malaysia, native tribes’ people, Orang Asli, Charlotte HalliganDespite these horrors, our experience was incredible. Taman Negara is an amazing place: stepping into the jungle is like stepping into a prehistoric world. The diversity of flora and fauna is almost unimaginable and the views are breathtakingly beautiful.


The sense of mystique was enhanced by a chance encounter with some of the native tribes’ people that still live in the jungle interior, the Orang Asli. It was a surreal experience, sitting in our camp, trying to cook some baked beans in the can, when all of a sudden we heard the rustling of branches. Thinking there were monkeys on the way to steal our food, you can imagine our surprise when several naked children came running through the undergrowth, followed by men and women, semi clad in tribal cloth, carrying spears and fishing rods. Amazingly, they seemed as shocked to see us as we were to see them, and we spent several minutes being gawked at, with the children pointing and laughing (and clearly being chastised by the adults).


The night passed fitfully, with little sleep being achieved but somehow we survived, and the following day's shower can be counted as one of the most magnificent experiences I have ever had.

©Charlotte Halligan

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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