I couldn’t believe how winded I was. We hadn’t even been hiking for 15 minutes, and I was already suffering. My legs felt heavy, and I was huffing and puffing. The extra fat I had put on around my waist during the pandemic movement control period – unprecedentedly in my whole life – felt unnatural. Despite initial intentions to keep active in lockdown, it was just too easy to let things go, and just wear leggings and sweatpants. Now, it was getting in the way, changing the ways I could move, and I began to truly understand how inconvenient it was to be overweight.
My companions were doing no better, not even Liza’s teacher colleague who is a Physical Education teacher. But we were in the Taman Negara rainforest, a long awaited holiday after the Covid19 pandemic was ‘over’, grateful to have made it and to be outdoors, and to be together at our friend Anim’s eco resort, so the mood was still merry. Our nature guide adjusted the pace up Terisek hill to accommodate our ponderous progress, and he filled the catch-your-breath breaks with tales.
In between pointing out strange bamboos and water-filled hanging roots, he shared that he was recovering his own fitness too. Not because he was unable to stay active – in these remote areas, people had more space than the city folk to continue moving around. But because his lungs were damaged by Covid19.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, when the variants were still deadly, he had in-laws who caught Covid19 but didn’t tell anyone. So his wife caught it as well, and all of them had to be isolated. He was left to care for his kids alone. Unfortunately, it turned out that his kids had it as well, and then so did he. It was pretty bad, he said. The worst experience he ever had. But he pulled through. He lost his sense of taste, but fortunately he was among those who recovered the sense in time. He told us, his stamina was not the same after the sickness. He hopes he will eventually recover that too.
We stopped again to catch our breath, though it wasn’t even half an hour yet. The direction stone informed us that Bukit Terisek’s peak was just 500m away, which meant we had only hiked 250m. I looked at the marker with deep scepticism. 500m, my ass. Maybe as the crow flies, but surely the actual uphill walk was longer.
But the stop was also a viewpoint, and as we rested we got to look out across the dense green forest to the Tahan range. In the lull, our guide told us a little bit more about how Covid19 affected them in these remote parts of Pahang.
Retreating into the rainforest
When the lockdown order was issued in 2020, citizens nationwide chose our lockdown locations. I had chosen to stay put, alone in my Kuala Lumpur condo, relying on the supply reliability to the relatively affluent neighbourhood, and thinking to lower exposure for my elderly parents. They, in turn, chose to lock down with my brother, whose wife was pregnant.
On the other hand, my friend Anim chose to retreat to her eco resort, where they could supply themselves from the river and the forest in case the worst should happen to the food supply chains. After all, at the time no one knew how long the pandemic would last.
Likewise, the aboriginal Bateq people, who still live nomadically in the rainforest, responded by immediately abandoning their villages that were nearer civilisation and retreated deep into the jungle. “Especially after a whole Bateq village died of Covid19 in another part of their range,” said our guide. They heard the news and took the decision at once, he said.
“But,” we asked, “the village that perished was some distance away. How did they know?” Well, the Bateq people may be nomadic and live in small kin groups, but they are always connecting with each other via secret trails in the rainforest. “We’d never find them,” he said, with a tinge of professional awe in his voice. “They could be 10 metres next to you in the jungle, and you’ll never know.” He told us army legends of guerilla warfare during World War 2 and the Malayan Emergency, when the Bateq were a terror in the jungle. You’d only know they’re there when the poison dart was already in your neck.
But despite their extremely low-tech life, they agreed to be vaccinated. Malaysia’s first shipments of vaccines were Chinese, since the western vaccines were all going to stockpiles in Europe and the USA at the time. As the nationwide vaccination program got underway, the Health Ministry and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs sent people to contact their headmen, the ones in the tribe with the most knowledge of languages, medicine, and outsider affairs. So the Bateq came out of the jungle to be vaccinated.
It turned out, my scepticism was premature. It was only another (painful) half hour before we reached the “peak” of Terisek hill.
There were no constructed steps along this upper part of the trail, and yet I felt that made it seem an easier trek. Utterly winded by this time, we stopped to take the obligatory photos before descending towards Taman Negara’s famous rainforest canopy walkway.
But along the way, we paused again. The guide called us before a tree whose bark showed signs of having been chipped. Rempah gunung, he called it. This literally translates to “mountain spice”, but it was not really a spice. He shared more aboriginal woodlore, handing around the leaves for us to sniff. They smelled lemony, and sure enough, they can be used as mosquito repellant. Citronella, I thought.
But it was the bark that was really interesting. If you steeped it in hot water, it was like having a soda. I was intrigued. “Since this is inside the National Park, we can’t take any,” he told us. “But the Bateq can, they have exemptions. So if you want to buy some rempah gunung, you can get it during the village visit later.” He was referring to our afternoon tour to a Bateq village.
Tales from the Bateq village
I’d done the Bateq village tour before, so much of it was not new to me. But it was the first time for my companions. So I left them to wander the village and test their blowpipe skills, while I joined another group learning to make fire the Bateq way. They make it look so easy. It involves a bit of dry wood fibre for tinder, placed in a hole in a piece of soft wood. A dry length of rattan is passed under it, held tight and straight, and all you need to do is rub the vine against the wood.
So I tried. Posture good, rattan is tight. Excellent form. But it proved a lot harder than it looked to keep the rattan vertical on both sides, while scraping it against the wood, and going fast enough to generate heat. Finally, arms aching with nothing to show for it, I accepted that I would not be able to survive a Bateq life and am condemned to the urban jungle instead.
While other tourists had a go, with similarly unimpressive results, the tour guide interspersed his explanation with anecdotes of Bateq life. It is, as you might expect, significantly different from the mainstream. For starters, you’re expected to grow up a lot faster. Boys learn to make their own blowpipe and how to hunt from around 4 years old. At 10, they would already be expected to begin hunting.
Hunting is, as you might expect, a critical skill for Bateq men. All kills are brought to the tok batin – the headman – for inspection. If it passes muster, the hunter earns one band around his blowpipe. So you could tell who is a master hunter, from looking at his blowpipe. This wasn’t just for idle show either, for girls would gauge a suitor’s hunting proficiency from his blowpipe when deciding whether to marry him.
Girls are expected to grow up early too. By puberty, they ought to have learned to make shelter. In years past, said the guide, Bateq girls used to marry at around 13, and boys married around age 20. Nowadays, girls marry at around 15 to 18 years old – basically immediately after (and actually potentially slightly under) Malaysia’s legal age of 16. Older than 18, a Bateq girl is considered to be ‘on the shelf’.
I wondered how long it took for the Bateq to socially catch up with the legal age, which had been the law for some time. The Family Ministry is currently working to increase the legal marriage age further, and while the initiative felt overdue outside of the forest, here in the forest where there was really no schooling “teenage” phase between childhood and adulthood, no technology to keep abreast of and no careers to train for, I wondered if the change would make any sense to the Bateq. After all, the Bateq only marry each other, never outsiders.
This prompted me to ask about inbreeding, as there are supposedly only about 2000 of them in total. But apparently they seem fine, living long lives if not killed prematurely in wildlife encounters – or accidentally poisoning themselves with their own dart poison. Indeed, the villagers did seem perfectly healthy and chill.
I nearly forgot to ask the village elder if he happened to have any rempah gunung in stock. Fortunately, Liza remembered. Before leaving, we browsed the rustic shelf of the village’s little souvenir shack. Rainforest jewellery and combs, made of shiny seeds and bark and bamboo. Souvenir blowpipes and quivers of darts. Medicinal roots and herbs.
The elder who minded the store showed me the rempah gunung bark, sold in small portions in plastic packets. I decided to buy one. He advised me to steep it in boiling water for best results.
The liminal tales
Back at the resort, the tour guide told us one last Bateq story. There was, after all, one occasion for which they needed government help. The elephants were due to give birth again, a two-year cycle. The herds had come all around the river, and into the villages a couple of months ago.
But the elephant matriarchs were a bit loopy, and so the herds were as well. They ravaged the crops, forcing the Bateq to move several times. So the tok batin came to the resort to charge his phone, to call the Wildlife Department rangers to shoo the elephants back into the jungle with fireworks, and to request ranger patrols.
However, a particularly aggressive male elephant wouldn’t be shooed. So the rangers separated him from his herd, bringing in two tame elephants from the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary to persuade him to board the transport. They were successful, and released him further south in Endau Rompin National Park.