Getting high in Tanah Rata

The bus up to the Cameron Highlands is as gorgeous as it is exciting. Winding up the mountains, the road teeters perilously on the edge of cliffs, or meanders meekly through the jungle. The views are remarkable, which is just as well, as the bus shunts from side to side as it corners each bend, rendering a book about as enjoyable as a migraine (which is what you’ll get if you try to read).

Passing through Brinchang, the mountainside by the road begins to be covered with sheltered greenhouses, or planted with row upon row of bright green tea bushes.

Cameron Highlands landscape
View from the ridge

Tanah Rata itself sits at around 1,400 metres above sea level, so the first thing you notice when stepping off the bus is the heavenly coolness of the place. At last, a use for that massive hoody you’ve been lugging around.

The air is sweetly clear, the temperature is cool; it’s really quite lovely to be able to go for a walk and not be dripping with sweat within eight seconds of going outside.

Indeed, the area’s eponymous discoverer – William Cameron – was a British cartographer working in Malaysia in the 19th century, whose discovery was developed years later by Brits hoping to escape the heat of the lowlands. Now, the three towns that make up the Cameron Highlands are home to farms taking advantage of the cooler climes.

Literally, strawberries…

That’s why every tour of the area seems to include a trip to a strawberry farm. There’s not much to see at a strawberry farm, by the way – except strawberries, of course. So if that’s your bag, fill yer boots.

Trekking in the Malaysian highlands
A roots manoeuvre

The best thing about the area is undoubtedly its wealth of trekking routes, most of which can be tackled without a guide. They range from bricked paths that follow rivers or circumnavigate a pristine golf course, to mountain jungle scrambles over fallen trees, using roots and vines to climb.

There’s a lot of interesting fauna and flora in the forest. We found a peculiar pale-green armoured bug on a leaf at one point – it looked liked a dry-brushed Warhammer miniature; and a keen eye (Swarana’s) can spot clusters of tropical pitcher plants.

Green bug in Cameron Highlands
Chilling on a leaf

My eight-year-old niece was doing a project on rainforests at her school at the time, so I recorded a short video of her Uncle going all David Attenborough in the jungle, for her teacher to surprise her with.

Swarana, Fabio and I climbed to 1850 metres above sea level for gorgeous views over the canopy, though it was tough going. And we were a little worried we wouldn’t make it back to town before dark (start your treks early!). Nevertheless, it was one of the best days we’ve had out here.

Trekking in the Cameron Highlands
Sticks are not just for show

We also took a tour up to the tea plantations, which are not as interesting as they are beautiful. Rolling hills as far as you can see are patterned with the shadowed walkways between rows of tea bushes, each hill a slightly different shade as they mature between cyclical harvesting. Meanwhile, low clouds wisp over the tops, giving the place an air of mystical fantasy.

The plantation has a museum (under renovations) and, of course, a café, in which we tasted the wares of the hillside – and a firecracker sausage roll – amid panoramic views of the fields. Very civilised.

BOH tea plantation
Wispy
Mossy forest
Moss, def

The tour also takes you to the highest peak accessible by car, upon which there’s an antenna of some sort, and a short trek over what’s been coined “the mossy forest”. Above a certain altitude (here around 2,000 metres above sea level) the forest becomes completely covered in moss, creating a sponge-like texture over the ground, the trees, everything. Very beautiful.

Views beyond a few metres are rare at the top however, as the clouds bustle over the mountains at this height like the smoke effects in a bad Chinese ghost movie.

There’s an excellent butterfly farm here as well, with a considerable annex of reptiles, insects and the odd mammal (an ugly turkey and some rabbits, for some reason). The snakes were particularly striking, as were the stick insects and “the leaf” – an absolutely fascinating product of evolution.

Leaf creature
IT’S ALIVE

But no trip to the Cameron Highlands would be complete without a trip to the Time Tunnel, a museum-cum-memorabilia-collection that our driver promised would educate us, but instead left us rather more perplexed upon exit.

It’s a mixture of cultural and local info titbits, mixed with a collection of 1940s advertising, and a sprinkle of twee musings on the absurdities of the English language. The psyche of the curator is more revealed here than any gleaned understanding of the area, and that’s what makes the Time Tunnel all the more fascinating. A more apt name would be the Mind Funnel.

There’s also a Buddhist temple you can visit, sat on a hill and blah blah blah… it seems temple-fatigue syndrome had started to set in at this point.

The food in the town is excellent, with the usual huge range found in Malaysia, from Indian tandoori, to Italian cuisine, via French cafés and Chinese restaurants. Our first night, we opted for a steamboat with Fabio – he’s Swiss, you see, and it’s the closest thing to a fondue you can get here.

Steamboat in Tanah Rata
Dubious unknowns to cook

What a feast! You’re brought two semi-circular bowls of soup (tom yam was one) that simmer over a gas hob on your table and into which you drop all manner of fish, vegetables and assorted unknowns. And only 20 ringgit a head! (That’s around £4!) Absolutely stuffed ourselves.

We spent a little longer in the Highlands than we had expected, because Swarana had a brief recurrence of conjunctivitis, which she had first endured last year, leaving her unable to go outside without leaking profusely from the eyeballs. Thankfully, accommodation was cheap, and the temperature made for a pleasant place to recuperate. (Not to mention get some writing done.)

But we were soon back on the road and heading down, down, down, into the heat and humidity; towards the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur.

Under the microscope

We’ve been enjoying the “microscope” function on our camera (an Olympus TG-3). Here’s some crackers we took in the rainforest.

Refraction
Dew drop
Mossing around
Dew-tipped
Cricket on the petals
Out of the flower
Taken in Tanah Rata
Star flower
Butterfly farm
Butterfly
Red bell
The bells
Spookey spider webbing
Wet web

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