THE somewhat quiet and soft-spoken Pak Teh Lan, as he is affectionately known in sleepy Merapoh, wastes no time in introducing me to his licensed nature guide, Juki, who will accompany me on a two-day Taman Negara Sungai Relau trip I’ve arranged with his company, R.A. Adventure.
Well into his 50s, Pak Teh Lan, whose real name is Roslan Abdullah, is no stranger in this business. He is one of the pioneering travel operators since Taman Negara Sungai Relau opened in 1993.
Back then, he began his business by guiding hikers in their quest to conquer Gunung Tahan — the toughest and highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia — before branching out into other eco-tourism activities, such as kelah fish sanctuary tours and caving adventures.
After the brief meeting at a small roadside shophouse, we climb into a pick-up truck that will take us to the park’s headquarters about 7km away.
Located 100km north of Kuala Lipis, straddling the Kuala Lipis-Gua Musang road, Taman Negara Sungai Relau is accessible from Merapoh in Pahang, and Gua Musang in Kelantan, which is about 20km away.
Taman Negara Sungai Relau has largely played second fiddle to its older sister, Taman Negara Kuala Tahan.
The second gateway to Taman Negara in Pahang, Sungai Relau is best known as the alternative route to climb Gunung Tahan.
Unbeknownst to many, Taman Negara Sungai Relau is more than just a mere trailhead to the mountain.
Its untouched beauty of rivers, waterfalls, rainforests and limestone caves offer an unforgettable unique experience that is nowhere less than its famous sister park.
Managed by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan), all visitors are required to register and obtain an entrance permit at the park’s headquarters.
Although the permit fee for my visit has been included in the tour package, Juki informs me that I have to obtain a camera licence at the visitor’s counter.
The park headquarters is also where visitors leave their cars and wait to be transferred to waiting off-road vehicles owned by tour operators.
Due to safety and environmental concerns, private vehicles are not allowed to enter the national park.
OFF THE GRID
After a 15-minute drive, we arrive at the trailhead of Kelam Waterfall, our first stopover of the day trip to Sungai Relau.
The hike to the waterfall is a perfect introduction to the national park since visitors are immediately immersed in a pristine rainforest environment.
At 1.4km long, the trail takes about an hour to complete at a moderate pace.
Juki says that since our group is small, the trail can be completed in a short time compared to larger groups.
My reward at the end is the sight of a majestic column of water cascading into a deep emerald pool.
However, the highlight of the day trip to Taman Negara Sungai Relau is definitely the Kuala Juram Kelah Sanctuary.
Located 14km away from the park centre, the only way to reach the sanctuary is by off-road vehicles.
Here the crystal-clear waters of the sanctuary serve as a protected habitat for thousands of rare and endangered kelah fish.
I meet up with Pak Teh Lan again at Kuala Juram when he shows up with a small family of tourists.
Along with Juki, Pak Teh Lan proceeds to demonstrate his special skill — something that I’ve never seen anywhere else before.
Surprisingly, he and his guides have developed a method to call the kelah fish over and even hold them with their bare hands.
Also known as Malaysian Mahseer, the kelah fish needs cool, fast-flowing and clean water upstream the river as its natural habitat, making Kuala Juram a perfect choice as a sanctuary.
On our return drive back to the park headquarters, Juki stops near Seraya Hill View Tower.
Located on top of a small hill, the Seraya Hill View Tower offers a panoramic view of the mist-capped mountains and deep valleys of Sungai Relau National Park.
Taking centre stage and far out in the horizon is Gunung Tahan.
A bit tired after the day’s hiking, I am sceptical if the climb up the view tower will be worth it. To my surprise, it is indeed worth the effort and makes for a memorable end to a day spent at Sungai Relau.
INTO THE DARK
As part of its two-day explorer package, R.A. Adventure takes guests to explore limestone caves on the second day of their visit.
Interestingly, the area of Merapoh outside the boundaries of Sungai Relau National Park has gained somewhat of a “caving paradise” status, thanks to the many jungle-covered limestone hills containing wondrous and mysterious caverns.
Meeting Juki again the next morning, we proceed to Gua Tahi Bintang, the first of the three caves in our itinerary.
Translated as “Shooting Star Cave” in English, the cave is somewhat hidden near a rubber plantation.
Juki informs us that the location is categorised as a “show cave”, meaning visitors can take in the sights of unique limestone formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites and so forth.
The second cave proves to be quite thrilling since it is a flooded cavern named Gua Air Mata Dayang.
Here visitors are able to float and paddle about on a “pool” inside the cave on inflated inner tubes while wearing life vests, safety helmets and headlamps.
The third and final cave is Gua Seribu Cerita, meaning a cave with a thousand stories, categorised as an archeological cave.
The name is derived from the many mysterious paintings found on its walls, which are thought to be drawn by indigenous people some 100 to 200 years ago.
The true meaning or stories behind the cave paintings have yet to be discerned, leaving me to my own imagination while viewing them.
BACK IN THE WILD
Sipping a cup of hot coffee at a village coffeeshop after returning from my caving tour, I bump into Jaya Indara, the owner of the guesthouse that I’m staying in.
Jaya also happens to be a certified nature guide, involved in discovering and exploring many limestone caves in Merapoh.
He tells me that there are still many more waiting to be discovered, as well as describing the rare and exotic plants growing near the limestone hills.
Taking out his phone, he shows me the image of a small flower that looks somewhat like a starfish.
Named Rhizantes lowii, the flower is a rare parasite that can produce and regulate its own heat.
Like its cousin the Rafflesia, the Rhizantes lives on the roots of the tetrastigma vine.
In full bloom, it expands 25cm to 45cm in diameter, slightly half the size of its cousin, which may span over 100cm.
Intrigued, I answer yes when Jaya offers to take me on an impromptu hike to view the flower near an unnamed cave.
Ironically, the trail to the rare flower starts near an oil palm plantation before weaving along the banks of a small stream.
After an hour or so of bushwhacking a path through the jungle, we finally find one specimen.
Unfortunately it looks considerably wilted, having bloomed some time ago.
Not wanting to leave disappointed, we continue searching the riverbanks and discover a peculiar onion-looking plant, which is actually the bud of the Rhizantes waiting to mature and bloom.
Although I am not able to view the Rhizantes in full bloom, the opportunity to see it in its two other life cycles makes up for all the effort coming here.
Despite the current restrictions on overnight stays within national parks and forests during the Recovery Movement Control Order period, I can definitely say that visitors are still able to experience a full day of exploring Taman Negara Sungai Relau, followed by a second day of thrilling caving adventures here in Merapoh.
And if they have time to spare, they may even spot a rare flower or two.