Fraser's Hill – The Bus and The Birder Saga
'To go Fraser's Hill, you take that bus', said the helpful Indian bus conductor on Mega Coach as we reached Kuala Kubu Bahru. 'that bus' was actually a nice name for the ancient Mercedes boneshaker parked in the next bay. Delighted that we made it in time for the connection, we hauled our packs aboard and started taking pictures of this prehistoric vehicle. The wooden floorboards, kitsch red leather seats and sliding windows transported me to the era when my grandfather brought me on a smiliar SBS bus to buy a bunch of bananas from Bukit Merah. I distinctly remember how the poor conductor would cling on to the handrails as he made his way to the passengers as the bus jackhammered on.
This boneshaker, however, had a very complicated dashboard and was spotless. It's new coat of paint gave me some confidence that this relic would summit the 1534m 'hill'. In a couple of minutes, an elderly Indian driver collected RM$3.60 for the two of us, punched a couple of buttons on his yellowed ticketing machine, issued us a ticket, and off we went.
Apart from fact that the entire bus was rattling and our polite driver chose to face his friend as they conversed while simultaneously negotiating the numerous turns and hairpin bends on the 2-way road, we had a very enjoyable ride, admiring in the bamboo vegetation, valley scenery and the streams along the way.
A massive dam that converted part of the lower valley into a large reservoir did spoil the scenery and the many giant blue canverse sheets covering sections of steep slopes along the road served as stark reminders of the dangers of landslides. Some slopes had to be covered with cement to prevent further erosion. This was a real eyesore. Fortunately, the majority of the mountain forest was still intact. One and a half hours later, we arrived at Fraser's Hill and bade farewell to the driver as he continued his daily run to Raub. Besides ferrying passengers, he also delivers packages to the construction workers and newspapers to the shops.
Fraser's Hill is reputed to be a birdwatching paradise, with more species of birds (265 species recorded) in its natural sanctuary than the larger Endau Rompin.
We do get a hint of this was indeed a Birder's mecca from the comprehensive bird charts, calendars, books, photographs and even paintings of resident birds by local artists in many of the shops, eateries and hotels here.
Fraser's Hill has the cool highland climate of Cameron but not the maddening crowds and the accompanying problems of development. Initially, we thought that we would die of boredom after 3 days here (especially since I was done with The Half-blood Prince) but all that changed 5 hours later when my dear folks arrived with a very unique retired Monfort school teacher in tow.
Without Sebastian, our experience would probably be summed up as 'a good chill out with some occasional sightings of nice birds '. But after hearing him say stuff like 'that was a Green Babbet (after only hearing its call)' and 'a Magpie Robin will jerk up its tail after landing but the Fantail would not' and 'the female sunbird is green while the male is more colourful' and 'the worst bird to have near your house is a Cowell(probably misspelled)’, we knew that this dude wasn't normal and this little escapade would be much more than your average nature walk. Here was a Birder with some amazing Birder skills to match! Besides the mandatory basic bird knowledge, he could remember and mimick several bird calls, attract some species of birds with his whistles, spell out their characteristics and traits, and spot birds very very very very quickly in the densest foliage. Sebastian kind of redefines and glorifies the term 'bird-brain'.
Sebastian is also 'pro' enough to tell you that those 'monkeys' are actually Black-faced Macaques and ' that is not a cashew nut tree as they usually grow near the sea' and that 'unique spider' is an 'Andrew Cross Spider'. So with such a friendly, chatty and 'bird-brained' personality as our guide, 3 days was not enough to absorb what Sebastian had to deliver. He was a fantastic teacher in the perfect classroom. The only problem were 2 lazy students who never got up in time for the 7am classes!
These Sebastian sessions were prime examples of how commanding knowledge is when it is well-applied and effectively communicated. It also got me thinking about what areas I would like to be a specialist in by the time I retire and how I would put the knowledge and skills to good use.
My favourite encounter on Fraser’s Hill was not with the birds but with 4 Gibbons (see photos) feeding in a tree full of flowers. These FREE, black, furry and long-armed creatures were quite oblivious to our presence and swung gracefully from branch to branch foraging for their early afternoon lunch. It was really wonderful to see them enjoying their ‘makan’ session in the wild where food was in abundance. Behind them, in another tree were two more hyperactive Macaques.
The next encounter that comes close to sharing this top stop was with a bird. One very small but brave male Sunbird (see photo), no bigger than my fist, perched on our balcony railing barely half a meter from us and inspected us for about half a minute, which felt like an eternity for a bird-human close encounter. He then flew back to the bottlebrush tree to rejoin his mates. Sunbirds are rare in Singapore but really common here and are very vivacious little things which are a joy to observe. We could see his radiant colours so clearly and he kept turning around as if to show off his plumage. That was magical…so magical that I forgot to photograph it.
The best walk we had was the anticlockwise loop of Jalan Girdle. Quite a few of the photos that follow this article were taken along this road. This morning walk does break the stereotype that you only see interesting nature stuff in the forest. The highlight of this walk was a car garage which was inhabited with hundreds of swifts. They were agitated by us peering in and started flying around the smelly garage before zooming out into the open through the slots in the gate. They were so fast you couldn’t get a good look at them! Well they are, after all, the fastest birds in the world. We also saw many fine specimens of plants and flowers along this road. They seem to grow bigger and healthier in this cooler climate. Here’s a short list of the stuff we saw: tall bamboo-like grass(bamboo is a type of grass), leaf bird, trumpet flowers, squirrels, chipmunks, swallows, raptors, babbets, magpie robbins, tailor birds, sunbirds, moths, butterflies, tree ferns, cat’s tail plant, wild orchids, really tall banana trees, drongos, longtails, morning glory, flourishing plant disease and tons of flora and fauna which I cannot name.
How we got to know of this walk was also a pleasant surprise. Coming out from our resort, we decided to take the road instead of some precarious steps cut into the side of the slope and we bumped into this man from Namibia. A friendly ‘Hello’ led to a 20 minute conversation ranging from good walks to take at Fraser’s Hill, problems with his passport (which has only 32 pages and a map showing where Namibia is!), inflation and aid in Africa, travelling in Myanmar, Robert Mungabe to the ridiculously long name of the Namibian President. It was really one of those crazy conversations made in the middle of the resort carpark with all of us standing in a small circle, where one thing just led to another. He recommended the Jalan Girdle walk and a splendid one it was!
There were many ‘banglos’ or bungalows scattered all over Fraser’s Hill including a reasonably large one called ‘Singapore House’. We knew that it was definitely Singapore-owned not because signs seldom lie but distastefully screwed onto the main door of this house was a sign which said ‘PLEASE DO NOT BRING DURIANS INTO THE BUNGALOW’. In typical nanny-state style, our Singapore House was well looked after by a caretaker, a gardener, one friendly brown dog(who kind of showed us around) and his simply bo-chap mate. The caretaker says that we could book the bungalow via the Aloha website which I believe bookings can be made only by civil slaves…er ooops…servants, which makes me REALLY regret leaving the service. Just kidding, of all the jobs I’ve never held in the world, teaching is the best!
Many good hours were spent just listening to my parents and Sebastian (who are from the same era, give and take 5-7 years) expounding on their childhood adventures. One particular gory one was about how Sebastian caught sparrows using chicken cages, de-feathered, fried and ate them. Well, this was probably in the 60s where Kentucky Fried Sparrow was non-existent. Mum shared my grandma’s secret recipe of raw squid preserved with salt, garlic, ginger and chilli. This magic formula is kept for 3 weeks in a jar and then the squid is just eaten like that. Great with porridge she says…Dad told a really funny story of how his false teeth were made by dentistry students while he was studying in Newcastle. He was their guinea pig for 3 years and had to endure their little ‘repairs’ while the professor graded them. Well, the amazing thing is that his dentures lasted till today! Times are a-changing but I like it when Sebastian said that during his time, his toys were all free since they came from his surroundings. My dad backpacked with one small pack. Today, I hop around with a 90 litre Macpac, one laptop bag, one camera bag and a travel guitar (which Karen carries). I am still trying to shed some weight off my load. Hopefully, with all this equipment I can convey clearer stories to my children (and perhaps students) in the future.
On the last evening, the mist decended upon Fraser’s Hill and it was lovely watching the landscape fading and re-appearing as the wind blew the mist along. We celebrated the closure of the trip with a little-better-than-so-so steamboat dinner at a hotel restaurant but as usual, good company and conversation made up for the rest.Verdict
: Fraser’s Hill is very MUCH better than Cameron ESPECIALLY you are in the presence of a Birder! Good food is hard to find especially if you have the Cheng family’s standard for meals. The best grub is the nasi padang stall on the left of The Tavern but it’s only good for lunch where the selection is freshly cooked.