Vern: Somewhere in the middle of Malaysia the English found that the rising land flattened out into a plateau surrounded by gentle slopes ideal for growing tea. So they cleared the jungle, planted seeds and constructed Tudor mansions with large porches on which to sit and admire their crops while sipping on the fruits of their (forced) labour. Thus, rather unexpectedly, we found a little bit of Surrey in the jungle of the Cameron Highlands.
We were both secretly hoping (though neither admitted this until days later) that visiting a tea region in the jungle in Malaysia, would be just a little bit like visiting the coffee region in Columbia and the little town of Salento there which had left us spellbound. But this wasn't the case, the town of Tanah Rata was concrete, functional and without charm, and the surrounding jungle was dense and pretty but no more.
The local Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation was about an hour's walk out of town along a surprisingly busy road with a thin-or-missing shoulder and a lot of blind corners. My spider-sense was working overtime as logging trucks hurled round the bends. Walking unscathed into the farm gates was a relief and a cuppa was certainly in order.
First though we wandered the muddy slope through the tea terraces and down to the river which feeds them. Tea plants are dense hedges groomed into large neat rectangles with a small gap between each bush and aisles in between each crop row. Imagine a hillside, covered in 12 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic, but the vehicles are enormous Twinkies* left out so long that they're now green and covered in little leaves. And if you can do that, you don't need to go to central Malaysia.
(*In South Africa, Twinkies are called Tinkies. Who knows why the 'w' got lost in translation. Perhaps it's because of the way that the t's run together in the pronunciation of the pay-off line, "You'll never forget your first Twinkie!".)
The tea leaves are picked first by machine - two workers drag a large cheese-grater-esque machine over the tops of the bushes which spits the leaves into a bag - and then manually - a third worker follows picking from stalks missed by the machine and throwing handfuls into a palm-leaf tub strapped to his back.
Back at the top of the hill on a shady balcony overlooking the farm, we ordered a pot to sample the wares of the boutique tea house. Unbelievably the tea was premixed with milk and served sinfully sweet. Condensed milk, I think. A tea connoisseur would have spluttered and purged. I, however, was taken back to the little cups of sweet milky tea which my grandparents, Jimmy and Toni, served Lloyd and me so that we could partake in tea time, which occurred roughly hourly, in their Durban flat.
The highlands jungle is riddled with paths but many were closed in the 70s, and remain so, when the goverment found that communist militants were hiding out there. The guidebooks and tourist information agents both warn of travellers who have gotten horribly lost and haven't made it out, and yet neither are forthcoming with a decent map! A
little lecture on cause and effect at the local community centre wouldn't hurt.
Following vague instructions, we forged a track through the garden of an apartment complex, then out the back, up a muddy incline, and finally found a sloppy trail beneath the forest canopy. This path was said to be one of the few without leeches. While we walked this lonely walk, we discussed among other things the novel we'd both recently read, 'Life of Pi' - a shipwreck survival story. In a fictitious Survival Manual in the book, one is advised even in the absence of fresh water not to drink one's own urine, which contrasts with the advice of TV survival guru, Bear Grylls, who drinks his own urine almost every episode.
The jungle was thick and damp but the walk was more a mental battle than a physical one as the path would split and split again and only sporadically was there a worn sign or some other indication that we were still on an official track. Every intersection we tried to memorise so as to be able to retrace our steps and make it safely home on the way back. Finding some long vines which swept across the the path, over the ridge and dropped dramatically down into the valley below, we stopped for a photo. Andrea took a photographers pose, while I grabbed onto two vines, and lent over the edge, pressing my face between them in a "Where's Johnny?!" type pose. But as the camera clicked, so did a noise above me and the vines failing under my weight stretched tight but didn't break. I lurched forward but recovered my footing and then caught my balance. Close call. I looked up and Andrea was pale. After she calmed down she told me how in that instant of panic, she'd envisioned racing urgently back to town to get help, trying not to get lost on this rogue trail and stopping only occasionally to drink her own pee.
But we made it back safe and sound, albeit a bit muddy, and rewarded ourselves with some warming curry and a banana and honey naan bread for dessert. In the evening we did little but purchase some snacks for the following day's bus journey while the entire town was fixated on the Malaysia vs Indonesia soccer game on TV.