By Eduardo Hazera
Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. I went to the jungle to escape a brief Tinder addiction.
My plan was to packraft down the Tembeling River, which runs through West Malaysia's largest national park. If you look at a map of West Malaysia, there's a green blob in the middle of it. That's the national park. The brown line that runs down the middle of the green blob is called the Tembeling River. I spent a week on that river, trying to wash away my right swipes and hoping to find a few moments of solitude. But the only thing that really happened is that I had to deal with myself: an angsty adolescent stuck in the body of a loser in his late 20s. I also saw an elephant.
The trip began on the side of the road. It was hot. And there I was, walking down the road with a drybag strapped to my back. I stuck out my thumb whenever a car passed. But most of the Malaysians didn't stop. They just rolled slowly by, staring at the strange white specimen sweating in the sun. Eventually, a few loggers picked me up in their sixteen-wheeler. Then I caught a ride from a toothless jungle mechanic whose dream was to start the Malaysian version of Metallica. Half a day of hitchhiking on muddy logging roads and I reached my destination: a small jungle village called Mat Daling that sits on the banks of the Tembeling River.
From there I walked. As I slogged up the Tembeling, through a maze of sandbars and channels, my sphincter gradually began to loosen. Hitchhiking on logging roads was a rush – you didn't know which psycho was gonna pick you up next! — but it also caused some sphincter-clenching stress. I didn't like it when the Malaysians stared at me like a zoo beast. Nor did I like it when a herd of Bangladeshi halfwits asked me how much money I had in my pockets. But out there on the river, trudging through quicksand, I had a few moments of real solitude. Just me and a handful of domesticated buffalo. Sphincter bliss.
The next morning I woke up on a narrow beach. I did my chores in the nude and then I packed my bags and started walking. The sun baked my brain and the thin straps of my drybag dug into my hips and pulled my shoulders down. I couldn't think about anything other than yanking one foot out of the mud, moving it forward a foot or two, and then driving it back down into the riverbed.
Occasionally, something would catch my attention and pull me out of the heat-induced mind melt. At one point, I saw some elephant tracks. A whole swath of elephant tracks! My mind lit up and I started talking to myself. I forgot about how hot I was. But then the sun burnt the happy out of me and before I knew it I was once again slogging dumbly along.
After three days of marching upstream, the river became choked with boulders. Part of me wanted to keep walking. But if I did that, it meant that I would be portaging every shallow mess on my way back down. Portaging sucks. So, I stopped walking and set up camp.
The next morning I started packrafting. As soon as I got on the water I was laughing. Having just spent three days trudging through the mud, the ease of floating downstream in a big balloon seemed totally ridiculous. I felt like I was riding a sofa through the wilderness.
Right out of camp I hit the first rapid. I swung around a sharp curve, dodged a boulder, and slipped down a little slide into a wave train. Then I portaged around a rapid that looked like death. For the next hour or so, I was laughing my way down some fun Class IIs.
When the whitewater turned brown again, I settled in for a long float. I sat motionless in my packraft, hardly making a sound. None of the jungle beasts could hear me coming. It wasn't until I was right on top of them that they would suddenly realize I was there and charge headlong into the underbrush. But the vegetation was so thick that I couldn't even see them.
I did see a few animals, though, like an over-sized ferret swimming across the river, a family of otters playing in the mud, and the head of a humongous python poking out of the water.
All this wildlife got me pretty excited and I decided to continue floating into the night, hoping that I might see some creature from Narnia.
The sun went down and the water reflected its orange light. When it became dark, it was magical. The jungle slowly crescendoed into an all-embracing drone. Then hell suddenly broke loose on shore. Another beast had become aware of my presence. I clicked on my headlamp and saw green. Lots of green vegetation shaking about. I could hear the beast tearing through the underbrush, getting farther and farther away. I didn't know what it was. But it sounded huge.
I turned off my headlamp and continued floating into the night. An hour or so later pandemonium broke out in the bushes again. It was like a firecracker of snapping branches. I clicked on my headlamp and a flood of dopamine cooked my brain. There it was. A big beautiful elephant ass disappearing into the bushes. Sphincter bliss.
Over the next few days, I slowly descended into civilization. At one point, I pulled into a little village called Kampung Pagi. I wanted to get a square meal. But all the food stalls were closed because it was Sunday. I was pissed. As a consolation prize, I bought some cookies and a jar of peanut butter swirled with chocolate goo. I got back on the water and floated downstream, stuffing my face with stale cookies and crappy peanut butter. I decided civilization sucked and then I nodded off into a sugar coma.
I awoke to the sound of whitewater and saw a seamless horizon line stretching across the river. I scouted the rapid from shore and a few locals told me where the line was – apparently they took their motorboats down that stretch of river all the time. It was a fun ride, and for the next few hours, I was hitting one rapid after another – undoubtedly the best section of the river.
On the last day of the trip I woke up on a muddy island shrouded in fog. Massive oil palm plantations lined the banks on either side. I grudgingly pumped a liter of water, afraid of the industrial fertilizers that might have leeched into the river. I didn't eat any breakfast because I thought I'd be out in no time; the fishermen I'd spoken to the day before had told me that the bridge where I was planning on taking out was only an hour away. But five hours after I started paddling – dehydrated, starving, and cursing the fishermen – I finally reached the bridge. I walked to the road and hitched a ride with the first truck that passed.
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