Malaysia: Paradise in the jungle

By Tim Roxborogh

Don't forget the bananas, and it's not just to feed the monkeys, warns Tim Roxborogh.
Monkey Bay, Tioman Island.
Monkey Bay, Tioman Island.

No bananas! I couldn't believe there had been no bananas in our entire village and in the middle of a sweat-drenched 10km jungle trek, I was starting to cramp up. My fellow jungle-swashbucklers, two Belgian girls of sunny disposition I'd met on the beach the night before, decided my back and leg spasms were very funny. I'm sure they were right.

Before you ask, yes, bananas can cure as well as prevent dehydration-related cramp. And yes, cramp of the violent, convulsing kind I occasionally get is evidently hilarious to everyone who has had the pleasure of witnessing it.

Banana-less, we were traipsing the mountainous interior of Tioman Island, an island of such wild, tropical magnificence that Time magazine once announced it as among the 10 most beautiful in the world. Sure, that title was bestowed back in the 70s and Tioman has dined out on it ever since, but wouldn't you?

Forty years on, it's almost as if the Malaysian government doesn't quite know what to do with laidback, backpacker-friendly Tioman. Some time ago it smartly encouraged tourists by making the island duty-free, but then for no obvious reason, wasted a ton of money on a soulless marina at Tekek, the island's main town but a place few tourists ever stay.

But even in 2015 almost all the island remains untouched and when you experience that density of jungle, that softness of sand, that abundance of sea life and that clarity of water, the Time magazine praise still seems worthy.

Back on the jungle walk, the comedic spasms somehow eased and we made it to the other coast. After lunch and a swim at Juara village we surrendered: why do the return 10km walk to our charming little seaside village Air Batang when we could hitch a lift on the back of a 4WD?

Gripping the sides of the truck as we bounced our way along the steep and narrow road
with the jungle enveloping us, it was like a theme park ride.

Snorkelling is superb in Tioman Island.
Snorkelling is superb in Tioman Island.


The next day I set out again on foot, but this time in search of rehydration salts after realising the cramp had given way to a bit of heat-stroke. This was getting embarrassing, especially since I'd lived in Malaysia in the 80s and used to laugh in the face of heat stroke. "Ha!" I would say to heat stroke.

Wise man that I am, when I found only a closed clinic I decided to keep walking in the midday sun. No medicine but finally a shop selling bananas. With a pink plastic bag of those small South East Asian bananas, I chose to do my best to not properly recover from the heat stroke. Wanting to see what some of the island's other beaches, bays, villages and resorts looked like, I marched on, following the coastline south.

Charging through the mild nausea, I stumbled across a dirt jungle path with a sign leading to a turtle sanctuary. Two Kiwis returning from the beach were walking towards me and they insisted we do a swap: they would give me their large stick and I would give them my bananas. But I needed the bananas for cramp!

Nice Kiwis that they were, they explained there was an excitable family of monkeys interested in anything anyone was carrying, especially a bag of bananas. Good point. So the couple would take the bananas and leave them in the fridge at their resort's reception for me to pick up on the way back. What lovely folk.

They were right - the monkeys didn't want to budge from the middle of the path. As I got close one monkey hissed, baring his teeth. I bolted, doing my best impression of a madman in Jandals waving a stick with a towel over his head as sun protection.
I regained my composure and made my way through the lowland jungle to one of Tioman's countless deserted, white-sand beaches. No turtles in sight in the early afternoon, but their tracks were clearly visible on the crescent beach. Forgetting any whiff of ill health, I whipped out my snorkel, jumped into the crystalline sea and reminded myself why I love this island so much.

And days like that are really what Tioman is all about. At 136sq km it's big enough. There are always new beaches, new coral reefs, new mountains and new wilds of jungle to discover. And yet the island is small enough you're never overwhelmed. Just keep an eye out for monkeys. And bananas.

Fact file

Tioman Island is a one-hour chartered flight east of Kuala Lumpur. Tioman can also be accessed by a two-hour ferry from Mersing. Buses depart daily from KL for Mersing and take about seven hours.

Newstalk ZB's Tim Roxborogh is co-host of the top-rated radio show The Two - Fridays 8pm-midnight and Sundays 8pm-11pm. He lived in Malaysia from 1983-90 and first visited Tioman Island in 2008.

- Spy.co.nz

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