Who knew Malaysia had a thriving game-fishing scene? And who knew Malaysia had tigers that stalk people fishing on riverbanks? Two things I learnt the easy and then the hard way on a recent trip through this incredible part of the world.
All four series of Fish of the Day have lived in the Pacific, so a chance to try a different sea was not something to be turned down. Each episode's filming formula — that is to fish, to explore, to meet locals and to cook local produce with specialist chefs — really amplifies the differences in each area we visit.
Dining in Malaysia
I'm a big spice and chilli fan, and the flavours that came through in the food we ate in unlikely quarters in Malaysia was sensational. I have indelible memories of finishing a day's fishing trip in a precarious wonky wharf shack. A ramshackle restaurant with gaps in the floorboards to the water below and a busy open kitchen slicing up fish fresh off the boats, while plucky cats stalked underneath trying their luck.
The tables around us were full of visiting Chinese fishermen, shirts lifted over exposed bellies, excitedly reliving the day's successes and losses. Next to us, I'll take a guess, Russian gentlemen, accompanied by ladies on the clock, all parties smoking, all helping create an atmosphere that felt more movie set than real life.
The food served here — from plates of fried squid legs with a crisp brown batter to rival the colonel, to beautiful sauces and dishes of rice and wok-fried unidentifiable vegetables, all complementing the seafood caught just hours before and now served super fresh with beer in swappa crate-sized big bottles — was just perfect. All while looking over a tropical estuary scene that was sliding into a dirty hazy sunset with 30C heat and about 1000 per cent humidity, an experience for all the senses.
I had never associated the South China Sea with game fishing, and yet here off the coast of Malaysia's Rompin district was a thriving sailfish population. Sailfish are one of fishing's ultimate catches and fishers travel the world to chase them.
Unusually, off the coast here in shallow waters, they gather in big numbers for what must be a spawning aggregation. It's now solely a catch-and-release fishery, one fiercely protected by local fishermen, who realised that far more money was available in taking people out each day for an experience, as opposed to commercial fishers removing the lot. The boats full of customers we saw lining the wharfs were a testament to this smarter way to value a resource for the enjoyment of many and not just the few.
Face to face with a predator
However, I'd hazard a guess it's only the few who have ever been stalked by a tiger while fishing, a table-turning Malaysian experience that highlighted just how far we were from our Pacific comfort zone, where our only large cat threat is the mysterious black panther of Canterbury.
Now, to be fair to Malaysia, we had put ourselves into a position far out of the ordinary, invited deep into the Endau-Rompin National Park to fish a river surrounded by the world's oldest rainforest, a spritely 130 million years young.
Watch: Wild tiger interrupts Clarke Gayford's fishing trip
Our guides tracked me into the jungle past great piles of fresh elephant dung to the edge of a rich brown river, surrounded by lush damp bush. Suddenly one guide shot his arm up, a universal signal to stand still and be quiet. He pointed out a tiger on the far bank — we could all hear as it slipped behind the bush line "chuffing" while moving down the bank toward us. Then it went dead quiet, which was much, much worse, the nearby alerting birds and barking deer making us extremely aware that we still had company.
Staring across a river, perhaps 20m wide, knowing that at that moment we were being watched by one of the world's greatest predators, is a feeling not easily forgotten. The guides made us form a tight group and posted lookouts forward and back — it was obvious they were taking this extremely seriously.
As dusk approached, they anxiously told us through translators that it was time to leave, not a suggestion I was going to complain about.
Clarke Gayford is the host of Fish of the Day, Sundays at 5.30pm, on Three