Asia Destinations Malaysia

Cast away on the Perhentian Islands

The rocks became more jagged, larger, and more tightly fitting until they were one obstinate cliff front. I had several options:

Turn back.

Swim.

Or start rock climbing.

I couldn’t turn back. I’d come too far, and I had endured too much to give up now.

I couldn’t swim. My backpack held my DSLR camera. There was no way I would get it wet.

I had to climb, so one hand blindly caressed the rock for a good hold to begin hoisting myself up.

Not only was the drop an unpleasant one but I was in direct sunlight, my breathing was laboured, and my water supply was quickly dwindling. The only way I would get through was to keep moving until I encountered civilisation once more.

The Perhentian Islands off Malaysia’s east coast promote sunbathing, snorkelling, relaxing and pampering. I had planned to do ample amounts of all those activities.

So when I found myself on my first day on Pulau Kecil, the smaller of the Perhentian islands, crashing through dense undergrowth, scaling the rocky coastline and anxiously checking my quickly diminishing water supplies, I wondered what had gone wrong.

Coral Bay on Pulau Kecil

The night before, a resident backpacker told me of a trail some three or four hours long that scouted around the island from Long Beach (Pasir Panjang), the main village, to Coral Bay (Teluk Aur), the quieter backwater spot.

The two townships can be reached within ten minutes by directly crossing the island, but a pleasant semi-circumnavigation broken by peaceful unspoilt beaches sounded enticing.

Petani Beach, Pulau Kecil.

I started off from Coral Bay in the late morning the next day. The brick path, starting at the far end of Coral Bay, was interspersed with a series of lazy beaches, some secluded, others sheltering little resorts.

Pulau Kecil

It wasn’t long before I entered Kampung Pasir Hantu (Ghost Sand Village in English), the Perhentian’s only local settlement of 1,300.

Roosters roamed between wooden houses where washing hung from lines. The inhabitants were seen through open doors lounging on floor mattresses.

In the maze of sandy tracks between houses, I lost the path onwards to Long Beach. A local man pointed me on my way and advised me to simply “follow the electricity wires”.

streets of Kampung Pasir Hentu

At the far end of the village, a scarred, heavily-eroded landscape – a construction site – marred the otherwise ideallic view.

I checked once more with a worker outside the electricity plant which direction to take and followed his outstretched arm along a dirt track. Several corrugated-iron fences cut off the track, but I slipped between them and kept going.

Perhaps that was where I went wrong.

Perhaps the path, as many people have since told me, does not actually exist far beyond the village.

I walked assuredly onwards for twenty minutes more before the path ended. In its place was a well-treaded jungle track but this soon disappeared as well.

I found myself on the rocky coastline, so I removed my sandals and leapt from one smooth rock to another.

Water taxis and speedboats constantly zipped past but I ignored them, my focus solely on my next foothold. I had little idea of my position on the island, no conception of how much more land I had to cover. I was perspiring profusely, and occasionally stopped to take greedy gulps from the water bottle.

Perhaps it was the heat of the day, or the silliness of the circumstances that caused my mind to enter a Wilsonesque delirium. I may not have had a volleyball, but that didn’t prevent self-chatter, mostly berating myself for my foolishness.

It occurred to me, belatedly, to consider what survival skills I held that may be handy soon (it transpired that I had no repertoire of survival skills whatsoever).

Distil sea water? I got a really bad mark for that assignment in my Year 7 science class.

Was it better to save my energies during the day and walk only at night? Or given my potential state of dehydration by nightfall should I just keep moving? And finally, perhaps it wasn’t so bad to die on an island?

But wait a second, I don’t want to die at all!

Inevitably, the rocks came to an end. In their stead stood grand cliffs and there was nothing for it but to start climbing. At the top, the only way forward was through thick jungle.

Large bull ants scurried up tree trunks, huge dragonflies and butterflies zipped past.

I walked through numerous cobwebs but never saw their inhabitants. Lizards and squirrels scurried out of sight as I approached.

Vines and creepers were constant barriers to my way forward. I was forever ducking over and under branches, or pushing aside large fallen palm fronds. Detritus on the forest floor hid hollows in the ground and my feet often sunk deep into pits of moist leaves and rotting coconuts.

Then I saw it:

A manmade structure!

No, not the cursed path.

It was a water pipe, mossy but sturdy, clearing a path through the jungle. Balancing on it like a beam I thanked god for my brief gymnastic phase as a five year old.

I steamed through the jungle, pausing only to clamber over palm fronds and vines that tried to reclaim their territory from the pipe, curving my body away from spiders dangling in their webs and trying not to think about the three metre drop below me (the pipe often bridged small gullies).

water pipe on perhentian islands

Finally, I felt a surge of relief!

Another manmade structure!

A path!

An entire path!

Sure, a seemingly disused path, but concrete nonetheless.

I joyfully felt concrete under my feet but it wasn’t to be.

The path, a little bridge in fact, disappeared on the other side into thick jungle overgrowth. The pipe did likewise.

My only choice was to bend low, wish for a machete and instead hack away at the leaves and vines and fronds with my ineffectual hands.

abandoned path on pulau kecil

Down by the shore, the rocks were glad to see me again, I’d like to think. But they weren’t smug about it. They allowed my feet to caress them once more, and my speed picked up again. And so did my mood. As I rounded a corner, I could see in the distance a stretch of white sand decorated with umbrellas, and, behind, tumble-down shacks.

It wasn’t far now. I removed my backpack and, holding it above my head, I entered the waist-deep water. With only a few more metres to go, the smooth sand beckoned me forward. The rocks were faster to traverse. In my impatience, I thrust my bag onto a rock. After my trip, I was mentally hardened and scorned the molluscs clamped on the rocks around me. One hand went up, followed by one foot, but those prickly shells taught me a thing about pride.

A sharp sting in my pointer finger and a pinprick of blood changed my mind and I re-entered the waters once more. It was now only five metres to sand, but something was wrong in my big toe. With each step forward, I could feel skin flapping.

I had imagined my triumphant arrival at Long Beach differently. I would surrender myself to the caressing waters and then award myself with a Snickers milkshake at one of the many beachside cafés. Instead, I emerged a sweaty, dirty jungle child trying not to faint at the sight of the steady flow of blood issuing from two deep gashes on my big toe.

The swim was abandoned, the milkshake forgotten. I hobbled hunchback-style up the beach and across the island to my room at Coral Bay.

Although delayed, the sense of triumph came. Recalling how I hacked my way through untouched jungle and scaled cliff tops in shear determination to persevere to Long Beach, I felt thoroughly satisfied with my journey.

Two days later, after hearing of my adventures a fellow dormer decided to try the hike himself. My inner jungle child listened with longing to his plans and by midday I found myself reacquainting myself with that water pipe once more…

For more Asian adventures…

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