It is a dark Malaysian night, punctuated by a full moon and bright head torches. A small group of us sets out, swathed in shawls against the night chill. We are looking for tarantulas.
Stephen Hogg, our host, and his son Adam (aged 9) are dab hands at tickling them out of their holes with small sticks. ‘Think cricket,’ Stephen admonishes Adam when he is too heavy-handed. ‘The tarantula has to think you are the cricket passing his nest, so it’s the lightest of touches’. And Stephen should know – he spent three years going to Fraser’s Hill three times a week observing these arachnids, one of which is named after him, Coremiocnemis hoggi – and this is what we are looking for.
Suddenly the tarantula scuttles forward, his unique hairy legs in full view, proving that this is one of Stephen’s. The clever old spider lines the nests with leaves so that they look completely natural. But not as clever as the trapdoor spider, which weaves a special flap from silk, and then does some gardening, decorating its roof with moss to provide the perfect camouflage. We don’t manage to entice this one out, but we do see him, big, hairy and black.
As we are looking at the big tarantula Stephen suddenly shouts, Snake! Get back! We all scramble back as a beautiful blue banded coral snake slithers into view. It is extremely venomous, though not aggressive, nevertheless I am relieved when it disappears before Stephen has time to catch it! A bit later Stephen spots the relight reflecting in the eyes of a common palm civet, high up in the trees. He starts to climb down when we approach, so we get a good view.
Not as good as the view we get of Bob, the semi-habituated masked palm civet who comes into their garden each night to snaffle the bananas and chicken bones they leave out for him. What a beautiful creature, with his bleached eye masks and chestnut brown, almost auburn fur, that catches in the evening sun.
We have come to Fraser’s Hill, which is but a short flight up to Kuala Lumpur and then a two and half hour drive up a precipitous road into the rain forest, with spectacular views. The hill station was a balmy retreat in colonial days, complete with golf course (now much-loved by Japanese tourists – read Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng, which tells of the Japanese occupation of this area in WW2), strawberry beds and an array of grand houses, now sadly all in decline and decay. Ye Olde Smokehouse, once the premier inn, is still stuck in the fifties, with menus serving fish and chips, steaks and rack of lamb – for lunch! Don’t even talk of the décor…you could be in East Grinstead!
Eschewing such colonial charms (!) we plumped on Stephen’s Place as it had top ratings on Trip Advisor. It’s a B & B (dry, but didn’t turn out to be a problem despite my anxieties about being on holiday with no G & T), serving delicious local food, grown and prepared by Stephen’s wife, Salmiah. The guest-house welcomes only serious naturalists, birders (we were slightly masquerading as the former) and photographers. Stephen is a BBC wildlife photographer who has made programmes with David Attenborough so, with Ross’s enthusiasm, we pass the entry test.
They have renovated their 1930s house to a high standard and it’s set in a magnificent area for birding. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy while we were there, so even with the best efforts of local guide, Mr Durai, and our fellow guests, the delightful Raffi, Angela, their two daughters, granddaughter Elise, and respective husbands, we don’t see more than 31 species in our two days (after we left they saw 20 in a bird wave – new term for us – in the garden in 15 minutes). Raffi is a retired Exxon executive, has built a house in the Malay jungle and grown his hair long, hippy-style, to celebrate his second childhood. He only took up birding in the past 10 years – and he used to practise the calls on the MRT on the way to work, much to his daughter’s embarrassment. These birders are very enthusiastic, let me tell you!
It’s a full on couple of days walking, about 10km per day, which I just about manage, despite leaving my stick behind when we leave! Although we didn’t see that many birds, we drank in the views and the cool, clean air that is Fraser’s Hill. It’s hard work being a birder though, so I think I will stick to the big stuff and catch the birds as an added extra on our next trip, our annual outing to Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Check Ross’s website for more wildlife photos and thanks for letting me steal some!