The hot flat earth rose up in a green heap and the bus trip slowed to a winding crawl. As we reached the tops of the hills the tropical heat dropped to a mild 18 degrees and patches of cloud settled over the gentle slopes of vegetable farms. The effect is like stepping out of a baking sauna and into the cool wet grounds of an English country garden. And that is precisely what a hill station like the Cameron Highlands is all about; a most colonial of creations, a retreat from the tropics into lush, wet hills. The British carved a track through these hills and into the fertile slopes, landscaping it in their own image. Even today, long after the Empire has packed up her picnic rugs, the Cameron Highlands still retains plenty of idle charm and colonial character.
But let us not get carried away, old boy. The Highlands, for all that, is bursting with modern development. The number of resorts seems unsustainable, if not ludicrous, and the reality of carving farmland wildly through the hills has led to some truly damaged jungle. Parts of the Highlands have simply been hacked out for agriculture, and patches of thick jungle have been left jutting out over bare cliffs, clinging desperately to a fast eroding perch. It looks more like rape by bulldozer than sustainable development.
Because of this, I arrived in the tourist strip town of Tanah Rata feeling let down by the hype and the glossy Malaysian marketing, not to mention the persistent drizzle – the Cameron Highlands, like its English inspirations, receives an incredible amount of rain. After the rain cleared, I walked down to jungle trail 9A, aiming for an easy hour trek on one of the safer, easier trails and down to the Boh Tea Estate, searching for the real charm of the Cameron Highlands. At first the path was concrete but as it rolled down into a valley it became a thin dirt track and I reached the falls. The jungle was thick and wet, full of birds and insects but without the inquisitive monkeys that are everywhere else in Malaysia. It was only after the first half hour that I realised the safe and well-maintained trail was a complete lie.
The narrow path became narrower, the earth having long washed away down the sides of the trail until the path was just about the width of one of my – admittedly large – boots. At several points the trees above had fallen over the path, and at one bend the path – and by now it was only being called a path out of common politeness – had actually collapsed, swallowed up by the falling jungle. I had to stretch myself across a punji pit of tree branches, a structure sustained more by optimism than strength. I made it over and pushed on through the encroaching jungle. Pushing too fast, as it turned out, failing to notice a particularly narrow point. I slipped, overbalanced, and actually managed to fall off the jungle, crashing upside down into the undergrowth, which thankfully kept me from rolling down the side of the hill.
After that things got better, and it turned out I really was on the right trail all along. The jungle soon melded into farmlands and I stopped to de-leech myself at an unattended Buddhist temple. The square red bricks and dragon columns looked totally out of place in the midst of green hills, but I thanked the Buddha for the use of his tap. Another hour of walking on the main road and I finally reached the Boh Estate. And by Buddha it was worth it.
The hills had lost their rugged jungle edges, replaced with row after row of curving tea plants, which stretched up into the clouds that lazed over the green valleys. It was calm, cool and sublimely beautiful. I stopped for tea at the Boh Estate, enjoying the usual Malaysian customer service treatment. In Malay, the word customer must translate as ‘nuisance’ and service as ‘try not to look at him.’ But the tea was good and the hills and the clouds seemed endless and timeless and forever fertile with rain and green life. I would have been quite happy to never leave at all. Who ever said colonialism was a bad thing?