Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Fool of the Wild

TOM SYKES documents his travails as he goes off the beaten path in Tioman
Photographs by DINO HAMDAN

THE GIANT LIZARD shuffles onto the narrow pathway. His beady eyes and mischievous grin remind me of the American comedic actor Pee-wee Herman.

“Are you going to move?” I ask out loud.

He won’t. He looks almost smug that he’s blocked me like this.

“Are you going to eat me?”

No reaction.

I wonder what to do. Can I leave the path and walk round him? I look to my left and see how the clarion blue of the sky blends so seamlessly with the turquoise of the ocean. I don’t think swimming’s an option, not with my backpack. To my right there’s only jungle, heavy vines guarding it like the ramparts of a castle. The thought of going in there brings three words to mind: “frying,” “pan” and “fire.”

How very different this is to KL, the city I’ve been living in for just three weeks. I’ve acclimatised to the heat, the traffic, the planet-sized shopping malls, the obsession with English football and the effortlessly good mood everyone seems to be in (excuse my Western cynicism). But this place, Tioman Island, is another world. Since arriving, I’ve seen people riding horses and children playing with tamed monkeys. Maybe Tioman is one of those magical places where man and beast have for aeons harmonised in a cosmically enriching way ...

... Or maybe not. My eyes fall back to the lizard. He still won’t move.

Then suddenly a moped groans behind me. The lizard dashes back into the jungle. The Malaysian stand-off is over. I turn and face a grey old guy wearing a vest.

“Having trouble with the monitor lizard, boss?” He is well-spoken like a KLite. “Sometimes they grow to six feet tall.”

“Lucky that one was only five feet or I’d have been really scared,” I quip.

He laughs. “I’m Eddie. Need a room?”

Eddie gives me a lift to the resort of A-frame huts he owns. We sit at the open-air bar, no more than a table with an umbrella sticking out the middle. A goat lies fast asleep in a deck chair. Eddie’s wife Ying—who strongly resembles Yoko Ono—brings us Tigers. Eddie tells me that he was born into a Tioman plantation-owning family but was sent away to school in KL.

“You live in a big city,” he says. “There are things you can see and do here that you could never do there.”

“What do you recommend?” I reply.

“Take a mask and go snorkelling just down there.”

I do as he says and my mind is blown. The coral reef is like an alien landscape. There are toadstool domes and petrified forests, bejewelled mountains and luminous leaning towers. And then there are the fish. I try to describe them to Eddie when I return.

“There was a flat thing with a zebra pattern.”

“That’s a discus fish.”

“A longish yellow one with a grumpy face?”


“A sort of spiny lobster?”

“Err, that would be a spiny lobster ...”

That night I watch the usual backpacker stereotypes come and go: a “gone native” Swede who wears a sarong and plays a tribal drum badly, a British student girl who seems to have slept with every man on the island, and a US frat boy who can’t stop giving people high fives. I go to bed, feeling like I’ve seen all this before. What I want to see is more of Tioman.

Next morning, I tell Eddie that I want to conquer my fear of the jungle. He suggests I follow a well-trodden path through it. “But make sure you stick to the path,” he insists.

Half an hour later I’m following the path and all of a sudden it doesn’t look so well-trodden anymore. I carry on regardless into the thickening jungle. A pitch-black snake crosses in front of me. I turn and run back to the resort.

“You strayed off the path!” scolds Eddie.

“No, err, well, it depends how you define—”

“You strayed off it! That was a king cobra you saw. Its bite can kill a man in a day.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before I left?” I asked.

Mid-afternoon, I am wading through the shallows to Eddie’s boat. We’re going fishing and diving. Just as he is helping me aboard, I feel a sharp pain in my heel. I lift my foot out of the water and it’s bleeding hard. I hobble back to the resort where Ying cleans and bandages the wound. “You trod on a nail,” she says, shaking her head. “Too much garbage being dumped round here.” She brings me a painkilling Tiger.

I sit back and mope about how some man-made pollutant has foiled my attempts to gain an insight into the natural world. The goat gets up from its deck chair and trots over to me. I stroke its head. It seems to smile at me. But not in a mischievous way.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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