Peninsular Malaysia (Cameron Highlands and Fraser's Hill) 30th Dec 2019 - 4th Jan 2020

February 15, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

This trip started off, as many of my trips do, as a recce for an upcoming school trip. My involvement with the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award gives me good justification to get out and about to find good locations to take students on expeditions.

My wife and I lived in Malaysia from 2013-2015. During this time we visited the Cameron Highlands several times and so I knew it to be a good area for DofE expedition purposes. The trails are good, there is plenty to see, the climate is mild and you are never really that far from civilisation (not something that I personally desire but it's an important consideration for school trips). There is also no requirement there to use a guide*, allowing us to give the students the freedom and independence the DofE programme encourages.

I arrived in Tanah Rata late on 30th December, after quite a long drive up from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. That was after a long flight from the UK, so naturally I was pretty shattered. Nonetheless, I arrived eager to make the most of my time there so, after checking in, I headed out to see if I could find any wildlife. About half an hour into my walk the fatigue kicked in. I soon realised what a poor decision I had made and, sensibly, I went straight back to bed!

The next morning I set out to recce the trails that I would later use for the expedition. I first opted for a trail which leads up to the summit of Gunung Jasar. The start of the trail isn't particularly inspiring (as part of the forest there has recently been cleared) but it improves fast. Most of it is nice-looking jungle like this (photo taken here but on a previous trip):

Cameron Highlands JungleCameron Highlands Jungle

Along the trail I came across my first interesting zoological encounter, a Robinson's forest dragon (Malayodracon robinsonsii) on the side of a tree:

Robinson's forest dragon (Malayodracon robinsonii)Robinson's forest dragon (Malayodracon robinsonii)

It doesn't take too long to reach the top of Gunung Jasar where there are good views (phone photo - I didn't pack a wide lens!):

Gunung Jasar ViewGunung Jasar View

When I was last here (5 years ago) we heard siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus) calling across the hills. It is a magical and uplifting sound. I was very sad that this time the hills were quiet.

After enjoying the view I descended Gunung Jasar via a dirt road which followed some electrical cables (possibly Trail 6 - I'm not sure, it wasn't very 'trail-like'...) which ends up in the Bharat tea estate (another phone photo):

Bharat Tea PlantationBharat Tea Plantation

The tea plantation was interesting (tea and the associated 'agrotourism' is a big deal in the Cameron Highlands) but otherwise this part of the walk wasn't great. The worst bit was the walk along the busy and winding road back into Tanah Rata.

After lunch I thought I might as well get the other day of the school expedition recce'd as well - if I could do it in one day the kids couldn't really complain about doing it over two! For this I chose to walk Trails 5 then 6, ending at the Forestry department (which is also where the campsite that we'll be using is). About half-way through this walk there is a rain shelter (I should  say 'was' - it's currently a pile of rubble). Whilst I was having a rest stop, I heard some distinctly primate-like activity up in the trees. After a lot of waiting, watching and listening I caught sight of a troop of white-thighed surilis (Presbytis siamensis). They were distant and viciously backlit so were something of a challenge to photograph:

White-thighed surili (Presbytis siamensis)White-thighed surili (Presbytis siamensis)

After completing my recce, my work was done so I went back to my hotel. That evening (which was new year's eve!) I was keen to try again to see some nocturnal creatures so I went on a short walk around the area. I came across a few of these poisonous rock frogs (Odorrana hosii), by a river just outside town:

Poisonous rock frog (Odorrana hosii)Poisonous rock frog (Odorrana hosii)

There were also good numbers of some species of torrent frog, but they had a habit of hiding in inaccessible places so I didn't manage to get a photo.

There were plenty of spiders like this huntsman (Heteropoda sp.):

Huntsman spider (Heteropoda sp.)Huntsman spider (Heteropoda sp.)

I also found this curious-looking cockroach nymph from the Epilamprinae subfamily:

Cockroach nymph (Epilamprinae)Cockroach nymph (Epilamprinae)

Sadly, that was all that I about had the energy for after a pretty tiring few days of travel and trekking, so I called it quits early and went to bed.

The next morning (happy new year!) I checked out of the hotel and started out towards Fraser's Hill (Bukit Fraser). I knew that I couldn't check in to my accommodation until late afternoon so I decided to build in a few stops along the way.

Since reading Alfred Russel Wallace's great book 'The Malay Archipelago', my favourite butterfly has always been the Rajah Brooke's birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana). Animals with a connection to Wallace are always special to me so I am on a mission to try and seek them out. This species was named by him after his friend James Brooke, the 'White Rajah' of Sarawak. This morning I wanted to check out a few sites where they could be seen to try and photograph them.

The first site was a 'recreational forest' called Kuala Woh, near the bottom of the main Cameron Highlands road. This site gets good write-ups by butterfly enthusiasts in blogs and online reports etc. Sadly, I had no luck and except for a fleeting encounter with an unidentified raptor I didn't see anything at all.

I then travelled onwards to an alternative location that I had visited 5 years ago. This spot is fairly close to the town of Gopeng, next to an Orang Asli village called Kampung Ulu Geroh. On arrival I parked up and wandered around until I easily found about half a dozen T. brookiana 'puddling' at what I assume was a mineral lick. They are quite conspicuous butterflies. They are also quite jittery, but after about half an hour of waiting for them to settle I managed to get photos of one individual:

Rajah Brooke's birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana)Rajah Brooke's birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana)

They are truly a beautiful butterfly. Last time I was here I saw greater numbers, but I may have just come at the wrong time - it was late morning by the time I got there. The area is very limited in size and boxed-in by plantations so I'm not really sure how healthy the population is. During my time with the butterflies I also managed to get bitten by leeches on both my hands! As I write this, nearly two months afterwards, the bites still bother me...

Anyway, happy with my butterfly success I then continued on to Fraser's Hill - the main focus of the trip. It was a straightforward drive and I enjoyed the drive up 'the gap' in particular. Upon arriving at the hill station I still had some time to fill before I could check in so I did some wandering around, managing a few observations.

My wife and I coined some new terms on our previous visits to Fraser's Hill. 'Birding' and 'herping' already exist as established pursuits but we decided that Fraser's Hill was a hotspot for 'squirrelling'. There are loads of squirrels there and a good diversity of species. We also coined a term for a new occupational health condition called 'squirrelneck' - a strain caused by spending too long looking up at squirrels in trees!

A Pallas' (a.k.a. red-bellied) squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus) was my first squirrel species of this trip:

Pallas' squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus)Pallas' squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus)

Another interesting finding at this point was this parallel-spined spiny orbweaver spider (Gasteracantha diardi) which had spun its web across the road. There were plenty of cars so I'm not quite sure how its web remained intact.

Parallel-spined spiny orbweaver (Gasteracantha diardi)Parallel-spined spiny orbweaver (Gasteracantha diardi)

Later that afternoon I checked into my accommodation, a lodge called Stephen's Place. The lodge is well-positioned on 'Telekom loop' and is a great base for naturalists. It helps that the owner (Stephen Hogg) is an ex-BBC wildlife cameraman and that his son is a multiple award winner in the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I spent three days and nights there and they were very productive.

Shortly into my first nighttime excursion I found this slender-legged horned frog (Megophrys longipes):

Slender-legged horned frog (Megophrys longipes)Slender-legged horned frog (Megophrys longipes)

The frog was hiding in a drain by the side of the road and to be honest I have no idea how I managed to see it - you can see how good its camouflage is! I crawled into and lay down in the drain to get the eye-level angle that I wanted. When I got up after I'd finished taking photos, a large reed snake (Calamaria sp.) suddenly appeared underneath me - it  must have been there the whole time! Note to myself to check for this sort of thing in the future.

The night was quite slow after this and I went for about 4 hours without any sightings at all. However, just before I turned in I had an amazing encounter with a family of no fewer than five masked palm civets (Paguma larvata), though you will have to take my word for it as it went unphotographed! They were running along a telegraph cable in a procession and I couldn't for the life of me focus on them in the dark...

When I got back to my accommodation, the owner had set up a white sheet with some lights on. It was covered with a huge diversity of moths, cicadas, mantises, beetles and other insects. Here are the highlights from the first night:

MantisMantis Hawkmoth (Ambulyx sp.)Hawkmoth (Ambulyx sp.) Hawkmoth (Hippotion sp.)Hawkmoth (Hippotion sp.) Mango hawkmoth (Amplypterus panopus)Mango hawkmoth (Amplypterus panopus) Dark-based gliding hawkmoth (Ambulyx substrigilis)Dark-based gliding hawkmoth (Ambulyx substrigilis) Asota productaAsota producta

The next morning was extremely foggy. I didn't know at this point but in fact, the fog was to continue for the rest of my time there. This presented me with a few problems - wildlife was harder to see and, unless I could get within about a few metres of it, almost impossible to photograph. I was quite frustrated because one of my targets was the aforementioned siamang - an animal that I have often heard but never seen. Siamang can only really be located when they start singing and they only do this when it is sunny. Once again, I missed them on this trip. Oh well.

Instead, I decided to spend most of the morning in the garden photographing birds. It was amazing just how many species could be seen in a relatively small area:

Mountain bulbul (Ixos mcclellandii)Mountain bulbul (Ixos mcclellandii) Verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus)Verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) Black-throated sunbird (Aethopyga saturata)Black-throated sunbird (Aethopyga saturata) Black-throated sunbird (Aethopyga saturata)Black-throated sunbird (Aethopyga saturata) Chestnut-capped laughingthrush (Ianthocincla mitrata)Chestnut-capped laughingthrush (Ianthocincla mitrata) Mountain fulvetta (Alcippe peracensis)Mountain fulvetta (Alcippe peracensis) Silver eared mesia (Leiothrix argentauris)Silver eared mesia (Leiothrix argentauris) Black-browed barbet (Psilopogon oorti)Black-browed barbet (Psilopogon oorti) Streaked spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna)Streaked spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna) White-throated fantail (Rhipidura albicollis)White-throated fantail (Rhipidura albicollis)

I should say that (due to the fog) most of these photos have been substantially 'dehazed' using the tool in Adobe Lightroom. The barbet photo was the only one on which this tool was ineffective, so on this photo you can see the reality of the weather conditions there!

The next night was another slow one and I only managed a couple of notable sightings. The first was this huge Malayan jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). As soon as I got close to it, it adopted a defensive posture which I swear is an imitation of a scorpion:

Malayan jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata)Malayan jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata)

Later that night I encountered a small Siamese peninsular pit viper (Trimeresurus sabahi fucatus apparently though pit viper taxonomy seems to change by the hour). I did something very stupid while photographing this beautiful snake - at one point I put my camera (with a bulky flash diffuser) down on top of my bag. My camera then fell off the bag and landed with a clatter on the road, breaking the autofocus on my macro lens. I'm still not sure if my camera / lens is also damaged in other ways too. Anyway, I did manage to use manual focus to photograph the snake:

Siamese peninsula pitviper (Trimeresurus sabahi fucatus)Siamese peninsula pitviper (Trimeresurus sabahi fucatus)

After returning to my accommodation I had another session with the moths and other insect life that had been attracted to the lights and the white sheet. There was an entirely new collection to photograph:

Anisoneura alucoAnisoneura aluco Ambulyx canescensAmbulyx canescens Pogonopygia nigralbataPogonopygia nigralbata Dull forest hawkmoth (Acosmeryx pseudonaga)Dull forest hawkmoth (Acosmeryx pseudonaga) Common striped hawkmoth (Marumba cristata)Common striped hawkmoth (Marumba cristata) MothMoth May beetle (Phyllophaga sp.)May beetle (Phyllophaga sp.) Longhorn beetle (Moechotypa sp.)Longhorn beetle (Moechotypa sp.) CicadaCicada

The next morning I had the same problem as the previous one. Fog, fog and more fog - so again I sat in the garden. This time, the morning session was good for some squirrelling, with two squirrel species seen at close quarters along with a common treeshrew (Tupaia glis):

Pallas' squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus)Pallas' squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus) Asian red-cheeked squirrel (Dremomys rufigenis)Asian red-cheeked squirrel (Dremomys rufigenis) Common treeshrew (Tupaia glis)Common treeshrew (Tupaia glis)

The morning was also once again good for birds. I saw all of the same species as yesterday plus a few new ones:

Mugimaki flycatcher (Ficedula mugimaki)Mugimaki flycatcher (Ficedula mugimaki) Long-tailed sibia (Heterophasia picaoides)Long-tailed sibia (Heterophasia picaoides) Little pied flycatcher (Ficedula westermanni)Little pied flycatcher (Ficedula westermanni)

After an hour or so in the garden I headed down into the main centre of Fraser's Hill to see if there was less fog there. It was a slight improvement...but not much! I first checked out the bishop's trail, reputedly a good spot for siamang. No siamang, although there was a troop of white-thighed surilis sat in the trees outside the trail entrance (or exit). If only it hadn't been so foggy they would have made for some excellent photos - they were so much less shy than the ones I encountered earlier in the Cameron Highlands! I trekked the whole trail (its quite short) and saw or heard nothing else except a healthy population of leeches.

After a bit of trotting around town I did eventually spot a few additional bird species:

Oriental magpie robin (Copsychus saularis)Oriental magpie robin (Copsychus saularis) Large niltava (Niltava grandis)Large niltava (Niltava grandis) Lesser racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus remifer)Lesser racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus remifer) Red-headed trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus)Red-headed trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus)

I also added another new species to my squirrelling list - a grey-bellied squirrel (Callosciurus caniceps):

Grey-bellied squirrel (Callosciurus caniceps)Grey-bellied squirrel (Callosciurus caniceps)

A troop of the ubiquitous long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis, a.k.a. the 'jungle mafia') was also present in the centre of town, including this individual who looked like it had barely survived a fight:

Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis)Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

In the afternoon I went on a brief stroll down to the Jeriau waterfall. I wouldn't rate it - the waterfall isn't that pretty and I didn't see much there. My only encounter was with this juvenile Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator):

Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)

This was my last night in Fraser's Hill and it ended on a real high for me. Stephen (the owner of my accommodation) very kindly lent me a thermal imaging camera - a bit of kit way beyond my own budget! Though it took some getting used to, using this gave me a bit of an edge and I finally got to see my 'holy grail' species - the Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang):

Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang)Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang)

You may notice something quite strange about its eyes - the apparent 'lasers' firing out of them are due to my camera flash, first reflected from its eyes then further reflected and scattered by the dense fog. The fog is otherwise not apparent as once again I have used Adobe Lightroom's 'dehaze' tool. Unfortunately it's beyond my skills in Lightroom to fix this optical effect. I didn't bother the loris for too long, only taking a couple of photos (ethical note - my flash was on low power and the photo was taken from a good distance. The above photo is cropped and taken at 420mm on a crop-sensor camera). He seemed largely unbothered by my presence and was happily licking sap off the side of the tree. This was a wonderful encounter that left me very happy indeed.

I also spotted some plume-toed swiftlets (Collocalia affinis) in a disused garage:

Plume-toed swiftlet (Collocalia affinis)Plume-toed swiftlet (Collocalia affinis)

Before turning in for the night, one final check of the white sheet / light setup yielded some interesting new species:

Erebus caprimulgusErebus caprimulgus Lappet moth (Kunugia basidiscata)Lappet moth (Kunugia basidiscata) Longhorn beetleLonghorn beetle Malaysian moon moth (Actias maenas)Malaysian moon moth (Actias maenas) Yellow underwing (Thyas coronata)Yellow underwing (Thyas coronata) MothMoth Lichen moth (Cyana sp.)Lichen moth (Cyana sp.) Dull double-bristled hawkmoth (Meganoton nyctiphanes)Dull double-bristled hawkmoth (Meganoton nyctiphanes)

The drive down from Fraser's Hill gave me one last encounter - a troop of southern pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) by the roadside. As I approached them (with the windows down), foolishly hoping for a photograph - a huge (and rather ripped) male ran up to the car and thrust his arm through the window! I managed to close the window (without hurting the macaque) and, as I drove past, seeing several of them sprinting after me, decided to abandon that particular photo opportunity!

In all, it was a great trip. Even though I missed out on the siamang, I finally got to see my all-time favourite species (I'm on 3 loris species now) so I left very happy. I'm sure I'll be back again.

Cheers,

Robin.

*'The right to roam' (a privilege that we have in the UK) doesn't exist here. In Bali it is particularly bad - areas that would be good for trekking are 'managed' to a large extent. Would-be adventurers and naturalists are generally coerced into using guides at high prices even if they are not needed or wanted. I have heard it said that guides are a 'legal requirement' but I am not entirely convinced.


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