Vines jostle shrubs, ferns fan into trees, branches thick and thin criss-cross leaves long, wispy, broad, stout. Evergreens of every shade sprawl in all possible directions.
No wifi. No map. Only Rajah. Our personal guide to private hill forest, both compliments of The Lakehouse. With machete in hand, Rajah leads Alvin and I up steep steps behind the resort. Concrete abruptly switches to soil, moist from the morning’s tropical storm. The path is narrow. Barely a foot wide, it was cut by Rajah and two men over three months in 1994, extending a fifteen minute trail to an hour-long course to appease the more adventurous guests. I hold my tree branch tight, my first trekking stick.
The path plateaus briefly before the forest thickens. Feet pause as our cameras consider new views of The Lakehouse, perched 1000 metres above the sea, already two storeys beneath within our hike’s first minutes. Rajah begins to show us forest secrets. A single white orchid, hidden behind a fern. Small thorny succulents, Nature’s teepees for ants.
The afternoon is cool. The forest full of bird, cricket and frog song. Save for these creatures, we have the woods all to ourselves. For 23 years, Rajah conducts treks only once a day, at 10am, only for resort guests.
Thwack! Rajah hacks an overhanging green, servicing adventure’s way. At 63, Rajah Selvaraja is strong and sprightly. Head gardener, forest father, gentle guide, he forges ahead with reassuring ease. We follow briskly, up the rapidly rising path. Words fade as air thins. Our eyes pay attention, scanning for level ground.
Our c-shaped trail curves its spine along state reserve borders. Past three faded arrows on rusty signs, there’s no telling where private forest ends, where state property begins. Here at 1500 metres, there’s no turning back. We have no bearings. Only Rajah.
Inside, jumbled growth and beauty envelop. Vines jostle shrubs, ferns fan into trees, branches thick and thin criss-cross leaves long, wispy, broad and stout. Evergreens of every shade sprawl in all possible directions. Except for Rajah’s path, Nature leaves no blanks. Her infinite foliage is an awesome blur.
Thankfully, Rajah grew up among her trees. Born and bred in Cameron Highlands, he knows the mountain by love and feel, like a groom his bride. With his trekking stick, he proudly details her quirks; wild bamboo, banana, ginger, palm and pineapple trees, all inedible except for young bamboo tips. Higher up, under towering trees, Rajah shows us smooth seeds strewn over roots, once his childhood playthings. A self-taught horticulturalist, Rajah patiently distils the forest’s complexity.
While flora abounds, fauna is nowhere in sight. Our desire to see wildlife is stirred by stories from Rajah’s personal jungle book. “Monkeys come in groups.” Highlighting freshly ripped seed pods, “See, monkey’s food.” Rajah continues, “Turtles, black panthers… Once a leopard was seen… sometimes wild goats emerge…” Pointing to a hollow in the ground, he says, “Anteater was here.” We encounter the forest’s rich biodiversity, as Rajah alternates between memory and mise en scène.
Along the way, Rajah identifies several wild boar tracks, imperceptible to Alvin and I. “Their tusks, very long!” We spot a wild boar trap; a makeshift wooden fence, apparently set by natives hoping to make a sale. “I take traps out,” Rajah declares but hikes on. Presently, shepherding us is his only concern.
Soon we are descending quickly. The terrain steers our feet down vague rungs of earth, loosely bound by ancient roots. Gravity makes everything wobbly. Leaning back as a counter, my feet falter. “Use your stick”, Rajah advises, offering his hand. Trees soothe the soul, but Rajah guards the group.
When we step back into the sun, a row of morning glories greet us, like poms-poms at the finishing line. At The Lakehouse porch, a green hummingbird crowns our homecoming, nectaring amid a cascade of orchids. It takes its time to drink Nature in, letting her revitalize the senses, just as we did.
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