The alternative entry point to Taman Negara in Pahang besides Kuala Tahan, is Sungai Relau. This relatively obscure gateway to Taman Negara is situated near to the small town of Merapoh, near the Pahang-Kelantan border. It is also called Taman Negara Merapoh, or Taman Negara Sungai Relau, but is basically just an entry point into the greater Taman Negara area, which sprawls over three states.
Merapoh itself is located directly along Federal Route 8, about 27 kilometers before Gua Musang, Kelantan. This makes getting to Sungai Relau very easy, as you can drive there yourself, or take a bus/taxi/train to Merapoh, and travel the additional 7 kilometers from Merapoh along a small, sealed road right into Sungai Relau itself.
If you’re wondering about the train, there is a small train station at Merapoh, one of the stops along the railway line from Gemas to Kota Bharu. If you’re doing the train from Kuala Lumpur, it is an overnight journey, while the bus is a 5 hour journey and needs to be booked in advance from various bug agencies at Hentian Putra, Kuala Lumpur (take the Gua Musang/Kota Bharu bus).
Most people that visit Sungai Relau do so because they intend to climb Gunung Tahan (which takes only 5 days return journey from here, compared to 7 days from Kuala Tahan), or do birdwatching in the area. A small sealed road connects Sungai Relau to Kuala Juram, the starting point for the trail up Gunung Tahan. This 14 km long road was built during the late 1980s by the Malaysian army, and is the only tarred road inside Taman Negara till today.
Accommodation is provided in the form of a couple of dorms, and/or air-conditioned or ceiling fan chalets. There is a cafeteria there, but it only opens if there are many visitors staying there; otherwise it is closed the rest of the time. Perhilitan used to manage everything, but now, the accommodation is managed by a private firm, while Perhilitan manages the conservation aspects.
A natural paradise…
Many visitors to Sungai Relau overlook the fact that the lowland dipterocarp forest just a stone’s throw away from the quarters is a veritable treasure trove teeming with life. At the same time, the surrounding forest seems a little different from other lowland forests in Malaysia, in that the canopy height seems a little low and more open for a “primary” lowland rainforest and big, tall trees are a little uncommon – with the exception of the ubiquitous Neram trees (Dipterocarpus oblongifolius) along the riverbanks.
But there could be an explanation for this, as the soil there seems a little poor and shallow, with limestone bedrock, especially on the flatlands. Indeed, the region surrounding Merapoh is said to contain the most number of limestone caves and hills in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia.
Side note: The highest limestone hill in Peninsular Malaysia (roughly the same height as Penang Hill), called Gua Peningat is located quite nearby, within the shadow of Gunung Tahan. Hiking there can be done in a day, but as of now, I’m not sure if the trail is open or not.
The paucity of nutrients in the soil and its shallowness may explain why the palm oil estates leading up to the entrance into Sungai Relau seem to be relatively poor in insect biodiversity, which is usually one indicator of that. That said, the wildlife in the forests surrounding Sungai Relau is relatively abundant when compared with other areas like Kuala Tahan, for example.
A combination of factors like low tourist traffic, no aborigine settlements within the immediate area, and general lack of disturbance, may explain the abundance of wildlife there, and for that reason, camera trapping in Sungai Relau has been quite successful so far. A variety of small and large mammals like elephants, tigers, wild pigs, wild dogs, panthers, and barking deer frequently show up in the camera traps placed in the vicinity of the area. I would venture to say that this place has better wildlife watching opportunities for the determined wildlife watcher compared to “touristy” Kuala Tahan.
The Relau river
The main physical feature of the area around Sungai Relau is the Relau river, or the “Sungai Relau”. This is a small shallow river with fairly clear water, and it forms the boundary of Taman Negara there. The river’s course is broken up in places with folded sedimentary rock formations, while the riverbanks are frequently exposed to reveal the underlying limestone bedrock, revealing some weird shapes.
A small tributary, the Sungai Ngeram, flows into Sungai Relau right at the start of the Ngeram trailhead. This is a much murkier river, seeing that it derives its source from outside the park’s boundary – the oil palm estates.
A word on the conservation of the river…
The Sungai Relau is a designated kelah sanctuary, and fishing is prohibited there; however, a persistent threat to the river comes in the form of rubbish thrown all over the place by the nearby village people who frequent there for their picnics, or simply to have a splash. After they leave, rubbish is everywhere and although it usually disappears later on, the fact is all that rubbish gets washed downstream by the rainfall and river currents, and most certainly ends up somewhere; the rubbish does NOT vanish into thin air despite what lazy humans want to assume!
There are a number of trails in the Sungai Relau vicinity:
- Interpretive Trail – A circular trail about 530 meters long, with labels on the trees and stations along the way.
- Ngeram Trail – About 4.1 km long, ending at a sandy river island spot called Pasir Gelenggang. It follows the Relau river for most of the way, and big Neram trees can be seen all along the bank. There is evidence that the forest on the left hand side has been selectively logged in the past, with a few stumps here and there (if you look carefully), and the general lack of very large trees. However, the beautiful Relau river on the right more than makes up for this.
- Palas Trail – This circular trail is about 1.6 km long and crosses a range of habitats ranging from flat alluvial lowland, to freshwater swamp, to some hilly terrain. This trail takes about an hour or more to complete and traverses some beautiful forest landscape. All in, it gives a good picture of the lowland habitats found in Taman Negara.
- Gua Gajah Trail – This trail needs a guide, and leads to a fairly big cave in the middle of the jungle, called Gua Gajah (Elephant Cave). The cave is so named because elephants often take shelter within the cave, and its floor is littered with their droppings. A large stretch of the trail passes through a low stature forest, and it is unclear why. Past logging? Or just plain old nutrient deficiency in the soil?
Animals such as elephants, barking deer, sambar deer, and wild pigs do venture out in the forest around the trails and may sometimes be spotted. However, even if you do not spot anything, you are well advised to dress appropriately against the hordes of leeches that infest the trails. That’s the only downside to walking the trails; the leeches are everywhere and the small sized ones are especially abundant!