It was two days into my six-day solo trek through the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara that I came across the Orang Asli. Orang means 'man' in its generic sense – hence 'orang-utan', or 'man of the jungle' – and the Orang Asli are the original inhabitants of the jungle. Evidence of their existence was obvious from the number of temporary shelters dotted around the place, mainly lean-tos with woven-leaf roofs that could be lowered above a sleeping body to keep out anything except horizontal rain, an unlikely occurrence in the jungle.
As I was nearing my final destination, Kuala Perkai – at least, that's what the kilometre markers were telling me – the path suddenly disappeared into an almighty thicket. Normally this is down to a tree-fall or bamboo collapse and most of the time it's pretty obvious where the path is supposed to go. This time it wasn't obvious at all.
Hacking through the thicket, I felt the strange sensation that I was being watched. And sure enough, I was; there was this half-naked black man, looking on with a serious expression. I suddenly felt silly and self-conscious; here I was, a tourist with all the hiking gear, and I couldn't find the path. I must have looked pretty stupid.
'Hello,' he said, and before I could believe my luck at having run into the only Orang Asli who spoke English, I remembered that 'hello' is the usual greeting in multi-racial Malaysia.
'Hello,' I replied, trying to look confident and in control. 'Kuala Perkai?' I asked, waving my arms around as if to say, 'Where the hell am I?'
He pointed into the thicket, a trace of a smile on his lips, and resumed his task of chopping wood, or whatever he was up to. I noticed that although his skin was pretty much the same colour as most Malaysians – it was possibly slightly darker – his hair and face were those of the Aboriginal Australian, with a frizzy microphone of black curls, and a boxer's nose squashed into the middle of his face. It was such a shock after seeing only brown Melanesian people in Asia that I had to stop myself from staring.
Pushing through the undergrowth, I spotted a roof. I couldn't be there already, surely, and the sound of children shouting and laughing confused me further; the ranger had said I'd be alone out here. It took a couple of seconds for me to register that I'd stumbled into the middle of an Orang Asli settlement.
There were about five or six huts, made up of thatched-leaf walls and roofs, and dotted about were old men, women and children, scantily dressed in looped sarongs1. They all had the Aboriginal features I'd noticed in the woodsman, and they all looked equally surprised to see me.
'Kuala Perkai?' I mumbled, while they stared. The response was less than overwhelming; they had no idea what I was talking about, and faced with a village full of people gawping at me, my mind raced. Half-remembered stories of the first western explorers of the rainforests jumped into my head, and although I knew that the Orang Asli weren't cannibals, my imagination was more than willing to ignore the facts after hours walking through the jungle. The women jabbering in a nearby hut, stirring boiling pots of water, didn't exactly help to make me feel at home either.
'Kuala Perkai?' I repeated, wondering if I was pronouncing the words totally wrong. Then I heard the sweetest sound; a young man stepped forward and said, 'Where you go?' I could have fallen down and worshipped him, but instead I tried it again. 'Kuala Perkai,' I said.
'Den you go dis way,' he said, and started off down a path that led out of the village. The entire population of the village stood and stared as we wandered off, either because they didn't quite know what to make of me, or because they knew exactly what to make of me and it involved diced potatoes and chopped onions. 'Dis way to Kuala Perkai,' my guide said.
I commented on his excellent English, and he said he 'learn Ingerris from my boss, he Germany, he learn me Ingerris.' Apparently an enterprising German lived at the resort, had leaned the Orang Asli language, and now brought tourists to see various settlements out in the jungle. It seemed I was talking to his protégé.
'He bring turis here, maybe five hunred in one year,' said my guide. 'I learn him our language, and he learn me Ingerris. Here, you go dis way, about one and half kilometre to Kuala Perkai.'
I thanked him profusely – probably too profusely given my relief at finding my initial paranoia completely unfounded – but he seemed pleased enough, and after passing the sign that said 'Kuala Perkai 2km', I thanked my lucky stars that soon I'd be there. And soon I was.
1 Sarongs with their ends sewn together to form a kind of cylinder, into which you step and pull the garment over your shoulders; I hadn't seen this design since Tana Toraja in Sulawesi.