At some point the trip turned into an obsession with photographing monkeys. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are full of monkeys, at least five different species – and somehow they were all hiding from me. Seriously – I have previously seen monkeys on the streets in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, romping around, making pests of themselves rummaging through the rubbish. Somewhere I’ve got a few photos of them. But this time I wanted to see them in their natural habitat – the jungle!
The first monkey-stop was the Cameron Highlights, smack dab in the middle of the western end of Malaysia. Tea plantations and rain forests where monkeys were allegedly swinging from the trees. Four days I looked in vain and did not spot a single monkey of any kind.
Second monkey-stop, Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra. Though our planned 4 day stay fell through, we still made the 3 hour ride – covering 80 kms, or 50 miles of narrow, pothole filled roads, packed in a seemingly endless traffic jam, comprised mostly of scooters and small motorcycles. After a stressful series of negotiations mostly involving me refusing to be conned out of more of my money, we trekked into the jungle with our guide and two assistants (seemed a bit of overkill to me, but as the two assistants required a tip at the end, it all made some sort of strange sense.) Getting up the mountain into the jungle was a bit gruelling, about half an hour of extremely steep climbing over tree roots and rough-hewn trail. The guides started making monkey noises and (I thought) orang utan noises. To make this long story which will be told at another time, short – there were no orang utans to be found or seen or within hearing distance of the calls which, it turned out, were for Tomas monkeys. Two of them did most graciously appear briefly – almost entirely in the darkest area of the jungle, so the photos are nearly indecipherable. However, I did have a lovely communing moment with one of the monkeys before he vanished.
Back in KL, I was getting desperate. Was I actually going to leave Malaysia without a decent photo of a monkey in a tree??? We went here and there all in vain. Until our last day, when I decided to do the obvious tourist thing and go to Bukit Nanas, a bit of jungle preserved smack dab in the middle of the city. The conservation officer at the entrance advised us to go directly to the camping grounds in the middle if we wanted to see monkeys. They are generally there looking for food or picking through rubbish – hardly the natural habitat I was hoping for.
We plodded up the tiled walkway, up the steps (I have renamed Malaysia as ‘the land of a million stairsteps’) in the 40 degree (that’s 105 in Fahrenheit) weather, dripping sweat, my legs aching – and sat on a bench to rest. Looked up in the trees and there was a Silver Leaf Monkey collapsed in the crutch of a tree with his limbs and tail hanging limply as he tried to sleep through the blazing heat. I searched the branches and soon spotted five or six of them, all in a similar state. Until a wee one came along, past babyhood, he was a wily little devil, poking and prodding his elders to come and play.
I started shooting madly, but it’s bloody hard to photograph monkeys on the move! Autofocus was useless, and by the time I manually focussed my 300mm lens they’d moved on! The light was low. They were backlit. I was too high, too low. There were branches in the way. Monkey madness in the trees and on the ground… I shot nearly 200 photos. About 20 were usable – and that might be generous. But I am satisfied – for the moment.
You just wait monkeys… I’ll be back!