Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia


img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.


The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.


Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.


Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.


img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.


The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.


We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

Australia…elusive kangaroos, big surf and happy vineyards in Margaret River


“Truly, you’ve never seen a kangaroo?” the boutique owner said incredulously, wrapping my purchase in her trendy Perth boutique. Much like the city, it is vibrant and colourful. Perth is rich in art and architecture, and proud of its colonial and convict roots – all with the impossibly ideal back drop of the Swan River.

“No, in fact it’s my first time to Australia,” I confessed, admitting that her country is somewhere I had always wanted to visit.

“You’ll have no problem spotting a kangaroo, we’ve got a ton of them,” the young lady assured me. “Way more ‘roos’ than people.” I think that is the moment it began; my obsession to see one of these iconic symbols of Australia. There is so much about this country one dreams of seeing, but let’s admit it, a kangaroo is right up there.

Perhaps my curiosity with ‘down under’ took root years ago. On a six week Contiki tour through Europe, the Aussies were definitely the crowd you wanted to be around. Always fun and partying, they kept you guessing with a colourful and lyrical vocabulary all of their own.

“We’ll just call you Tess,” I was told on day one after introducing myself, “and love your sunnies by the way.” In keeping with the penchant for Australians to nickname everyone and everything, my sunglasses were now sunnies and my name was Tess…it kind of had a nice ring to it!

After a night of revelry in Greece, that fellow traveler would wake up minus one eyebrow, shaven off in honour of his birthday. We had celebrated until the wee hours of the morning.

“No worries, Tess,” Russ told me with a sly grin, “it’s how we do it in Australiaaa.” Rubbing the white patch on his sunburned forehead, like a freshly plastered band-aid, he declared there was only one thing to do.  “More ouzo mates?” We all greeted the morning sun with another shot of the Greek ‘nectar of life’.


All these years later, I’m more inclined to drink fine wine and here, I’m in luck. After a week of exploring Perth while my husband ‘toiled’, we decide to tour Margaret River, Western Australia’s acclaimed wine region. We’ll visit renowned vineyards and see one of Australia’s most daring surf beaches. We will stand in awe of beautiful and unusual flora and fauna…unique on this continent, like nowhere else on earth. It seems to reason that we’ll spot a kangaroo or two?

img_2502-1The first hint of the iconic hoppers – they can travel at an impressive 40 km. an hour – are the road signs. In place of signs cautioning of caribou in Canada, of sheep in Scotland, or perhaps camels in Kazakhstan, the highways in Australia warn drivers of the kangaroo. The gangly marsupials outnumber the population by almost 3 to 1. Said to be particularly prolific in the ‘outback’ with some standing over 6 feet tall, it’s best to drive though that territory with a substantial 4WD, big bull-bars and spotlights…just in case you meet a ‘big red.’

Gosh, we’re only in a small rental car so I’m feeling a little fragile. I sit in the front seat, camera ready, full of anticipation and poised for action. Mile after mile of beautiful scenery, but no ‘wildlife’ to be seen. As we near Margaret River without so much of a glimpse, I implore my husband to pull over, “Let me at least take a photo of the sign then,” I say dejectedly.

The roo quest is all but forgotten as we drive through coastal dunes towards one of Australia’s most formidable surf beaches, Surfer’s Point. With some of the biggest waves in Australia, including the massive Margaret River Bombie, waves are said to rush at you like a freight train. This area is a surfing mecca. The breaks are renowned for striking fear into the hearts of all but the most heroic of surfers. As I marvel at a surfer gliding over a house-sized wave, I am transfixed by the force of nature…and of the surfer’s artistry in mastering the cresting wall of water.

img_1159The fear of sharks alone, more present than ever these days, would give most people pause. The many warning signs positioned prominently along the beach tell it like it is…rips, waves, cliffs and sharks. The surfer emerges from the water and I catch up with him in the parking lot and ask if he gets scared out there.

“Yeah, was at first,” Gavin admits, “but caught the wave and felt good. I reckon this is one of the best surf beaches in Oz right here, pretty hard core.” He tells us to come back with a bottle of wine for sunset, “prettiest you’ll see.”

I come across John sitting contentedly, gazing out to the ocean, until I pester him about his classic Land Rover. Wet beach towels dry on its sturdy hood. “It’s a ’77,” John tells me with pride. I immediately picture myself cruising through the outback in its rugged solidity, photographing all those roos…


When John hears I’m from Canada, he mentions Vancouver as many Australians seem to do. I offer that Captain Vancouver had actually been close by all those years ago, just along the coast at Albany. I relate that Vancouver had claimed the spot for the British and named it King George Sound, collecting botanical samples all the while. “Is that right, small world,” and we move on to discuss the unusual flora carpeting the dunes around us.


Surfers and families alike hang out at beach front cafes or just ‘chill’ along the coastline. It is a spectacular setting of turquoise and indigo waters surging onto white, powdery sand…punctuated by the crash and roar over the reefs of Mainbreak. Blankets of billowy clouds hover just above the horizon. We barefoot it to the most brilliant of vistas and wade in the chilled waters of the Indian Ocean. It is a fine day to be in Western Australia.


Not far away is the charming town of Margaret River. The name first appears on a map in 1839, named after Margaret Whicher, the cousin of the founder of nearby Busselton. Mr. Bussel was one of many European migrants that settled the area, logging and clearing farmland. Yet it’s hard to believe that by 1922, scarcely more than 100 settlers called this beautiful area home.

But Margaret River had more in store for itself and is now surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular vineyard scenery. To visit the mostly boutique-sized wine producers is to meander down narrow tree-lined roads, stopping to not only savour wines (and craft beers), but also to appreciate the perfection of the vineyards themselves.


The estates are perfectly gardened with heavenly-scented lavender and perfumed roses, with spiky and bulbous native shrubs. With grass-trees and the ever abundant kangaroo paws, Western Australia’s floral emblem.

Rows of sturdy grape vines precisely pattern the fields and gentle slopes of grassy meadows are alive with browsing sheep, with black and white cattle. And with mobs – groups of kangaroos as they are called – or so it is said. I picture them, bopping through the rows as in a giant linear maze. A delightful playground, little joeys peeping out from their mama’s pouch. But on this day, not a single one to be seen.


We stop at Vasse Felix, reportedly boasting the original vines of Margaret River, planted in the 1960’s. The founder, Dr. Tom Cullity, is hailed as the pioneer of modern viticulture in ‘Margs.’ He initially resorted to falconry to control pests, but the story goes that the falcon circled the vineyard once and flew off never to return. I ponder how it is that the roos don’t partake of the grapes. I later read that they cohabit quite comfortably in vineyards, prefering the grass that grows between the rows.

I also learn that Thomas Vasse was a French explorer who mapped the South Australian coast in 1811. He would later lose his life on the high seas. Or did he? Perhaps he was rescued by Aboriginals and taken in, then again, perhaps he was saved at sea and ferried away. It remains a captivating mystery in these parts. What we do know is that Dr. Cullity chose to name the vineyard after him, appending the word Felix – which means happy or lucky – implying a more fortunate twist of fate for the fabled mariner. How fitting…it is difficult not to feel happiness at the Vasse Felix Estate.

After lunch at their acclaimed restaurant we meet Nola, our hostess for wine-tasting. She describes the ‘beautiful fruit-driven blends’. We learn that the confluence of temperature, humidity and soil in Margs is ideal for grapes. We chat, sample and I succumb to an excellent Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and a perfect Filius Chardonnay – one for each suitcase.

I notice a sculpture of a reclining kangaroo, comfortably sprawled. Beautifully lit and back-dropped by the warm hues of donnybrook stone, it seems to be the ideal setting for family photos. Well that’s one finally spotted, even if it isn’t real!

Yet we’re determined. The day has turned moody with somber clouds and light rain. We venture onto a few back roads, chancing upon the haunting Buranup Karri forest, home to some of the tallest hardwood trees in the world. This forest supported many early settlers in the timber and firewood trade. The karri trees thrive in the local loamy soil; a mixture of sand, silt, clay and rich organic matter.

img_1205We wend our way towards town, detouring out of curiosity to see the extensive Leeuwin Estate. The grounds are long closed and the sun is lowering in the sky. Suddenly my husband slams on the brakes, “There’s one,” he says motioning to the field,”there, between that row.” I leap out of the car and creep to the fence. No it’s gone, just hopped away…maybe I saw a tail?

We decide to call it a day, but chance upon the Brewhouse and stop for an early evening libation. Reportedly opened by ‘three mates who wanted their own bar to walk to’, it is busy on this Sunday evening. A lively band plays outside while kids happily run amok. Locals greet each other warmly…eveyone seems to know everyone in Margs. In walks the crew from Vasse Felix, they recognize us and give us a shout.

Ah I love this place, it’s so like TofinoI happily remind myself that I’m destined to return. A friend of mine owns a small vineyard here and though we missed each other this time, I’ll most definitely take her up on the offer of a private tour. Felix indeed…

We take it easy on a small sofa and warm ourselves by a wood-burning fire, a couple soon plunks themselves down on the other. There is an instant connection with Julie and Chris. Originally English, Julie is a nurse and cannot fathom ever leaving her adopted country. Her boyfriend is a local through and through and is immediately charming. Chris’s stereotypical Aussie accent gives his stories even more character; maybe with just a bit of extra flourish thrown in for us…to make us feel welcome no doubt. We laugh our way through an animated and illuminating conversation.

Chris tells us he was once a ‘copper’ but is now a builder. I sense he wishes he had his brother’s job…piloting helicopters along the coast to spot sharks. “That’s a job? I mean is that necessary?” I ask naively.

“Oh yeah darl, bloody sharks are everywhere, we need Shark Watch here in Oz.”

“Really, I didn’t know! And this darl,” I ask, “you’re the third guy this week to call me that, is it doll?”

“No it’s darlin’ of course,” he says and then it comes to me. Wonderfully, Chris reminds me of my one-eyebrowed friend back on the beach in Greece. Full circle.

Our new friends talk about the weather and how it impacts daily life. “Oh yeah,” explains Chris, “our lifestyle involves the ocean mate, you don’t do anything unless you’ve checked the conditions first.” Julie nods in agreement and mentions that they’ve spent the day diving for abalone, ah, another idyllic day.

“That’s for sure,” Chris chimes in. “Nothing better here. You load up the ute, throw in the eski and the barbie. Ya got your shadey, ya got your ‘shelia’,” he roars, slapping Julie’s thigh playfully.

“Don’t you dare call me a ‘shelia’, Julie warns in mock outrage.

Funny thing is, I understood all of that perfectly.

You load up your 4 WD, you throw in the cooler and the barbecue. You’ve got your sunshade or awning (hitched permanently on any vehicle worth their salt in this region) and you’ve got your girl.

It all sounds perfectly fabulous to me!

Alas, the eventful, fun, idyllic day that never seemed to end, has indeed done just that. Ok, so we didn’t see a silly kangaroo we tell ourselves as we drive back to Vintner’s Retreat, our charming B&B, fittingly situated on Merlot Place. During our stay, a steady stream of birds have flitted in and out of the garden to show off…28’s, galahs, lorikeets, roselles and kookaberros. Rose, our gracious hostess, had mentioned the ‘friends’ that visit her front lawn. “I have kangaroos here all the time, it’s very normal.”

We pull into the driveway and we damn near faint. There on the front grass, I kid you not, are two of the illusive Macropus Rufus

The kangaroos pop up from their grazing and turn their heads towards us as we get out of  the car…“You two finally home? We’ve been waitin’ for ya mates!”


Post Script: And on the next morning, it all became so easy. ‘Go to the golf course’ we were told at breakfast…oh, yeah, there were mobs of them….