Visiting the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia

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During a journey through Peninsula Malaysia in February 2006, I saw industrial-scale Oil Palm and Rubber Plantations from one end of the country to the other, broken up by small holdings containing a diverse range of annuals and tree crops e.g. Sugar Cane, Tapioca (Cassava) Rice, Maize Melons, Pineapple, Banana, Papaw, Mango, Guava, Pummelo, Lemon, Longan, Soursop, Rollinia, Starfruit, Dragonfruit, Duku, Durian, Coconut and Teak timber. For me the highlight of the peninsula was the Cameron Highlands, a high-rainfall area of rainforest-clad mountains, 200 kms north-west of the capital Kuala Lumpur. Ideal conditions for horticulture are provided by the cool mountain air at an altitude of 1500-1800 metres together with higher than average rainfall and reasonable-looking orange-brown soils.

Large tea estates are commonplace throughout, especially on the less-accessible slopes higher up. These were founded from the 1920’s by British expatriates with colonial experience from India. Some have their own tea-processing factories on site, together with workers’ quarters villages for the hand-pickers who can earn up to AUD$16.00 per day (paid at the rate of 8 cents per kilogram). Apart from the tea and he odd tiny plot of bananas or citrus, no formal orchards of tree crops were seen. Some scattered durians and bananas are grown semi-wild along the forest margins.

The predominant activity is the growing of vegetables. Enormous shade houses cover almost every available bit of flat land; steep hillsides are infinitely stepped and terraced; and channels and pipes from hilltop springs and ponds feed irrigation networks throughout. Whilst some Cabbage, Beans Chilli, Choko, Tomato, Taro etc are planted out in the open fields, the majority of growing appears to take place under the filtered light of various types of shade-houses. These are built in many different styles. Whilst the very latest versions include permanent portal-frame steel constructions like our own industrial buildings, most are flimsily built with light steel tubing or light hardwood posts set into concrete or rammed-earth footings, supporting flat or igloo-shaped coverings of green/yellow/grey woven fabrics, flat or corrugated fibreglass sheeting or heavy-duty clear plastic wrap. A lot of this super-structured appears fairly weathered and new constructions are commonplace. Considering the big picture with many hectares of valleys and hillsides sheeted over with short-term plastic coverings, I expect there would be a significant waste disposal problem. Underneath the shade-houses, the various crops are planted either directly in the ground in cultivated rows or in individual pots fed with micro-drippers or in hydroponic piping at waist height. Commonly seen were strawberry, tomato, cabbage cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, Asian greens, chilli, capsicum, ornamental pot plants and various cut flowers including roses. Less common were orchids, cactus and butterflies.

In the various small towns, farm-supply warehouses provide the infrastructure needed for packaging and freight-collection for trucking the produce down to the closest lowland city of Ipoh and beyond. Technical support is provided at the largest town of Tanah Rata by a government research station – a branch of MARDI (Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute). Visits by appointment only.

Throughout peninsula Malaysia, civil engineers have prioritized soil erosion control in view of the high intensity rainfalls of around 2000-2500 throughout. Even more so in the highlands with bigger downpours, steeper slopes and disturbed groundcovers. Even the most minor public road is sealed and provided with generously sized drainage culverts. The road-cuttings on the mountain-sided accesses into the highlands are mostly cut with stepped sides, often completely sprayed over with pumped concrete and always drained by an intricate network of concreted channels, often fitted with their own pipe spout “fountains”. Anchor bolts commonly lock the rock-faces back into the hillsides; and the latest “permeable” trend is towards using blocks of loose rocks encased in wire-netting, stacked up against the slopes like sandbags.

When all else fails, roadside landslips are temporarily stabilized by wrapping with huge swathes of blue poly tarp or clear plastic to keep the rain off. Other attractions of the area include numerous forest walking trails, waterfalls and excellent tourist accommodation, making this a very desirable destination for anybody contemplating a visit to Malaysia.

Note from Sheryl: Robert is a long-time member who lives at Lillian Rock in NSW and grows tamarillos commercially.

His previous trip was to Cambodia and Laos.