Jungle spell

A big percentage of the Malay peninsula was traditionally covered with tropical rainforest, but big chunks of it either have been or are being clear-cut, often to create palm-oil plantations. We’ve passed many logging trucks and sawmills laden with the stout corpses of mahogany and other tropical hardwoods, many a hundred or more years old. But we have the sense that harvesting and selling the wood isn’t the main driver of this environmental devastation; rather it’s the boundless appetite for the oil to fry up all the rice and samosas and other savory dishes.

Still, some nature preserves have been created, and a huge one is the Taman Negara National Park, said to be at least 130 million years old. It’s not on the railway line, so not easy to get to. But Steve and I were determined see it. Monday we endured a twisty 3-hour ride from Kuala Lumpur in a van owned by a big Chinese Malay outfit. The van took us to the Tembeling River where, after a quick lunch, we climbed into a motorized pirogue for the 3-hour river trip to the national park.

I have to report: there are aspects to trips like this that I find enchanting. You’re low enough so you can dip your hand into the cafe au lait water, and the reflections of the jungle along the bank often take my breath away. But three hours is hard on the butt and back and knees (mine, anyway). The heat and whine of the engine and monotony of the passing scenery are natural soporifics. Both of us dozed for part of the ride, and by the time we reached our destination, we agreed we’d prefer to take the van only for the return trip.

We had only one day (two nights) at the “resort” next to the river, just within the park boundaries. With so little time, we practically raced from one activity to another. If a bit frantic, this schedule certainly gave us a taste for the place, which, if you like ancient equatorial rainforests, is magnificent.

Highlights for me were the daytime outings. First thing on Tuesday morning, we trekked 3 hours, climbing from the riverbank a thousand feet up to a vantage point that offered great glimpses of the surrounding country. The change in elevation took us from the steam bath at the bottom to sections that felt almost temperate. And the forest was fantastic, dense and tangled and home to creatures ranging from pit vipers to macaques and gibbons to aboriginal humans who still hunt with blowpipes and poison darts. (The scariest jungle denizen we saw were just the huge golden orb spiders still clinging to the elaborate webs they construct daily).

Our guide wasn’t actually touching this one, just putting his hand in back of it. He told us these spiders are only moderately poisonous.

The flashiest part of our jungle trek (and most-advertised to tourists) was a canopy walk said to be the longest in the world, more than a half-kilometer long and strung from a series of six or seven platforms affixed to huge trees. At the highest point, it swayed almost 150 feet above the forest floor. Even there, at the center of it, the tallest trees stretched far higher over our heads.

Pretty scary. We’re weren’t supposed to stop mid-span.

Even scarier were the steps we had to descend to get to the final platform.

In the afternoon, we took a riverboat upstream to visit a tiny village of Bateq people — some of Malaysia’s Orang Asli (“original people”). They and other tribes ARE the people who still support themselves largely by hunting forest animals with poison darts. In fact, a big part of our time with them consisted in learning how they make the blowpipes and darts — and trying our skill at hitting a target with them. Some of the details of Bateq’s lives are pretty astonishing: it sounds like they’re still largely hunter-gatherers, with some tribes more nomadic than others. Our guide claimed that the villagers we were visiting pack up their simple belongings and move pretty often — every time one of the group members dies. He further explained that the Bateq dispose of their dead by wrapping them up in leaves, putting them on platforms, and hoisting them up huge trees deep in the jungle.

Steve didn’t hit the target, but he came pretty close.

I don’t regret doing either of the night activities we engaged in. On the first evening, we set off a little before 9 pm on a walk in search of exotic jungle fauna. We didn’t spot any sun bears or black panthers or elephants or Sumatran tigers (mostly they’re glimpsed in remoter areas of the park). But we did ooh and ah over a very large black scorpion and a couple of shy green tree snakes. Even if we’d seen nothing, we heard enough buzzing and clicking and chirping and croaking to make me feel Yoda would have felt right at home here.

Steve felt the second night’s activity was a bust, but I found it both wild and educational, in its own way. It had been billed as a “night safari” in which one would be driven along the edge of the park to look for bigger wild animals from the comfort of a vehicle. But the vehicle turned out to be a small extended cab pick-up truck. The back was open and equipped with two rough benches running down the long axis. Five of us crammed in there, including Steve and me, while two other guys and a spotter/guide had to sit on the roof. (“Just don’t tell my mother about this,” yelped one of the tourists, a tall, good-humored rheumatologist from Amsterdam.)

We tore down the highway and within minutes stopped to admire something marvelous: a white sloth running along an electrical wire. I’ve never seen a sloth before and didn’t think they could run that fast. He must have been scared of us. In a moment or two, however, he settled into that famous, cartoonish and comical slow-motion amble along the high wire. We drove on, and after a while turned off onto a rough dirt road that at first took us through a palm-oil plantation. I found it creepy, dense and vaguely menacing with all those thick palm fronds not far overhead; I kept thinking about the huge bird-eating spiders that live in these parts. But soon we moved out of the plantation and for an hour or so drove through ruined countryside littered with the corpses of dead palms and occasional clumps of human garbage.

The spotters shone powerful flashlights out both sides of the truck. They lighted little of interest: some wandering cows, a large owl, a small feral cat. Distant lightning flashed. For mile after mile, we saw nothing moving in the moonscape all around us. It seemed exactly what one should find when you cut down a magnificent forest, plant palm trees, and later abandon them: almost nothing that’s alive and wonderful. 

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