The canoe floated with the gentle current over the tea-colored water. Deep shadows hung along the river banks where creepers grew thick among the high arching trees. Calls of a thousand creatures created a tranquil tapestry of sound.
Suddenly, without warning, a huge bird appeared overhead, resplendent against blue sky, its wings outstretched as it soared across an opening in the jungle canopy. In an instant it was gone. After a stunned silence, we tried to express what we had just seen, the almost spiritual appearance of the hornbill, the coincidence that all of us had been looking up at that exact instant.
The canoe floated on, the helmsman smiled, the trees drifted past and the jungle continued to call.
We were floating through one of the world's oldest tropical rain forests deep in the heart of the Malaysian Peninsula. This area never experienced any glaciation or other corrosive geological forces; it has been jungle for 130 million years.
We were a group of seven: a German couple, a vagabond Swiss of high intensity and soft heart, an American traveling the East before her post-doctoral studies, two travel writers and Sahtwant Singh, our Asian Overland guide.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Asian Overland is the only adventure company that takes groups into this jungle. Sahtwant is a charming 21-year-old Sikh whose parents emigrated from India's Punjab.
We were exploring Malaysia's great national park, Taman Negara, which covers about 2,715 square miles. It became Gunung Tahan Park in 1935, named after peninsular Malaysia's highest mountain. In 1939 it became King George V Park, and finally Taman Negara with Malaysian independence in 1957.
The park has more than 15,000 species of plant life, 6,300 species of trees alone. Wildlife includes tapirs, mouse deer, barking deer, sambar, wild boar and several cats, including civet cats, bear cats and the elusive tiger. There are also elephants and Sumatran rhino, but sightings are rare.
The trip to Taman Negara begins at Kuala Tembeling, a frontier river town four hours by bus from Kuala Lumpur. The 38-mile trip to Juala Tahan, park headquarters, takes three hours by motorized canoe, low boats that can carry 10 people. The Tembeling River is wide and the far banks were thick with jungle.
We passed settlements with small plots of corn and bananas. Locals waved to us; children played in the waters along the banks. The river was no deeper than six feet, twice that during the November-January rainy season. We saw a fair amount of traffic on the water, small motorized canoes ferrying items between settlements.
Just a few years ago most of this traffic was poled along in dugout canoes. Progress has come, but one wonders whether it has pushed the orang asli, the Malaysian aborigines, farther back into the rain forest.
Beautiful peaks came in and out of view as we followed bends in the river. Creepers dripped from trees and fell into the water like leafy bead curtains. Thunderheads across the sky caught the afternoon light in pinks and purples.
The only sounds were of the river and the motor propelling us deeper into the jungle. Some of the group slept, rocked by the motion of the canoe. Others drifted in thought, caught in a world of blue sky, purple clouds, red river and the deep ethereal green of the jungle. The light was soft and fading in a painted sky when we reached Kuala Tahan.
This camp at the confluence of two rivers has a magical quality. Part of the lure of the jungle is its fertility. It's nature at its most fecund, where the world is a riot of growth, full of things mysterious and unknown. It leads us into exploration of strange forces and a deeper look into ourselves.
At dusk a herd of wild boar and a sambar invaded the camp, and over dinner Sahtwant described our schedule for the next three days. The group loosened up with discussion of leeches, hardly a problem in the dry season. They don't fall from the trees here, only come up from the ground. If you walk with a light step they won't bother you; they feel heavy footsteps and move toward them. But they can smell blood 15 feet away.
That night we bedded down to the raucous sounds of the jungle. Later we were lulled to sleep by the roar of rain on the tin roof.
After an early breakfast Sahtwant sprayed our shoes with pesticide to thwart leeches and led our first jungle trek to the summit of Bukit Teresek at 1,150 feet. The trail wound through dense growth past huge trees whose roots stood three feet high. The ground was thick with black leaves, the soil red and sandy where visible, and slippery when wet.
Little light filtered through. The air was warm and damp. Smells were pungent with the rain forest's constant cycle of growth and decay.
Along the way we learned about nest ferns--succulents that grow high up the trunks of trees and look like giant nests--lianas, or water vine, a good source of water. (If you cut off a section you can drink the water in it, but you must make a second cut below the first one or the water will be sucked up the vine. Older vines with rough bark provide good, clear water; young ones are milky and poisonous.)
We learned about barringtonia, exquisite hanging strands of red flowers that bloom once, and only at night, that smell like a human corpse to draw insects for pollination. We learned to identify the various trees, the merbau and meranti tembaga and kerayang and merawan damar .
We heard the "wo-wo" call of the white-handed gibbon, the song of the "perfect octave" bird, called that because that's what it sings, and the sounds of the cicada and bush cricket. We watched the leeches waving their match-stick bodies about, smelling our blood, frustrated as we moved on.
At the summit we rested and took long drinks from water bottles. Wisps of fog drifted in the canopy above the river far below. The calls of birds and insects were constant.
Sahtwant pointed out an old landing strip used by the British before the Japanese conquest in World War II. The Japanese, he said, stole bicycles from the natives and rode south to Singapore along the British-built roads.
We descended along the slippery trail. Some of us found vines to swing on, responding to the call of long-lost fantasies. An hour later we came to the river and waded in for a swim, unconcerned about the ikan buntal, the fish that bites fingernails and toenails. Because of last night's rain, Sahtwant said, the fish would not be a problem.
The current was gentle but insistent, and one of the group asked if he could swim back to camp. It wasn't far, Sahtwant said. Three of us floated away when it was time to head back for lunch. It was an experience to remember: swimming down a dark river surrounded by brooding jungle.
Our imaginations worked overtime. Was that a crocodile or a log? Ah, but then we saw vines hanging over the water, and the Lord Greystoke in each of us was alert; we swam on.
Off to See the Bats
After lunch we climbed into boats for a trip downriver to explore bat caves. Walking along the trail, the jungle overpowered the senses once again, but the sounds and smells were more familiar by this time.
We made a motley crew with our jungle hats and bandannas; armed with flashlights, we entered one at a time into an otherworldly haven of blackness, dripping water and the sour lemony stench of bat droppings. Voices called out reassurances. Gasps of wonder floated through the caverns. Bats hung everywhere, from the ceiling, from crevices, looking into the flashlight beam with tiny eyes.
We moved on cautiously, using a secured rope for guidance. The bats flew about and we could feel the wing beats against our skin and hear them fluttering by. The rocks were jagged and we passed over crevices holding pools of water. One slip could mean a dangerous injury and a difficult evacuation. It was not for the fainthearted.
Ahead, someone shouted "Snake!" and for a moment we were confused in the blackness. Fifteen feet in front of us a giant cave racer was coiled on a ledge, white and green and yellow, head wavering three feet from the ground, tongue flickering.
Plenty of Bats
It was the kind of thing you never expect to see--a beautiful, horrifying reptile in its natural habitat. There was no easy exit. Sahtwant assured us that it wasn't poisonous, that it had just dined on bats. "Look," he said, "you can see the little bulges in his neck."
After several minutes the cave racer uncoiled and we saw its length, 8 or 10 feet. It was unperturbed by our presence and we moved on to start our slow climb out. To exit meant wedging through a tight space and pulling ourselves up by a rope. The group took on an air of elation as each person emerged, covered with slime. Camaraderie had been forged.
Back at our camp we had just enough time for a shower and a shot of Scotch before we were off again at dusk, by boat, to Bumbun Tabing, an observation hide overlooking a salt lick. A fanfare greeted us as we landed at a recess in the river. It sounded like a giant horn blaring, then like the wail of a bagpipe. "Bush cricket," Sahtwant said, and it was hard to believe that an insect could make such a sound.
The hide was a two-story structure on 20-foot stilts, with a gravity-fed toilet, a wide observation window looking out over a clearing in the bush, and eight bunk beds. We ate dinner and watched night fall. We were silent, full of expectation, peering into the failing light for any hint of movement. In the trees a family of monkeys romped from branch to branch.
Jungle Telephones Ring
The jungle air felt close and heavy. Sweat flowed as we listened to the incessant jumble of night sounds. Some of them defied description, others sounded like buzz saws and telephones ringing.
The salt lick lost definition, and the shapes of bushes and trees became shadows. We swept the darkness with powerful beams every 15 minutes until something glinted back, a pair of eyes gleaming from the blackness. Through binoculars we saw that it was a mouse deer, about two feet tall. We watched it until it disappeared in the bush.
Time passed. Conversations were limited to a few whispers. We couldn't escape the feeling that we were in the middle of a place where we had no power. Our only role was that of observer. We were secure in our elevated post, protected from the wild things surrounding us, but our imaginings took us far into the jungle.
We saw red animal eyes staring into the light. It was a cat, maybe three feet long, with a long tail. No tiger, but sleek and noble, nonetheless. "Civet cat," Sahtwant said, as it moved stealthily, glanced back and disappeared.
Drowsiness came as the hour grew late. Some slept while others found it hard to pull away from the lure of the wild. The night was full of energy and sound.
Keeping watch alone, Jurgen, one of the Germans, saw a bear cat, larger and darker than the civet cat, with a pointed snout. Later the civet cat returned, and tigers entered our waking dreams.
Clouds of Butterflies
On our final day we went 30 minutes upriver and landed on a sunny shore amid clouds of butterflies. At a secluded rapid we looked at a six-foot monitor lizard, then rode with the current and swam in a gently eddying pool.
Stephane, our Swiss companion, walked through the jungle wearing swim briefs and sneakers and was christened matsalleh orang asli (white aborigine) by Sahtwant. And as we left the pool late in the afternoon we heard the creaking roar and thud of a tree falling into the river only yards from where we had been.
That night four of us walked to a hide near camp. We scanned the meadow with the pyramid of Bukit Teresek in the background, watched as clouds obliterated the stars. A breeze began to stir. Moments later flashes of lightning illuminated the distance.
We watched the storm build, watched for animals that didn't appear, and were transfixed by the forces of the jungle.
At dawn five of us took a last float down the river. Over breakfast we weighed the advantages of coming in with an adventure company rather than making our own arrangements, and agreed that the adventure company won hands down.
It may have been cheaper to trek on our own, but the cost of hiring boats to get around the park may have been nearly as much as the tour. Having a guide added considerably to our experience, as Sahtwant taught us a lot about the jungle and took us to places we wouldn't have found on our own.
Park Expanding Facilities
Among other things to do here are fishing, hikes to far camps, bird watching, canoeing, white-water rafting, a five-day expedition to climb Gunung Tahan.
The park is expanding its facilities to draw more visitors; already an airstrip had been built that would bring people within 30 minutes of Kuala Tahan.
When we reached Kuala Tembeling we shared a farewell lunch on the veranda of a restaurant overlooking the river, gazing back over the countless miles of jungle and the snaking red river that had taken us deep into its heart.
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Malaysian Airline System flies twice weekly to Kuala Lumpur from Los Angeles, with a stop in Tokyo. Other carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Northwest Orient and Japan Airlines also have connecting flights to Kuala Lumpur from the United States.
Accommodations range from campsites, $1.50 U.S., to brick chalets with private baths, $19 U.S. Hostel accommodations are available for $3.25 in rooms with eight beds and shared baths. Older chalets, made of wood, are slatted for ventilation and come with mosquito nets and ceiling fans.
The newer brick chalets are airy and bright, with verandas front and back. They also are equipped with nets and ceiling fans. Surprisingly, though, there were few mosquitoes, even at night.
A Day Pack for Treks
Weather is hot and humid, so wear light clothing. A day pack is handy for jungle treks and a light jacket is helpful if it rains. Sneakers or walking shoes are fine, but they will get muddy. Jungle boots and canvas Gators will keep the leeches out, but unless you're especially squeamish about leeches, they aren't necessary.
A powerful flashlight will help you see animals at night; they usually can be provided by your guides. Don't forget a swimsuit and a standard first-aid kit with insect repellent, sunscreen and antibiotic ointment. High-speed film gives best results in the jungle canopy.
Take anti-malarial precautions. Chloroquine is the standard preventive. See your doctor.
If you're making your own arrangements to Taman Negara, contact River Park Sdn. Bhd., 260H, 2nd Mile Jalan Ipoh, 51200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For guided adventure tours, contact Asian Overland Services Sdn. Bhd., 35-M Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman Satu, 50300 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
For general information on travel to Malaysia, contact the Malaysian Tourist Information Center, 818 West 7th Ave., Los Angeles 90017, (213) 689-9702.