ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : Trek Into the Borneo Rain Forest Offers Thrills and Comfort Enough

Wells is a free-lance writer living in Portola Valley, Calif.

The rain forests of the world have gotten a lot of attention lately, threatened with extinction from logging, thinning ozone and slash-and-burn farming. But it's hard to imagine just what real, dense, 100% virgin jungle is like.

It's green.

Everywhere green, an unending chaos of leaves, vines, trees, moss, green bugs, green snakes, green frogs. Perpetually steamy and, during the day, oppressively quiet. It's almost, well, dull at first. But hang around and there are splashes of color, elusive surprises and, at dusk, an unforgettable cacophony of sound.

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, sits in the South China Sea and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It has some of the world's oldest and most fertile rain forest, much of it unexplored and inaccessible. And much of it being systematically destroyed.

Smack in the heart of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, sits Gunung Mulu National Park. It has been promoted in the last two years by the Malaysian government for travelers who like adventure with at least minimal comforts.

Tourists can hire guides to explore the park caves, the most extensive cave network in the world, as well as for journeys through the jungle on guided treks.

My five-day journey, guided by two Malaysia National Parks and Wildlife Office rangers, took me from pitch-dark cave depths to the top of the jungle, where the razor-sharp limestone formations called the Pinnacles rush 150 feet up into the sky.

I imagined the rain forest as gentle and mystical, a place for tropical meditations and a chance to see flora and fauna found only in the rain-forest environment. The trip had its moments of mystical enchantment, but gentle it was not.

The journey to Mulu started in Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lampur, which offers the only direct flight to Miri, a town on the northern coast of Sarawak. There are no roads into Mulu; from Miri, visitors can fly into the park by chartering a helicopter for a 45-minute ride, but getting there the way the people who live there do--by water--is half the fun.

The Baram River is the main transport artery for Malaysia's myriad ethnic groups in northern Sarawak. Iban, Bidayuh, Kelabit and Berawan tribes live along the river in longhouses: communal villages under one roof.

The first part of the journey upriver takes eight hours. The express boat that was our mode of transportation was equipped with air conditioning and a television blaring Asian movies. We motored past immense piles of trees ready for export, as well as the occasional crocodile sunning on a muddy bank.

One elderly fellow passenger on his way home wore brass loops through his ears and the traditional straw-and-hornbill-feather hat of a Berawan warrior, indicating that when he was younger he was a warrior with one of the rain-forest tribes. His wife was adorned with tattooed fingers and arms and earlobes that stretched to her shoulders from the weight of heavy brass pendulums.

When the river becomes too shallow for the big boats, passengers must transfer for the final two-hour leg of the trip to a long boat--a flat, motorized wood canoe. At high speeds the bow popped up out of the water, spraying cascades behind. When the boat bottomed out, it became necessary for us to walk the boat through the current, slipping and stumbling in the twilight.

And so we arrived at Mulu, with the moon as our only lantern.

For cave lovers, Mulu is the place to go. With a special permit from park headquarters in Miri, spelunking experts can explore the most spectacular passageways, such as Black Rock Cave or Sarawak Chamber--the largest enclosed space in the world, with enough room for 16 football fields.

For those whose advanced equipment includes only running shoes, exploration of some of the caves is possible on wooden walkways illuminated by electric lights.

The man-made additions may seem a bit hokey and intrusive but they do offer protection from stepping in piles of bat guano and cockroaches. Suddenly the plank walks--there to protect the delicate formations and wildlife, as well as the visitors--become quite civilized.

Our plan was to spend two days visiting four of the five caves open to the public.

Clearwater Cave, with its 40-mile underground river, is the longest underground passageway in Southeast Asia.

Lang's Cave has knobs and twists and paper-thin ribbon formations curling from cavernous ceilings, and fragile one-inch stalactites, each with a drop of water at the tip. Our guide led us crawling into a corner where thumb-size bats roosted inches above our heads.

Deer Cave looks and smells like something out of a horror film: mounds of bat guano reek of ammonia, and slimy green boulders line the gaping entrance, which is the biggest in the world. The damp, brown, pot-holed earth crawls with guano-eating roaches.

Once inside, there's an uncanny silhouette of Abraham Lincoln formed by back-lit rocks at the cave mouth. There are no lights in Deer Cave; alongside the plank walk, guano worms glow neon green in the dark. At the far entrance to the cave is the "Garden of Eden," a long shimmering veil of mist trailing down from the ceiling.

After taking a swim in the underground river, we waited outside the cave mouth for the daily dusk flight of the cave's free-tailed bats. Thousands of them whirled out in a group, formed a circle, then a black ribbon through the darkening sky. The only sound was the whoosh of their wings beating against the air.

We walked back to our rest house with the sounds of an awakening night jungle around us. The day's trip had been a sensory extravaganza yet not physically arduous. But it was just the prelude to another adventure. The next day's trek to the Pinnacles was to offer a glimpse inside the real jungle. In the movies, Tarzan may have been king of the jungle, but in this instance we clearly were just a small element in a place teeming with nature, some of which was not particularly hospitable to humans.

The trek started with a 45-minute boat ride and a three-hour hike through the jungle. To ward off leeches, I took the advice of our guide, Sazali, and smeared tobacco juice all over my skin. The human cigarette trick worked--for the 10 minutes before I sweated it all off. At least leech bites don't hurt. The creatures thoughtfully exude an anesthetic when they bite, along with an anti-coagulant, so the bites bleed long after the little buggers have had their fill.

Lodging for the night was a raised wood platform with a fire pit and sloping tin roof to keep off the rain. It poured and thundered all night long, but the weather didn't daunt the nocturnal activity. I tossed and turned with what must have been a boulder-size frog croaking in one ear and a barrage of chirping in the other.

It's hard not to obsess about all the eerie sounds of the night jungle. I thought for just a minute about what could be causing those itchy welts on my ankles: small black wild boar ticks, leeches, black flies, elephant ants, fire ants, poisonous butterflies, at least a zillion kinds of mosquitoes. It was a relief when the sun came up and lulled most creepy-crawlies to sleep.

We started to climb early, the sun barely filtering through the dense canopy of trees and vines. It's not a trek for the faint-hearted: four steep hours up a tangle of slippery roots, wet leaves and sharp limestone. Near the top it's an obstacle course of fixed ropes and ladders over mossy rock walls and trees.

During frequent stops to gasp for breath, we spotted the Rajah Brook butterfly, an elegant creature with a luminous turquoise chevron across its velvety black wings, and saw some of the park's 1,500 species of flowering plants. I tried not to think about Mulu's 458 species of ants and 8,000 types of fungi.

At the top was an endless spread of rain forest thousands of feet below. We were at the top of the jungle, surrounded by the Pinnacles: 150-foot tall formations jutting dagger-like out of the trees. Around us were footlong carnivorous pitcher plants, which hold water and feed on the insects that fall in. We perched on the jagged gray stones, ate chicken curry and rice and took in the view until the clouds and mist swirled in.

Going down was another four-hour epic. I planted my walking stick firmly into the slope with one hand and held on to the guide with my other. At the bottom, I hobbled on jelly knees to the river and floated in the cool, clear water before wolfing down fresh fish caught and cooked by the guides.

The next morning we had a soggy three-hour walk back to the boats. The guides offered to take us to another cave but all I wanted was a shower, dry clothes and a leech inspection. It was the kind of trip that I knew would get better once I was dry and clean and safely behind screened doors. But for adventure, challenge and exotic beauty, the rain forest lived up to its promises.

GUIDEBOOK

Gunung Mulu National Park

Getting there: Flights to Kuala Lumpur from Los Angeles are offered by Malaysian, Korean and Singapore Airlines, Japan Air Lines, Cathay Pacific or Thai Airways.

Gunung Mulu National Park visitors must obtain permits from the National Parks and Wildlife Office in Miri, Malaysia, the nearest city.

Where to stay: Accommodations at park headquarters includes a youth hostel and government-run rest house that costs about $25 a night for a room for six. There's no restaurant, so bring food and use the kitchen to cook.

Helicopters, which fit four to six people depending upon luggage, can be chartered from Boskym in Miri for about $650 per hour.

Average cost for hiring guides and river transport: $10 a day for a longboat, plus fuel and $1 per horsepower for an outboard engine; $20 a day for a driver and scout; $6 a day for trekking/caving guides; $10 a day for overnight trips. Or book a package deal through travel agencies in Miri. For about $300, travelers get accommodations (often in the house of the agent's family or friends who live in the park), plus food, guides and transport for five days.

For more information: Contact the Malaysian Tourist Information Center, 818 West 7th St., Los Angeles 90017, (213) 689-9702.

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