An an­cient World Her­itage na­tional park in Malaysia’s Sarawak is in dan­ger, says Ruth Mathew­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHEN Michael Api sits around an evening camp­fire with his mates, the boys with whom he has wres­tled, joked and shared meals since child­hood, their chat­ter al­most al­ways turns wist­fully to ‘‘ the good old days’’. They speak not of footy fields, bowl­ing al­leys and burger joints but of their affin­ity with the re­ced­ing forests of the Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park and their van­ish­ing place within them.

As fire­flies dart through the hu­mid sub­trop­i­cal nights, th­ese men in their 30s talk of how good life was when their fa­thers and grand­fa­thers would re­turn from a hunt, of­ten with the sweet treat of jun­gle fruit bear­ing food for the com­mu­nity. ‘‘ They would get a wild boar a cou­ple of times a week,’’ Api tells me. ‘‘ They’d carve out the kid­ney first and bar­be­cue it as a treat for the chil­dren.’’

Api is sway­ing on a wooden walk­way 30m above ground in one of the rich­est re­main­ing rain­forests on earth. From the canopy-level plat­form, he sur­veys Malaysia’s Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park, at the north­east­ern end of the state of Sarawak, on the is­land of Bor­neo.

The an­cient for­est is thought to con­tain 3500 plant species, more than 8000 types of fungi and 20,000 an­i­mal species. Ten va­ri­eties of pitcher plants and more than 170 types of wild orchid drape the tan­gled green­ery. Orang-utans and long-tailed macaque mon­keys still range free, the low hoot­ing of horn­bills re­sounds through the leaves, pygmy squir­rels dart along branches and bril­liant green Ra­jah Brooke bird­wing but­ter­flies es­cort those travers­ing the park’s board­walks.

Api’s child­hood friends are among the first gen­er­a­tion of Pe­nans, the peace­ful, shy and reclu­sive jun­gle peo­ple of Bor­neo’s in­te­rior, forced out of their no­madic lifestyle and into the coastal towns of Sarawak.

He can point out which types of fish-tail palms can be wo­ven into rat­tan bas­kets and roof­ing or how to find wa­ter. (Cut a liana vine, tip back your head and al­low the wa­ter in the vine to drip into your throat.) Some trees make fine in­stru­ments, sago palms are grated and dried to make flour, and other plants have cu­ra­tive pow­ers, in­clud­ing one that is soaked to cre­ate a tea-like lo­tion for chicken pox vic­tims.

But many of the medicines, tra­di­tions and knowl­edge are be­ing lost, rel­e­gated to the mem­o­ries of el­derly and mid­dle-aged Pe­nans. Log­ging com­pa­nies are de­stroy­ing the wild ar­eas the no­mads call home. Thou­sands of hectares of jun­gle have been bull­dozed and jun­gle gi­ants felled, chain­sawed into mas­sive logs and shipped out by river barge and truck. Where once ex­isted ver­dant old­growth for­est now there are vast scars of fiery orange dirt, pit­ted log­ging trails and the botan­i­cal waste­land of oil palm plan­ta­tions.

Pe­nan com­mu­ni­ties have tra­di­tion­ally taken only what they need from the jun­gle — enough food for the mo­ment, suf­fi­cient medicines to heal their sick — and moved on, leav­ing each for­mer camp­site to re­gen­er­ate. They walked lightly on the earth, erect­ing only the most rudi­men­tary huts at each site.

When the lu­cra­tive log­ging be­gan, the Sarawak gov­ern­ment be­gan herd­ing th­ese for­est no­mads into per­ma­nent long houses and open­ing some for tourist pho­to­graphs, with mar­kets where women sell their bead­ing, weav­ing and hand-made mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

Their in­hab­i­tants look beaten down amid the muddy squalor of their new non-jun­gle homes.

Api has cho­sen to weld his life with the rain­for­est as best he can, sign­ing up as a na­tional parks staff mem­ber. He shows vis­i­tors around the Gu­nung Mulu area, a World Her­itage-listed site fea­tur­ing one of the largest cave sys­tems in the world. The park ex­tends al­most to the west­ern border of the oil-rich sul­tanate of Brunei, travers­ing wide flood-prone rivers, rain­for­est and awe­some lime­stone ge­o­log­i­cal struc­tures. One cav­ern, the Sarawak Cham­ber, is re­puted to be large enough to house 40 jumbo jets.

There’s an easy trek along well-main­tained board­walks to Lang Cave and Deer Cave, where a roof cavein has opened a glo­ri­ous cham­ber of sun­light and tall palms, dubbed the Gar­den of Eden. A 25-minute long­boat ride along the Melinau River, or an hour’s walk, takes you to the mag­nif­i­cent Clearwater, Moon Milk, Wind and Young Lady caves. Those who wash their faces in the cool, sub­ter­ranean wa­ter source of Young Lady Cave, part of the 51km Clearwater sys­tem, are said to emerge with more youth­ful skin. A word of warn­ing: self-con­ducted em­pir­i­cal tests yield no no­tice­able re­sults.

The icy stream emerges into a rain­for­est-fringed, crys­tal-clear swim­ming hole, to the re­lief of sweaty trekkers. Lang Cave is a won­der­land of sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites, the ef­fect en­hanced by stun­ning light­ing, path­ways and stairs that are a great feat of work­man­ship in them­selves.

About two mil­lion bats are thought to live in Deer Cave alone. At dusk each day, ex­cept dur­ing rain, they emerge like an ephemeral and seem­ingly end­less smoke stream from the mouth of the cave, in pur­suit of their nightly feed of about nine tonnes of in­sects. Rap­tors soar and cir­cle in the warm draughts above the cliff face, ready to swoop and pluck their evening meal from the flap­ping buf­fet.

In other parts of the park, sheer lime­stone pin­na­cles up to 45m tall rise like grey knife blades from the jun­gle.

When I first vis­ited Mulu and its caves in 1991, the jour­ney by river bus and mo­torised long­boat to the gov­ern­ment rest­house in the in­te­rior lasted from dawn un­til dusk, end­ing in a tent pitched on the river­bank. Along the wider stretches of the river, the strag­gling saplings re­main­ing on the banks were of­ten dwarfed by barges laden with gar­gan­tuan logs bound for ex­port.

To­day, vis­i­tors take a 30-minute plane ride from the coastal town of Miri and are driven the cou­ple of kilo­me­tres to the five-star Royal Mulu Re­sort, com­pletely built on poles to hold it above sea­sonal flood­wa­ters, or at the nearby na­tional park guest­house, chalets or hos­tel.

Th­ese changes have made the area more ac­ces­si­ble to fam­i­lies, al­low­ing new gen­er­a­tions to ap­pre­ci­ate the mag­nif­i­cence of the caves, rain­for­est and wildlife of the Mulu area. For my eight-year-old, the ex­pe­ri­ence proves vastly more en­rich­ing and, hope­fully, of more last­ing ben­e­fit, than a school hol­i­day of theme parks and re­sorts. As he watches a lu­mi­nous green pit viper slide swiftly from the board­walk be­fore him and on to the stem of an el­e­gant fern, my son de­clares it ‘‘ the best mo­ment of my life’’. The ex­po­sure to a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, new foods, the del­i­cately bal­anced ecosys­tem of the rain­for­est and the knowl­edge of what is hap­pen­ing to re­duce the world’s mag­i­cal green spa­ces may en­cour­age our next gen­er­a­tion to act more re­spon­si­bly than its pre­de­ces­sors.

As for Api, he is plan­ning to re­turn soon to his home at Long Kerong, eight hours by four-wheel-drive and an­other 11/ days by long­boat from the near­est town of Miri. Log­gers are push­ing into the last few hun­dred hectares of pris­tine rain­for­est in the area and he wants to be there to help man the largely sym­bolic bam­boo block­ades. He hopes in­ter­na­tional film crews will ar­rive soon to broad­cast warn­ings of the dev­as­ta­tion of the rain­for­est to the out­side world.

But will view­ers in the out­side world care about the de­struc­tion of ir­re­place­able forests and the loss of count­less species of plants and an­i­mals? If they were to meet Api and spend a few days wan­der­ing his mag­i­cal work­place, they surely would.


Malaysia Air­lines flies daily to Kuala Lumpur from Syd­ney, Bris­bane and Perth, with on­ward con­nec­tions to Miri. Airasia sub­sidiary Fly Asian Xpress (FAX) flies from Miri to Mulu air­port daily. Trav­ellers can also make a 10-hour trip up the Baram River from Miri to Mulu but need to hire a long­boat for the last part of the jour­ney from Long Ter­awan to Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park. www.mulu­park.com www.malaysi­aair­lines.com www.bor­ne­o­re­sorts.net www.royal­mu­lure­sort.com www.airasia.com

Tow­er­ing sen­tinels: Lime­stone pin­na­cles in Mulu Na­tional Park, Sarawak

Pic­ture: Ruth Mathew­son

Il­lu­mi­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: Vis­i­tors leave Deer Cave be­fore the evening ex­o­dus of bats

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