An ancient World Heritage national park in Malaysia’s Sarawak is in danger, says Ruth Mathewson
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
Illuminating experience: Visitors leave Deer Cave before the evening exodus of bats