Walking Atop 130 Million Years of Tropical Forest
By Habeeb Salloum
May 6, 2009
"I'm expecting it to be a trip of a lifetime", a young English woman who was a member of our tour group remarked during our conversation about Taman Negara - the national park of Peninsular Malaysia. "I can't wait to get there!" She appeared to be excited as we waited for our mini-bus, taking us to the edge of that zealously protected park, containing the world's oldest tropical rainforest.
Soon, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's stunningly attractive capital was behind us as we made our way northeast through the tamed jungles of the country. Once covering the whole of Malaysia, the forests of the coastal strip, to a large extent, have been transformed into palm oil and rubber plantations. Once, along with tin, the main products of the country, they have been out-stripped by industry, now employing 75% of Malaysia's workforce.
In the past Peninsular Malaysia was covered by all encompassing forests. The 19th century biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace, when he saw for the first time these virgin forests, remarked, "It's a world in which man appears to be an intruder."
Well he had a point for even today, mostly evergreen rainforests still cover over 60% of the Peninsula - in all of Malaysia, forest and tree plantations encompass an area equivalent to almost the entire United kingdom. The blanket of green begins at the edge of the sea, then climbs up rugged hills to the highest point in the land. This tropical rainforest is often referred to as 'jungle', but this is more properly applied to parts of the forest with secondary growth, after the giant trees have been logged.
Rainforests have covered the 131,598 sq km (50,810 sq mi) Peninsular Malaysia's hinterland since the dawn of time. Believed to be the oldest in the world, the forests of Malaysia and the neighbouring countries stretch back some 130 million years, making the African and South American rainforests seem adolescent in comparison.
While the ice-fields were moving forward, then retreating in the northern Hemisphere, the forests in Southeast Asia slept through a 100 million years of uninterrupted hibernation, escaping the ice age which killed the ancient rainforests of Africa and South America. While these forests were eradicated more than once, those of Southeast Asia continued to diversify their plant and animal life.
Through untold millennia these forest elements became linked together in a sophisticated web of symbiotic and specialized relationships. Today, the variety of these species is unmatched any place else on the globe. In the forests of Peninsular Malaysia, there are over 14,500 species of plants - 1,376 of these having medical values. They include 2,000 types of trees, 800 kinds of orchids, over 200 species of palms and the raffesia, the world's largest flower - up to 1 m (3.3 ft) across and weighing up to 9 kg (20 lb).
Besides the rare types of flora and fauna only native to Southeast Asia, there are plants and animals found here which also thrive in other parts of the world - from the Alps to the Himalayas and the mountains of China. This has produced by far the richest, most complex and diverse natural habitat on earth.
On the coast, there are over 30 types of mangrove trees which give way to lowland tropical rainforests, containing the valuable hardwoods: beian, chegal (ironwood), jelutong, melaws, meranti, merbau and Sarawakian, for which Malaysia is renowned. Their accessibility has made these forests commercially important. Hence, many of the natural hardwoods have disappeared, being replaced by profitable viable plantations.
After the 900 m (2,880 ft) level, the montane forest is usually cloud-shrouded. Its trees play a major role in drawing water from the atmosphere - ensuring generous rainfall and little soil erosion. The higher forests, more expensive to exploit, are called the 'guardian of the land'. Above the 1,500 m (4,920 ft) level, the landscape is mainly a carpet of elfin forests, covered with fields of dangling mosses and lichens.
Today, we were on our way to explore some of Peninsular Malaysia's panorama of towering trees, encompassed in an ocean of shrubs, vines and flowers - all to be found in Taman Negara - a huge park containing parts of the world's oldest rainforest. For me, it was a journey of a lifetime.
The expressway traversed evergreen hills, glimmering in the sunlight until in less than a half hour we were climbing on a winding road. After a short distance, we stopped for refreshments at Bandar Karak., about 60 km (36 mi) from Kuala Lumpur - a stopover for buses on their way to Taman Negara.
After Bandar Karak, the construction and the hills ended. Now we were driving on a winding two-lane highway, spanning a lush green countryside, dotted with numerous small urban centres. A short distance after leaving the town of Mentakab, we turned northward and in a few minutes had passed through Jerantut. From there, we drove on a narrow road for about a quarter hour, until we reached Kuala Tembeling - the end of our 220 km (137 mi) bus trip.
Here, at the beginning of our river journey, we paid a one ringgit entrance fee to the park and five ringgits for the camera, then waited at the pier for the perahu (boat) which would take us up river to Taman Negara.
The English lady, still excited, was the first to jump into the boat, shouting out, "It's near! My dream is coming true!" Her enthusiasm seemed to catch on as our group of eight quickly slid into our seats.
As the motor-driven perahu sped over the murky waters of the Tembeling River, I sat back dreamingly relaxed, enjoying the drops from the boat's spray caressing my body. Lars, a Swedish travel agent, no doubt thinking of his business, woke me up from my fantasy. "I'm sure many Swedes will savour a trip up this river. How about Canada? Don't Canadians enjoy sailing their hundreds of rivers?"
For a minute I thought of the historic Canadian voyageurs, then quickly put them out of my mind. They did not have the luxury of motors and warm weather, and afterwards a modern resort which to look forward. Theirs was a life of hardship and danger.
Back in my hallucination, every once in a while, I would open up my eyes to survey the river banks, on both sides covered with thick natural forests. Yet, even though it appeared we were travelling through unspoiled nature, we could glimpse, at times, through openings in the trees, totally camouflaged homes. A coconut palm or two, towering above the natural forest, was a good indication that there was a house nearby. In the past, Malaysians, to quench their thirst, normally drank coconut water and, hence, usually planted palms around their homes.
One and a half hours after leaving Kuala Tembeling, we entered Taman Negara, and an hour later we had disembarked at Taman Negara Resort, after a 60 km (36 mi) journey. Perched on a hill over looking the Tembeling and Tahan Rivers, this jungle sanctuary sprawls over a 6 ha (15 ac) area, edging a 130 million year-old forest. It offers modern facilities to all types of travellers from the affluent to backpackers. A relaxing place to stay while exploring the National Park of Peninsular Malaysia, it extends all the amenities of modern life in a jungle atmosphere.
Spread across the formidable Titiwangsa Mountain Range, the 4,343 sq km (1,677 sq mi) Taman Negara is one of the top places in the world where one can experience the virgin rainforest. A living treasure trove of Mother Nature, the park sprawls through the backwoods of Malaysia's states of Pahang, Kelantan and Trengganu. Established in 1939, it is the oldest and largest natural sanctuary in the country.
Within its boundaries are to be found every type of inland forest from lowland dipterocrap forests, through oaks and laurels of the intermediate altitudes to the dwarf upper montane cloud-covered ericaceous vegetation. In it is to be found the world's oldest tropical rainforest - truly a virgin jungle, still in a pristine natural state. Up in many of the treetops are huge hanging fern gardens and equatorial orchids that bloom, as the Malaysian say 'for the eyes of God'.
First-timers will not recognize more than a few of the thousands of plant species. Nevertheless, they quickly get an idea of the diversity of this ancient rainforest and are usually overwhelmed by the huge number and richness of its flora and fauna - more than 10,000 species of plants are to be found in the park
This primary forest is composed of five layers. The top level is the sky-reaching trees; below is a continuous canopy of greenery, filled with plants and animals; lower still are smaller trees and below them is a level containing many species of herbs and similar types of plants, leading to the ground level - the growing area of the seeds dropped from the trees. Here, one can barely see the sky, only the surrounding foliage.
The tropical rainforest is often referred to as `jungle', but this is more properly applied to parts of the forest with secondary growth, after the gigantic trees of the primary forest have been logged.
In the midst of this natural jungle, 50 of Malaysia's friendly nomadic aborigines, the Orang Asli, live in harmony with some 600 species of birds, 140 types of snakes, 1,000 varieties of butterflies, perhaps 150,000 kinds of insects and 200 types of mammals - from civets, sun bears, elephants, leopards, monkeys, tapirs and tigers to deer, wild cattle and pigs, rhinoceros, and numerous species of lizards. The Orang Asli are a shy and gentle people with a philosophy that all humankind should heed: 'take little from nature that nature alone cannot heal'.
For visitors, there is much to do and see in this natural paradise. One can trek on difficult forest pathways, explore spectacular caves, swim in crystal clear pools, bird watch, shoot rapids, visit with the Orang Asli if they are in the vicinity, climb the highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia and stroll a 450 m (1,476 ft) canopy walkway - the world's longest.
Travellers can explore most parts of the park on their own, but this is not recommended. In the darkness of the forest floor, without a guide or a well-marked trail, one can easily get lost. In places, the lush vines and shrubs make the forest almost impenetrable.
If one's inclination is fishing, the excitement of angling in the upper reaches of the Tahan or Sungai Keniam rivers, in which live at least 300 species of fish, is an unforgettable experience. Struggling with a 20 lb. kelah (type of fish) is a challenge that will excite the most seasoned of fishermen.
Early in the morning, the prime time to explore the forest, a few of our group were walking amid the trees, many of which seemed to be reaching to the heavens. The chirping of the birds intertwined with the sounds of the animals, active during the daytime and those nocturnal, not yet asleep. The voices of nature were enhanced even more by insects and frogs that seemed to be chirping or whistling like birds - a morning musical orchestra of nature, thrilling in its appeal.
After a hearty breakfast, along with two others from our group, I took a perahu to the stairway leading up to the canopy. The steps seemed never-ending as I laboured up, with sweat pouring out of my whole body. By the time we reached the beginning of the walkway, I was totally exhausted. "You're out of shape", Meor, our guide grinned as he watched me wipe the flood of water covering my face.
At first, I was terrified as I moved warily along, holding on for dear life to the ropes. It appeared every time I looked down that the height of the walkway, 25 to 30 m (82 to 98 ft) above ground, was much more. However, I soon relaxed as an eerie feeling hit me. I felt that I was walking atop the world as I experienced the wilderness from high above.
Below us, we surveyed the top layer of vegetation of the world's oldest tropical rainforest and above towered giant tualang trees on which the canopy ropes were tied, from 60 to 75 m (197 to 246 ft) high. At the end of the walk, Lars described our experience well: "It's a fantastic stroll."
In the afternoon, along with our guide Safyan, we were on a perahu sailing up the Tahan River, filled with stone islands and giant rotting trees. The operator of the boat had an assistant sitting on the bow to help him, with a pole and paddle, navigate the river. Dense jungles covered both banks. At times, giant trees leaned over the river from both sides and intertwined together, forming natural archways under which we passed.
After about an hour, our perahu was beached on a stony bank. From this point, we walked for 30 minutes (to me it seemed hours), on a forest pathway to Lata Berkoh, a spectacular cascade that marks the limit of easy navigation on the river. Here we spent an hour, like seals sunning ourselves on the rocks, after frolicking in the tumbling waters. Refreshed, we retraced our steps, arriving at the Taman Negara Resort in time for dinner.
Should one have time, the top activity in the park is the scaling of the 2,187 m (7,173 ft) high Gunung Tahan Mountain - an adventure of a lifetime. After a gruelling 8 to 9 days trek to the bottom of the mountain, there is still the strenuous climb to its summit. Those who have scaled it have written that atop its misty peak, there is a breath-taking panoramic view of the rainforest. The silvery-clouds gliding over a serpentine river winding its way down through the jungle creates a scenic picture as old as the world itself - uncanny and enticing in its charm.
For nature lovers, the attractions of the park are innumerable and these are being exploited to draw tourists. However a well-trained staff carefully protects the flora and fauna. Not even a leaf can be removed from the park without permission.
Even though, in the past, much of Peninsular Malaysia's rainforests were logged, there is a gathering tide of environmental awareness in the country among both the government and people. Sustainable forest management has long been accepted as the concept and principle of Malaysia's National Forest Policy. Large forest areas have been set-side as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves. The highly protected natural sanctuary of Taman Negara reflects the policy of the Malaysian government in keeping with their peoples' wishes.
As for me, like many others who have visited the park, this policy has paid dividends. We had gloried in pristine nature before returning back to the fast life of the 21st century. Even though I will think much of Taman Negara in the future, like other visitors, my only reminders will be my photographs and the footprints that I left in that 130 million year old sanctuary.
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