Monday, April 4, 2011

Sky High

The undulating calls of gibbons ushered me into my last day in Malaysia. Bob, Jim, and I left early to try the canopy walk before checkout evicted us from our pump shower and free breakfast. The lady at reception said it was an easy 15 minute hike to the platform. It was not. Later, we asked in admiration how she could make that hike so quickly. She smiled shyly, admitting she’d never been to the canopy walk, even though she had worked at the resort for five years.

As the sun pulled lazily over the horizon, the trail welcomed us with all the comfort of a moldy wet blanket. We sweated, I shared my water bottle with the boys, and we walked quickly over exposed roots and muddy divots. The path hung high above the river, and we would occasionally take our eyes off the trail in hope of spotting a monkey in a tree.

The three of us are fairly fit, and I thought we were walking at a fast pace, but suddenly two Malaysian boys sped past without a drop of sweat on their brows, politely leaving our dignity in the mud.

We finally reached a series of steps to the head of the canopy walk. High-pitched cries echoed from the heights and I became excited, figuring monkeys must be just around the bend. I turned a corner, my camera held ready to capture primates in their natural environment, the sight before me registered with my brain, and, deflated, I lowered my camera.

Alas, the calls were coming not from monkeys, but from dozens of primates supposedly higher on the evolutionary tree. We had, my friends, stumbled upon a group of school children. They screeched and pushed each other as they drew line in front of the trail, scaring away every animal within earshot.

The ranger trying to corral the lot took one look at the situation and signaled us ahead. We did so with pleasure.

We paid a small fee, went up a flight of stairs, then stepped onto the scariest walkway I had ever been on.

Strung between trees, a wooden plank was suspended 45 meters above the forest floor, by a line of rope and a small net.

We had to walk single file, because the path was less than a foot wide, and 10 meters had to separate each walker.

I went first and until I got to the 10 meter mark it wasn’t too bad. But then Bob walked on, then Jim.

The bridge swayed wildly as we moved at different cadences.

I held onto both sides of the rope at each step, afraid of losing my balance. At 5’8” I’m not particularly tall, and I was thankful for that. At the start of each bridge, the sides of the net came to my chest, toward the middle, it was down to my stomach, and in the middle of the bridge, just at the point where the sway reached maximum rock-ability, it was at my waist.
My heart raced, thinking how much it would suck to plummet to my death a day after I turned 30.

The end of each bridge wrapped around a large tree trunk, where we scooted around to the next section.

The canopy walk consisted of several bridges. By the time I reached the 4th one I was thankful I hadn’t yet had breakfast. Then I saw the way off the canopy walk.

I imagine that a committee, posed with the question, “What’s a cheap way to get people from the canopy back to ground level?” Might hear responses such as, “How about a ramp?”

“Maybe a sturdy set of stairs?”

But I didn’t expect, “How about you just strap a metal ladder to some rope?”

The committee, hearing this cheap solution may have replied, “But the walk is higher than one ladder.”

“Then how about 2 metal ladders?”

The committee would then cheer this suggestion, the Malaysian equivalent to, ‘huzzah,’ spreading about the room. The result, looks like this:

Doesn’t look too bad right? Well imagine it’s at just the right angle that you can’t turn around and climb down, but have to walk straight down - one slip and you’re tumbling down to the waiting platform.
Oh, and don’t forget, like the rest of the canopy walk, it sways wildly and the rope only comes up to your waist. Sounds a little unnerving huh? It is.
But once you finally reach ground level and your pulse slows down, you realize the canopy walk was pretty awesome . . . and you’re thankful you're not any taller.

That afternoon we left Malaysia, with mixed feelings of KL but great admiration for the country’s rainforest. Landing back in Sydney we were glad to be home, though sad at the end of vacation. But good old Malaysia had given me a parting gift. Unaware to me at the time, I had been given an extra souvenir - a mosquito born parasite that kept me company for months.

Someday I’ll go back to the Malaysian jungle, hike again along the muggy trails, vengefully smash an unsuspecting mosquito into a pulverized blob, and begin another great adventure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Tiger Sleeps Tonight . . .

At least that’s my theory as to why we didn’t see one our last night in Malaysia. Bob, Jim, and I took a night hike with a local guide and stumbled across a couple fornicating in the jungle.
He was stickin it to her.

Our guide was from the town across the river and well versed in the creatures of the rainforest. At the start of our walk he turned off his headlamp and pointed to a tiny, faintly glowing mushroom. It would have been instantly amazing, but since it was a tiny, faintly glowing mushroom . . . that he pointed to in the dark . . . I couldn’t find it. I squinted into the deep black.

“Sorry, where is it?” I asked.

“There,” answered the guide, apparently pointing again in the correct direction.


The guide turned on his lamp and I found myself facing the wrong direction. He guided my eyes to the correct spot then turned off the light, where I found a tiny green mushroom, and other inhabitants.
Spiders crept along trunks and hid under leaf litter, searching for a tasty snack.
(there's more than one spider in this photo)
We hiked for about an hour, haphazardly blinding poor creatures that stumbled upon our path.
A small hole gaped from the side of a little hill, so our guide picked up a stick and poked it. Since childhood, my curiosity of what creatures might hide down a hole, under a crevice, or beneath a rock has led me to get bitten, clawed, stabbed, and chased - so I admired our guide’s approach. A few jabs in the dirt pile and an angry scorpion scuttled out. Our guide however, wasn’t satisfied.

“This is just the male. There will be a larger female inside as well.”

But regardless of how much he tried to irritate her, she couldn’t be coaxed out. I was okay with this, picturing the scorpion rustling around her room to find a miniature pistol.
We left the ticked off male and climbed up a hide where we spotted a sambar deer grazing in a clearing. Unfortunately the tapirs, rhinos and tigers stayed well away from our headlamps, but we saw enough fanged and clawed creatures to make it a successful night hike.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Beneath the Boughs

A tree grows, weaving leaves through twisted canopy to reach the sun. Its roots pull from the soil, cascading downhill, like many others in the rainforest, to drink from the clear water of the river.

A narrow, wooden canoe threads through the river's winding banks, deftly avoiding gray boulders that breach the surface. The canoe is guided by two Malaysian men. One sits at the bow, using a long paddle to steer the boat from rocky collisions. The other, slightly larger, sits at the back. His eyes focus on the shoulders of the man in front, waiting for the slightest indication to change direction. Humidity swarms before the break of a coming storm. He wipes sweat from his face, then grips the handle of the powerful motor that zips this canoe into the 21st century.

I’m sitting in the middle of the boat, watching the ancient forest fly by, as we head upstream to the cascades of Latah Berkoh. Bob sits in front of me, mesmerized by how close the boat comes to sinking. Behind me, Jim laughs. For the third time in twenty minutes, the man at the bow steps over us to bail water from back.

The motor roars as we push over a stretch of small rapids. It isn’t the quiet, serene river trip we were expecting, but as we've discovered since emerging from our jungle hike this morning, Taman Negara Rainforest Resort has its own take on expectations. We’re staying in a Malaysian style chalet for the night. The high thatch roof, matressed beds, and wobbly fan are a great comfort. But despite being leagues above last night's amenities, the pump shower and flush toilet aren't as refreshing as we had expected. Though I have to say, the leaking toilet does keep your feet nice and cool when you’re in the bathroom.

After we dropped our bags we hired this local boat to take us to Latah Berkoh, a small series of cascades within Sungai Tahan (River Tahan), where we could swim through the hottest part of the day. Our guides pull the boat onto the bank, then Bob, Jim, and I hike fifteen minutes to the entrance of the cascades, where two dozen people sit awkwardly among the rocks.

We slide in, grateful for the cool water, and swim a little way upstream. Birds call in the jungle beyond the shores and I breath in the scent of the forest. There is a slight current, so we swim wide to avoid an unpleasant and rocky journey downstream.As I'm floating about, my tranquility shatters as Jim jumps off a large boulder and cannonballs into the water. Thankfully he doesn't hit any submerged trees or rocks and damage his brain. Or perhaps he does, because as soon as he surfaces he climbs the boulder and jumps again.A storm follows the current, thunder adding its voice to the strength of darkening clouds. We run back to the boat, as thunder and lighting rush to catch us.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Out of the Jungle, Part 1

We rose early, sore and smelly, to the morning calls of birds. Bob and I packed our mosquito net as Jim snored away. Bob was chipper, a fact that annoyed me since numerous times during the night he had shifted sharply in his sleep, causing the net on my side to fall in my face and knock his water bottle against my head.

As we stuffed our packs, Bob noticed a flash of movement high in a tree. We borrowed Jim's camera and used its massive zoom to identify the flying black and white stripes through the canopy. Because of the distance and lack of knowledge on Malaysian arboreal life, we had no idea what it was. The animal had a short blunt head and a long black tail, and looked like the result of a wild one night stand between a badger and a squirrel. I named it, with my own authority and sense of creativity, a badger-squirrel. It scampered about the branches, leaping artfully from one tree to the next. I later discovered it wasn't called the wonderfully accurate name badger-squirrel, but a black giant squirrel (I was so close!), and is one of the largest squirrels in the world.

I asked Bob how to describe the size of the giant squirrel so readers could get a proper sense of its bulk, and he said, "like a squirrel, but giant. Like, think of the biggest squirrel you've ever seen, then think of it, but giant." My husband,my friends, is a wordsmith.Once Jim opened his pretty little eyes we ate a quick breakfast of oreos and granola and hit the trail before the complete wave of humidity rolled in. Again we found the trail well marked, having only a few places where we had a bit of confusion. The day soon became muggy, then hot, then stifling. We sweated, we drank water, and we walked, our creaking packs and hollow footsteps adding to the jungle's morning repertoire.

There was a cave along the trail that the ranger told us not to go to because it had collapsed, so naturally Jim wanted to check it out. Stupidly, he led the way under red and white tape blocking the trailhead, and, perhaps more stupidly, Bob and I followed. The path weaved along flat ground as I sought to convince two adventure-seeking boys that there was no way we were going in the cave, when thankfully, the cave did the refusing for me. The entire entrance was a pile of ruble, tape, and a deep sense of foreboding doom. Miraculously, the boys got the hint.

Returning to the main trail we ran across several startled lizards. We were passing yet another giant tree when I saw the biggest spider I'd ever seen. I gave a yelp of glee and ran next to the tree to get a picture but I apparently spooked the spider because he bolted around the tree. By the time I got around he had vanished. I don't know why the spider was afraid of me. He was brown, furry with pretty banded legs, and could have easily encompassed my head.

Parts of the trail had eroded and there were several steep descents among a tangle of roots. Thankfully in the steeper spots, the park service had hung a rope down to help with stability. Jim and I made it down fine, but then Bob, perhaps too confident with the rope in hand, took a big step. The weight of his pack toppled him backward, over a root, and, with an audible plop, into a startled and undignified sit. I had taken this picture mid-fall, before promptly breaking into laughter (after a millisecond pause of concern for his well being, of course).

As the sun passed noon, we heard the sound of a bleating animal. I would have gotten excited, thinking maybe a nearby tiger had caught some prey or a lumbering tapir had called out in frustration after having stubbed a toe, but alas, it was neither. The sound of a motor soon joined the cry of the animal and in a few short steps we emerged from a world surrounded by ever reaching foliage to a clear patch of grass on someone's property. A skinny cat with a cropped tail trotted over in welcome as we emerged, blinking, from the jungle. The cat escorted us to the river, where, thinking we must be just around the bend from the lodge and our home for the night, we discovered we were on the wrong side of the river. Showers, fresh food, and cold drinks lay tauntingly just across the deep brown water. Unconcerned with our predicament, the little cat flopped beside us, beckoning for a tummy rub, while Jim shouted across the river to get a boat.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

In the Jungle, Part 2

The boat sped upstream, drawing its abhorrent sound of motorized technology from the forest. Forgiving the intrusion, birds began to call. Cicadas resumed their chirping, and the rainforest, for the moment, forgot we were there. We stood together, the three of us, glancing from the sparsely detailed map, to the encompassing vegetation. We knew we had to make it to Bumbun Blau that night or risk sleeping in the open jungle, nothing between us and the odd tiger but a $20 mosquito net. Unsure if tigers were repelled by deet, we proceeded on the most promising looking path. How, in the mangled, proudly overgrown jungle did we know we were on the right track? Well, we just followed the large, road-worthy street signs. A seamless mark in nature? I think not. But when weaving along root-blanketed trails you appreciate a bit of reflective direction.

We weren't five feet onto the trail when Jim called out, "Hey is this a leech?" Eagerly Bob and I crowded by Jim's feet to find a skiny, inch-long leech on the ground. It stood vertically like a body-building earthworm, innocently waving its sucker in the air, hoping in its little mind we'd step close enough to latch on. From that point the warning 'leech' was often called, as, alerted by the vibrations of our feet, more parasites began wiggiling for a free ride. Other than the occaional leech call we were fairly quiet, yet the noise of our packs and waterbottles gave us away. An unseen bird or monkey would sound a warning call at our approach, creating a bubble of silence around our steps.

Occasionally we'd come across a train of ants or termites busy foraging or returning from a raid. Their glossy black and red bodies created a bobbing stream along the soil. Not wanting to become another object for them to bite, we took care after we stumbled upon them. Jim made a surprisingly useful observation that they made a popping noise (very much like pop-rocks) when on the move. So now, in our brief travel through the jungle, we had created two warning calls. 'Leech' and 'Pop-rocks.'

Bumbun Blau rested in a small clearing threatened by beautiful trees with little regard to personal space. We found the hide much nicer and firmer of structure than we had expected. Upstairs in the open windowed room were four, sturdy if dusty, wooden bunk platforms. It even had a bathroom, though the ranger back at headquarters had been right; water hadn't flowed to the building in a long time. The toilet was full to the rim with poo....lots of poo. While it made a lush home for the leeches and maggots that sludged happily in its' filth, it wasn't the most welcoming facilities we had seen. But that was ok, we were in the jungle, we weren't expecting the Ritz. But we also weren't expecting a feces and maggot filled toilet.

Judging there was enough light for a bit more exploration we walked further on the trail. I climbed up a fallen tree to see how far a view I could get. Well, I saw about ten feet in front of me so that was pretty good for the forest. On our return to the hide we froze at the sound of a long exhalation. There was an animal probably ten feet off the trail, but we couldn't see it through the leaves. The animal breathed heavily again, with a long, Phhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh and a few branches swayed. I was so excited but mildly frustrated we couldn't identify it. I wanted to guess it was an elephant, but felt I couldn't claim that unless I saw it. When the animal became silent we went quietly to the hide, hoping to see something in the clearing beyond. We sat, sweating in the heat,eating oreos (dinner of champions) and watching the clearing silently for fear of Bob's glare each time we crunched a cookie or made the bench scrape the ground.

The sun continued its journey through the canopy, forgetting to leave lingering light as if fearful of its liaison with the night.

Unfortunately no animals wandered into our sights. Tired and extremely stinky, we hung our mosquito nets while wearing headlamps, dodging the bugs that flocked to our eyes. We played cards, listening to the racqerous night symphony and gazing at the hundreds of lime-green fireflies, and spiders that joined us for the night.