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.