TAMAN NEGARA, Malaysia — The rain started the minute our boat touched the pier.
It was no polite sprinkle, either. It was the tail end of Malaysia's monsoon season, and the speed and weight of this downpour would have humbled a Midwestern thunderstorm.
We scrambled out of our narrow river boat, hauling our bags to the protection of the covered dock. We huddled there, our windward side getting thoroughly drenched.
The pier is the welcome mat of Taman Negara, the largest national park in Malaysia, which is accessible only by gondola-shaped river boats. A dozen of them nosed against the pier and, while the rain made millions of pockmarks on the river, Malaysian boatmen bailed them out with coffee cans.
We waited half an hour to go on to park headquarters, but I was glad that nature's little drama hadn't happened on our way up the river.
Taman Negara is 1,677 square miles of virgin jungle near the center of the Malay Peninsula. It was made a park in 1939 when the Sultans of Pahang, Kelantan and Rengganu agreed to set aside the land.
Preserving Flora, Fauna
Other jungle areas were being developed rapidly into rubber or oil palm plantations, so its purpose was and is to preserve flora and fauna. There are no roads anywhere in the park, but you can travel on river tributaries or many hiking trails.
I could not remotely be considered "an outdoor person," but the prospect of seeing a rain forest without serious discomfort was intriguing. That was how I came to be shrinking from wind-driven rain on the Kuala Tahan pier with three new friends, a botanist, a zoologist and a photographer.
We had left Kuala Lumpur that morning in two little taxis, whose drivers seemed frantic to race to the village of Jerantut. The two-lane highway cut through heavily wooded, hilly areas, and we passed auto shops, brick yards and wooden houses on stilts with corrugated tin roofs.
Our Chinese-Malaysian guide, who called himself Dax after a character in a Harold Robbins novel, pointed out rubber plantations--acres of slim, gray-barked trees standing in rows.
At our rendezvous at the Tembaling River, our boat was at the pier, ready for its daily run to the park. The two-person seats were shaded by a tin canopy, but the slim Malaysian manning the outboard motor sat in the hot sun.
For our three-hour journey, it was well above 90 degrees under a brilliant blue sky. The river, 200 yards wide in narrow areas, was golden brown from silt. On either bank was the jungle.
Trees, Ferns and Vines
It looked impenetrable. Trees of varying heights were interwoven with ferns growing up and vines hanging down. Pale leaves clustered next to dark, shiny ones, sometimes overgrown by great sprays of bamboo. Monsoon flooding had eroded the clay banks, undercutting the roots of the huge trees closest to the river. They leaned low over the water, soon to topple and die, and the riotous vegetation behind them seemed almost to be pushing them in.
Sometimes we passed exposed clay banks and saw people swimming, or washing a water buffalo, or binding huge bundles of rattan. They were rubber tappers or harvesters of wild rattan, who live in simple houses near the river.
When the dark clouds came up, our boatmen tried to hurry. We got soaked, even at the dock, but what better place to get caught in a downpour than in the middle of the Malaysian jungle?
Taman Negara, which means "national park," is set up much like parks in the United States, with rangers, trail maps and naturalist slide shows. In a cleared area with grassy banks and covered sidewalks, accommodations were a dormitory hostel and a row of chalets. The latter had slat-sided sleeping rooms with twin beds, and a bathroom with running water from the river. Between each two rooms was a veranda with lounge chairs.
It was hotter in the park because the surrounding jungle stifled any breeze, and the earth fairly steamed as the fallen rain began to evaporate into a palpable humidity.
Mosquitoes are not a problem because there's no standing water in the jungle, but thousands of other critters make themselves known in other ways. As darkness fell, the night sounds began, an exuberant chorus of syncopated insects.
Park cooks prepared Chinese meals, which we ate in the central dining hall. At dinner we met other park visitors--some independent hikers, two Lufthansa stewardesses and a field trip group from Kuala Lumpur's International School.
Walk on the Wild Side
That night I couldn't sleep, and at 2 a.m. went for a walk, ending up on the deck around the dining hall. I watched the unusually bright stars for a while, but my attention was riveted when animals grunted in the darkness nearby. When I turned on my flashlight, a family of wart hogs ran through the beam, going home from garbage scavenging. I was beginning to feel like Sheena of the Jungle.