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TAMAN NEGARA : 'We were floating through one of the world's oldest tropical rain forests deep in the heart of the Malaysian Peninsula.'

November 20, 1988|LARRY HABEGGER and JAMES O'REILLY | Habegger and O'Reilly are free-lance writers. Habegger is based in San Francisco, O'Reilly in Palo Alto. and

BAHASA, Malaysia — The canoe floated with the gentle current over the tea-colored water. Deep shadows hung along the river banks where creepers grew thick among the high arching trees. Calls of a thousand creatures created a tranquil tapestry of sound.

Suddenly, without warning, a huge bird appeared overhead, resplendent against blue sky, its wings outstretched as it soared across an opening in the jungle canopy. In an instant it was gone. After a stunned silence, we tried to express what we had just seen, the almost spiritual appearance of the hornbill, the coincidence that all of us had been looking up at that exact instant.

The canoe floated on, the helmsman smiled, the trees drifted past and the jungle continued to call.

We were floating through one of the world's oldest tropical rain forests deep in the heart of the Malaysian Peninsula. This area never experienced any glaciation or other corrosive geological forces; it has been jungle for 130 million years.

We were a group of seven: a German couple, a vagabond Swiss of high intensity and soft heart, an American traveling the East before her post-doctoral studies, two travel writers and Sahtwant Singh, our Asian Overland guide.

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Asian Overland is the only adventure company that takes groups into this jungle. Sahtwant is a charming 21-year-old Sikh whose parents emigrated from India's Punjab.

We were exploring Malaysia's great national park, Taman Negara, which covers about 2,715 square miles. It became Gunung Tahan Park in 1935, named after peninsular Malaysia's highest mountain. In 1939 it became King George V Park, and finally Taman Negara with Malaysian independence in 1957.

The park has more than 15,000 species of plant life, 6,300 species of trees alone. Wildlife includes tapirs, mouse deer, barking deer, sambar, wild boar and several cats, including civet cats, bear cats and the elusive tiger. There are also elephants and Sumatran rhino, but sightings are rare.

The trip to Taman Negara begins at Kuala Tembeling, a frontier river town four hours by bus from Kuala Lumpur. The 38-mile trip to Juala Tahan, park headquarters, takes three hours by motorized canoe, low boats that can carry 10 people. The Tembeling River is wide and the far banks were thick with jungle.

We passed settlements with small plots of corn and bananas. Locals waved to us; children played in the waters along the banks. The river was no deeper than six feet, twice that during the November-January rainy season. We saw a fair amount of traffic on the water, small motorized canoes ferrying items between settlements.

Just a few years ago most of this traffic was poled along in dugout canoes. Progress has come, but one wonders whether it has pushed the orang asli, the Malaysian aborigines, farther back into the rain forest.

Beautiful peaks came in and out of view as we followed bends in the river. Creepers dripped from trees and fell into the water like leafy bead curtains. Thunderheads across the sky caught the afternoon light in pinks and purples.

The only sounds were of the river and the motor propelling us deeper into the jungle. Some of the group slept, rocked by the motion of the canoe. Others drifted in thought, caught in a world of blue sky, purple clouds, red river and the deep ethereal green of the jungle. The light was soft and fading in a painted sky when we reached Kuala Tahan.

This camp at the confluence of two rivers has a magical quality. Part of the lure of the jungle is its fertility. It's nature at its most fecund, where the world is a riot of growth, full of things mysterious and unknown. It leads us into exploration of strange forces and a deeper look into ourselves.

At dusk a herd of wild boar and a sambar invaded the camp, and over dinner Sahtwant described our schedule for the next three days. The group loosened up with discussion of leeches, hardly a problem in the dry season. They don't fall from the trees here, only come up from the ground. If you walk with a light step they won't bother you; they feel heavy footsteps and move toward them. But they can smell blood 15 feet away.

That night we bedded down to the raucous sounds of the jungle. Later we were lulled to sleep by the roar of rain on the tin roof.

After an early breakfast Sahtwant sprayed our shoes with pesticide to thwart leeches and led our first jungle trek to the summit of Bukit Teresek at 1,150 feet. The trail wound through dense growth past huge trees whose roots stood three feet high. The ground was thick with black leaves, the soil red and sandy where visible, and slippery when wet.

Little light filtered through. The air was warm and damp. Smells were pungent with the rain forest's constant cycle of growth and decay.

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