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ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : Trek Into the Borneo Rain Forest Offers Thrills and Comfort Enough

April 28, 1991|JANET A. WELLS | Wells is a free-lance writer living in Portola Valley, Calif.

GUNUNG MULU NATIONAL PARK, Malaysia — The rain forests of the world have gotten a lot of attention lately, threatened with extinction from logging, thinning ozone and slash-and-burn farming. But it's hard to imagine just what real, dense, 100% virgin jungle is like.

It's green.

Everywhere green, an unending chaos of leaves, vines, trees, moss, green bugs, green snakes, green frogs. Perpetually steamy and, during the day, oppressively quiet. It's almost, well, dull at first. But hang around and there are splashes of color, elusive surprises and, at dusk, an unforgettable cacophony of sound.

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, sits in the South China Sea and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It has some of the world's oldest and most fertile rain forest, much of it unexplored and inaccessible. And much of it being systematically destroyed.

Smack in the heart of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, sits Gunung Mulu National Park. It has been promoted in the last two years by the Malaysian government for travelers who like adventure with at least minimal comforts.

Tourists can hire guides to explore the park caves, the most extensive cave network in the world, as well as for journeys through the jungle on guided treks.

My five-day journey, guided by two Malaysia National Parks and Wildlife Office rangers, took me from pitch-dark cave depths to the top of the jungle, where the razor-sharp limestone formations called the Pinnacles rush 150 feet up into the sky.

I imagined the rain forest as gentle and mystical, a place for tropical meditations and a chance to see flora and fauna found only in the rain-forest environment. The trip had its moments of mystical enchantment, but gentle it was not.

The journey to Mulu started in Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lampur, which offers the only direct flight to Miri, a town on the northern coast of Sarawak. There are no roads into Mulu; from Miri, visitors can fly into the park by chartering a helicopter for a 45-minute ride, but getting there the way the people who live there do--by water--is half the fun.

The Baram River is the main transport artery for Malaysia's myriad ethnic groups in northern Sarawak. Iban, Bidayuh, Kelabit and Berawan tribes live along the river in longhouses: communal villages under one roof.

The first part of the journey upriver takes eight hours. The express boat that was our mode of transportation was equipped with air conditioning and a television blaring Asian movies. We motored past immense piles of trees ready for export, as well as the occasional crocodile sunning on a muddy bank.

One elderly fellow passenger on his way home wore brass loops through his ears and the traditional straw-and-hornbill-feather hat of a Berawan warrior, indicating that when he was younger he was a warrior with one of the rain-forest tribes. His wife was adorned with tattooed fingers and arms and earlobes that stretched to her shoulders from the weight of heavy brass pendulums.

When the river becomes too shallow for the big boats, passengers must transfer for the final two-hour leg of the trip to a long boat--a flat, motorized wood canoe. At high speeds the bow popped up out of the water, spraying cascades behind. When the boat bottomed out, it became necessary for us to walk the boat through the current, slipping and stumbling in the twilight.

And so we arrived at Mulu, with the moon as our only lantern.

For cave lovers, Mulu is the place to go. With a special permit from park headquarters in Miri, spelunking experts can explore the most spectacular passageways, such as Black Rock Cave or Sarawak Chamber--the largest enclosed space in the world, with enough room for 16 football fields.

For those whose advanced equipment includes only running shoes, exploration of some of the caves is possible on wooden walkways illuminated by electric lights.

The man-made additions may seem a bit hokey and intrusive but they do offer protection from stepping in piles of bat guano and cockroaches. Suddenly the plank walks--there to protect the delicate formations and wildlife, as well as the visitors--become quite civilized.

Our plan was to spend two days visiting four of the five caves open to the public.

Clearwater Cave, with its 40-mile underground river, is the longest underground passageway in Southeast Asia.

Lang's Cave has knobs and twists and paper-thin ribbon formations curling from cavernous ceilings, and fragile one-inch stalactites, each with a drop of water at the tip. Our guide led us crawling into a corner where thumb-size bats roosted inches above our heads.

Deer Cave looks and smells like something out of a horror film: mounds of bat guano reek of ammonia, and slimy green boulders line the gaping entrance, which is the biggest in the world. The damp, brown, pot-holed earth crawls with guano-eating roaches.

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