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Walking the Canopy of the World’s Oldest Rainforest
Malaysia’s Taman Negara National Park

Malaysia's attractive capital of Kuala Lumpur was soon behind us as our bus made its way northeastward through coconut and rubber plantations. As we climbed, the scene changed to lush evergreen hills, glimmering in the sunlight. The three-hour trip ended at the small river port of Kuala Tembeling. From here the only means of travel for our small, guided group would be by perahu, or wooden Malaysian riverboat. We were headed upriver to the world’s oldest tropical forest, Taman Negara.

As the perahu negotiated the murky waters of the Tembeling, the virgin jungle seemed to tell us that it was hiding more secrets than we could discover in a lifetime. The thick forest canopy provided heavy shade for the lower levels of vegetation. Where the canopy stretched over the river we saw huge hanging fern gardens and equatorial orchids, blooming ‘for the eyes of God,’ according to the local Malaysian tradition. Infrequently we would spot the flitting shapes of a family of Long Tail Macaques, the commonest and most curious of Malaysia’s monkey population. At one point a large creature floated to the river surface, startling us. At first we thought it was a crocodile, but the boat operator told us it was "only a 6-foot monitor lizard." Only?

Taman Negara Dock
Taman Negara Resort Dock (Photo: Habeeb Salloum)

Forest Haven

We were rewarded for our three-hour, 36-mile river voyage by disembarking at Taman Negara Resort, a virtual haven for our coming days of exploration. The resort sat beautifully perched on a hill overlooking the Tembeling and Tahan Rivers - a 15-acre sanctuary bordering the Taman Negara forest. The top-notch accommodations included bungalows, chalets, a small hotel, and a hostel for backpackers. As we settled into our accommodations we felt almost an instant serenity as we tuned into the background cacophony of insect noises, birds calls, and animal cries.

For visitors, there is much to do and see in this natural paradise — trek on dense forest pathways; explore spectacular caves; swim in crystal clear pools; bird watch; shoot rapids; visit with the aborigines; climb the highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia; and stroll a -mile walkway elevated in the forest canopy - the world's longest. We were ready for action.

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Photo: Taman Negara Resort, TNR

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Chalet (Photo: Habeeb Salloum, HS)

Taman Negara National Park

The virgin Taman Negara forest spreads across the formidable Titiwangsa Mountain Range in northeastern Malaysia. Thankfully, a major swath of the forest was preserved for posterity when Malaysia’s first and largest National Park, comprising 1,677 square miles, was established in 1939. Within its boundaries are to be found every type of inland forest: lowland dipterocrap forest with five layers of vegetation; intermediate-altitude forests with oaks and laurels; and, dwarf upper montane cloud-covered erinaceous vegetation near the mountain tops.

The Taman Negara is a grandmother to the rest of the world’s rainforests. During the Ice Ages, when immense glaciers covered much of the Earth, Malaysia was blessed with a location far enough away from the ice that its forest started to develop 130 million years ago - far earlier than forests of Africa and Latin America. The Tama Negara’s age explains why it is considered to be one of the richest natural environments on earth with 10,000 species of plants, 350 species of birds, 100 types of snakes, 1,000 varieties of butterflies, perhaps 150,000 kinds of insects and 140 types of animals - including bears, elephants, leopards, tapirs, tigers, deer, wild cattle, pigs, rhinoceros, and numerous species of lizards.

A Walk in the Canopy

On my first morning, after waking to the sounds of nature and enjoying a hearty breakfast, I took a perahu with two others from my group to the stairway leading to the fabled canopy walk. The steps seemed never-ending as I labored up. By the time we reached the beginning of the walkway, I was totally exhausted. "You’ll be in better shape within a few days!" grinned Meor, our guide, as he watched me wipe the sweat from my face.

Canopy Walkway
Canopy Walkway (Photo: HS)

At first I was terrified as I moved warily along the walkway, holding on to the ropes for dear life. It seemed every time I looked down that the height of the walkway was much more than the proclaimed 90 feet above ground. However, I soon relaxed as a magical feeling hit me — I was above a whole new world of animals, insects, and vegetation. I was also "inside" another world, the rainforest canopy, with the tops of the world’s tallest rainforest trees, tualangs, still towering another 100 feet above me. The massive bases of the tualangs branched only when they reached 70 feet or more, just below the walkway. Various palms were also in evidence below the forest canopy, one with huge thorns that can produce musical sounds when cut and plucked. Perhaps the most impressive sights along the walkway were of the beautiful birds — green pigeons, fairy bluebirds, noisy hornbills, and bulbuls. At the end of the walk, Lars of our group described the experience well: "It's a fantastic stroll."

Lata Berkoh Cascades

On another afternoon we took a perahu ride with our guide Safyan up the Tahan River, filled with stone islands and giant rotting trees. The operator of the boat had an assistant sitting on the bow with a pole and paddle to help him navigate the river. Dense jungle covered both banks. At times, giant trees leaned over the river from both sides and intertwined together, forming natural archways above us. Ferns, mosses, and orchids hung from the huge trunks. When the navigable section of the Tahan ended, we walked for 30 minutes on a forest pathway to Lata Berkoh, a spectacular cascade. Here, after frolicking in the tumbling waters, we spent an hour sunning ourselves like seals on the rocks. Then, refreshed, we retraced our steps and our boat voyage, arriving at the resort in time for dinner.

Cascades
Lata Berkoh Cascades (Photo: HS)

Orang Asli, the "Original People"

Orang Asli Boy
Orang Asli Boy (Photo: TNR)

Taman Negara is home to the Batek people, one of Malaysia's five aboriginal groups.   As with other Orang Asli, or "Original People," they traditionally led a nomadic lifestyle in the forests, hunting game with blowpipes and darts poisoned with the sap of the ara bertih tree. They are a shy, gentle people with a philosophy that all humankind should heed: "take little from nature that nature alone cannot heal."

In recent years the government has settled the Bateks in villages. We visited a village with its houses built on stakes high above the ground. Outside, the men were ambling around, wearing loincloths and carrying their blowpipes. Inside, the one-room abodes were bare, with hardly a piece of furniture or other belongings. It appeared that the Bateks owned only the clothes on their backs and a good number of cats, dogs, and monkeys with whom the children were playing.

One of the elder men demonstrated the shooting of darts with the blowpipes, and we felt some sadness to see this village caught halfway between their traditional lifestyle and the direction of the future. A good number of the Orang Asli are being educated, aided by government subsidization, and are leaving their traditionally simple way of life behind.

Thankful for the Rainforest

When we bid a sad goodbye to the resort and headed downriver to Kuala Tembeling, it seemed that our weeklong stay in Taman Negara had been much shorter. Above all else, we appreciated more fully the incredible importance of preserving the world’s tropical rainforests. Thanks to the foresightedness of Malaysia’s earlier governors and the continued vigilance of the Malaysian people, this incredible world natural heritage site was being preserved for future generations. Like the many other fortunate visitors to Taman Negara, I think often of the forest and its treasures. The only evidences of my journey are my photo album and the short-lived footprints that I left in the 130 million year old sanctuary.

by Habeeb Salloum

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