Trouble in paradise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am

When Michael Api sits around an evening campfire with his mates, the men with whom he has wrestled, joked and shared meals since childhood, their chatter often turns wistfully to 'the good old days'.


They don't talk about football fields, bowling alleys or burger joints, but of their affinity with the receding forest that was once their home. As fireflies dart through the humid sub-tropical nights, the young men recall how good life was when their fathers and grandfathers would return from a hunt bearing food for the community, which often included the sweet treat of a jungle fruit.


'They would get a wild boar a couple of times a week,' says Api, 32. 'They'd carve out the kidney first and barbecue it as a treat for the children.'


Api is swaying on a wooden walkway 30 metres above the ground in one of the richest remaining rainforests on Earth. From the canopy-level platform he surveys Malaysia's World Heritage-listed Gunung Mulu National Park, at the northeastern end of the state of Sarawak.


The ancient forest is thought to contain 3,500 plant species, more than 8,000 types of fungi and 20,000 animal species. Ten varieties of pitcher plant and more than 170 types of wild orchid drape over the tangled greenery. Orang-utans and long-tailed macaque monkeys still range free, the low hooting of hornbills resounds through the leaves, pygmy squirrels dart along branches and brilliant green Rajah Brooke birdwing butterflies escort those traversing the park's boardwalks.


Api's childhood friends are among the first generation of Penan, the peaceful, shy and reclusive jungle people of Borneo's interior, to be forced out of their nomadic lifestyle and into the coastal towns of Malaysia.


Api can point out which types of fish-tail palm can be woven into rattan baskets or how to find water (cut a liana vine, tip back your head and allow the vine to drip into your throat). He knows that some trees make fine instruments, that sago palms can be grated and dried to make flour and other plants have curative powers, including one that is soaked to create a tea-like lotion for chicken-pox victims. But much of the tradition and knowledge is being lost, relegated to the memories of elderly and middle-aged Penan. Logging companies are decimating the wild areas the nomads called home. Thousands of acres of jungle have been bulldozed and jungle giants felled, chainsawed into logs and shipped out by river barge and truck. Where once existed verdant old-growth forest, raucous with birdsong and animal calls, and ripe with fruit and flowers, there are massive scars of fiery orange dirt, pitted logging trails and the botanical wasteland of oil-palm plantations.


Penan communities have traditionally taken only what they have needed from the jungle - enough food for the moment, enough medicine to heal their sick - and moved on, leaving each campsite to regenerate. They walked lightly on the Earth - and some still do - erecting only the most rudimentary huts at each site.


When the lucrative logging began, the Sarawak government began herding these forest nomads into permanent longhouses, some of which they opened to tourists. Their inhabitants look beaten down amid the muddy squalor of their new non-jungle homes.


Api has chosen to continue his life in the rainforest as best he can, signing up as a national parks staffer.


He shows visitors around the Gunung Mulu area, a breathtaking site with some of the largest cave systems in the world.


The park stretches almost to the western border of the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, traversing wide flood-prone rivers, rainforest and awesome limestone geological structures. One cavern, the Sarawak Chamber, is reputed to be large enough to house 40 jumbo jets.


Visitors can easily trek along well-maintained boardwalks to Lang Cave and Deer Cave, where a collapsed roof has created a glorious chamber of sunlight and tall palms, dubbed the Garden of Eden. A 25-minute longboat ride along the Melinau River, or an hour's walk, takes you to the magnificent Clearwater, Moon Milk, Wind and Young Lady caves. Those who wash their faces in the cool, subterranean water source of Young Lady Cave, part of the 51km Clearwater system, are said to emerge with more youthful skin. A word of warning: a self-conducted empirical test yielded no noticeable results.


The stream emerges into a rainforest-fringed, crystal-clear swimming hole, to the relief of sweaty trekkers. Lang Cave is a wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites, the effect enhanced by stunning lighting, pathways and stairs, which are themselves a feat of workmanship.


About two million bats are thought to live in Deer Cave. At dusk each day, except when it's raining, they emerge in pursuit of their nightly feed of about nine tonnes of insects like a seemingly endless smoke stream from the mouth of the cave. Birds of prey soar and circle in the warm draughts above the cliff face, ready to grab their evening meal from the flapping buffet. In other parts of the park, limestone pinnacles up to 45 metres tall rise like grey knife blades from the jungle.


When I first visited Mulu and its caves in 1991, the journey by river-bus and motorised longboat to the interior lasted from dawn until dusk, ending at a tent pitched on the riverbank. Along the wider stretches of the river, those straggling saplings that remained on the banks were dwarfed by barges laden with gargantuan logs bound for export.


Today, visitors take a 30-minute plane ride from the coastal town of Miri and are driven the couple of kilometres to the five-star Royal Mulu Resort - completely built on poles to hold it aloft from seasonal floodwaters - or the nearby national park guesthouse, chalets or hostel. The changes have made the area more accessible to families, allowing new generations to appreciate the magnificence of the caves, rainforest and wildlife of the Mulu area.


As for Api, he is planning to return soon to his old home at Long Kerong, eight hours by four-wheel-drive vehicle and another day and a half by longboat from Miri, the nearest town. Loggers are pushing into the last few hundred hectares of pristine rainforest in the area and he wants to be there to man the largely symbolic bamboo blockades. He hopes international film crews will come to broadcast warnings of the devastation of the rainforest to the outside world. But will viewers care about the destruction of irreplaceable forests and the loss of countless species of plant and animal?


If they met Api, or spent a few days wandering around his magical workplace, they would.


Getting there: Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, with connections to Miri. Air Asia (www.airasia.com) subsidiary Fly Asian Xpress flies from Miri to Mulu. Travellers can also make a 10-hour trip up the Baram River from Miri to Mulu, but must hire a longboat for the last part of the journey, from Long Terawan to Gunung Mulu National Park. See www.mulupark.com, www.borneoresorts.net and www.royalmuluresort.com.