This article first published in the travel section of the St Petersburg Times, 1994

c 1993 Terry Redding

Reprinting or other publication of this article is strictly prohibited.

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ABSORBED IN MALAYSIA'S JUNGLE

by

TERRY REDDING



The jungle is a giant; a living, breathing organism enveloping everything passing through its steamy borders. Its warm, damp breath greets every step, and it quickly drenches you in a deep, wet sweat. Life is everywhere, above and below, and every sense races to track the profusion of stimulation. Resounding sounds, first a cacophony, then a symphony, tweak unaccustomed ears; the damp, green smells fill curious nostrils and lungs; every touch is a sensation; jungle tastes permeate the air. Eyes gorge on the rich, luscious life; plants, birds, insects at every turn. The jungle is saturated with beings, and it lives itself.

It pulses, life running through it like blood through veins. You become a cell, a part of the huge, living beast. Rich life and rich death surround each other, absorbing all intruders and making them a part.

I plunge in. This is Taman Negara, the huge national park in the center of Malaysia. My travels in this country have been pleasant yet uneventful so far, but when I reach the jungle it is as if I have been expected.

Sweat. It pours off, mingling with the steaming jungle air, blending in with the earthy smells, becoming a part of the jungle.

Sounds. Things you can never imagine; insects, birds, myriad unknowns. "Skretch, skreeetch", "crick, crick, crick", the sounds drone on, reminding you, pounding home the fact that you are far from civilization, far from the tamed park headquarters; the cadence squashes civilization out of you.

Sleep that first night is in a hide, an observation tower erected near salt licks, where native mammals come to get their minerals. But only lowly rats visit at night, searching for civilization; cheap meals.

The next day still deeper I tromp, past the last tourist footprints. Now on a seldom-used path, I am glad to have a small machete, as I often spend several minutes and precious energy hacking away at fallen branches and vines along the way. Inside, I feel the primitive beast taking over. I look for game to slaughter -- large ants defensively postured along a path crossing, and ignoble leeches hovering at attention all along the way, ready to latch on to the unsuspecting. With glee I chop them in half, but more than once others are victorious, and drain my blood before I notice.

A bat cave. I crawl through a narrow tunnel into the darkness, and shine my flashlight, incongruous technology here at a touch. The small bats fidget nervously, and I turn off the light. This is spooky. Me and a couple hundred bats, on their turf. I flash a photo and they take flight, confused. I am master, I am man, my technology asserts. Yet I stand petrified as they whiz past on all sides; I am frozen in terror yet feeling life pulse through my veins as seldom before. Slowly I crouch; soon the bats settle again, and fidget more nervously. I depart their dark, pungent domain, balancing on shaky, fallen logs and breathing again the jungle.

The day continues. I hear crashing through the treetops but never make a sighting. A few more branches to hack, leeches to gleefully sever. At night I reach a surprise: civilization again, in the form of a future village of tourist bungalows being built by imported Indonesians, on the high banks of a distant river bend. It will be a few hours boat ride for the tourists, and was a two-day walk for me.

I speak to the Indonesians a bit in their language and they are friendly, letting me sleep on the floor of the office. They feed me and I give them the barter cigarettes I have been carrying for weeks, awaiting such a need.

At night I brush my teeth in the river and notice lumbering forms and staring eyes from far across the wide river. Curiosity grind inside. After several minutes of internal debate I strip naked and crawl across the shallow, warm current. I carry the flashlight above my head, my protection against all nature. Hoping to find elephants, I switch on the light from about 15 yards away: a herd of water buffalo look back. I swim back, disappointed, and begin to wonder where the fine line between adventure and foolishness is drawn.

The next day I return toward headquarters. It is easier along the path I cleared the day before, and I can move more quietly. Several times I hear, then see, silver leaf monkeys as they crash away through the trees. Once, my heart races as I see a gibbon, master of the rain forest canopy, zip across the treetops in a wide arc, taking only a matter of seconds to cross a hundred yards. As nature has designed. I stare, delighted and jealous.

Bugs; crawling, hopping, buzzing, they are everywhere. A large one zips across past my face and splats on a tree. It is a flying lizard, odd-looking and at home here. I notice a snake or two but they seem unexcited by another white human in their jungle.

Then I hear them, from far above. The unmistakable squawk of the hornbills. I follow quietly, peering up through the dense canopy. Through a hole I see a splash of color. A rhinoceros hornbill, a sacred bird through much of Southeast Asia. It is perched 50 yards off in a high branch, pondering me, I think egotistically.

Through my telephoto I see a body of black and white, with a rhinoceros horn of various oranges and yellows. I push the camera button, capturing the moment but never again the mood, the texture of the jungle air, the smell, the sounds, the life; the rich, primitive, living life.

* * *

The next day I meet another traveler and we canoe a few days in a rented, leaky dugout. As we valiantly paddle upstream, tourists flash by in loud, motorized boats, the jungle being conquered, mechanical noise challenging nature's sounds, oily smoke hits peat fragrance, technology against life.

Once, after we have negotiated a treacherous run of small rapids, two rattan-lashed bamboo rafts float past, carrying a few indigenous Orang Asli. They are a rare sight, hunter-gatherers living deep in the jungle. They flash smiles as they move past, in complete harmony with the river and the rapids we have just completed.

Soon again, tourists scream by in their guided boats, obliviously shattering the jungle peace. I sigh and regret their folly, for I have been alone, and have felt the jungle's breathe upon me, in me.

-end-

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