Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Malaysia's Gunung Mulu national park: revisiting one of the most spectacular rainforests on earth

Author
By Robin Hanbury-Tenison 

11 OCTOBER 2014 • 12:00AM
On my first morning back in the rainforest, I awoke to the familiar song of the Beethoven bird. A babbler of the genus Malacoptera, it sings, over and over, the first four notes of his 5th Symphony: da-da-da-dum, with the last note always slightly off key. I strained my ears to hear the other thrilling dawn song, that of the gibbons, but it turned out that I would have to wait several days before, far in the distance, I heard the faint ‘whoop, whoop, whoop, whooop, whoooop…’ on a gradually rising cadence, that epitomises for me the wonder of Borneo. 

On the Mulu expedition 36 years ago we used to imitate that call when greeting each other from afar, and some of us still do, so that you may occasionally hear it echoing across Exhibition Road in London. It was there, at the Royal Geographical Society in 1975, that the idea of this scientific research project was conceived and I was invited to be leader of what was to become the biggest expedition yet mounted by the RGS. The need to study tropical rainforests had been recognised, and the recently gazetted Gunung Mulu National Park, the largest in Sarawak, Malaysia, provided a unique research opportunity to do this, in one of the richest and least explored environments on earth. 


A small group of us lived there for 15 months. We built a replica of a traditional longhouse as our base camp on the edge of the park, and constructed a number of sub-camps in remote locations, some of which are still there. My job, and that of my small admin team, was to look after more than 120 scientists of many disciplines and nationalities, who came and went, examined, measured, considered and concluded, producing a welter of important papers on how tropical forests worked. The 50 separate projects covered forest ecology and nutrient recycling, geomorphology, hydrology and cave survey, botanical and zoological inventories, vegetation survey and a management plan. By the end, it was the best-studied rainforest in the world and our research, the resulting BBC film and our various books and articles were all instrumental in triggering global concern about the rapid destruction and disappearance of this priceless ecosystem and helped start the campaign to save it wherever it still existed; and Mulu became a World Heritage Site. 




The white limestone cliffs of Gunung Api, which towers over the park (Photo: Robbie Shone 

One of the remarkable things about the Mulu expedition was the extraordinary amount of basic research achieved by the academic members. Some were old hands, but many had not been in the field before and needed some looking after. We managed this by appointing men from the local Berawan tribe (and, later, the still largely nomadic Penan) to attend to them as they worked in the sub-camps, cooking the scientists’ food and protecting them from the unfamiliar hazards of jungle life, which would other­wise have worried and distracted them.

For two or three weeks at a stretch they lived like this, collecting specimens and examining examples of their speciality, which were often new to science. Back in base camp we had a doctor and nurse to patch them up, a same-day ‘river’ laundry service, a radio to sort out their travel and domestic problems, as well as good food and drink and a party to cheer them up before sending them back into the field to get on with their work. This resulted in a really happy atmosphere so that everyone felt they were having the most fulfilling and exciting time of their lives. Time passed like a flash because it was all so interesting, and most of us have stayed in touch ever since and remember it as an enchanted time. 
There is nowhere in the world like the Mulu National Park. It contains almost every tropical forest habitat except mangrove swamp, and is full of high mountains and deep ravines, all covered in dense vegetation. The main mountain, after which the park is named, is sandstone, but the most striking features are the vast limestone mountains and cliffs, which, as we discovered, contain one of the world’s greatest cave systems. Gunung (mountain in Malay) Api, the largest piece of limestone in the Far East, about three times the size of the Rock of Gibraltar, was later found to have deep inside it the Sarawak Chamber, the largest underground cavern anywhere. At 2,300ft long and 1,300ft wide, it is big enough to accommodate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and is in Guinness World Records. 
Our speleological team have been back to Mulu many times and continue to make astonishing discoveries. Caves are now what Mulu is best known for. Today it is much visited by tourists and it provides one of the great rainforest experiences. Whereas we had to struggle for three days upriver over many rapids to get there, now a substantial airport provides daily flights. There are comfortable bungalows at the park HQ to stay in and an excellent restaurant and interpretation centre; well-maintained raised walkways lead to several of the more spectacular caves, which are subtly lit. There are boat trips to be made in order to visit more caves, the Penan village, a canopy walkway, and the astonishing spectacle of several million bats leaving Deer Cave each evening. But no one is allowed to camp in the 130,000-acre park, and most of the rest of its interior has been left as pristine as it was in our day. 
Lord (John) Hunt, leader of the successful 1953 Everest ascent, was president of the RGS at the time of our expedition in the late 1970s. He wrote to ask if he and his wife, Joy, could visit us there and suggested that they would like to do some climbing while they were with us. ‘We are, as you may know, both experienced mountaineers and very fit indeed.’ We had saved up a relatively small unclimbed peak, Batu Pajing, for them to make a first ascent, which they duly achieved two days after their arrival, on July 14 1978. Although John said that it was ‘no more than a scramble’, he claimed he had ‘never climbed on more dangerous rock’ and he had quite a nasty fall on the way down. Two days later, we took the Hunts to our favourite secret place in the park for a picnic. 
We had found and named the ‘Garden of Eden’ soon after we started to explore the Deer Cave, which our speleologists had demonstrated to be the biggest ‘river passage’ cave in the world. Scrambling through thick bat guano, crawling with millions of earwigs and other insects, far beyond the last daylight, we had discovered the entrance to a deep valley, which could be approached by no other route. Here a clear river disappeared into the darkness of the cave, and in this pristine environment the wildlife seemed unafraid of man and could be watched in peace. 
On our return through the Deer Cave, we found one of our scientists, John Lewis, a myriapodologist (a specialist in centipedes and millipedes), happily crawling through the guano, popping centipedes into collecting bottles as fast as he could catch them, oblivious to the earwigs, cockroaches and spiders that swarmed over his body. John Hunt later told me that this moment epitomised for him the dedication of all our scientists. 
The entrance to Deer Cave, left, and the river which courses through the centre of the national park. (Photo: Robbie Shone)
I had been back to Mulu from time to time, but recently I had felt a craving to immerse myself fully once more in that teeming environment, which so many people find scary and hostile. I love being in the rainforest. It is where I always feel most alive and healthy, paradoxically energised by the heat and the 100 per cent humidity. Earlier this year I wrote and asked the park authorities if I might be allowed to attempt to do that circuit again, the first time anyone has tried since our first expedition. 
I was about to be 78. To my surprise they agreed, and a group of us flew into the smart airport. With me came Andy Eavis, one of the world’s greatest cave explorers, who was on the Mulu expedition and who discovered the Sarawak Chamber; Len Croney, a Cornish neighbour celebrating his 60th birthday; Veno, the chief Mulu park ranger, a Berawan; and five Penan. Well, we managed it, but as I told another of the original team later, when he asked me if things had changed much in 36 years, the slopes have got much steeper! 
Andy, who has been back to Mulu many times on caving expeditions, organised everything with Veno, and I don’t think I could have made it without their support. We reckoned it would take us five days to walk right round Gunung Api and, to see if I was up to it, they planned a really tough first day. We walked for eight hours, with only a brief stop for some tea and an energy bar, up and down increasingly steep slopes, to camp by a small river. It was simply glorious to be back, walking fast and hard through the forest. I had a couple of attacks of cramp, which I cured with quinine sulphate tablets, and there were moments when I wondered if I could go on putting one foot in front of the other, but the sheer joy of stripping off and plunging into the cool water of a mountain stream at the end of the day made it all worthwhile. I believe that forest streams are the most beautiful habitats on earth. 
Our camp was exactly as I remembered from the old days. Nothing much has changed. The Penan cut poles and banged them into the ground to make a frame with a green camp sheet above. Across the frame were tied smaller poles with ‘hammocks’, canvas stretchers, slid over them. On these we slept untroubled by insects or any other creepy-crawlies (once we had located and removed the last leech). Lying there on that first night, as the rain poured down outside and the rainforest orchestra of cicadas, frogs and night birds competed to be heard, was, for me, to be in heaven. 
Robin Hanbury-Tenison with the team in 1978, when he first led the expedition. (Photo: Robbie Shone)
The next day was shorter, but very steep, as we had to climb down into Hidden Valley. This is a strange, deep ravine, running between the sandstone of 8,000ft Gunung Mulu and the limestone of 5,000ft Gunung Api. Very few people have ever penetrated it. Even the Penan said they had never been there when I first cut a path down into it, after we had seen it from the air and glimpsed it from other high ridges as we established camps up the mountain. A blind valley of streams and waterfalls, joining to form a river which enters a deep and narrow gorge, with sheer sides rising up between 2,000 and 3,000ft, it then disappears abruptly into the side of Api. It is an idyllic, peaceful spot where, on my first arrival, several varieties of squirrel played in the trees and a big sambar deer with antlers like a Highland stag stood for a moment staring at me before bounding off. This time we saw less game, although there was much evidence of herds of bearded pig (Sus barbatus), the most common large mammals in the park and the staple diet of the Penan when they were nomadic hunter-gatherers. 
We camped again by a stream with a good pool in which I was able to bathe my tired feet and wash my clothes, keeping an eye out for the leeches waiting their chance in my boots. One escaped my notice, and when I put on a dry T-shirt it sneaked up my chest, swelled up to slug size and then dropped off during the evening, leaving a large bloodstain, which looked as though I had been shot through the heart. This amused our Penan companions greatly. 
One of the best things about this trip, which took me back with a vengeance to our happy, busy expedition days, was the enthusiasm and constant cheerfulness of our Penan team as they made camp. There were five of them, ranging in age from 64-year-old Tama Jerow, who had come with us in 1978, to Ba’e, a strong lad of 17. There was constant chatter, jokes and laughter as they chopped down poles, shinned up trees to tie ropes for the camp sheet and set up the field kitchen – all done with speed and efficiency under the watchful eye of Veno, the Berawan chief ranger. He told me that, as well as his native Berawan, English and the universal Malay, he could speak Penan, Kenyah, Kayan and Iban, the main local Dayak languages. Everyone has to be at least trilingual in this part of the world. 
Robin Hanbury-Tenison (in dark blue) with Len Croney, the caver Andy Eavis (far left), chief ranger Veno (far right) and men from the Penan tribe. (Photo: Robbie Shone)
We passed Batu Pajing, which John Hunt had climbed, and I was told that its name has now been changed to Batu Nigel. (This was in honour of my deputy on the RGS expedition, Nigel Winser.) Although we made up the names of many of the features in the park, which are still used, this is the only one bearing the name of an expedition member, and it is entirely appropriate that it should be Nigel’s, as he was the dynamo who drove every­thing for the whole 15 months we were there. (Nigel went on to be deputy director of the RGS and is now the executive vice president of Earthwatch.) 
We were up at 6.30 for a welcome cup of tea in the chilly dawn. I was a bit stiff but, amazingly, felt no real aches or pains. Things were getting serious: from now on it would be impossible to medevac anyone out by helicopter, and a broken leg would involve being carried by the Penan. The terrain here is precipitous and covered in trees, and my biggest worry was falling. I took great care, especially when crossing streams, as the big boulders are dangerously slippery. The slopes are even steeper from now on, too, and often we were pulling ourselves up sheer cliffs, from which loose rocks fell on those below. 
The distances covered each day do not look much on the map, but they are very physically demanding. It is all really only possible because of the many saplings to which we had to trust our weight, often swinging from one to another, while keeping a sharp eye out for the savagely prickly rattans and ‘wait a bit’ thorns, which will hook on to clothing and skin alike and have to be carefully removed. I was pushing myself to the limit, and amazingly nothing hurt, but my breath was coming in gasps – Veno said I sounded like a heavy truck using its air brakes. 
At the top of this ridge there were some fine views of the white cliffs of Api towering 3,000ft above us. Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in Britain, is 531ft. This is the highest point and from then on we would be going down more than up. As I swung round what looked and felt like a good small tree, it suddenly snapped off at the base and I felt myself falling backwards over space. I grabbed a branch, but it was not strong enough to hold me and I fell helplessly, cursing volubly. My head struck what felt like a rock but turned out to be a tree, and my fall was broken by my rucksack landing beneath me on a tree root. I lay very still for a while, assuming the worst, but nothing hurt much and I was able to wiggle my fingers and toes. I had a nasty gash on my arm and impressive bruising was appearing on my forearms, but I was all right. I had been very lucky. 
We stopped to camp mid-afternoon at a place I remembered on the next ridge, and Andy dressed my arm. As he was finishing, there was a brief flash of lightning followed immediately by the loudest crash of thunder any of us had ever heard, immediately above our heads. 
The dawn cicadas awoke us as loudly and predictably as an alarm clock and from that point on there were more signs of wildlife: we had glimpsed mouse deer, but now we saw both a neat little pile of droppings and heard the distant barking of muntjac, which sounded just like a fox in the British countryside. Rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros), the state bird of Sarawak, flew above the canopy, their wings making them seem like swans passing overhead. 
On the way down to the Melinau Gorge, which cuts through the mountain, we investigated some potential new caves with Andy, then camped there before making our triumphal return to the park HQ by the easy track along the river. The next evening I gave an illustrated talk about the RGS expedition to about 200 assorted people: some tourists from all over the world; most of the HQ staff; and, to my especial delight, about 60 Penan from the village where they have now been settled, who listened rapt as Veno translated my stories about them from all those years ago. 
For more stories from the Saturday Telegraph magazine visit telegraph.co.uk/magazine 
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For further information log on website :

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/malaysia/articles/Malaysias-Gunung-Mulu-national-park-revisiting-one-of-the-most-spectacular-rainforests-on-earth/

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