130 million years old, the jungle of Malaysia is the oldest jungle in the world. And we’re in the middle of it, looking for the hornbill. ‘Quiet… I hear something.’ Sneaking through Malaysia, stealthy like a tiger.
Text: Nicolline van der Spek
Photography: Frits Meyst
Going into the jungle, you need a goal. We’re on our way to the highest point. We want to get up and rise over the treetops of this rainforest, habitat of the hornbill. To meet the impressive rhinoceros hornbill with its black and white tail feathers and brightly coloured beak is at the very top of my list. Their nests are made in the highest of treetops and to get up there, we hold on to lianas as thick as thighs. We decided to leave very early, so the forest would be still ours and the fog would still dress the forest in a veil. No matter how early, though, it’s already a sweltering day. ‘Are we there yet?’ I think with every step and every once in a while I look up. The treetrunks reach for the light like the giant pillars of a cathedral. I’m sweating like a pig, but I’m seeing nothing.
Better use your ears
I’m not looking properly. If you want to find something in the jungle, you’ll need to listen. Use your ears before your eyes. A green rustle – that’s what you need to focus on. Fortunately, we’re walking in precisely the right order. Arif, our guide, is in front, his ears well trained. Just like The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, he’s barefoot. Second is Frits, the photographer, big tele lens at the ready. Last in our tiny party of three, there’s me, the writer. Understandably so, for if I should happen to miss out on an unexpected encounter with a black shrew hastily disappearing from our path, I can easily make up for it using my imagination. And believe me, my fertile imagination is running wild in this dripping jungle of giant trees. Imaginary spiders, imaginary snakes, take your pick. My imagination turns to ‘big’. Listening for my green rustle, I imagine a tiger more than anything. There are still about 350 of them in Malaysia. In the fifties, there were more like 3000, but blowpipes and bulldozers have reduced their number greatly. Sometimes, a tiger will show itself. Recently, one was spotted on a rubber plantation in the north. No one dared go into the plantation again, which I find entirely understandable. But naturalists take another view, it’s not the tiger sneaking into our world, it’s us forever encroaching on the tiger’s world. Very true, no doubt, but still… here I am, last in our group, no blowpipe. What have I seen so far? Nothing. I’m just not looking properly, I tell myself.
Longboat without a view
We are, by the way, in Taman Negara National Park, in Kuala Tahan actually. The jungle in the heart of Malaysia. To get here, we enjoyed a two-hour boat trip the day before. Eager to see all there is to see, both of us sat ourselves right at the bow of the boat. Wrong. All luggage is stowed forward on a long boat, we found ourselves having an excellent view of it as we were sitting right behind the whole pile. Only looking left and right we managed to see a herd of water buffalo and a number of lopsidedly sinking houses, result of the worst monsoon in a long, long time, December 2014.
Our boat trip ends in Kuala Tahan, gathering place for everyone with a mind to go into Taman Negara National Park. By far the majority are backpackers. We’d have guessed as much, but we also ran into a Dutch family carrying their baby in a sling. At 37 degrees Centigrade. Respect.
A smelly king of fruits
To hear a short introduction to our jungle trek, we’re to come and listen in a floating restaurant, all corners occupied by large fans whirring. Unfortunately, these steel cobwebs don’t do much good. The heat remains merciless and the introduction explains Malaysian criminal law to be equally merciless. Should you have no permit to enter the park and be caught, you risk a three year extension to your stay in Malaysia. Poaching will get you ten years. Shooting wildlife with a camera is allowed, of course, but there’s no guarantee whatsoever we’ll see a tiger, tapir or an elephant. I’m slightly taken aback, these are all running around here, in Kuala Tahan? I wasn’t expecting elephants at all, but apparently, West Malaysia is blessed with a thousand of them. Along the main roads, there are frequent warnings, yellow signs saying AWAS (Malaysian for Beware!) and a picture of an elephant. The Orang Asli, the indigenous people, know all about them. Ask them which animal they fear the most, it’s the elephant. Of course. Elephants, not tigers, are capable of quickly flattening an entire village. On the other hand, elephants prove very useful in maintaining the biodiversity of the rainforest. Some plants do really well on elephant dung. Take Durian, the smelly king of fruits. You’ll only need to smell it once to never forget it. I’ll leave it to the more advanced visitors of Malaysia.
No leeches, no crocs
Back to Taman Negara and our jungle hike. On account of snakes, I’m wearing shoes, not sandals or flipflops, and I’ve got a towel around my neck. Doesn’t work at all. After an hour or so, my hair is hanging from my head like wet noodles, the towel soaked. Where all this perspiration is coming from is a mystery to me, but it just keeps on coming until even my backpack bands are soaked as well. I still don’t manage to see any wildlife at all, except for the ‘agressively luscious vegetation’ as Redmond O’Hanlon reports. The British writer is my companion here in Malaysia. I’m rereading his 1986 book, Into the heart of Borneo, in my hotel room, I consider it a must-read for every jungle visitor. The man with the finest sideburns since James Onedin of TV fame writes extremely wittily on tiny fish entering the urinary tract, whirling and churning rivers and belligerent natives. Before thinking to skip Malaysia entirely, note there is West Malaysia and East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. O’Hanlon did his traveling on Borneo, whereas we are in West Malaysia, to the north of Singapore. This jungle is far more accessible. For one thing, there are no belligerent natives. And no leeches or crocodiles either. ‘Thumbs in its eyes, IF you have the time.’ Last night’s advice from O’Hanlon’s book.
Call of the rainforest
After an hour and a half of hiking through the jungle, we’re nearing the top. Just as the photographer and myself want to take our last sips of water, Arif warns us to be quiet, he’s heard something…
“Hornbill…?” the photographer asks. He’s heard something as well, even appears to recognise the sound. We tread closer ever so carefully. And now I’m hearing it myself, the call of the rainforest. A short bark-like sound, actually. The sound of the hornbill. Just moments later, I glimpse the red beak through the leaves. There he is, the largest of its kind, the legendary rhinoceros hornbill. Our guide barks back at the bird… and the bird answers. I’m immediately transported into one of David Attenborough’s whispering programs when he searches for his own trophies. Today, mine is this hornbill. O’Hanlon writes about it too: ‘Every ten minutes or so, I think I hear the rustle of hornbill wings, the rush of air through the flight-feathers, like swans overhead, like the deep screeches of raven diving.’
Our hornbill stays put, just slightly nervous, it seems. I’m wondering whether our guide sounds like its mate.
The female lays her eggs in a nest very high up the trees. She gets walled in when the male closes the nest off altogether with a gum-like substance secreted from his stomach. In the open air, it dries into a hard wall. When finished, an opening is left for the female’s beak only. There she stays imprisoned untill the chicks are three weeks old. In the meantime, the male feeds her insects, seeds and morsels of lizards and frogs. To the hornbill’s credit, there have been cases of other males keeping the widow and her chicks alive after the male had been shot.
The photographer is ready to shoot as well, the guide still barking at the bird trying to keep it in its place. A matter of seconds, that’s all the time you’re going to get. Then… the sound of wings rushing. ‘Did you get it?’ ‘Got it.’
Rubber suits advised
In the evening we’re going to see a number of other odd wild creatures. From our resort in Taman Negara, we’re doing a jungle night walk. ‘See those lights?’ our guide asks, shining his flashlight into the forest. I’m nodding yes enthusiastically untill he mentions what I’m looking at, they’re spiders’ eyes.
Then he points to the forest floor. We’re in luck, apparently, looking at a whole family of scorpions. Arif calls them ‘little baby scorpions’, as if my motherly instincts would soften my fright. The jet-black family of scorpions is very difficult to make out using an ordinary flashlight, so he whips out an ultraviolet flashlight, making the scorpions stand out green like glow-in-the-dark figurines. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘there’s daddy.’ I find daddy a little too big to remain standing calmly beside Arif, and even worse, he’s going to show me something, picking up a stick and knocking on the forest floor. Scorpions are blind as bats, he’s telling me, they follow vibrations, as these are likely to be caused by their next meal, an unwitting insect perhaps. The stick works its magic, daddy curls his tail and readies his pincers for the kill.
I’m thinking of my own son and our last visit to the zoo. With every venomous animal he would say ‘Look, mum, this one is in Malaysia too!’ I’d rather stick with O’Hanlon advising a rubber suit and a steel wader.
Sir Stamford’s Rafflesia
Taman Negara isn’t the only rainforest the operator has in store for us. A couple of days later, we find ourselves in Royal Belum State Park, further north. Here we’re going to look for the biggest flower on the planet, Rafflesia. Our guide warns us that Rafflesia only flowers for three to five days and that recent rain is likely to prevent us from seeing the huge flower in all its splendour. Arif turns out to be right. All we get to see is a smallish brown red ball. The parasitic plant is hosted by certain species of liana and need nine months to flower. That nine month period is precisely what makes Rafflesia special to the indiginous people. Women having given birth eat Rafflesia in order to stop bleeding. That doesn’t sound like an enticing prospect to me, because the flower smells like rotting meat. Nonetheless, Rafflesia surely is something special and impressive, the flower can weigh up to eleven kilos and grow to a meter in diameter. It was named after Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and a naturalist as well, leading the expedition discovering Rafflesia on the island of Sumatra. Of course, the Orang Asli knew the flower already, but Raffles is the one to describe the plant and give it its name. Even now, that’s the shortest way to immortality, naming a newly discovered plant or animal after yourself.
Forest nomads endangered
Other than to search for Rafflesia, we’re here in Belum to visit Malysia’s indigenous people, the Orang Asli. Not a complicated name, ‘Asli’ meaning original and ‘Orang’ meaning man. Beforehand we’re told the Orang Asli aren’t doing so well in Malaysia. The country has lost three quarters of its rainforest to mining, dams, urbanisation and immeasurable tracts to oil palm and rubber plantations. The Orang Asli have suffered most from these developments, as their way of life is nomadic. For years now, they’ve been forced by the government to live in their assigned places and turn sedentary.
One reason is to prevent endless discussion when the government gives out new permits to cut down yet more of the rainforest. Special houses have been built for the Orang Asli, not unlike a refugee camp, spread throughout the country. But even today, there are still Orang Asli refusing to move into these places, they remain where they’ve always been, in the forest.
The flavour of candy wrappers
We’ve been prepared for our visit in an almost pre-colonial first contact way, we’re bringing candy and gifts for the children. For the record, I’m having very mixed feelings handing out Hello Kitty notebooks to the kids upon our arrival. They’ve gathered around us in a circle. We make selfies with them. To a girl of around twenty I’m handing over my Turkish Airlines goodie bag containing a toothbrush, a comb and some other stuff to freshen up on board. In poor English she asks ‘is that your husband?’ pointing at the photographer. I tell her my husband is at home, which proves to be the wrong answer, because ‘why am I here then’. Next, I very much regret having brought the candy. I see a toddler eating my candy including the paper wrapper. Just in time, his sister manages to clarify the procedure of unwrapping before eating. The older boys don’t mingle at all. I can imagine them thinking ‘candy again’.
From forest giants to steel giants
Our last day we spend in Kuala Lumpur with its giant buildings of steel and glass. The best view of the famous Petronas towers, 452 meters high and still the world’s highest twin towers, is to be had from the 34th floor of the Traders Hotel opposite the towers. beside the pool, there are red seats immersed in a driving beat. There we are, Frits and me, ice cold Tigers in our hands, the only kind of tigers we were able to find in Malaysia. We toast the jungle and watch the thousands upon thousands of lights of the city. I think of fireflies and for a moment I’m back in the jungle. Focusing on the green rustle has worked. David Attenborough would be pleased. And so would O’Hanlon, I imagine. Ten days have shown me large groups of long-tailed macaques, three monitor lizards, two kingfishers, a family of black scorpions, long lines of Malaysian ants, two ospreys, a snake curled up on the brach of a tree, a herd of water buffalo taking a bath, five, maybe six stick insects, a fluffy spider hunting bird and any number of butterflies, frogs and geckos. The excitement of finding them and seeing them was equally big for all of them. Except for the rhinoceros hornbill. raven of the rainforest. Looking at the hornbill, I felt like three years old again, in a zoo, looking at a live lion for the first time.