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Where spirits dwell


“Prehistoric” palm leaves, the size of small hammocks droop around me while twisting lianas writhe round the primeval trees squeezing them like monstrous lassoes. This is Taman Negara National Park Malaysia’s endless rain forest wilderness, and it’s been basking in a time warp for well over 130 million years. Incredibly the Last Ice Age never made it this far. For the intrepid some of the rarest animal and plant life in the world beckons.

I have just begun a steep and sweaty climb of Teresek Hill, not far from the Park’s entrance, and already I am drenched. My shirt hangs off me like a tunic.

I allow the forest to swallow me up, determined to unravel as much of its hidden face as possible. Under my feet a rippling grid of ancient tree- root systems creates a mysterious web. As they snake their way up the side of the hill they form uneven layers of all-too inviting steps. Around me the air is heavy with the scent of stale incense from rotting mangoes at my feet. A Giant Forest Ant (over an inch long) ambles across my path its head black and shiny its body a bright piercing red. 

Back in Kuala Tembeling, the last trace of civilization before the peaceful boat ride which brought me here, the helpful locals assured me it was possible to walk within inches of a tiger, rhino or elephant without even realizing it. As a result the slightest crackle coming from the undergrowth seems strangely magnified. But it’s not just the chance of walking with rare, exotic wildlife that spurs me on. This tangled world is also home to the Orang Asli the “Original people” of the forest. They’ve lived here as nomadic hunter- gatherers for more than 2000 years paying homage to the delicate patchwork of spirits governing each tree rock or bush, their special brand of shamanism, conferring on them the status of “ Guardians of the Forest.”

A refreshing stillness had fallen all around me after we’d set off up the muddy yellow-tinged waters of the Sungai Tahan River. I had come to these parts looking for a complete break, a chance to forget the pressures of home not least my pushy role as a sales rep. The Orang Asli I’d heard live by a very different set of rules. How could I resist the chance of meeting a people entirely free of the “urban rat race?”

As I scanned the jumbled riverbanks for traces of them an altogether different struggle for survival had unfolded before me. A mad sloping tussle of twisting trees, vines and lianas all locked in an apocalyptic battle for soil and sunlight. Hungry creepers had “gobbled up” entire trees leaving only their ghostly outlines. On the fringes black and white butterflies had frolicked together in strange yin and yang dances as if magically keeping the forest in balance.

Now as I reach the crest of the hill, I let the ancient roots guide me to a bright, parched clearing where the sun seems supernaturally hot. A squat intricately woven dwelling stands before me, with a separate moveable roof attached by sinuous straps. As I circle the clearing hoping to catch a glimpse of the owner my eyes fall on the remains of a small man-made fire. Dancing around the ashes a dazzling multi-coloured legion of butterflies has gathered .As some take flight others claim their places with ever more elaborate wing patterns. Vanilla lime green, rusty orange I lose myself in the changing kaleidoscope of hues…

As I return to the trail the palm leaves in front of me start swaying strangely and the air is filled with heavy crackling noises. From out of the sticky undergrowth a figure emerges on the narrowing path, wearing only a pair of bright red shorts. In his hands he clutches a tall wooden blowpipe at least 3 feet long. After hours of searching for an Orang one has finally come to me. To my relief the stranger stands his ground as I approach even smiling at me. There’s so much I want to ask him, my questions seem to tumble over each other, tying themselves in knots. As I get closer I notice that his appearance is unlike anything else I have seen so far on my trip. His skin is darker, his features decidedly aboriginal. Will my ignorance of Orang dialect scupper the chance of a real exchange?

As we navigate our way around a maze of broken English and Malay I discover that his name is “Powah” and that he is hunting for monkeys. (It’s the staple diet here along with squirrels and wild birds.)  I ask to see one of his poisoned darts. As smooth and as sharp as a crocodile’s tooth there can be no doubt of its invincibility. Across the tip there’s a splash of poison the colour of black ink. Powah seems genuinely flattered that I should be so interested in something so trivial. I tell him I have heard a rumour that his village much deeper in the forest was recently mysteriously abandoned. Does he know why? Powah explains that a month ago an elderly member of the tribe died. Orang custom compelled the community to move on after the burial. That way no restless spirits could disturb them. Do the spirits often speak to him? I inquire. “ All the time” he answers the hint of a smile on his lips but afterwards he gazes around furtively at the forest as if fearful of giving way too much.

Powah beckons me to follow him, and slowly we head deeper into the forest. It seems cruelly ironic to think that only a few hours back I saw entire families of monkeys taking refuge on the safe manicured lawn of the Five star hotel at the Park’s entrance!

As I crash on behind him we pass a tiny stumbling “mouse deer” scarcely bigger than a rodent, then a gigantic collapsed tree trunk echoing with the deafening grinding din of burrowing termites. Given there are only 4000 Orang Asli left in a rain forest region over 4,000 kilometres in size I feel immensely privileged to be his companion. As time rolls by he opens a small tantalizing window onto his world. I am not in the slightest surprised by his caution. For decades the country’s policy of “assimilating” the Orang into mainstream Muslim Malay culture has led to the loss of their traditional hunting lands not to mention the erosion of their Animist belief system. The fact is many Malays are embarrassed by their existence. As one Malaysian writer puts it: “ Having Orang Asli in our country is like having a mad woman in the attic.”

These “ wild jungle men” simply don’t fit in with the country’s rapid march to fully developed country status by 2020. It’s a policy strikingly apparent in the nation’s gleaming “ space age” capital Kuala Lumpur.

As we reach the bend of a crystal clear gushing stream Powah sits on a slippery moss-covered rock and lights up a small handmade cigarette. He takes a long thoughtful puff and hands me the roll-up. It tastes of bitter incense. Arching towards me I sense he is ready to lower his guard a little further. The spirits he tells me have appointed his people “the Guardians.” Should they fail to protect this rich world, they will be “stripped of earthly flesh” and the world will be “twisted inside out”. Powah’s face darkens. Everywhere he adds the Orang are being moved on from their ancestral lands. Sometimes so that a dam can be built, other times for a hotel or a new highway. (Sadly the environmental damage caused by all this has led to many upheavals such as a recent mudslide that demolished an entire Orang Asli village.) Powah assures me “the naga” (dragon) had been “very angry”. (Dragons are believed to punish the Orang for their transgressions. In this case for failing to protect the forest.) Has he ever seen a “naga”? “Never” he answers but he knows a young man who did, shortly before some loggers appeared on his land. The man had been wracked by dreams in which a voice had told him to go to a certain river in the forest. He had avoided the place fearful of what he might discover there, but a few days later a storm had forced him to take a different route home so that he ended up near the very same spot. Almost immediately the river had exploded into shiny golden scales as a gigantic Naga raised its head out of the water. It had seemed to hang in the air for ages before diving back into the river and disappearing. The Naga, Powah explains had been warning the Orang of the destruction and chaos the loggers would bring…

It’s getting late and I tell Powah I must make tracks. Together we navigate the rippling roots back down the hill. Breathless and sweaty I come face to face with a mischievous black-faced gibbon hanging playfully from a low-hanging branch. I turn back hoping to glimpse Powah’s reaction but he is nowhere to be seen. The forest has claimed him back, and I am all- alone again.

A couple of weeks later, back in the “civilized” world (after countless invigorating rambles and climbs) I think a lot about my time with Powah and I feel a sense of shame at the casual thoughtless way we often punish others for being different. I find myself wishing that more people could see things the way the Orang do. If like them we “ the civilised people” viewed the world as a fragile shadow cast by a higher realm then how much needless damage could we all avoid too? Maybe then magical sanctuaries like Taman Negara, with its beautiful forested peaks and its animals and flowers long extinct elsewhere might actually stand a fighting chance of making it into the next Ice Age….

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