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Place: Taman Negara National Park Malaysia

Haunting the Jungles of Malaysia Taman Negara National Park.

An old man, frail as a dried brown twig, silently watches our group disembark from the tour bus. The sun is fierce, and past the parking lot, a flight of steps leads down to a wharf. Beyond the dock, the muddy Tembeling river snakes smoothly through the tropical jungle.

There is no sign of our boat, so I dump my bags on the ground and sit on the bench next to the old man. My T-shirt is soaked with sweat, and I am thirsty and irritable. As if reading my mind, the old man says, "Do not be in a hurry, miss. The jungle is ancient and timeless. It does not yield to the feverish haste of strangers." His English, although accented, is perfect, and his voice is surprisingly resonant. "You must treat the forest gently. Do not disturb it. Or intrude upon its secrets." He stands up and walks away, disappearing into a grove of trees fringing the parking area. In the noonday glare, he casts no shadow.

Later, on the three hour trip to the Taman Negara National Park. I sit in a long boat, listening to the chatter of our group rising and falling around me. The river is dappled khaki and green, lying between its banks like a rumpled sleeve torn off an army camouflage jacket. Clumps of reeds and grass cling to the water's edge and behind them the jungle crouches, brooding and implacable. Here and there, creepers, with obscenely vivid orange flowers, twist their death grip around tree trunks and vines loop from branch to branch, their leaves falling like curtains to the ground. Shifting light and shadow turn the foliage into bizarre silhouettes-elephant heads, their trunks raised against the sky, a pterodactyl-type reptilian creature, survivor of the Jurassic age, craning its neck in flight-and the sideways profile of a man's face, gaunt and hollow eyed. I stare at it as we sweep past and straighten up in my seat with a queer little shock. The skinny old man at the dock-that's who it looks like. Was he real or did I imagine him?

Before setting out from Vancouver, I'd heard tales about demonic spirits ("hantu") who inhabit Malaysia's primordial jungles. The Taman Negara National Park, to which we are now heading, is 130 million years old and according to Ahmed, my Malaysian friend, it is haunted. And, its ghosts are touchy. "My uncle," he says, "stopped to pee against a tree in Taman Negara. And he nearly died afterwards."

"Oh? How come?"

"His kidneys stopped working. Totally. For three days!" Ahmed paused dramatically. "The doctors said he only had twenty-four hours to live. My aunt was desperate, so she took him to a bomoh-a tribal shaman-who had magical healing powers. The bomoh scolded my uncle for being so disrespectful and said he should have first prayed to the spirits for permission, explained the urgency and asked their forgiveness before relieving himself."

"And did the bomoh cure your uncle?'

"Yes. After he had performed secret rites, deep within the jungle, my uncle recovered completely." Ahmed waggled his finger at me. "So you must be careful."

I'd laughed. "Women aren't equipped to pee against trees, Ahmed. So I'm sure the forest spirits have nothing to worry about as far as I'm concerned."

He eyed me warily. "Don't joke. Its not funny. Honest. Even one of the bungalows in the Taman Negara resort is supposed to be haunted by a lady who…."

I'd shrugged all this aside as load of garbage. But now, well…I'm not quite so sure. I fumble in my pocket for my cigarettes, light one, and toss my burned out matchstick into the river. Almost instantaneously, there is a strangled scream from the outboard motor. It gargles for a second, and dies with a hoarse death rattle. The current, running swift and deadly, tosses us like a cork towards a craggy outcrop camouflaged by reeds and overhanging branches. The boatman yells in alarm, and his assistant, a boy of about fourteen, dances lightly along the rim of the boat, grabs a branch, and pushes against it in a desperate effort to keep the keel from being torn apart on the jutting rocks. Too late. There is an ominous scraping noise, and we are aground.

Consternation. "Guess we might have to swim for it," someone says.

I look at the greedy waters swirling around the boat. "I can't swim," I say, trying to control the quaver in my voice.

The boatman makes a disgusted sound in his throat. He has heaved the motor out of the water and is holding it up for us to see. A length of rope has entangled itself around the propeller. "Don't worry, I fix." he says looking in my direction. "No need swim." The youngster, stands up near the bow and grins. "Lucky," he says to us. "No hole in boat."

Rope cut away and propeller in place, the engine roars lustily to life. The group cheers and we are mid-stream once again. I fish out an empty plastic bag from my haversack and carefully inter my dead cigarette butt in it. No sense in taking any further chances with outraged river demons.

We arrive at the Taman Nagara Tourist Resort by late afternoon. I toil up the steps from the jetty, and the humidity leaves me soggy, panting and deeply grateful for the ice-cold tropical fruit cocktail offered by our hosts in welcome. The resort sprawls over several acres, its rustic guest bungalows, tents and dormitories linked by pathways winding between spreading "rain" trees, flowering shrubbery and fan-like palms.

My bungalow is attractive, with bougainvillaea creeping along the verandah posts, and wicker chairs set out invitingly on the porch. I shower, change and sit out on the verandah feeling a bit like a colonial expat as sip my pre-dinner rum and coke. The heat of the day is on the wane, and a breeze has sprung up off the river. A fat gecko on the wall stares beadily into space, its tongue flicking in and out at intervals. As the dusk thickens, a bat swoops past me on its evening rounds.

The manager of the resort joins our group at dinner to chat about plans for our stay. Much of Taman Negara, is pristine wilderness, but its animals-elephant, wild deer, boar and tapir-have retreated deep into its dense undergrowth and to visit a salt-lick, which sometimes attracts wild-life at dusk and dawn, would involve a day's trek each way. Our visit is too brief for that. Closer to the resort, however, is the "Canopy Walkway" which we are scheduled to visit the following morning. In the meantime, on his recommendation, we decide to do a half-kilometre night-hike, into the neighbouring forest, right after dinner.

Our guide is a stocky young man with an engaging grin. He is an Orang Asli, a tribal, born and brought up in the Taman Negara reserve. Hiking boots sprayed to protect us from leeches, and flashlights in hand we follow him into the jungle. The foliage presses close, and the air is oppressively still. I trot alongside our guide and say cheerfully: "Any chance of meeting up with a ghost along the way?" He freezes in his tracks, then bends to my ear and whispers. "Not good idea to talk about spirits in the jungle. And please, do not call out anyone's name. The evil ones mimic voices and lure unwary visitors to their death."

The forest path is rough and narrow, and alive with nocturnal reptiles -varicoloured tree snakes, small lizards, rats and worms. In the beam of our flashlights, the bark and roots of trees swarm with beetles, spiders, scorpions and centipedes. Night-blooming flowers unfold their petals. Just before we set out on our return trip, our guide tells us to turn off the flashlights. The blackness is profound, solid as a wall pressed against my face. It obliterates everything and everyone. I am alone in the dark Panic rises in my throat. Somewhere in the undergrowth just behind me, there is a rustling sound, followed by the sudden eerie call of a night bird. Someone in the group, giggles nervously. "Nothing to worry about," says the voice of our guide. "Just look straight in front of you, and once your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, you'll see something curious." A glow emerges, softly. It is a strip of phosphorescent fungus outlining a twig. Then another and another appears, wand-like and magical. A lone firefly flickers momentarily, dips and is suddenly gone.

I fall instantly asleep that night, too exhausted to worry about any restless female ghouls that might inhabit my cabin. But I'm woken up around three in the morning, by a terrific pounding and crashing. Things seem to be scuttling frantically around in the space between the bamboo-mat ceiling and wooden rafters. I turn on the light, and realize that it is raining, the downpour pelting like a clatter of rocks against the tiled roof. I open the door leading onto the verandah, and the pungent scent of steaming, wet earth rushes in. The sky is splintered by lightening, one flash following close upon the other, and the thunder sounds as though it is rolling up the pathway towards my cabin. Next morning, the skies have cleared, leaving a glitter of raindrops hanging like a fringe off the porch railings. A wounded bat lurches across the lawn and chitters angrily at two birds who descend to inspect it. The birds take off in a wing-flash of turquoise.

This is as good a time as any to confess that I am not an athletic, outdoors-adventure-seeking type. Nonetheless, reassured by the resort's blurb which describes the "Canopy Walk" as being an easy, level 1.5 km hike, I set off fortified by breakfast and a heady sense of bravado. The trail is easy at first, and very pretty with dappled sunlight glinting through the trees. We brush past thick ferns and flowering creepers and gape at an assortment of exotic vegetation-plants that look like orange honey-filled conifers, purple, white and pink orchids and a specimen of rafflesia, possibly the world's largest flower, sometimes measuring up to a metre in width. High above us, monkeys swing off trapeze-like vines, and the jungle is shrill with cicadas, and the whoops and whistles of bird calls.

About half-way along, I begin to run into trouble. The trail narrows and begins to ascend in a series of rough-cut foot-holds, some of them slippery with slush. I clamber awkwardly over ropy vines and thick roots, step gingerly across streamlets forded only by rocks, and break out in a sweat as I yank myself up some of the steeper inclines. The group waits patiently for me as panting and mortified, I struggle to catch up. Finally I tell them to go on…I'll do this at my own pace. But the guide will have none of it, and gallantly helps me up the steep final stretch. After all that, and despite my growing misgivings about the whole exercise, I take a deep breath and launch myself onto the Canopy Walkway. The walkway is narrow, and consists of two-by-four planks resting end to end on a nylon net which is knotted and suspended from sturdy Tualang tree-trunks. It is the longest catwalk in the world, stretching for half a kilometre, and a series of rope and plank ladders take it up to a height of thirty metres. Only three people at any one time are allowed on each section, and in an effort to redeem myself, I volunteer to be the first on. Ropes creak, planks groan and the world sways around me. I settle into a rhythm, one foot in front of the other, and clutch the sides of the mesh, hands moving in co-ordination. Far, far below me, the river is a brown thread coiling through a tightly-woven mat of greenery. A voice in my head keeps repeating inanely "There's nothing to fear except fear itself…" and I stare resolutely ahead. Then, the next person fifty feet behind me steps on, and the catwalk dances, tilts and swings. Yeowww! Keep going, keep going…up another rope ladder now, to the next level…don't look down. Just keep going. And then, unbelievably, it's over. Drenched in perspiration, but jubilant, I sing on the way back:

"I strolled on the catwalk, yeah, yeah, yeah,
Do-dah-do-dah…
No ghosties or goblins on the way,
Do-dah-do-dah-day!"

Lunch awaits, and I am ferociously hungry. Then…its time to head onwards-to the jade-green islands and sweeping beaches of Terengganu on the East Coast of Malaysia. But that is another story.

©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com

IF YOU GO:

Getting There: Taman Nagara National Park, although it is spread over three provinces, Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, is accessible mainly by boat from Kuala Tembeling (Pahang) jetty. To get to this point from Kuala Lumpur involves a bus trip to Jerantut, and thence by another bus (18 km covered in about 45 minutes) to Kuala Tembling. Since the buses do not always connect with the boat schedule (twice a day at 9 am and 2 pm), it is more practical to take a taxi. A daily shuttle bus leaves the Istana Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and goes direct to Kuala Tembling

Where to Stay: The Taman Negara Resort at Kuala Tahan offers self-contained bungalows for two or more people, hostel dormitories and an open area suitable for camping under canvas. Facilities include a dining room, cafeteria, conference rooms and a shop selling basic provisions. The office provides trekking guides for a fee. Visit their website at http://www.tradestar.com/negara/intro.cfm for detailed information, or e-mail enquiry@taman-negara.com

When to Go: Avoid the wet season between October and January.

What to Take: Mosquito repellent, leech repellent spray and a powerful flashlight. Light cotton clothing is appropriate unless travelling on the water at dawn, when it can be chilly. Hiking, camping and fishing gear are available at the Resort for a nominal charge.

Other Attractions:

" The further away you get from the Resort area, the likelier is the prospect of sighting wild-life. Kuala Trenggan (9.1 km) is a 5 hour trek along the banks of the Sungai Tembling river. A further 2 km up-river is the Bumbun Kumbang hide. Further north (a two day journey from the Resort) is Kuala Keniam. Both K. Trenggan and K. Keniam have overnight lodges and are popular with bird watching and fishing enthusiasts. There are several caves in the vicinity of Kuala Keniam but explorers should be prepared for an arduous walk/crawl through some of them.

" Gunung Tahan is the highest mountain (2187 metres) in Peninsular Malaysia, and is a tough climb suited only to the most seasoned hiker. A guide is compulsory and the round trip (55 km) takes approximately 7 to 9 days.