Jalan jalan bagus, walking is good.
I arrive to Maliau Basin on November 20th. Maliau Basin is, as the name suggest, a sort of bowl with a 20 km diameter, delimited by a circular ridge – the “rim” of the bowl. Similarly to Imbak Canyon, Maliau survived the big logging wave of the seventies and eighties thanks to its inaccessibility, long enough for the Malaysian government and the logging companies to realize the value of the area and protect it, as early as 1981. I will be straight. I liked Danum valley and I liked Imbak canyon, but Maliau Basin is stunning.
It is awesome in its real meaning of “inspiring awe”. One would not say it at first. First one arrives by bus from the city of Tawau to the junction where the gates of the conservation area are. From there it is another hour drive or so on a dirt road to reach the fancy but sleepy research centre. There are all the commodities: filtered drink water, electricity, even light poles. I see a huge bornean wild boar walking around the buildings, undisturbed and used to man. A minute later I notice a hornbill sitting on top of a light pole, like a pidgeon. Not exactly wild sights. I spend the rest of the day staring at the battering rain, a bit downhearted. I have the feeling of being hunting a ghost, an idea of wild Borneo that really was already disappearing from Sabah 30 years ago. Also, it seems that the monsoon is setting in for good.
My mood improves quickly when I move from the research centre, located outside of the basin, into the basin itself. I sign up for a three-day loop hike that starts and ends at the Agathis camp, just on the outer side of the basin rim, about half an hour drive from the research centre. From there I set foot in direction of the Nepenthes camp, located inside the basin. Both camps are named after iconic plants found in the conservation area: respectively, a majestic tropical conifer and a genus of carnivorous pitcher plants. If Danum valley stroke me as a lost world, Maliau does even more so, thanks to the geographical barrier that isolates it from the outside world. Zizul, my guide, speaks little english but has a good eye for animals, plants, and trees. As we walk across the now abandoned Agathis camp he shows me where the kitchens used to be. He tells me that a group of elephants stampeded across the camp and destroyed the kitchen huts. The Nepenthes camp is 7.5 km away, half of which on very steep terrain. We walk in the dipterocarp forest, silently. I have a backpack with food and gear for three days, the leeches are many and fierce, but it does not matter. It is sunny and I am on the move. I feel good. Jalan jalan, walking, is a good answer to overthinking, that easily catches me when I am stuck somewhere. Not that when I walk I think less, but thoughts are fluid, they flow at the pace of my steps. When I am idle, stuck somewhere, waiting for things to happen, my thoughts stagnate, like ill water in a forest puddle.
Soon Zizul and I start climbing on steep terrain, sometimes with the help of fixed ladders. The rain cannot stop on this steep terrain, which is drier and with less leeches. As we go up, the forest changes. The “rim”, the ridge surrounding the basin, is about 1500 m a.s.l.. Here the forest is dense and composed of many small trees, as opposed to the big dipterocarps of the lowland forest. Zizul tells me that they call this forest kerangas, or tropical heath forest. He shows me a tree clawed open by a honey-bear, to get to a hive and its honey inside it. Then he shows me an Agathis tree. If dipterocarps are the giants of the lowland forests, Agathis are the giants of the kerangas. Its bark looks composed by pieces of a mosaic, its texture reminds me of that of maples, but much finer. Although Agathis has large leaves, unlike extratropical conifers, it produce similar cones. As we descend from the rim inside the basin the forest changes again. Rhododendron, Eucalyptus trees, many orchids, various species of pitcher plants, even mosses. The ground is soaked with brown-red water, held by gray clay. Zizul is a good guide. He tells me when he sees something, he explains me the things he knows, otherwise he stays silent.
We reach Nepenthes camp. Simple, made out of wood and tin. We arrive early in the afternoon but we take it easy, nobody is chasing us. A rain shower lasts for a hour but for once I do not listen to it thinking “damn, the monsoon! How will I do when all my shelter will be a hammock and a plastic sheet?” Instead I enjoy having a roof over my head and I let the sound of the rain lull me into sleep.