Holding nature at bay in the tourists’ 10%

For the past week, my husband and one-year-old son have been on the island of Borneo, exploring Gunung Mulu National Park. “Gunung” means “mountain” in Malay, thus the park is anchored by Mount Mulu. Mulu’s presence above us is felt more than it is seen; it’s no volcanic Mount Hood or Rainier. Instead, it’s a low, forested shrug of sandstone, a holdout in the midst of the softer limestone, which has acquiesced around it, surrendering to the persuasions of rain and air and sunlight (and then more rain) in the millennia since the seafloor was elevated, forming Borneo.

This is Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states of Borneo, a region most noteworthy (to me, at least!) for its importance in the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist who is remembered as the co-originator (with Darwin, of course) of the theory of natural selection. Perhaps this is one reason why my very first impression of this place is that it has been tamed, even manicured. For me, Sarawak is the setting for an evolutionary drama, a touchstone for the notion of the “entangled bank” itself. But from where I sit, Mulu’s wildness seems constrained or, more accurately, excluded: barred from the air-conditioned bungalows and raised boardwalk trails, from a set of constructed human spaces carefully designed to allow the visitor to view nature without getting her feet muddy.

exploring the canopy walkway with the babe

But already I have to qualify the gross generalizations I made above. Of course I am sitting in relatively artificial luxury. After all, we are now traveling with a toddler, and my husband Bryn and I have made some concessions in order to feel comfortable taking him to Borneo. Nobody forced us to choose the air-conditioned bungalow over the open-air hostel or even the longhouse room with a ceiling fan. And nobody is preventing us from hiking many kilometers out into the park to find a spelunking adventure in one of the many remote limestone caves. In fact, Bryn just returned from a trek to an outpost of the park’s trail system, a day’s hike away, where he collected mushrooms while the baby and I chilled down here at headquarters. Yes, nature may be found unfiltered here if you are willing to get a little muddy. The truth about me right now? I don’t mind avoiding the mud.

But my basic observation remains true; only a fragment of Gunung Mulu National Park is accessible to tourists, and that part, even at its most raw, is highly managed. Undoubtedly this management serves to protect the entire park, including the uncharted wilderness area that constitutes the other 90% of Mulu. Funneling people smoothly through the tourists’ 10% protects the entirety. Raised walkways prevent people from striking off into the forest, damaging wildlife and possibly themselves in the process. And the very existence of wilderness can be supported—financially and socially—if the park is otherwise self-sustaining. Tellingly, the government of Sarawak has hired a private firm to manage the 10%. Recent construction in the area of the headquarters, where most of park’s lodging is concentrated, attests to a desire to make the park more like a resort. Take the spacious, air-conditioned, verandaed bungalow where we are currently staying: housekeeping visits us every day and makes our beds and replaces the complimentary coffee. Water from the Sungai Melinau (Melinau River) is treated and, according to one park official, 4-5 hours per day are spent making sure that it’s potable. After all, he told me, “sick people are bad for business.” So, indeed, nature here has become a business—and perhaps for good reason.

two paths diverged...one was concrete, the other, boardwalk.

However, the management philosophy of Gunung Mulu dates back much farther than the construction of this bungalow or the multiplication of food options in the new open-air dining room overlooking the Melinau. If you have ever hiked in the lowland tropical rainforest of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica or crossed a river in the cloudforest at Reserva Los Cedros in the Ecuadorian highlands, the first thing that will drop your jaw is the kilometer upon kilometer of paved, boardwalked, and stair-spangled trails through the forest and over and through the limestone cliff-faces.

Bryn, who has worked elsewhere in Malaysia and in Vietnam, says that the trail system reflects a Southeast Asian style of park management. It’s interesting to put Mulu in that regional context, but what about the history of this particular park? In the mid-70s, Mulu was an almost complete wilderness, peopled only by scattered populations of Penan, a nomadic indigenous people. Today, there’s an airport, a resort, and a fancy new park headquarters complex with an extensive system of boardwalks. The location and design of all of these constructions are explained in part by the simple desire to capitalize on people’s interest in the park, especially the very cool bat caves, which provide the central tourist attraction. But simple calculations of profit do not explain the effort that has gone into building and maintenance.

standing water just below our feet.

Take the trail system. Raised boardwalks are in some places necessary, because parts of the forest are often flooded, making accessibility as issue. (Let’s not question the necessity of crossing the flooded forest for the moment.) An even more interesting accessibility issue: wheelchairs! I seriously doubt that this is what the park management had in mind when they started constructing boardwalks, but we have seen a gentleman in a wheelchair enjoying the park since we arrived.

Apart from raising the visitor above standing pools of water, however, quite a bit of the trails are low boardwalk or even concrete. As far as I can see, this serves at least two purposes. First, it channels visitors through a particular part of the park, making us loath to explore the forest for ourselves, thus reducing our potential damage to organisms in the park through carelessness. The very surface of the trails, while requiring maintenance and even apparently cleaning (Groups of people walk through the forest with brooms, sweeping fallen leaves off the trail—no joke! More extremely, another visiting researcher claims they even powerwash the trails.), is not subject to erosion, and is more resistant to the impact of hiking boots tromping through the forest in that heavy touristic way.

The second purpose this trail system serves is to hold nature at bay, to protect us from its dangers, both real and imagined. No question, I dread the day I look down at my baby and see a terrestrial leech stuck to his ankle. Keep those suckers far away from me. And as for imagined dangers, these are perhaps the most serious! Look, I know that wild pigs really should be the least of my concerns when I am walking through the Amazon basin. Heck, I would have been lucky to see wild pigs. But I will reveal right now that I spent an inordinate time in the Amazon snuffling the air quite dramatically anytime I detected a tiny whiff of animal odor, already searching in panic for a tree to climb. And when I see pictures of the bearded pig present in this park? Well, I am very glad to be elevated above the trail.

Even when I am not elevated above the forest, I sense an obvious apartness that is absent when my hiking boots touch soil. It bothers me intensely to miss out on the sensory immersion that I have come to expect from a walk through a tropical rainforest. Nevertheless, as I travel now with a one-year old on my back, and especially when I let him practice his own slightly wobbly walk, I have to admit that I don’t always mind feeling a bit apart.

Have I traded in experiencing nature for merely viewing it?

2 Responses to “Holding nature at bay in the tourists’ 10%”

  1. Cornelia says:

    Delicious, Rachel! Yummy food for thought. Most of my time in the field in Costa Rica was spoiled by an inordinate fear of being bitten by a fer de lance.

  2. Rachel Mason Dentinger says:

    Thanks, Cornelia! Because it is such an aggressive snake, the fer-de-lance is totally worthy of your fear, though it’s a shame to have your trip spoiled by it. I like to wear (probably useless) garb that gives me a (probably illusory) sense of protection. My first time in Costa Rica I wore snake gaiters. Thenceforth I wore rubber boots. Neither were ever tested, thankfully. But I met a woman in the Amazon (where I wore no snake protection, btw) who narrowly avoided a fer-de-lance bite in the butt. Nature called and she was squatting trailside, when she just happened to look behind her and see the snake ready to lunge. She jumped out of the way just in the nick of time! That is one mean snake.

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