I visited the canopy walkway in the Sepilok Forest Discovery Centre in Sandakan last week. The experience is so different from my first walkway, in the 1960’s, that I am moved to attempt a rating of the canopy walkways I have seen in Malaysia.
My first walkway was constructed by local jungle people, the Orang Asli, in Bukit Lanjan forest at the edge of Kuala Lumpur, under the supervision of US Army medical officers. The US team was based at Malaysia’s Institute for Medical Research during the duration of the Vietnam War to study animal-borne diseases that could affect troops in tropical rain forests. While the medical personnel screened the animals of the canopy, I worked on the trees. The walkway was improvised with aluminium ladders for walking upon, suspended by a system of ropes anchored to big trees. The walkway swayed and bounced with every step and one had to keep a firm hand on the ropes to avoid falling out. Whenever an anchor tree died, the walkway had to be realigned through a different set of trees. This interfered with long-term observations on canopy trees. I give the Bukit Lanjan walkway a one-star rating. It no longer exists.
The Bukit Lanjan canopy walkway may have been the first in the tropics. Subsequent walkways have been built with tourists in mind, and the sides are netted so that people cannot fall out by accident.
The Sepilok walkway merits a 4-star rating. It is absolutely steady, on permanent supports of steel and concrete. The work has been done very carefully, with no noticeable damage to the trees and forest. This walkway will not require shifting and is ideal for long-term studies of the forest from permanent vantage points. The walkways are steady enough to ride a motorbike on, and to support camera tripods for time-lapse photography. The forest is truly magnificent for its big trees and diversity of species. At present, users walk to the end and have to come back the same way, but when the last lap is completed, users will do a full circuit. When that happens, the walkway will deserve a 5-star rating.
The walkway at the Belian Camp in the Maliau Basin in Sabah merits a 3-star rating. The walkway is anchored on big trees, but the construction could have been better. The barks of the anchor trees show some signs of damage. Users reaching the end have to come back the same way and there are no plans for a one-way circuit.
The walkway at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in Kepong also merits a 3-star rating. It is anchored on big trees. The anchoring has been done carefully, with no damage to the trees. Traffic flow proceeds in a single direction. The walkway gets a 3-star rating because although the forest is great, it is not as magnificent as in Sepilok or Maliau.
The walkway on Penang Hill merits 2-stars. It is anchored on trees, and users proceed in a single direction. The forest is a unique coastal hill forest of Shorea curtisii. It gets two stars because the species diversity is low compared to the other sites.