Possibly the closest comparison to Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s opening chapter, where he describes his historic first journey into the ‘Garden of Eden’ in August 1977, comes from the world of fiction: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. It requires constant reminders that this is instead a non-fiction account of a genuine expedition, passing through the previously-unexplored Deer Cave of Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo, to a place previously untouched by human footsteps. ‘I realised that I was in a profoundly privileged position,’ he writes. ‘How many people get the chance to go somewhere no one has ever been before?’
This is a somewhat unusual book, divided as it is into, firstly, an in-depth commentary of the scientific RGS Mulu (Sarawak) expedition of 1977-78, then essentially a large appendix revealing Hanbury-Tenison’s raw diary entries during the expedition, and, finally, a reflective look back at his various return visits to Mulu, and how it has changed over the past four decades. Most poignantly, he is even able to reconnect with Nyapun, an indigenous Penan hunter-gatherer who had dramatically emerged from the rainforest during the original expedition, his entire nomadic family in tow. Hanbury-Tenison’s very open and self-critical thoughts regarding the fate of the nomadic communities who once populated this part of the world, as evidenced through his conversation with Nyapun, show a deep awareness of his own role in shaping the history of this unique location.
As becomes strikingly clear, Nyapun’s life has coincided with the most unimaginably tumultuous period of change for Mulu. ‘Eden’ is all but gone, as the impact of heavy deforestation has taken its toll, while Nyapun and the Penan have overwhelmingly abandoned nomadism in favour of a more static, Western lifestyle. ‘We came to Mulu at the end of a golden age,’ writes Hanbury-Tenison. ‘We were so lucky to be there just then.’
The vivid pictures he paints of a world that has almost disappeared leave a deep sense of melancholy, albeit one tinged with faint optimism that, maybe, just maybe, this unique landscape could still be saved, if only local tribal people were again allowed to manage the forests as they previously did for millennia.