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Whilst this looks like deep, primeval jungle to the untrained eye, it was in fact planted as recently as 1929, revitalsing a landscape which had been denuded through logging activity, the laudable (and far sighted) aim being that of creating an entire tropical forest ecosystem from scratch. Over 80 years later, It now boasts, as a leaflet explains with refreshing honesty, “over 15, 000 species of plants, though for a layman in botanic, all of them look like greeneries.”
Here in the UK, a trend in visitor attractions is that of the woodland/natural play area. The success of Norfolk’s Bewilderwood and of GoApe attest to this and Crealy Great Adventure Park down here in Devon has recently added "Natural realm". FRIM is an important academic facility in its own right but it too markets itself to the visitor, with a number of attractions within the campus such as an insectarium, a herbarium, an arboretum and a small shop. Although the insectarium is dark and uninspiring (I learned a Malaysian saying : “Blessed are the cicadas for they have voiceless wives”) – the real show is of course outside in the forest, where a bewildering variety of creatures make their home and where the (male) cicadas create a clattering din.
The major attraction to those not schooled in entomology or dendrology is the park’s canopy walkway. Having walked an hour into the forest, I came across the suspended bridge, sitting 30 meters above the forest floor in four 50 meters sections. There was a tiny cabin at the entrance with bare walls apart from a laminated news clipping – a glowing review from a local paper I assumed. On closer inspection, I found non too reassuring news about a “rope bridge tragedy” earlier in the year; a cautionary tale to encourage proper behavior whilst on the walkway. I thought of Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge over San Luis Rey”, one of the great novellas of the last century and undoubtedly the best in the rope-bridge-disaster genre.
The bridge itself was of decidedly rustic construction: I had been hoping for an impressive feat of precision engineering (German perhaps?) along the lines of The Treetop Walkway at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens. “Surely”, I asked myself, as I stepped out onto the first section, and it lurched to the right under my weight, “that isn’t really just a couple of aluminum ladders lashed together with a plank of wood on top”. Familiar with the roller coaster experience – the illusion of grave danger coupled with certain safety – I was straight out of my comfort zone, gripping the wires on the side with white knuckles and stepping out gingerly into the canopy. Half way across, there was an outstanding view of the forest below and of the city in the distance.
The return took a more leisurely route down through the formal arboreta and by the living quarters for the many scientists and staff based at the institute. One guy had a cannonball tree on his lawn, which bizarrely grows both spherical fruits and its flowers directly from its trunk. Another had Durian fruit – famous for tasting gorgeous but smelling foul – hanging just outside his front room. His windows were closed.