Thinking About Borneo
The weather is bad. Really, really, bad. And sometimes in this deep dark damp Exmoor valley you get to thinking about other places when the skies are black and the rain is coming down in sheets.
Today, I have been mainly thin king about Borneo. And I’ve been recalling this trip I took out there a while ago.
When I was a boy there was sometimes talk of an elusive and frightening person known as The Wild Man of Borneo. Now I’ve been to Borneo and can report he has vanished like jungle mist – in his place are friendly and charming people.
They weren’t always friendly or charming. The Iban used to be head-hunters – indeed they’d murder one another and shrink the resultant heads without even the slightest excuse.
If they were the original wild men of Borneo, then they’ve changed. I’ve met them and even stayed with them in a tribal longhouse high in a remote rain-forested corner of Sarawak, which is a Malaysian province in Borneo – and, as I say, a more affable bunch you could hardly wish to meet.
Visiting the Iban was the highlight of a journey that took me to Sarawak as part of a trip designed by the Malaysian government to show how eco-tourism in this most far-flung of regions is now a relatively easy for Westerners, and how it benefits local people who only recently were living in very primitive conditions indeed.
They still are, from a European perspective – but when a tribal chief who lives deep in a jungle hours from the nearest road offers to give you his email address, you realise just how much things must have changed.
Not that there were any computers or mains electricity in this particular chief’s communal long-house – he later told me his son collects emails for him from college and brings them home at weekends.
But let’s begin at the beginning – which in Sarawak means Kuching, the capital with its international airport. It’s a bustling, sprawling city – not overly endowed with charm – but I liked it nevertheless.
Right at the heart of Kuching is an enclave of international hotels and from the window of my comfortable suite in the Grand Margherita I could look directly down upon the square that is the city’s equivalent of Piccadilly Circus.
From here we were able to explore the newly revamped riverside esplanade that took us half a mile along the wide curving waterway to the city’s fascinating, pulsating China-town, where you can buy everything and anything from weird jungle remedies to silks and “genuine fake” watches.
The thing about being on a government run press trip is that you have minders who operate under some mysterious itinerary – and while normally I wouldn’t mention this in a travel article I do so now because it was a journey of constant surprises.
No sooner had my journalist companion and I explored Kuching, we were being whisked off in a minibus deep into the rain-forested countryside. Why?
“We’re going to a rock festival,” beamed our excellent and thoroughly entertaining local guide, Henry.
“A rock festival!” I retorted with some wrath. “We have rock festivals at home – big ones – I haven’t come halfway around the globe to gawp at young men with big egos.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Rainforest World Music Festival 2011 was the best event of its kind I’ve ever been to. Totally and utterly magical… I was enchanted, and still am.
The festival, which is in its 14th year, takes place in a kind of bowl in the mountains. The location is actually a tourist area called the Sarawak Cultural Village, but that shouldn’t put anyone off – the place is stunningly beautiful, set in the midst of a virgin rainforest under Mount Santubong, at the edge of the South China Sea.
Two huge Glastonbury-style stages had been built in the middle of this natural bowl in the hills, and music from all four corners of the Earth boomed from these long into the night. I found the whole thing bewitching and the stranger the music – the more eastern, mysterious and oriental – the more I liked it.
As our media minder put it: “A thousand harmonies, seemingly at odds and yet in unison – a world apart, but here, one world together…”
After a very, very long night I needed a sobering influence – and was given one on our next Sarawakian adventure in the form of Ritchie.
He is the nearest you can get to the Wild Man of Borneo. Ritchie is a massive orang-utan and is the dominant male at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. And you don’t want to get on the wrong side of Ritchie – someone did last year by throwing a fire cracker at him – that young man did live to tell the tale, but only just.
The thing about the orang-utans at Semenggoh is that they are wild – you go into their 750-hectare area of prime rainforest with guides, but you do so at your own peril. The rangers attract these amazing creatures – most of which have been rescued in some way or other – down from the forest with a daily offering of food so that visitors can get close. But you are told to be careful and quiet – no flash bulbs or shouting – and if someone says “run”, you run.
Semenggoh is Sarawak’s oldest nature reserve and it plays host to a great variety of tropical birds including bulbuls, babblers, barbets, shamas, drongos and tailorbirds as well as different rain-forest squirrels.
And you do see a lot of wildlife there – which is more than you can say for most jungles. For that is the thing about a rain-forest – it will probably be crawling, swinging and fluttering with life which you will hear, but rarely see.
We were lucky enough see proboscis-monkeys on another day in a coastal rainforest called the Bako National Park – an adventure which included jungle walks, white beaches and boat-rides. But I haven’t time to expound on that that here, because I want to tell you about the real never-touched-by-man-or-his-machines kind of rainforest of our main adventure.
First we had to get there and that meant a long five hour journey, which may sound a bit arduous but was actually hugely enjoyable – a) because you are in an air conditioned bus which can be a relief in Borneo’s tropical heat, and b) because the journey is scenic and fascinating.
We stopped at Serian, a Dayak Indian trading town, and it happened to be market day – which turned our brief halt into a two hour photographic opportunity filled with brilliant colours. I have never seen so many weird and wonderful foods, even though I’ve spent decades photographing market scenes all around the world.
We tasted all manner of delicacies from various stalls bristling with bubbling woks and charcoal grills. Goodness knows what we swallowed – later I saw python and cobra steaks for sale and wondered if some of those morsels I bought for a few pence may once have slithered rather than walked.
Onwards and eastwards we went, now travelling adjacent to the long mountain ridge that forms Sarawak’s international frontier with Indonesian Borneo. Henry told me that often tribal people from the other side walk for days lugging things they’ve made or grown to sell in more affluent Sarawak – he once saw two men straining under the weight of an antique bronze canon which they’d carried 50 miles.
One of their main targets is the small road-side trading centre at Lachau, where we stopped for lunch. As well as eating amazing rice and noodles here, I also found time for a little shopping and bought a lethal local-made machete which I now use in my garden. It cost £4.
Later we called in at a Chinese farm to see how pepper is grown and cured – and then I sat back to relax as we continued through scenic countryside full of rice fields, rubber, cocoa, pepper, oil palm plantations – all bounded by luxuriant tropical rainforests stretching up to mountain ranges.
Then, suddenly, we were at the river jetty and climbing into long thin motorized longboats called prahus. How the guys who operate these things manage the work is a mystery, though I’ve been in such boats many times – we set off up river against an impressive current and soon we were fighting our way up rapid after rapid.
The Lemanak was low – which was both good and bad news. It meant the current wasn’t quite as strong as it can be, but it also meant a great deal of paddling and poling and once we had to jump out into the clear rushing water to help push the prahu upstream.
To be continued….