Borneo, the third largest island in the world, has been immortalized in literature by Redmond O’Hanlon in his travel memoir, Into the Heart of Borneo, as well as by Eric Hansen, who walked almost across the island in his adventure tome Stranger in the Forest. Both authors were spellbound by the island’s impenetrable jungles and vast river systems.
Borneo, comprised of Indonesian Kalimantan, the Sultanate of Brunei, and Malaysian Sabah and Sarawak, contains the oldest rainforest in the world, 130 million years old to be precise, containing perhaps the most biodiversity to be found anywhere on the planet, with over 15,000 species of plants, 3000 species of trees, and a plethora of terrestrial mammals and birds.
It has been said that orangutans could swing across Borneo from tree to tree, the rainforest cover was so thick, and prior to World War II, even the hardiest of travelers tended to stay away, due to fear of the tribal headhunters that lived deep in the hidden jungles of this fascinating land.
However, those days are far gone. Logging has depleted huge swaths of the forest cover, and the only branches orangutans could use to cross Borneo these days would be the sharp leaves of the palm oil estates that dot much of the landscape. Yet not all is lost. Especially in Malaysian Sarawak, there are a selection of well managed national parks which provide an excellent glimpse into Borneo past and present, giving visitors a chance to experience wildlife, plants of the rainforest, and even the dwindling traditional longhouse culture of the former headhunting tribes.
Several of the national parks in Sarawak are only a short distance from its capital city, Kuching, and the closest and most visited is Bako, famed for its wildlife. The comical long nosed Proboscis monkeys are the main attraction of the park, and with an overnight and a few hikes, one is sure to come across bands of Proboscis as they make their way from the jungle to the mangrove swamps to feast on fruit trees when the tide goes out.
Bako is also home to the more elusive silverleaf langur monkeys, who perch high up in the treetops, but then slowly work their way down for fruit as the morning goes by, often battling long tailed macaques for the best spots in the trees. Other wildlife include bearded pigs, often seen lounging around the park canteen, monitor lizards, the toxic pit viper which camouflages itself around green leaves, and exotic night creatures such as the flying lemur, which only show themselves after dark.
Besides the animals, Bako has an excellent marked jungle trail system, with paths of varying lengths traversing through the magical jungle. Trails lead to waterfalls, viewpoints, and to some of Sarawak’s best beaches, such as Pandan Kecil, a white sandy cove set amongst towering cliffs, only a few hours hike from the visitor’s center, yet feeling more like a Robinson Crusoe island far from the maddening crowd.
Not far from Bako are another pair of excellent nature stops. Gunung Gading National Park doesn’t get the attention that Bako does, which makes it all the more enjoyable for enjoying the jungle without the crowds. Serenity and some nice walking aside, Gunung Gading is also home to the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, which only blossoms here some 20 times per year, and is a rare treat to come across.
On the way, one can call in at Semanggoh Reserve, which is an sanctuary for rehabilitating orangutans back into the wild. While a lot of visitors call in for the twice a day feeding times, the orangutans never fail to put on an entertaining show as they come swinging in from the jungle, and the interactions between juveniles and adults make for some priceless photo ops.
Further afield lies the impressive Batang Ai River and national park of the same name. Accessible only by boat, the park is home to wild orangutans, gibbons, and hornbills, and has 240 square kilometers of lush rainforest. The river systems flowing through the park are also home to the Iban tribe and their traditional longhouses. The Iban are renowned for being the fiercest of the Borneo tribes, and infamous for their headhunting practices. Fortunately, these days headhunting has been replaced by tourism, and the Iban, who are actively involved in the national park management, are busy welcoming visitors to their longhouses.
Longhouses are built on stilts off the ground, serving the purpose of protection against flooding and from ones enemies. A public area runs the length of one side of the building, while private rooms line the other side, and the communal life led by the Iban, despite the arrival of electricity, television, and other modern contraptions, is still strong and bound by tradition.
With an invite from the chief, guests are welcomed in to share in some local rice wine, and then join in for some traditional song and dance, which the Iban get more of a kick out of then the visitors, due to most guests being unable to handle the potent rice wine as well as the locals!
During the day, Iban women still engage in Ikat weaving (a cloth resisting dyeing process), and the men still go out in dugout boats with their fishing nets. Our Iban guide stopped our boat in a shallow area of the river, cast out his net, and within a minute had hauled in more than ten fish, leaving everyone agape with his prowess.
Some of the older men still sport tattoos from their throat up across their Adam’s Apples, a sign that they have taken a head and become a warrior. But even they have mellowed with age, happy to sit peacefully and share a glass of rice wine with you, and have their English speaking grandchildren tell you a bit about their lives.
The glowing lushness of the rainforest, along with its extremes of either complete silence or cacophony of birds, insects, and frogs amazes most visitors, and perhaps nowhere is this more on display then in Sarawak’s Mulu Caves National Park. Closer to Brunei than Kuching, and reached either by a Twin Otter plane or else an arduous river journey, Mulu lies in a majestic setting beneath high jungle clad mountains draped in almost perpetual mist, which tower over dense impenetrable forest.
The highlights of Mulu include its fabulous Show Caves, part of an extensive network of some of the longest and largest cave systems in the world. In the spectacular Deer Cave, millions of bats can be seen flying out into the jungle just before dusk, silhouetted against a rock formation which perfectly resembles the profile of Abraham Lincoln! In the nearby Clearwater Cave, an underground river runs for over 100 kilometers, and emerges at the mouth of the cave into a pristine jungle pool where visitors can spend the afternoon cooling off.
More adventurous travelers can make the arduous journey to the Mulu Pinnacles, a set of jagged limestone towers that jut out of the top of the jungle, accessible only by climbing a trail full of ladders and ropes that gains 1200 meters in just 2.5 kilometers, or walk the historic Headhunters Trail, a several days trek that follows the route of traditional warring tribes through some spectacular scenery.
Perhaps the best thing to do in Mulu or in any park in Sarawak is to just be still and enjoy the magic of the jungle; truly some of the world’s most spectacular. Standing still, you realize that the stick on the ground at your feet is actually a Phasmida, or stick insect, foraging for leaves. You realize that there are no sounds from the modern world. Televisions, cars, and mobile phones are replaced by hollering frogs, buzzing cicadas, and various hoots and howls from the birds and primates in the trees above. Even airplanes are hidden from view, invisible above the dense forest canopy.
It is no wonder many of the Iban who now go to the cities to find work still long for returning to the calm and uncluttered lives of their longhouse communities along the might rivers of Borneo.
Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have frequent flights to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Travel within Sarawak can be challenging due to limited public transport if at all to many of the national parks, with the exception of Bako. To get to places like Batang Ai or on longhouse visits, it is best to go through a tour operator. Borneo Adventure, Sarawak’s most established operator, has been running sustainable tourism and community involvement programs for over 30 years, and can tailor make programs to fit all needs, taking in any or all of the national parks, providing longhouse visits and jungle treks, all with well trained local guides. www.borneoadventure.com