Welcome to the jungle… in Borneo
“Welcome to the jungle”, beams my driver with a sense of pride. After crossing eight time zones, I have arrived in the Borneo rainforest for two weeks of jungle trekking, adventurous river trips and to hopefully spot a few of my favourite characters from the jungle book: the orang utans.
Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, is my first stop. Originally under the Brunei Empire, Sarawak was colonised by the British in the 19th century. After decades of civil war between the natives and the Raja Muda Hashim, British soldier and adventurer James Brooke was asked to help control the rebellion. In return for his support, he was granted the Kuching area. Hashim however kept delaying his recognition, angering Brooke. With the help of his troops, he called a negotiation with Hashim, resulting in him being granted governorship of Sarawak in 1841. Unlike most British Empires, James was allowed to rule Sarawak as his own personal kingdom under the title of Raja of Sarawak. He ruled until his death in 1868, under what Malaysians call ‘white raja rule’.
In Kuching, I was able to have a delicious laksa – a fish noodle soup with tamarind, lime and coconut milk. Despite being slightly spicy, it was wonderfully refreshing on a hot day! I visited Fort Margherita, built by Raja Charles Brooke in 1879 and named after his wife, Ranee Margaret. It was originally used to ward off pirate attacks on the city and is now a museum dedicated to the Brookes family.
Kuching by night
Leaving Kuching, I travelled to Batang Ai to meet the Iban tribe, sometimes known as the Dayaks. One of the largest ethnic tribes in Borneo, many of them still live their traditional way of life. One custom that I hope has died out is headhunting; warriors would cut off the head of their aggressor and proudly place it in their house as a trophy. As I sail down the river, the famous longhouses come into view. Built on stilts on the river banks or hill, they are the tribe’s community project. Inside, there is an open community room stretching the entire length of the house. Each family member has individual rooms and in the middle is the chief’s room. A structure is in place for the farming, cleaning and maintenance, as well as settling disputes between neighbours. When I arrive, I’m greeted by a mother who is sifting and drying peppercorns, while her daughters are listening and dancing to Billy Jean. In this day and age, it’s wonderful to see their sense of community.
Taking a longboat to Batang Ai
I shake the chief’s hand and he shows me around the longhouse. I am introduced to the previous chief, who is now retired and acts as a consultant on most matters. He’s 80 years old, yet looks half my age. He explains the tattoos that cover his body and how they represent the areas he has visited and the tribes he has met. Each tattoo represents what the tribe or area is famous for, such as their architecture or food. The man is a living postcard and the entire community understand the meaning of each one.
Blow pipes were traditionally used to hunt animals, requiring skill and direction. It can take years for an adult male to master the skills required for this method. Sadly my only form of preparation had been watching the Indiana Jones trilogy. As my arrows arch towards the river and the teenagers laugh loudly at my poor attempts, I say goodbye and head back upstream.
Meeting the Iban tribe
My next stop is the bustling city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. I visit the night market, where locals buy fresh fish that the trawler men bring in each day. Vendors shout, competing for the best price. I’m offered a glum looking parrotfish that is cooked for me on an open flame with a touch of chilli. It’s deliciously fresh.
Kota Kinabalu market
It’s a long but stunning drive through the mountains towards the Kinabalu National Park. There are short walks, trails and treks to cater for all ages and abilities. Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Malaysia and looms over us at every turn. I had a tranquil stroll through Malaysia’s exotic flora in the Botanical Garden. Modernised by the Japanese after their occupation of Borneo during world war two, Poring Hot Springs is a collection of baths where weary travellers can relax. There is also a lovely canopy walkway through the forest.
Kota Kinabalu National Park
Next, I followed the Kinabatangan river from the coast along the small waterways of Sabah. We stop at Sepilok, a small town renowned for its orang utan sanctuary. Opened in 1964, it now houses over 60 orang utans that were orphaned, injured or captive in the wild. They are fed twice daily, which attracts a large number of visitors. It’s best to arrive early to ensure a good spot! The newly opened ‘jungle gym’ houses the youngsters and gave us the chance to observe their comical attempts at swinging and playing.
On a small boat from the village of Abai to Sukau, there was a look of bemusement as we passed a family of pygmy elephants by the Kinabatangan river. I was eagerly scanning the trees, looking for monkeys and elephants when my guide Ron pointed downwards. The pygmy elephant has long been a resident of Borneo, and is often overlooked by most tourists expecting primates. Despite pygmy meaning unusually small, they can grow up to 2 metres. It’s thought that the limited edible options in the rainforest is the reason for their small stature. It’s of little solace when 14 of them come bounding through the jungle!
A hiding pygmy elephant
A couple of proboscis monkeys wave to us as we head upstream, scanning the tress with our binoculars. We find a young orang utan hastily building a nest before the bad weather arrives. Ron agrees this is a sensible idea. We head towards the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge, stopping at an oxbow lake to watch another beautiful sunset over the rainforest.
On the furthest corner of Sabah, approximately an hour east of Lahad Datu, lies Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The forest is a haven for birdlife, with almost 300 different species. On arrival, I’m greeted by the rhinoceros hornbill with a silent nod of its colourful yet strangely shaped beak. My guide informs me about the new sanctuary for the Sumatran rhino opening next year. Sadly, like their African counterparts, they were heavily hunted for ivory and there are now only two left in existence. We see macaques, orang utans, and at night, civets, leopard cats and the rather cute looking slow loris, who are all busy prowling the forest. We stop at Eagle’s Lodge for a foot soak and traditional mud facial, using the mud from the surrounding volcanoes.
Borneo anglehead dragon, Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Looking 10 years younger after my facial, I’m heading inland to the Danum Valley. Shielded from the logging industry, the Danum Valley became a protected area in 1976. It remains one of the few areas in Borneo that is still a primary forest. The Borneo Rainforest Lodge sits in the valley and is eco-friendly. Plastic here is non-existent, the shampoo and bug repellent is natural and electric golf buggies are used to get around. Farah, my chaperone for the next few days, is so passionate and insists I walk up the daunting hill next to my villa for sunrise. I want to go back to bed to the sweet sounds of the frogs and crickets, but she is a difficult woman to say no to.
Two hours later, I’m watching Borneo’s second primate, the gibbon, swing effortless through the trees. A small baby pokes his head up, sees the red-faced Englishman taking photos, and quickly returns to its mother. Farah tells me this isn’t even the best part. She takes me up to where the ancient tribes used to bury the dead. They would carry the coffins made of ironwood along the same path that we were on and I quickly realise why. The view is stunning; you can see the sheer density of the forest. It was definitely worth the early start.
After some pretty tough wildlife tracking, it’s time to head for some rest and relaxation at Gaya Island. A 30-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, Gaya Island is part of a small group of islands just off the Borneo coast. Coral reefs encompass the island, making it popular for snorkelling.
I arrived in Borneo looking for orang utans, but Borneo has so much more to offer with such a variety of endemic wildlife and birdlife. They still retain a fascinating culture, despite integrating into modern society and the people I met along the way couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming.
Sunset on the boat from Kinbat to Abai
Cox & Kings arranges escorted group tours and tailor-made private travel in Borneo. To visit many of the stunning sights described in this article, options include our Borneo Wildlife Adventure group tour, or the Borneo Family Adventure. Alternatively, find out more about all our holidays to Borneo here.Share: