Wild adventures in Borneo

By David Mercer

The chance to experience life in the depths of a rainforest appears on the wish list of many travellers. Borneo, with its rich history of tribal life and vast natural resources, is a place where that wish can become a reality.

Ulu Ai offers the possibility of spotting orangutans in the wild. Photo / Thinkstock
Ulu Ai offers the possibility of spotting orangutans in the wild. Photo / Thinkstock

The forests of Borneo, the world's third largest island are among the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, possessing staggeringly high numbers of unique plants and animals.

This month the BBC will broadcast a documentary series in the UK looking back over Sir David Attenborough's remarkable 60-year broadcasting career, which includes a return to the Borneo jungle.

It was here that the much-loved naturalist and broadcaster first encountered an orangutan in the wild, and the thick jungle provided a backdrop for some of his famous early broadcasts.

In a recent interview, however, Sir David revealed the landscape of the island has changed greatly over the past six decades. He described how large areas of forest have been replaced by square kilometre after square kilometre of uniform oil palm plantations.

Eager to find out whether the island still provides the awe-inspiring glimpse into the natural world that was captured in Sir David's early documentaries, I plan a visit, booking a tour with tailor-made holidays company Travelbag.

For first-time travellers to Borneo, like myself, the island is divided among three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the north occupy about a quarter of the island. I decide to concentrate my travels in Sarawak.

Along with wildlife, community tourism is one of the main draws for visitors to Borneo. The Ulu Ai project in Sarawak, run by local tour company Borneo Adventure, offers an alternative to some staged forms of cultural tourism in the country, and allows visitors a chance to experience the local lifestyle of some of the region's most remote tribes.

I fly to Sarawak's state capital Kuching from London via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines. The entire journey takes 13 hours and 40 minutes, but excellent food and a good level of comfort make it bearable.

As I arrive in Kuching, there is a relaxed atmosphere to the city with its high-rise buildings towering over the traditional river ferries. Landscaped parks and gardens along the river provide an ideal setting for an afternoon stroll and excellent views of the Bungo mountains.

But 24 hours later, I'm in a completely different world.

The Ulu Ai project allows guests to spend time with the native Iban people, a tribe whose ancestors famously practised headhunting.

After a full day travelling from Kuching, the final leg of our journey involves an hour and a half boat ride up stream to the Nanga Sumpa longhouse. The semi-permanent structure houses more than 30 people in separate living apartments.

I am staying with the Iban tribe for two nights, the minimum number recommended by Borneo Adventure. After arriving at the longhouse in the early evening, my guide - a Borneo native called James - helps to cook some traditional Malaysian dishes and recalls the once brutal history of the tribe I am staying with.

One story reveals how Iban men were deemed more attractive to women by the number of skulls they collected from members of rival tribes. It is almost enough to put me off my food, until thankfully I am reassured this is a practice banished to the past.

Nowadays the Iban people are friendly towards tourists, if a little distant. One of the most surprising elements of the trip is the evidence of western influences even in the most secluded parts of Borneo.

An Arsenal football club poster is plastered above a door to one local family's living space, while the faces of popular boy bands adorn the walls of another room.

I stay in one of the separate lodges next to the longhouse to avoid being too intrusive to the Iban tribe. My visit includes a range of nature-based excursions, ranging from hikes through the jungle to a long boat trip to a secluded waterfall.

As evening falls, I am also encouraged to join a small group of senior Iban people for a drink of their traditional rice wine at the longhouse.

The group includes the tribe's chief - a small, thin man in his 80s - who continues to refill my cup as we speak, with my guide James acting as an interpreter. Their conversation is mainly about the difficulties of rice farming, which is their main source of income, with some complaining of sore knees from long days on the steep surrounding fields.

Talking about the struggles of work over a drink seemingly has universal appeal.

The upriver life of the Iban people is a simple one and accordingly this is not a luxury tour. There is limited electricity with lights out shortly after 11pm. There are no staged cultural entertainment programs and tourists are briefed by the guides on local etiquette and customs.

Instead this is an opportunity for visitors to gain an insight into the true Iban lifestyle and enjoy their culture.

A major attraction of Ulu Ai is the natural surroundings and the possibility of spotting orangutans in the wild. Alternatively, the excellent Semengoh wildlife centre provides guaranteed viewing.

Due to habitat destruction, illegal hunting and poaching, orangutans are limited to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The animals now only have 20 per cent of their natural habitat left and are on the critically endangered species list.

I am warned of the potential dangers of the orangutans at the wildlife centre as they swing freely among trees and come incredibly close during feeding times.

The biggest and most intimidating orangutan, named Richie by the sanctuary, is certainly to be treated with care. Despite a torrential downpour of rain, I'm warned not to take an umbrella out as it might upset him - apparently he confuses them with guns.

This warning offers a telling insight into the treatment some of the orangutans faced before arriving at the sanctuary.

It is clearly evident to anyone visiting Borneo that the island has undergone vast changes to its cultural and social landscape in recent decades. But it is also important to recognise that many local people are determined to maintain their traditions and tribal way of life.

Sir David Attenborough knows more than most about the changing nature of the island, having first visited six decades ago. But Borneo still offers a fascinating insight into the natural world through its protected parks and tours to some of the island's most remote tribes.

The chance to experience life in the depths of a rainforest is one thing I can now tick off my wish list.

IF YOU GO:

- BEST FOR: Learning about tribal life.

- TIME TO GO: The region is hot and humid all year round, with the heaviest rain from November to February.

- DON'T MISS: Sharing a drink with the Iban people.

- NEED TO KNOW: Downpours can happen at any time in the rainforest, so pack a poncho.

- DON'T FORGET: Binoculars for watching wildlife.

TRAVEL FACTS:

Flights can be booked independently through Malaysia Airlines.

For more information on the destination, visit tourism.gov.my.

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