Deserts cool off at night. Ice contains no beasties. But jungles? Phwoar, jungles are scary, by far the most challenging of the world’s three extreme environments. Violently green and steamy and full of biting things that hide in the day but hum, click and shriek loudly at night. No-one who’s seen Apocalypse Now can feel neutral about jungles – or the fierce creatures that live in them.
So it’s with some trepidation – armed with my body weight in repellent and malaria pills – that I set out for our close and jungly neighbour to the north, Borneo. Partly for an old-fashioned adventure; also because my friend (and bestselling author) Di Morrissey has been raving about Borneo for years. Beautiful people. Great walks. Fantastic food. And a wildlife Eden, the best place to meet one of our closest human relatives, the ginger-haired orangutan.
But where to start? Borneo is the world’s third-largest island, divided into four separate territories, from the tip of Malaysian Sabah to the toe of Indonesia’s giant Kalimantan. Suspecting I’ll shrink to a grease spot if I try to cover them all in two weeks, I decide to focus on just the one: the former British colony of Sarawak.
It has a famous orangutan sanctuary and a World Heritage-listed national park and its capital, Kuching, is reputedly the liveliest, coolest city on Borneo. Its neighbour Sabah draws more tourists but there’s something about where Sarawak sits on the map: fronting onto the South China Sea, backing into the immense jungles of Kalimantan, while enormous rivers flow through the middle, where fierce headhunting tribes once roamed.
I arrive on the cusp of the wet and dry seasons. Though, really, it’s hard to pick the difference this close to the equator. A few degrees and millimetres up or down on the graph. My clothing adviser is British naturalist and explorer Redmond O’Hanlon, who, in his wonderfully demented bestseller Into the Heart of Borneo – about a trip up Sarawak’s mighty Batang Rejang river – counsels, “Get some jungle boots, good thick trousers and strong shirts. You don’t want to nancy about in shorts once the first leech has had a go at you, believe me.”
The good news is that I encounter not one leech during my entire trip. Giant snails and ants, outsize millipedes, bees and stick insects, yes; in fact, all insects seem to grow to jumbo size in the jungle. But not a leech and that’s a mercy.
The other good news is that the malaria pills prove unnecessary because scarcely a mosquito flies in the Sarawak jungles, for the most environmentally efficient reason: bats.
Which, again, can sound like a negative and a good reason not to brave the jungle, because how many of us can say we genuinely want to mix it with millions upon millions – literally caves full – of carnivorous bats? The answer is: anyone who’s had the privilege of visiting Sarawak’s Gunung Mulu National Park, a magical place offering one of the world’s most thrilling and unexpected wildlife spectacles centred on caves… and bats.
But first things first – the orangutans. It’s an encounter one doesn’t just expect but would feel aggrieved to miss so I’ve scarcely settled into Kuching before heading out to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, an easy 30 kilometres away. Created as a rehabilitation centre for orphaned and rescued orangutans, it has succeeded so well in its mission that the orangs have bred like Topsy; the current population is dozens, covering many generations. Within minutes, a family of three – grandmother Seduku with her son and daughter – are swinging down from the trees to feed on bananas, coconuts and sweet potatoes.
Their table manners, frankly, are appalling: lots of gibbering with mouths full. But what a sight. The world’s largest tree-dwelling mammal – four times stronger than humans – clambering up and down ropes, hanging one-handed, doing perfect splits (these guys are super-athletic) in a jungle humming with life. And more to come the next day at Bako National Park, where I see proboscis monkeys, magnificently ugly bearded pigs and, coiled on a branch, a grassy-green Bornean keeled pit viper. Venomous but blessedly torpid.
Between expeditions I explore Kuching, bisected by a wide river and as buzzy as touted. Small boats ferry you between the banks for the princely sum of $1 or you can climb onto a big lumbering one for a sunset cruise. The mood is relaxed colonial; once a small trading post, Kuching was built up over a century of rule by a family known as the White Rajahs and I quickly settle into an evening ritual of waterfront walks, followed by potent cocktails at a bar named after the original rajah, privateer James Brooke. I then retreat to Kuching’s old town, which offers cheap, brilliant street food and rings with the sound of tinsmiths. I meet an ancient tattoo artist, Sarawak’s version of Keith Richards, before ambling out to the old-school Ethnology Museum full of glassy-eyed stuffed animals – though its signature attraction is a human hairball extracted from the stomach of a giant crocodile. Along with a well-chewed Seiko watch. Ghoulish? You bet. Loved it.
Gunung Mulu National Park is that World Heritage site I mentioned, way up north near the border with Brunei, accessible only by slow longboat or fast plane (my choice, the latter) and packed with natural marvels, including old-growth rainforest, vast sculpted caves and steep, spectacular – but climbable – spires of limestone wreathed in morning cloud. A wonderland, in short, where the breathing, heaving jungle is all around yet visitors can walk safely on raised wooden trails, spotting butterflies, birds and trees like the mighty benuang with its fan of buttress roots and, 40 metres up, branches that radiate like a star.
Below ground are the caves, the pride of Mulu, each with its own character and story. Lang Cave is the beauty of the bunch, its illuminated columns of limestone carved by water into other-worldly shapes. Clearwater has a huge subterranean river running through it, 200 kilometres of passages logged to date; measuring the river is a popular challenge for adventure cavers but the well-marked paths do just fine for me. And Deer Cave, well, that’s where the bats live. In their millions, multiple species, clinging to the roof like a mass of black lichen. Each evening they transform into dancers in an aerial ballet.
There’s simply no overstating the
wonder, the sheer damn marvel, of the bats’ nightly exodus. Stream upon stream of them, pouring out of the high cave entrance in spirals and loops first – to confuse the waiting predatory hawks – before straightening into sinuous black lines that twirl and swoop in a kind of dragon dance against the evening sky. The mountains turn gold, the ribbons of bats lift and dip and swirl. It’s one of the greatest sights of nature I’ve ever witnessed – though, to be honest, pretty much everything about Mulu lifts the heart.
You can take your own night walk, searching by torchlight for tree frogs and vine snakes and brilliantly camouflaged stick insects or you can climb high into the canopy, where the action really is, for a guided skywalk, anchored to a series of tall trees. Transport is by longboat – there being no roads in Mulu – and some of my happiest memories of the trip will be of beetling up and down the fast-flowing Malinau River, past tall trees trailing their roots like fishing lines, watching the many families who live along its banks wash, play and simply get on with their lives.
Though Malays and Chinese make up close to half the population, Sarawak is a powerfully tribal place. The core of its character lies with the scores of different indigenous groups – known collectively as Dayaks – ranging from nomadic forest foragers and hunters like the Penan to the dominant Iban, the famous headhunters of yore. But the tribe I really want to meet is the Kelabit, known for the warmth of their welcome and the gentle beauty of their home in the highlands hugging the border of Indonesian Kalimantan. So I climb into a tiny plane (10 kilograms luggage max) and fly into the clouds to find them.
We land on a high plateau circled by mountains and dotted with a dozen villages that together make up the so-called “capital” of the Kelabit Highlands: Bario. At its heart is a horseshoe of lively cafés surrounded by battered four-wheel drives; around them are green paddy fields where women work all day, in water to their waists, to cultivate the world-famous Bario rice. And overlooking it all, the beautiful Prayer Mountain, which rewards climbers with a glorious view over the settlements, the valley and the green peaks beyond.
Accommodation is a simple but comfortable homestay. The roads are laughably dire and I spend much of my first afternoon sliding backwards down a clay track slicked by rain until my driver adopts the classic Aussie solution of laying branches on the track to get us out. These are special people, isolated until the Second World War and still true to their traditions; our long-house farewell by women wearing brightly beaded skullcaps ends in dancing, hugs and kisses all round.
So… culture, nature, adventure. And regular cocktails. Jungle living has never been easier.