Borneo, the second time around

Borneo, the second time around – first stop: Brunei

Visiting Brunei was on the top of our list because supposedly it has some of the most pristine rainforests on Borneo. With the incomes provided by the huge natural gas and oil-reserves, there is no pressing need to sell off the forests or turn them into vast oil-palm plantations (come to think of it, I haven’t seen any in Brunei). The tiny country is located on the Northwest part of Borneo, and is wedged between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The population is only around 400,000, and most of the inhabitants are Muslims.

Already upon arriving I get the sense that we are entering a strict, conservative country. There are many signs warning about the death penalty for smuggling drugs – when I was packing my bags, I even left out my usual herbal stomach medicine because the little capsules had no marks on them, and I was afraid they might be mistaken for some kind of designer drugs (watching too many emotional movies about innocently jailed young tourists – played by Nicole Kidman or Claire Danes or Joaquin Phoenix – can do that to you). Then I happened to notice a sign with a warning that  said: anybody bringing plants into the country can be sentenced to five years in prison. I was looking around  desperately to find a place where I could get rid of my one remaining apple. I started to feel really paranoid when I noticed the cleaning staff checking the waste-bins in the bathrooms. We fumbled with our papers for a long time and I was certain that we raised everyone’s suspicion, but we were waved through the customs and nobody bothered to look at our bags.

The first two nights we stayed at the Terrace hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan. The hotel was described on one website as “dowdy” – and yes, it was a little rundown. Although there was a bathtub  in the bathroom, and the room had a fridge and air-conditioning, the sheets had holes in them, the toilet did not flush, and they just had a small flooding in the reception area. But the staff was friendly, the little courtyard was charming and the soups were delicious.

Somehow we managed to time our arrival at the time of the Hari Raya which made the  organizing part a little more difficult. First of all,  it is one of the  biggest holidays in the country – that means, nobody is working and everybody is  travelling home to their families -, and second: nobody knew for sure when would be the exact date.  As I understood, the end date of Ramadan is determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, so we were told to watch the evening  news on tv and see if they announce it. This year it happened to fall on August 9th – the day when we were supposed to go to our campsite.

On our first  day in the capital city, we walked from the hotel to the big mall to do our shopping for the trip (only a ten minute walk). The city  was quite subdued during the day (no drinking or eating allowed, of course), but became a  little livelier after dark. Generally, it felt safe wandering around. The series of strict signs continued, though – a thousand dollars or 3 months prison for littering, for example. It seemed to be effective – at least in the capital, but in rural areas trash was piled up next to the roads or in gardens.

On Friday we had to take a 45-minute boat-ride from the capital to Bangar. Our luggage and bags took up half of the water-taxi – we did the grocery shopping in the capital, but it turned out later we could have done it in Bangar, since there were quite a few stores there with all the supplies we needed. In Bangar we were picked up by car and taken to Batang Duri, where we climbed into a long-boat for our last boat-ride to the camp.

two younger brothers of our boatdriver

two younger brothers of our boatdriver

We saw a few tree-houses alongside the river:

a small tree-house

a small tree-house

It only took us half an hour to get to our campsite, even though the water level was quite low. The  campsite looked quite well-equipped – a covered kitchen area, two toilets (although some giant ants already claimed them as their home). We set up our tent on a wooden platform overlooking the river and were hoping that no big branches  would fall on it  during a storm.

our campsite

our campsite

In the evening a generator provided enough electricity to use some lights and to re-charge batteries. We used two small gas-cookers to cook our rice, pasta and vegetables, and washed our plates in the river.

During our ten days we spent most of our time exploring the forest around the camp. On our side it was clear that the forest is secondary, but on the other side of the river it was in really good shape, and on the ridge it was one giant tree after another. Still, the lack of wildlife was disheartening. Of course we heard some hornbills, and saw a group of macaques  and pygmy squirrels, but there are no orangutans in this area and we only heard gibbons on the last two days.  I guess the daily boat-traffic (sometimes 15 boats in an hour in the morning and the same number after lunch) does not help, either. It seemed that most tourist visit the forest on a day trip – that means they got there around 10 o’clock, climbed the stairst to the canopy walkway and left and hour later. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the toursits can only visit about 1  square kilometer out of the 550 square kilometers park area, the rest is strictly protected. On the other hand, the forest is a perfect destination for even the most squeamish tourists since there are virtually no mosquitoes and definately no leeches around.

On our second day we ventured into the national park. The canopy walkway can be reached only by climbing 1300 stairs (I haven’t counted it, but it definiately felt like that many, if not more). The walkway itself looks like this from the ground

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 063.1

and from the top

up in the tower - photo by Ralf Darius

up in the tower – photo by Ralf Darius

There was one more trail that we were able to check inside the park. After a twenty-minute boatride we embarked on the trail which took us to two waterfalls. The first one:

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 120.1

To get to the second one we had to climb some steep parts, but there were ropes that we could hang onto. The forest itself was really beautiful along the  trail.

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 105.1.

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 178.1

We got to the second waterfall and were just about to take a dip in the cool water when our guide called us over. – Big snake! – he shouted. First we kept our respectful distance, but realizing that the python probably had just had a big meal (it looked like the picture from The Little Prince – the hat, which is actually a snake that swallowed an elephant) we inched closer and in the end stood almost on the snake’s tail.  It did not seem to mind.

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 130.1.

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 170.1

After taking a hundred pictures from all imaginable angles we slowly made  our way back to the riverbank, to our boat.

Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 215.1Borneo, 2013, Brunei and Gunung Mulu 240.1

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