I’m sitting on a little powerboat in between a bloke with a chainsaw and a guy with a large cardboard box tied up with hairy string. I am not even hazarding a guess as to what kind of livestock it contains. Opposite me, two chaps in grubby T shirts toting well-stuffed carrier bags stare openly at the only tourist they’ll see today. The rest of the local Brunei river bus’s passengers are totally uninterested. All that bothers them is the coming day’s work. Yesterday I was on a beach in Bali. Tomorrow I will be on my way back to a chilly, wintery England, but today…
Today I am going on a day trip – to the Jungle.
One of the big problems about long haul flights is precisely that – they’re bloomin’ long. My journey out to Bali took 20 hours in total – one hell of a commitment to Paradise. Of course there are the usual stopovers – a shopping trip in Dubai, for example – but somehow I always get back on the plane no less frazzled than I got off. This promises to be a day like no other – an opportunity to do something totally different from the rest of my holiday with only a few hours commitment.
I gaze out of the boat’s salt-spattered window, as the last few passengers board. On one side the picturesque – and unique – water village of Old Brunei still tiptoes precariously on ancient stilts in the river, marking the boundary between Civilisation and virgin rainforest. On the other side a brisk, modern city has grown where all that glitters really is gold.
The fabulous golden cupola of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque glimmers in the morning sunshine. The golden roofs of royal palaces peep from the lush greenery on the boundaries of the city. The golden railings of the park reflect golden memorials shining over golden walls.
The wealth that this tiny country’s offshore oil deposits has brought percolates throughout the Sultan’s 300,000-odd subjects and up until now they have not really been bothered about inviting tourists to come. Even now, there is only a trickle of visitors – which has the delightful side-effect of making this one of the few exotic places left on Earth. Mention that you’re going to Brunei and people’s heads turn. “Erm, where exactly is that,” they mumble, slightly red-faced.
Brunei, on the very tip of the island of Borneo, is not somewhere that’s ever really been on many tourist must-see lists. Their flight to Australia may have refuelled here – but the chances are they won’t have even left the airport. But, as part of a new initiative to invite a few more people to glimpse inside this little-known state, it’s possible to take short stopover excursions which range from city tours and visits to the Mosque or the Royal Regalia Museum (more interesting than it sounds) to boat trips into the jungle to see the rare Proboscis Monkey. I am on my way to the Interior, to see rainforest untouched for millennia.
The boat’s little engine starts and we bump our way out into wider river. Almost immediately the forest closes in on the few remaining settlements. Brunei is in two parts and the woodland in between them is so dense – much of it still unexplored – that the only sensible way to get to and from each part is by boat around the outside.
As we make our way towards the South China Sea, other vessels become fewer and fewer until finally we are travelling alone through a network of brown rivers with dense banks full of giant versions of houseplants.
Enormous parlour palms and Swiss-cheese plants tussle with mangroves and creepers. A monitor lizard hangs lazily in a tree, its belly full and its clawed hand flopping through the vegetation.
I can’t see the monkeys asleep in the trees just above the river (they’re not daft – if they fall they want a soft landing) but I can sense they’re there.
A crocodile basks on the mudbank, seemingly oblivious to the temporary disturbance. I almost laugh out loud – this is Comedy Rainforest. Ask someone to imagine a jungle and this is pretty much what they’d come up with…
The grizzled skipper clearly knows where he’s going, for which I am glad since every single one of these rivers converging and crossing looks exactly the same. I got lost long ago.
After another fifteen minutes of artful dodging between identical rivers, the water widens and we enter the vast, flat surface of the South China Sea. Fishermen wearing straw hats bend over their nets, egrets circling optimistically above.
We are given “landing forms” to fill in – even though we will not be getting off the boat, we are passing through Malaysia and as such we have to go through customs. We stop at a tiny landing pad in the middle of nowhere, where an official comes out, taking a cursory glance inside the boat before rubber-stamping whatever he has to rubber stamp.
Travelling through even this tiny bit of another country makes me realise just how favoured Brunei is. Not enjoying the wealth that Brunei takes for granted, Malaysia has been forced to tap its only other natural resource – and logging is evident here. Brunei is wealthy enough to leave its forests pristine – and as such is one of the most unspoilt areas in the world.
Another network of smaller rivers, and we return to habitation. Bangar is two rows of little open-front shops and a motley cluster of dwellings. No postcards, no memorabilia – just a few locals going about their business. The other passengers disappear and I am left with Herman, the tour guide.
The next leg is by car along one of the only roads in this part of Brunei. “Oh look,” says Herman as a little car trundles past, “There’s the taxi. There’s only one here.”
He points out a traditional Brunei Iban longhouse – a single communal room on stilts with individual areas at the back, where families just add another bit on every time someone gets married. The Iban were originally headhunters, and there’s still something edgy about these guys. Two of them are to transport us up the next bit of river in a temuai, a sort of traditional longboat and they start the tiny outboard in wary silence.
The water is fresh now, clear and fast-flowing. Jungle bears over above us from steep slopes on either side. Every so often Herman shouts out – “That’s the Simpor – the national flower of Brunei” or, more worryingly, “you can use the sap from that tree to treat diarrhea.”
We pass beneath a group of workmen building a rope bridge 50m above us. They wear neither safety harnesses nor hard hats, and wobble their way out to the centre carrying planks. I am not convinced I would use the bridge even if it were finished.
The canoe glides up to the ranger station at Ulu Temburong National Park and we climb the steps to the wooden chalet-style building. On a longer excursion you can stay here overnight, ready to watch the sun rise.
The ascent begins. It’s possible to climb boot camp-fashion to the top of the steep, wooded canyon, but frankly climbing the provided 1226 wooden steps in this heat is quite enough. I hadn’t noticed the temperature when we were on the water but now the sweat runs freely down my back and my clothing is drenched from the humidity.
Herman has learned every inch of this forest trail the hard way. He shows me an angry scar across his hand and arm and then points out the culprit – a long whip of what looks like sewing thread, but which is covered with a thousand tiny razors “I only brushed it out of the way,” he shrugs, kicking the wooden stairs. “That’s to make the insects fall off so you don’t put your hand or foot on them by mistake. Ah yes – look – there are some Borneo Elephant Ants.”
We’re only half way up and I am exhausted. We pause to take a sip of water, Herman pointing out various plants – medicinal, aphrodisiac, poisonous, and great ropes of creeper which take centuries to grow a few inches. I am relieved to see a Damar tree, the resin of which repels mosquitoes.
After much huffing and puffing, we reach the top of the canyon, out of breath and soaking wet, but the canopy is still way above, sunlight dappling through in spots. We still can’t see any view at all.
It’s then that I notice it. My Nemesis.
Although I managed to lose my fear of heights last year through hypnosis, I have never really been convinced that I’m cured. Now is my chance to find out. Towering above us is a spindly, 50m scaffold, which climbs up and out of the rainforest’s canopy. If I want to see the view I’m going to have to climb it.
Herman gives instructions, telling me to wait until he has scaled the first two levels before starting, in order to balance the tower. Heart in mouth, I begin to climb.
“It’s ok, Sandra,” I tell myself. “You can give up any time you want to.” I give myself permission to give up after the next level. Then the next one. Then the next. The tower sways in the wind. My heart jolts.
“Don’t worry,” Herman’s voice wafts down from the leafy heights. “It’s supposed to do that.” I decide I can manage another level. When I reach the top Herman congratulates me.
“Well done. There’s the next bit.” You mean this isn’t the top?
Shaking, I set out across the narrow metal bridge, gripping the bars as though my life depends on it. Actually, it does…
There are three more levels, but by now I’m so high up that distance to the ground is irrelevant. This goes and I’m dead anyway. “It’s completely safe,” shouts a cheery Herman from above. The final, miniscule viewing platform pokes up and out of the top of the canopy. My body, stiff with terror, forces my head to look up; my hands remain locked around the metal bars. My heart leaps again – but this time it’s not fear – I am already virtually paralyzed with that. It’s awe.
As far as I can see, virgin rainforest, untouched for millions of years, spreads before me. Fluffy tops of trees carpet the air and distant mountains loom majestically from a grey-blue haze. About as far away from an airport terminal as could be imagined. I genuinely cannot speak. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I have never experienced anything like this before. Ever. After a descent even more frightening than the climb, I burst into tears.
By the time that we‘ve clambered down the wooden steps to the river below, my legs are like jelly. They continue to shake throughout lunch. Lunch? Surely it can’t only be lunchtime? I’ve been through an experience here – my nerves have been torn to shreds, my body put through the wringer, my emotions have run the gamut and I’ve experienced one of the most humbling sights of my life. Lunchtime?
It’s a good lunch though – Brunei rice, fern leaves, some sort of stew and freshwater prawns topped off with baby bananas. I watch a dozen or so brilliant blue butterflies dance together over the water. My legs do not stop quivering.
Herman says we have a treat in store. I’m sent off to change into my swimsuit, and am then given a lifejacket. “Get in,” he instructs. “Don’t worry – there are no crocodiles here. Or piranhas,” he adds as an afterthought. The water is icy and I wish I’d brought my jelly shoes. Because the bottom has sharp stones, I am forced to wear my trainers – the only shoes I have with me. They squelch and fill with sand and grit and weed.
“It’s the rainy season so there’s enough water to float back down the river,” says Herman. “If you’d come in the dry season you would have had to help carry the boat. Keep your bottom up and follow me.” We start off slowly, then find the current and pick up speed. It’s a bit like white water rafting without the raft. A rapid catches me unawares and takes my breath from me, as I splutter and giggle and squeal with excitement. The next second I have to do some serious paddling to avoid being swept into the riverbank, then find myself floundering in the next fast bit. I catch up with Herman, out of breath and exhilarated. “We’ll take the boat from here,” he says. “The rapids get too strong for floating.”
I have taken the precaution of keeping my previous night’s hotel booked, so that I can have a shower before my flight, though I could have used the showers at the airport had time been tight. I flap my way through the hotel lobby in my drenched trainers, exhausted, soaking wet, stinking of river water – and happier than I can remember being for a long time.
Throughout the 17-hour flight back to England, I sleep like a baby, snug in sandals and socks, my trainers sealed in plastic bags fit only for the washing machine. When I get to Heathrow I will have to walk through Arrivals looking like a computer nerd. Who cares? This has been one of The Great Days Out of the world…
The Ulu Temburong National Park trip is one of several transit excursions promoted by Royal Brunei Airlines. .
A version of this feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…