Monday, February 08, 2010

Brunei has green gold too

By SL Wong

A side from black gold, Brunei has green gold too, which it protects and promotes.

Venture deep into deepest, darkest Borneo in the morning and be back in your comfortable hotel room by nightfall. Really? Where? Brunei.

Indeed, our Asean neighbour is not known for its rainforests; in fact, tourism is relatively new there, and unimportant economically. However, what is important to Brunei is rainforest conservation.

Brunei is home to well-preserved and diverse ecosystems. The exciting thing is that they are extremely accessible, largely because of conservation policies (about half of Brunei's forests are protected areas) and a low population that is concentrated in urban centres.

The jewel in Brunei's leafy crown is the Ulu Temburong National Park. The park protects 50,000ha of rainforest, almost 10 per cent of Brunei's land. It is steep terrain, home to crystal-clear rivers, lowland rainforest dominated by the species-rich Dipterocarp family and large mammals such as monkeys and sun bears.

Your journey there begins at 7am when you join locals at the Temburong jetty in Bandar Seri Begawan. A fast ferry winds for 45 minutes past an unbroken nipah thicket that lines the river. You then drive to another jetty, where the traditional temuai (longboat) brings you upriver through about 20 rapids.

Wind in your face, you cannot help but feel that Joseph Conradian sense of adventure as you forge past the ever-denser vegetation towards Temburong's heart. At the park headquarters, you disembark and walk into the forest. It is only a 300m walk, and on a wooden walkway to boot.

However, it is uphill and the humidity increases, aided partially by the panting of the unfit. Still, you cannot help but be encouraged by the trees that manage to grow pole straight despite the steepness of the leaf-littered slopes.

Further encouragement comes in the shape of the calls of the invisible wild: gibbons, cicadas and birds. Finally, you arrive at what looks like construction scaffolding.

This five-tower steel canopy access system was built by scientists to study the canopy. Unlike most of the rope-and-ladder canopy walkways in Malaysia, this one zig-zags dizzyingly up to the various levels, so that the climb is not for the faint-of-heart or vertiginous.

The tallest tower is a sweaty palm-inducing 45m above the ground, but once you get there, it is breathtaking. For as John Lennon said, "No hell below us; above us, only sky".

And indeed where infinite blue ends, there is a green carpet of life, a mosaic of greens, innumerable crowns and shapes, and undulating hills that disappear into the horizon.

The walkway affords intriguing close-ups, too. One tree exhibits the tremendous possibilities of biological interdependence, hosting luxurious communities of an ant-plant (and therefore ants) as well as an orchid, at least 30m off the ground.

Once you are done with the walkway, therapy is available in a cold riverwater soak and a spicy Malay lunch.

There are options for kayaking, rafting, waterfall visits and tougher adventure treks, but this basic tour has you back in your Bandar hotel in time for dinner.

Meanwhile, a wildlife safari can be done in one hour. The nipah palms in Bandar are part of a protected dense mangrove system in northern Brunei, preventing erosion along the rivers which characterise the capital and serve as transport arteries. The mangroves are also home to one of the oddest-looking primates on earth - the long-nosed, pot-bellied Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus).

Again, the beauty of Brunei is that these endangered creatures can be seen in the wild, just 10 minutes by boat from the city centre. From Bandar's Waterfront, your boat speeds past Kampung Ayer, then slows down as it enters the tributaries. When an animal is spotted, the engine is stilled.

Here, along Sungai Damuan, the seven or so resident groups are completely free from threats by humans, living in some cases virtually next to houses behind the mangrove copses. They are so used to tourists, they are ideal fodder for eager eyes and cameras.

Proboscis monkeys are most active at twilight, feeding on young leaves and fruits, sometimes pushing their large noses out of the way to eat. They look large and clumsy, but move with ease through the dense branches, using all four limbs. They are skilled leapers, and the energetic young are especially delightful to watch, as dusk is playtime for them.

Look occasionally in the river, too, for the lucky might spot a monkey paddling quietly, only its red-brown head visible. Proboscis monkeys rarely venture far from the river. They are good swimmers and take to the waterways mainly to escape predators.

This is one of only a few remaining sanctuaries for these animals, which are found only in Borneo and whose numbers have declined dramatically in the last 40 years; habitat destruction is listed by the World Conservation Union as a key threat.

Dusk is a good time to spot other wildlife too. A flash of blue would be the Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis); a shadow in the sky, the regal White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster); and a flick of the tail in the mud, a monitor lizard (Varanus).

For those who dare, sign up with an experienced tour company for adrenaline-pumping crocodile-watching in the dark of night.

The mangroves are themselves fascinating forests that are tough enough to survive the hostile mixture of fresh and saltwater. Comprising largely pristine bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata), which is also found in Malaysia, the forests also have stands of other species such as pedada (Sonneratia caseolaris), a habitat for fireflies.

Large specimens of mangrove trees can be marvelled at a bit further away from Bandar, at Pulau Selirong.

Brunei might not have the high profile of some of the national parks of neighbouring Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan, but its quietly astounding natural beauty is certainly as deserving of attention and a delight to explore.

The best way to experience Brunei's natural attractions is to book a tour through a tour agency, as public transport and tourist infrastructure are limited.

For more information, visit the Brunei Tourism website:

The Brunei Forestry Department ( has a good overview of Brunei's forests and geography.

For facts on Proboscis Monkeys, check out the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (

Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin

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