Monday, November 12, 2012

Wild adventures in Borneo

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.

The forests of 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 He described how large areas of forest have been replaced by square kilometre after square kilometre of uniform oil palm plantations.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 Batang 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 Iban 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.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Wild adventures in Borneo