Friday, November 28, 2014

Borneo to be wild in the Sarawak jungle


Heading into the steamy rainforests of Sarawak is less about getting away from it all than letting it all sink in.

The Italian honeymooners were subdued the morning after the rice wine, after their snores rose all night over the rough wood partition separating them from my companion and me.

Our tattooed Iban hosts had poured homemade tuak from plastic water bottles, as a full moon rose to bathe the jungle in white light, inspiring an insect and frog orchestra. As she’d chug-a-lugged with abandon, I’d grown to like the young woman I’d dubbed the Italian princess, with her straight back, painted nails and chic turban hiding her hair, while mine hung wet and stringy in the humidity.

But I was happy to wave the pair goodbye as they headed off. A fierce thunderstorm had made the brown river surge and swirl and I feared they wouldn’t be able to leave. However, their two-man longboat crew and guide were undaunted by the macho river, which had turned to surf and was hauling giant fallen branches about as if they were matchsticks. Soon, the only other tourists on our stretch of river in deepest Borneo were gone.

My companion and I now had Lubok Kasai Lodge to ourselves. It was a hand-hewn house on stilts with furry bark doors, bamboo slat ventilators and hard rain drumming on a tin roof. No electricity. The only calls, those of nature. To answer these, we would walk gingerly across a raised wet wooden walkway to proud upright toilets, transported here by longboat to cater to Western custom. Beyond that, we were summoned regularly to meals at a separate kitchen and dining area, where the Iban couple showed as much mastery in cooking as they had in steering us in their longboat upriver.

My cunning plan had worked. Holidaying in the crowded northern hemisphere high season, we’d hoped a remote journey in the Malaysian state of Sarawak would yield peace and isolation.

The idea was to find somewhere to purge the phone-checking, list-ticking, diary-flooding mouse wheel our urban lives had become. Somewhere to have adventures and read and sleep and think. Somewhere mind-numbingly hot.

The once-were-headhunters of Borneo obligingly welcomed us into their territory. Malaysian marketing creatives devising sales pitches to tourists like to stress the Ibans’ gory past. Some long houses still display shrunken heads. We shivered over a grey cluster of shrivelled heads dangling from rafters at the Sarawak Cultural Village just outside the state capital, Kuching.

But most of the heads were buried in 1926 by decree of one of the “White Rajahs” from Britain’s Brooke family, which ruled Sarawak for more than a century.

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