Saturday, November 05, 2016

National Geographic Traveller: On the red ape trail in Batang Ai

Journey deep into the rainforests of Batang Ai for a chance to spy one of Sarawak’s famous orangutans — otherwise known as the red ape — in its natural habitat

In the inky-black darkness of the rainforest night, we stand, ankle-deep in water. With only head torches to guide us, we scan the riverbanks for signs of life. One eye means spider, two eyes means frog, we’re told, as we dodge low-hanging branches and navigate slippery rocks.

Tree frogs reveal themselves, including a strange white one with translucent skin and tiny froglets the size of fingernails. A giant river toad, native to Borneo, perches on a rock, showing off its craggy, wart-covered skin. Tonight we’re looking for amphibians, but somewhere out there lurks another creature, the real object of our fascination.

It’s the first evening on the Red Ape Trail, an extended, multi-day trek taking us through prime orangutan terrain in Borneo’s remote Batang Ai region. It has already taken an adventure to get to this point — a five-hour, 170-mile drive from the cosmopolitan city of Kuching, past ever-more dense jungle and terraces dotted with pepper and rice plantations to a jetty on the shores of the vast Batang Ai reservoir.

Then, a bracing two-hour journey upriver by longboat — the traditional wooden vessel favoured by Borneo’s indigenous Iban tribe — to reach Nanga Sumpa lodge on the upper reaches of the Delok River. After a night spent acclimatising to jungle life, a three-hour hike has taken us even deeper into the forest to reach Mawang Camp, our home for the next few days.

The Red Ape Trail was created in 2000 by Borneo Adventure, a local tour operator, founded by Philip Yong and Robert Basuik in 1987. The pair came in search of an experience that would offer travellers the chance to glimpse Borneo’s prized wildlife, while learning something of the region’s dominant Iban tribe. They settled on Nanga Sumpa, a traditional, timber longhouse in which the locals lived communally.

A trail network has since been developed from the longhouse into the surrounding forest. The Red Ape Trail is the most challenging of these, taking walkers out into the jungle to camp out over multiple nights, in the hope of glimpsing wild orangutans. It originally started as an epic, 10-day challenge, but has since been reduced to a more manageable five-day trek — wise, in a country with humidity levels that can rise to up to 80%.

At camp after our frog hunt, we sit playing cards with our Iban guides, drinking potent tuak rice wine. As well as two guides, Bayang and Sobeng, we’re accompanied by a team of Iban men, who lavish us with spicy Malaysian curries and fried jungle ferns.

The biggest character is Ronny, who speaks great English, having worked on the oil and gas rigs in Bintulu further north. With a big smile and prominent tribal tattoos, he sports a football shirt with his name on it — a modern token in an otherwise traditional life.