Borneo - Sarawak
It's a jungle out there! Sharron Livingston marvelled at the carnivorous pitcher plants, dodged thieving monkeys and shared rice wine with Iban headhunters.
Standing under the canopy of the trees there is always the risk of being rained on by urine. Not the urine of any ordinary monkey, granted, but that of the rare, indigenous proboscis Monkey found only in the Sarawak region of Borneo.
We arrived in time to witness the final downpour cascading over the leaves, disappointed that having trekked for half an hour passing coastal mangroves and abundant forests of the Bako National Park we hadn’t spotted a single one of these white tailed primates. But my guide, Rivas, was ebullient about this fluid find because it meant that the monkeys were nearby.
And so they were. High up in the tree tops, I captured a scene of two males facing each other in combat stance, their signature long red noses pointing at each in preparation to protect their harem. Nearby were females with their babies looking on. Rivas explained that the bigger the noses the more attractive they are to the female so much so that the male can lose his harem to any passing monkey blessed with a larger nasal protuberance. So size does matter!
A stranger to such tropical humidity, I had opted for a short one hour long coastal trek where the monkeys were most likely to be seen and which led us to a sandy enclave giving over to the South China Sea. Feeling gratified about spotting the proboscis, I thoroughly enjoyed being looked over by some curious silverleaf monkeys and being blatantly followed by long tail macaques monkeys - highly populous all over Malaysia and notorious for their thieving antics - probably looking for some food to liberate.
Established in 1957 the Bako National Park on the Muara Tebas Peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides and reached by boat from Kampong Bako jetty. The Park covers 2,742 hectares yet remains the oldest but smallest of South East Asia’s national parks.
Nevertheless some of the 17 different colour coded treks may last up to 20 hours and lead into mixed dipterocarp forest featuring a tremendous variety of flora such as orchids, ant plants and especially the insect devouring Pitcher Plants. These cylindrical plants have always fascinated nature lovers by the clever way they entice passing insects with their compelling nectar. As the insect descends it becomes trapped unable to climb up the slippery sides of the pitcher. The insect is then disolved into an enzyme so that the plant can dissolve its precious nutrienets.
At Bako, these plants are found at the side of the sandy paths and plankwalks of the plateau section of the circular Lintang trail. Those who choose the longer treks can stay overnight in comfortable lodge accommodation.
I chose to spend some time in the Borneo jungle but before leaving my base at the Holiday Inn at Kuching I visited the Sarawak Museum, considered Asia’s finest, to bone up on Borneo’s ethnological history. To my delight I found Sarawak to be a deeply tribal part of Malaysia where some1500 people still maintain simple lifestyles in longhouses in make-shift villages in the jungle. So, I caught a long boat to the Ulu Ai village in southeast of Kuching near the border with Indonesian Kalimantan to find out more.
At Nanga Sumpa, the Iban tribe or Sea Dayaks – noted in the Sarawak Museum as accomplished skull collecting headhunters until around 30 years ago - welcomed me into the communal area of their longhouse. The longhouse is the traditional home of the Iban and is simply an elognated shed on stilts with 40 rooms each housing an entire family. Access is via a notched tree trunk which serves as a stairway to the open verandah style communal area.
With a little trepidation I sat amongst them on the floor of the verandah areas, the only illumination by oil lamp and was amazed at how much could be communicated in flickering light by smiling, friendly facial expressions and a never ending top up of potent home made rice wine. Could life be more simple, I wondered.
Generally, the Iban, who comprise around 29.5 percent of Sarawaks’s 2 million population, are a gentle, deeply religious people, putting great store on their animist beliefs and the significance of good and bad omens as expressed by nature.
Modern conveniences have not yet been taken hold in their life. Most are farmers who grow rice, and work on pepper (a main export of Malaysia) and rubber plantations. The women cook, spend their days weaving baskets, making mats and jewellery which they sell to passing tourists, an increasingly important factor to maintaining their ancient lifestyle.
One or two family members though have managed to get jobs at Kuching city and earn enough money to buy a generator and enjoy the limited use of a television and music player. How incongruous it was to hear Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ blaring out from one of the family rooms.
As the rice wine flowed, the longhouse Shaman, a sort of GP for the well being of spiritual health of the villagers, described his ritualistic work to get rid of the demons that cause depression and migraine among other ailments of the soul. As the headhunters of the long house showed off their lengthy blow pipes and their rusting hunting swords, I felt in pleasurable danger of losing my own head to the soothing influence of the warming rice wine.
Accommodation at Ulu Ai is in the nearby Borneo Adventure lodge comprising a simple room with a mattress shielded with mosquito netting. Around 100 tourists come here each year, and never more than 17 in one go, but tonight there were a handful of French scientists and a couple of drunken Swedes.
Before retiring, I took in the tremendously dark, oddly moonless night sky bejewelled with the most numerous, most bright, sparkling stars I had ever seen. I spent some minutes in the warm night air revelling in a life where the river acts as the main highway for the villagers wishing to go further along the jungle or into Kuching city and how the jungle itself is a one-stop 24 hour market place cum pharmacy to the resourceful Iban.
I took dip in the river to ease off the heat of the day in preparation for some much needed slumber but sleep was not forthcoming. The jungle noise of howling bats, screeching crickets and clicking geckoes was incredible. Somewhere in the melange of night sounds was a whining dog and the cry of a lonesome cat. Maddenly, a couple of sleeping Swedes in the next room joined the chorus with their deafening snores. I simply lay back and let my mind focus on my forthcoming treks along the streams to the nearby Wong Ensuluai waterfall, through farmland and the lush primary rainforest and dreamed of running into some local yet evasive Orang-utans who move around the tall trees of the forest.
These ‘Men of the Jungle’ are rarely spotted outside of the short mating season and as I was visiting out of season I was disappointed. The best place to be sure of seeing these fabulous primates is the the Orang Utang sanctuary at Semenggoh in Kuching. So, two days later I returned to Kuching to visit the centre and walked freely among them.
Before returning home from Kuching, my last visit was to the Sarawak Cultural Village, which on reflection should have been my first. All seven of the major ethnic tribal groups are represented here with life size dwelling and actors demonstrating cameos of their respective lifestyles. The visit culminates in a highly colourful show depicting the various Malaysian cultures, but nothing on stage could possibly compare with the magnificent real life show that Sarawak itself offers the curious traveller.
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