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

Borneo to be wild in the Sarawak jungle

Lubok Kasai Lodge, on the banks of the Lalang River in Sarawak.
Lubok Kasai Lodge, on the banks of the Lalang River in Sarawak.
Credit: Debra Jopson

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.

It sounds like purloining someone’s head made for bloody hard work, anyway. A veteran Iban guide, introduced only as “Uncle”, told me that warriors had to keep fires burning below the skulls so the spirits would not haunt them.

We tourists are the heads some Iban hunt these days. Seeking adventure, I was willing to be their quarry for four days and three nights in Batang Ai National Park.

It was like being a kid again. Despite being dry season, travelling in Iban territory entailed clambering along slippery mud trails, where I got whacked in the head by a swinging branch. (As an acquaintance once remarked, if you don’t get at least a grazed knee, it isn’t much of a bushwalk.) In the longboat, fierce sun and driving rain took turns to beat down on us. Huh! I beat them off with an inelegant hat, sunblock and an 80-cent rain poncho from a 7-Eleven in Kuching.

“Welcome to the rainforest. What more can I say?” proclaimed Paul, our operatic guide.

The journey to Batang Ai from Kuching took six hours by bus – and that was just the first leg. Stopping en route at Lachau bazaar, a local market, we were warned not to photograph the python meat because things could get ugly if locals thought we were wildlife police spies. It’s no place for vegetarians. Pigs’ heads and trotters hung in rows and one theatrical merchant seared plucked geese bums with a large blowtorch. I felt sad at being unable to dob in the snake-butcher.

Once at Batang Ai, it was instead hard not to feel smug about skimming in our narrow boat across a caramel-coloured dam, dodging drowned trees and leaving softer folk behind at the Hilton resort on the distant shore.

As our crew coaxed the boat up shallow rapids, the two of us sat amidships in fluoro orange lifejackets like impotent dumbclucks, evicted occasionally to lighten the load. Aft, the sinewy chain-smoking Maja steered by outboard motor, while his wife, Ilinyi, stood lookout at the prow, pushing and guiding with a big stick. They had several domestics in the Iban language, which probably started like this: “Didn’t you see me signalling to avoid that rock, you idiot?”

We shared our first night at Nanga Sumpa Lodge with European families fleeing their own high season. It’s slightly flasher than Lubok Kasai, having a generator that runs for a few hours after dark. Its owners, the Ulu Ai community who live across a footbridge, have hosted paying visitors for 28 years in a joint venture with the tour company Borneo Adventure.

We wandered through the ashy ruins of their long house, accidentally burnt down three months before our visit, killing two people and injuring another six. In their temporary tin homes, the residents were fine with our gawping. Before we tourists came, they were poor. Now, four out of five enjoy engines on their boats, Paul said. It’s a boon when the river is your highway.

Next morning, Paul, machete at his hip, appeared with a loud, vaudevillian “Let’s rock and roll.” He led us onto a mushy track, hacking at newly grown jungle, as cicadas shrilled a high, foreign song. “Some walk to work. We work to walk,” he boomed.

Along the way, he pointed out several orang-utan nests high in the trees – all empty. Iban villagers allow the great apes to raid community fruit trees when their jungle larder is depleted, believing that they are reincarnated ancestors, he said.

Over a humid hour, we slipped and slithered to the spot where the crew waited with the longboat. A quick swim at a waterfall, a native barbie on the riverbank and then it was off to see the crew’s long house, where we sat around with the inevitable dogs, two bobtail cats and a schoolgirl who had chickenpox.

Where once 37 families lived, there are now eight. The young drift, always, from remote parts to the city. On the long house wall, a wooden chair had been hoisted in memory of a son who had left. It will only be brought down when he returns. Seeing it, I realised that I was craving the quietude that the young here flee.

And it was waiting at our destination, Lubok Kasai, where the night was made surreal by moonlight and fireflies flitting alongside as we walked.

During our stay, the rain was heavy, but sporadic, leaving the quiet music of dripping water. As the torrent of thoughts I’d brought from the city slowed and steadied, I reflected on the losses globalisation had wrought here.

The greatest, perhaps, is the loss of the young. It takes a special cleverness to live in these places; to understand each rock and frothy turn of a river; to know how to twist a vine into a clothes line and which bell-like call in the night is an insect, which a bird, which a frog. This knowledge is being lost, as the world shrinks to an admiration for one kind of cleverness, the kind that can be fed through a screen.

On our last day, Maja and Ilinyi made breakfast with the eggs they had brought unbroken over two days of nursing the longboat up over rocks.

The journey back was much faster on the swollen river, but slow enough to watch the green-winged dragonflies dancing, a rare pygmy squirrel dashing across an overhanging log, and a water snake swimming alongside us, its orange head held high above the water.

It took a while after we left Batang Ai to get reception, but when my phone beeped back to life, I joyfully communicated with family and friends how blissful life had been without it. By then, the Italians would be in Vietnam, Lubok Kasai just a blurry stop in a whirlwind honeymoon tour.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 22, 2014 as "Borneo to be wild".

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Debra Jopson is a Sydney-based investigative reporter.

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