The haze was clearing. After months of thick air pollution caused by the deliberate burning of vegetation by Indonesia, my trip to the northern part of Borneo – the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia – was back on track. I’d always wanted to go – mainly because of the exposure given to the destination by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, when I was growing up in the 1980s. Heartbreaking footage of ancient land being destroyed and orangutans and other animals losing their homes was a scenario that has been played out year after depressing year. Last year, when things seemed to reach disaster proportions again, I prepared myself for the worst. Would there be any rainforest left, and would I be able to see it through the smoke?
Our Australian pilot, operating a gloriously smooth Dreamliner flight from Dubai to Brunei with Royal Brunei Airlines, got slightly ahead of himself as we neared our destination, planning a scenic fly-past of a coast he hadn’t seen so clearly for a long time. In the event the dawn air was slightly hazy, but nothing compared to what it had been. The weather had started to change, with rain and powerful southerly winds starting to sweep any pollution in the north back into its own backyard.
Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short, is a surprisingly low-key city with a population numbered in the tens of thousands (the entire state totals 400,000) and is a sort of Asian Abu Dhabi, where, thanks to rich oil and gas reserves, the mostly Malay population enjoys generous benefits and a quiet life, unencumbered by tax. I stay a night at The Empire Hotel & Country Club, a 15-minute drive from the airport and a curious ensemble of golf course, beach resort and mausoleum-like hotel and entertainment complex, featuring ballrooms, a cinema and theatre. Despite its slightly austere nature, the hotel is supremely comfortable and relaxing. "Welcome to the Empire," says a staff member as I step inside, and from then on it's marble floors, elaborate murals, thick pillars soaring to towering ceilings and a bedroom ideally quiet, comfortable and secure when you're frazzled from a trip.
The next morning at 6am, I wake up to a blazing pink sunrise and leave the hotel for a day trip to Ulu Temburong National Park, a 550-square-kilometre protected area of mostly pristine rainforest. Ulu means "far", and the name is apt, because the park is situated in the eastern section of Brunei, separated from the rest of the state by Sarawak in Malaysia. Because of this and the park's geography, it's only accessible by boat. I board a local water taxi from a jetty on the Brunei River, opposite Kampong Ayer, Asia's largest water village. This part of town is surprisingly rustic; even more so as the scruffy but speedy vessel carves its way through a network of canals cutting through tall, dense vegetation and out into the beautifully calm and clear Brunei Bay. Then it's back into vegetation and off the boat at the small town of Bangar before I'm put on a bus to Batang Duri, where a motorised wooden longtail boat takes me up the Temburong River and deep into the rainforest. For a day trip from one of the world's wealthiest states, it's a big surprise to experience such an exciting and remote landscape. Perhaps ironically, Brunei's oil wealth has meant that it hasn't needed to cut down its forests for cash. Even more surprisingly, just a small section of the forest is open for tourism, with some areas, containing hills and mountains rising to a height of 1,800 metres, that have apparently yet to be studied by scientists. My local guide, from the Ulu Ulu Resort, an ecotourism venture offering wood cabins, organic food, yoga and no internet, says the forest is full of medicinal plants, and hopes these will safeguard its future. "I hope they find the cure for cancer here," he says, "then all the world's forests will be valued more."
I get off the longtail boat at the resort and trek up several hundred steps through the forest to the canopy walk, a lightweight scaffolding-type structure built by oil-company engineers. It sways slightly in the wind, which some find scary, but the view of and across the rainforest canopy from 60 metres up is mesmerising. There’s a cacophony of birdsong interspersed with that of insects and animals – so much so that I feel as if I can not only hear, but also feel the whole ecosystem breathing. As far as the eye can see, there’s rainforest, and it’s temporarily uplifting. If only more of the world could be like this. After a delicious lunch in the resort’s open-air restaurant, the heavens open and warm rain pours from the sky like water from a jug. Yet it’s time to go, so after wrapping my camera in a plastic bag, I board the longtail boat and complete the whole previous journey in reverse.
That night I take a short flight north to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, part of Malaysian Borneo. I have the opposite reaction to "KK", feeling as though a remote and exotic destination has been thoroughly trampled by tourism, with long strips of hotels, new shopping malls and scruffy housing (most of the city was bombed in the Second World War when it was occupied by the Japanese). With cheap direct flights from all over Asia, it's now a crowded destination. Fortunately, nature isn't far away, and I visit two hotels on Gaya Island, part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park just off the coast. The island is fairly rugged, with primary rainforest and a rocky shore, with some sandy bays. A few thousand "sea gypsies", said to be mostly semi-legal immigrants, live in a water village on its eastern end. In a secluded bay to the north-west is Bunga Raya Island Resort & Spa, a tastefully developed upscale property with 38 beautiful treehouse-style villas with high ceilings, large terraces and sea views, an excellent spa set in the rainforest and an attractive private beach. It reminds me of The Datai in Langkawi, although the food isn't as good. In the jungle behind the resort is a nature trek, various canopy walkways and a zip-lining circuit. My guide gives entertaining commentary, pointing out barking geckos and Tongkat Ali trees, the roots of which are said to improve male virility and the branches of which are "good for caning criminals". He points out a tree substance he claims is poisonous before we proceed to the zip line, which seems to have been built for people much shorter than I. Still, it's fun to swoop across the forest canopy.
Its sister property, the 42-villa Gayana Eco Resort, feels less successful, partly thanks to its location on the eastern side of the island. Despite having a Marine Ecology Research Centre, which educates schoolchildren and tourists about the environment and provides a base for visiting marine biologists, its attractiveness is diminished by its proximity to the mainland – large quantities of floating rubbish wash up daily and the waterway it faces is busy with traffic. Even in the surrounding area, the snorkelling and diving conditions do not compare favourably with those on the east coast, though it's OK for beginners, and the location is certainly convenient. The over-water villas are attractive and comfortable, but the underwater visibility and amount of fish life is disappointing. The food, however, appears to be much better than at Bunga Raya, notably at Alu Alu, the over-water Chinese seafood restaurant. I take a cooking class and am soon devouring kerabu ayam, a combination of shredded grilled chicken, shallots, lime juice, desiccated coconut, ground peanuts and herbs, and north Borneo fish curry, with its mouth-watering coconut sauce laced with ginger, tomato, tamarind and 10 types of spices. Dessert is a decadent coconut panna cotta – though with only four ingredients, it's relatively straightforward to make.
North of Kota Kinibalu on the mainland, amid 400 acres of coastal jungle and beach, is the Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort & Spa, a 499-room hotel that makes a great base for a holiday and/or climbing Mount Kinabalu. The property backs onto Sabah's second-largest mangrove swamp. The hotel arranges a boat trip for me, up a river and past water villages, many still without running water and electricity. My guide tells me that many local people are gradually being moved to modern housing, a change which isn't necessarily for the better.
Mount Kinibalu, designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000 due to its biodiversity – the foliage alone ranges from rainforest to bamboo and there’s a fascinating range of animals – is about a 90-minute drive away. The hike to the top takes a few days, so I have to content myself with a day trip with a local guide called Ben, whose relatives come from several places, including Hong Kong and China. He explains that while many indigenous groups in Sabah were wiped out or moved under colonialism, 42 tribes and 72 sub-tribes remain in the state, speaking 50 languages and 80 dialects. While a few traditional longhouses remain, most have been replaced with ugly modern blocks, and the age-old customs are all but gone.
The Shangri-La is also host to an orangutan sanctuary, where orphaned orangutans from eastern Sabah (there are none left in the west) are rehabilitated in cooperation with the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a well-known and reputable organisation. Here the animals inhabit a pleasant 64-acre forested promontory facing the sea. It’s fenced, and not really a substitute for seeing the animals in the wild, but for those who don’t have the time or means, it’s good enough. I walk with about 20 other tourists to a viewing platform where we watch a big 6 year-old-male, which has been named Kollapis, act as guardian to two 2-year-old babies, skinny Mousa and Cenderawasih, a female with red fluffy hair. Our guide says the babies’ mothers are often killed by palm-oil plantation owners and so need to be taught nest-building and other forest-survival skills. After rehabilitation they will be returned to Sepilok, where they will be released to live wild or semi-wild lifestyles – the open nature of the centre means they can return to feed. Sadly, most of the area surrounding Sepilok has been logged and replanted with palm-oil trees.
I'm keen to see orangutans in the wild, so I take off from Kota Kinabalu on a turboprop Malaysian Airlines flight to Lahad Datu, the closest airport to my next destination, a 130-million-year-old rainforest in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a 438-square-km protected area on the eastern side of the state. Landing there is shocking and depressing – there are palm-oil plantations, with their unattractive, spiky trees uniformly planted, as far as the eye can see. The area was once part of the Sultanate of Brunei, but was ceded during a civil war; from 1882 until 1963, most of what is now the state of Sabah was a British colony known as British North Borneo. Lahad Datu, a grubby town sometimes referred to as Malaysia's "wild east", was a centre for industrial logging from the 1950s to the 1970s, when, having run out of large trees, companies planted palm-oil plantations where there was once rainforest. "Western companies took all the trees from here to Kota Kinibalu," says a worker at the office of Borneo Rainforest Lodge, one of the few genuinely eco-friendly tourism enterprises in the area. "Then foreigners come here and lecture us about palm oil."
From Lahad Datu it's a two-and-half-hour drive in a specially adapted Toyota Land Cruiser to get to the lodge, only about 70km into the interior as the crow flies, but a world away in terms of the environment. Not far from Lahad Datu the tarmac runs out. Farms and plantations run right up to the park border, then we're through the park gates onto a sometimes rocky dirt road. We disturb a family of wild bearded pigs before crossing rivers and skirting mountains, and soon the ancient, springy-looking forest canopy appears. One of the world's finest examples of dipterocarp forests – that is, a forest made up of up to 500 types of tall hardwood trees, reaching up to 88 metres in height – and the largest in Sabah, the area was designated a conservation area in 1981. It's now managed by the Sabah Foundation, a semi-private body promoting conservation, ecotourism and economic activity, including some strictly controlled logging. Despite some poaching of animals such as pygmy elephants – there are only a few hundred left – its initiatives such as the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which is self-sustaining and employs 80 people – seem positive. The location's geography is thought to have made it unattractive to loggers in earlier years, and it has never been permanently inhabited by humans. It is, however, home to 120 mammal species, including about 1,500 wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, tarsiers and sun bears. Sumatran rhinoceros have not been seen since 2010, and are now sadly thought to be extinct. There are about 300 species of bird.
On the journey, Rizwan, my driver, jokes that white men are known as "orang puti" and that in the last few years he has welcomed such high-level guests as Prince William and Kate Middleton (before their marriage), Martha Stewart and Emma Thompson. The lodge, situated beside the Danum River, has about 30 wooden chalets and two upscale, two-storey modern villas. The open-air restaurant, bar and lounge is a beautifully designed room with soaring ceilings and is made out of recycled ebony and ironwood. There's a spectacularly good buffet at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the specially designed chalets are cooled using natural ventilation. Almost everything is recycled (including human waste, which is turned into compost), and water is heated using solar panels. I recover from the journey in the Jari Jari Spa, where, in a chalet room open to the forest, I have a dizzyingly good "Borneo rainforest" massage combining stretching and thumb pressure. Then, after dinner, there's a night drive to view – under flashlights – nocturnal animals such as flying lemurs, frogs, owls, mouse-deer, Malay civets, Malay serpents and fireflies. We're shown a "tarantula nest" in a tree trunk and get up close to a sleeping bird.
The next morning I meet my young guide, Muhammad Salehuddin Jais (“Dean”), and we take off on a walk through the forest to a viewpoint 1,225 metres above the valley. Dean points out some termite mounds attached to the enormous buttress of a tree (the buttresses, he explains, are needed because the roots are only 2 to 3 metres deep, but up to 50 metres long). Despite the height of the tree – its wonderfully straight trunk disappears seemingly to the sky – Dean says the termites may eventually kill it, but says that this is needed to spur regeneration. It’s a sweaty hike up, especially as I’m wearing leggings and unbreathable “leech socks” (to protect my legs from the 10 different types of blood suckers that exist here and can silently attach themselves to suck your blood), yet my mind is distracted by Dean’s confident, thoughtful approach. Despite the destruction of such huge areas of forest, there’s hope, he says, in the Heart of Borneo project, which aims to protect a vast swathe of forest across the Indonesian and Malaysia border. We stop at a burial site for the Kadazandusun tribe, which is thought to have lived in this area temporarily about 400 years ago when their home territory was affected by disease. The Danum Valley Conservation Area, he says, adjoins another protected area called the Maliau Basin, which makes me want to visit on another trip. Since it’s not fruiting season, Dean says sightings of orangutans are not guaranteed. I’m not really bothered by this, since I’d rather not see them than see them in a zoo, and I love just being in the forest. As we move through it, I find myself energised, and soon we’re almost running up and down muddy tracks, stopping at waterfalls and inhaling the humid scent of probably the cleanest air I’ll ever breathe. I’m wearing my fitness tracker and in just a couple of hours we’ve done 10,000 steps.
Back at the lodge, there’s a nearby nature trail along a boardwalk, where guests can learn about the value of fungus and other parts of this hugely complex ecosystem. We come up so close to a dragon lizard that we can almost touch it – “it thinks it’s camouflaged,” says Dean – and we get a fantastic view of a family of red leaf monkeys. I return to my chalet and a party of noisy gibbons are hanging across the river. I sit on the wooden veranda and run a bath in the outdoor hot tub. Afterwards I sit out on a chair for a long time, absorbing the view and the sounds and the air. A huge monitor lizard makes its way upriver, and for the first time in a long time I feel the immense strength of undisturbed nature. I’m among just 50 tourists in 438 square km of pure life.
On my second morning I get up at 4am with a team from National Geographic TV, who have spent months in the area, to catch the sunrise at the Global Atmosphere Watch station at the Danum Valley Field Centre. Even after just four hours’ sleep, I’m wide awake. It’s still dark when we climb the wooden tower with a view across the valley in all directions, and we’re served coffee and sandwiches. Then the Sun’s orange rays begin to rise from behind the hills like tapered fingers on a hand. It’s unlike any sunrise I’ve ever seen before, outside of children’s books. In the other direction, mist rolls through the valley, separating clumps of rainforest so that they look like islands.
After a uniformly delicious breakfast on the riverfront terrace, surrounded by birdsong and colourful butterflies, Dean tells me that a family of orangutans have been spotted. We drive part of the way along a forest road before heading down a small track into a thick patch of forest. There’s a large male, two females and two babies about 20 metres up in the trees. The large male has assumed a Buddha-like pose, his fat stomach protruding. As he looks down at us he raises his hand as if to say: “Stop right there.” The family slowly moves around within the tree, in and out of sight, eating leaves and lolling about. We watch them for half an hour before turning away. I’ve been bitten so much by mosquitoes that I seem to have developed an allergic reaction to the bites, which makes me abandon any fleeting plans I may have had to get a job here and spend the rest of my life living in the forest.
After lunch Dean takes me and the Nat Geo team “tubing” on the river. Luckily, there are no crocodiles to worry about. That night, after a dinner of Assam fish curry, chilli prawns, Nonya-style noodles and fresh fruit, I enjoy my last night outside the “real world”. While it’s hard not to be angry about the scale of the destruction outside, I think about what Dean said earlier in the day. “There are good people out there and what’s done is done. Once you take the forest away it won’t come back as before. This takes millions of years. Even if you take one thing away, it has a huge impact. But this reserve raises awareness and motivates us to collaborate with other environmental organisations to save what is left – not just for tourism but for future generations. What will our grandchildren see?”
I hope they get to see what I saw on my last morning from the resort’s 260-metre-long, 30-metre-high canopy walkway. We leave before everyone else and get there just before sunrise and see a group of oriental small-clawed otters in the stream below while a lesser fish eagle flies overhead. We climb to the highest viewpoint, and I’m awed by the massive size of the trees, which are several metres in circumference. The vegetation changes with height, and at the top the leaves bloom to catch the sunlight. As the Sun rises, the volume of cicadas, birds and other creatures is turned up, mingling with the mist. We walk back to the lodge and as the Sun comes out fully, I’m confronted with a primeval scene of ancient trees cloaked in bright green foliage, quietly breathing.
As I make my way back to “civilisation” in the Land Cruiser, I feel lucky. The world’s most expensive hotels, best restaurants and fastest cars cannot compete with a hike in a 130- million-year-old rainforest with a local guide with hope for the future.
Read this and other travel-related stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Wednesday, March 23.