Ruaridh Pringle 2007

     ‘Snake - look. Wigler pit viper.' Standing, I strained to discern anything reptilian amongst the leaves my guide Al was indicating. ‘In front of you.’ The branch was now over the drifting boat.



     The boatman shook his head. ‘He has city eyes!’ he wailed in a voice of doom. Al couldn’t believe it either.

     ‘But it’s centimetres from your nose!’

     Suddenly I found myself peering into the ruby eyes of a fabulous jewel-green snake. I had been staring directly at it all the time. ‘How?’ grunted a proboscis monkey from his tree, proudly displaying what Al called his ‘red chilli’. Proboscis monkeys need Viagra like penguins need parachutes. ‘How?’

     How indeed, I wondered, could I be so dismally unobservant. Without Al, I’d have seen nothing today smaller than a monkey.

     A rumpus exploded on the far bank, which became a battleground of grey macaques crashing through the trees using their prehensile feet and tails. The larger proboscis monkeys retaliated, hurtling noisily between branches ten metres apart. Clutching a broken twig, a bemused youngster plummeted into the river, raining debris over us. I brushed bark and epiphytes from my hair as it dog-paddled ashore.

     ‘I saw that!’

     Long a magic name for adventurous travellers, the forest island of Borneo has opened its arms to the outside world. Unfortunately it’s also one of the world’s deforestation hot spots. Ecotourism has become a global buzzword, offering a way to both profit from and preserve natural forests. Too often, however, the core concepts of sustainability and minimal impact are given only lip service. I visited Malaysian Borneo with local operator Borneo Adventure to see what ecotourism here has to offer.

     My journey began in Sarawak: the western of Malaysian Borneo’s two provinces. From the capital Kuching a bus took me eastwards to the remote Batang Ai reservoir. Before long I found myself in a brightly painted wooden longboat speeding up the rapids of a swift highland river to one of the area’s traditional longhouse communities. Ngasumpa lies deep in the lands of the Iban, a tribe of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak people.

     The longhouse was set above the river amidst trees and plots of pepper and rice. Children played in the sun-dappled river; chickens and pigs ran clucking and squealing amongst the ironwood stilts which raised the 105m long edifice above the reach of snakes – and, historically, enemy attack.

     In Iban culture, open hospitality is a tradition. ‘Unfortunately,’ explained my guide James, ‘operators have abused this by taking big tourist groups to longhouses expecting food, traditional dances, and to stay with families. This is bad for the longhouses. Ngasumpa is unusual.’ Visitors here stay in a small lodge segregated from the longhouse by a stream. Numbers are restricted to around ten. ‘I think that’s the reason the atmosphere here is so good.’

     And it was. Whenever I was invited into the communal veranda of the longhouse, the atmosphere was that of an improbably relaxed country pub. For two days I was chauffeured around in one of the village’s agile but unstable longboats, experiencing aspects of Iban life from fishing and forest cookery to burial rites and weaving. I passed the evenings drinking tuak, home brewed rice wine, with the chief’s family and whoever else was around.

     Like James, who translated for me, William was a Christian convert from the indigenous animist religion. Iban workers are prized by the oil industry, and William had recently been a roughneck in Mexico. One of the older men spent time globetrotting between craft conventions. The walls were adorned with Bra adverts, maps of Stockholm, pictures of Malaysian pop stars and government lists of protected species. Ibans drink tuak prodigiously, but violence is rare. It was hard to imagine these serene people as the ferocious headhunters they once had been.

     My next destination was a jolt to someone who, at a young age, had read of the “discovery” of the world’s largest cave system, lost in the rainforests of north east Sarawak. I flew to Gunung Mulu National Park over scrubby forest consumed by logging roads. Boats towed mammoth rafts of logs down sediment-heavy rivers.

     Sarawak has a history of timber concessions belonging to relatives and friends of prominent politicians. In 1987, these were revealed to comprise most of the state. Groups as diverse as timber industry organisations and environmental groups have estimated that practically all primary forest outside the national parks, which protect roughly 1% of Sarawak, has been logged.

     I asked a Sarawak tribesman what his people felt about this.

     ‘It’s very bad. The hunting’s gone, there’s no fruit…’ An example he gave was the pungent durian, which needs forest-dwelling bats for pollination. ‘Medicine plants too. The rivers are thick with soil, we get sick from the water. Fishing is no good. The weather is changed – the forest no longer holds the clouds. The dry season’s now too unreliable for rotating agriculture in the forest. Land won’t burn. It must be hand-cleared, so there’s no ash to preserve the soil.’ Shortage of hardwoods for building is another problem: softwoods rot. ‘Anyway… the forest is finished now. Nothing we can do.’

     The Mulu area highlights the problems faced by forest communities in Sarawak, and the power of tourism to help or harm them. Local people have become park guides, or small tourism entrepreneurs. A Japanese-backed hotel chain, Royal Mulu, plans to extend a resort on land the community claim by ancestral right. The airstrip is being extended to fly in package tourists.

     Local people feel increasingly sidelined. Protesters have allegedly been beaten up, and no-one I spoke to would discuss the issue, apparently fearing persecution and arrest. Constant legal fees drain community resources. ‘The law does not protect us,’ one man told me. ‘Money is power. We have no power. It’s the way it is.’ The government supports Royal Mulu in the dispute. Family members of Sarawak’s chief minister reportedly have stakes in the resort.

     My quiet guide Vino had worked with the National Geographic, and crews who have come to film the caves. We reached Deer Cave along three kilometres of slippery wooden boardwalks through the dusky forest at the park’s edge. The world’s largest cave entrance left me dumbstruck. Water fell in silver ribbons from limestone 220m above my head as millions of free-tailed bats streamed from its gaping mouth into the evening sky.

     A longboat brought us upriver next morning to the park’s show caves. Light from spectacular sinkholes spilled into chambers carved by subterranean rivers. Erratic floodlights illuminated extravagant columns and stalactites. Clanging metal walkways have dimmed the magic the first explorers must have felt, but pristine caves abound deeper in the park. There are rumours of plans for a high-rise tourist resort, and monorails into the caves.

     I flew to Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah. Malaysia’s eastern province felt much more agricultural than Sarawak. Logging remains the primary industry, closely followed by palm oil. A South African palm, whose nut-extracted oil sizzles in woks throughout south east Asia, and is found increasingly in Western foods, now blankets much of the state.

     Unfortunately for Borneo, studies have shown that cutting the area of a forest by 90% can be expected to make half its species extinct. Perhaps 15% of Sabah’s forest is estimated to remain intact. Many surviving fragments are marooned in palm plantations so vast, their harvest requires Indonesian labour. The longer their isolation, the more species within them will die out.

     One such time-bomb is near the town of Sukau, on Sabah’s longest river, the Kinabatangan. The wildlife on this stretch of the river and its tributaries draws visitors from around the world. As well as a Wigler pit viper, over two days here I saw yellow-striped cat snakes, monitor lizards, pill millipedes (which form perfect armoured ‘pills’ when alarmed), orang utans dangling solemnly from their enormous shaggy arms, and a kaleidoscope of spectacular birds, including one once prized for its unique ivory: the rhinoceros hornbill. The portly, hugely nosed proboscis monkeys, which the Dayaks call ‘Dutch monkeys’ after their 18th century colonisers, were unforgettable. I didn’t see the Sumatran rhino. I wasn’t surprised: twelve are left in Sabah.

     I encountered orang utans more closely at Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary. This 43km2 forest reserve and research centre has worked wonders to publicise the plight of this threatened species. Of an original 180 000 in Borneo, as few as 10 000 are thought to survive. It’s illegal now for anyone clearing land not to report orang utans to the sanctuary for relocation. Many inmates at the sanctuary are orphans. Some were pets which grew large enough to be dangerous. Rehabilitation is hard work. As well as needing constant care, orphans must be taught to climb, and often suffer psychological problems.

     Most visitors make a beeline for a feeding platform to watch the primates guzzling fruit provided by nervous-looking rangers with buckets. In 1992 a tourist couple were methodically stripped naked. ‘Be careful,’ warned Al. ‘These men of the forest are strong, and their behaviour is... very strange.’ He singled out a female companion’s yellow top. ‘No bright clothes. You will look for him like a big banana. And ladies: never look a male in the eye. Very important. Do it, and you will know why.’

     Without elaborating on this rather disturbing and mysterious observation, he left us to our tour.

     Turtle Islands National Park comprises three islets in the blood-warm Sulu Sea between Sabah and the Philippines. From the rickety boat approaching from the town of Sandakan, Pulau Selingan seemed little more than a vegetated sand bar. Turtle conservation began here in 1927 during British administration, when Hawksbill turtles faced extinction from hunting. Green turtles - at up to 280kg, the world’s largest surviving hard-shelled species - also lay here. Eggs are still smuggled illegally from the Philippines into Sandakan, and both species remain in trouble.

     The island has ten-thousand visitors annually and growing. Sadly, few are Malaysian. Amongst the palms are chalets, a wildlife museum, and a hatchery where eggs are reburied to prevent hatchlings being eaten by lizards and birds before they even escape the beach. Visitors are allowed to watch one turtle per night, hold a struggling hatchling, and watch a crate load of them scamper down the beach into a moonlit sea from which only three percent will reappear. It was a magical experience. To me, the balance seemed a good one: the primary concern being the turtles.

     I left Sabah with mixed feelings, but among them optimism. Times are changing. Politicians are increasingly backing alternatives to logging and oil palm. Wildlife corridors re-linking islands of forest are proposed. There are plans to regenerate rare hardwood trees, regulations have been tightened to reduce the impact of logging, and communities protesting against illegal logging are being listened to. Tourism has been a major factor. I asked my East Sabah guide Al how he saw the future.

     ‘Tourism. It’s the main reason forest is being rescued. Without the forest, there would be no tourists. Without the tourists, little forest would survive.’

     While an imperfect solution to the problem of vanishing rainforest, ecotourism may well be the best we have. I was impressed by Borneo Adventure. In stark contrast to some operators, people I spoke to at a local level had only praise for them and their policy of supporting grass-roots tourism. By efficiently providing holiday experiences which are excellent in their own right, the award-winning company is an example of what can be achieved by putting genuine ecotourism into practice.

     If you crave adventurous immersion in traditional cultures or nature at its most spectacular, and would be happier knowing your presence was doing some active good, look no further.


Getting there

Malaysia Airlines (Tel. 0870 607 9090, www.malaysiaairlineseurope.com) offer return flights to Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah via Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpar from £365 to £650 (plus taxes), depending on season.

Staying there

Borneo Adventure (Tel. +60 82 245 175, www.borneoadventure.com) offer all inclusive tailor-made tours throughout Malaysian Borneo. They can also arrange accommodation throughout Malaysia. UK booking through Travel 2 (Tel. 0207 561 2244, Fax. 0207 561 2456, Email cara.smith@travel2.com) or Asia World (Tel. 0870 990 8090, Fax 0870 079 9787 Email karen.macmillam@asiaworld.co.uk).

Don’t miss

Kuching food markets, Ngasumpa longhouse and ‘sticky rice’ cooked in bamboo; the impressive Deer Cave; the proboscis monkeys of Sungai Kinabatangan; Mount Kinabalu (at 4101m , South East Asia’s highest mountain, offering gob-smacking views for the moderately fit); turtles laying eggs in moonlight in Turtle Island National Park; spectacular thunderstorms; whitewater rafting on the Kiulu river in western Sabah.

Further information

Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board. Tel. 0207 930 7932, Fax 0207 930 9015. www.antor.com/Malaysia/Malaysia.html