Into headhunter territory
Online travel editor Craig Platt heads into the jungles of Malaysian Borneo to meet a tribe of former headhunters. The reporter travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.
The jungle doesn't have to be all about eating bugs and drinking your own urine, but there are always risks, Craig Platt discovers.
"Now I need to find a good place to shelter for the night and cook those maggots.”
And with that line from Bear Grylls, I decided I was not going to make it through the first episode of Man Versus Wild I had ever attempted to watch.
But somehow, I've since found myself returning to Grylls's weekly adventures in the wilderness where he eats all manner of bugs, drinks his own urine or, on one memorable occasion, rehydrates by giving himself an enema.
I was hoping my own wild adventure, into the Borneo rainforest of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, would not be as extreme. Fortunately I was right, but I also discovered that heading into less-developed places such as this can have their dangers – often where you least expect them.
But more on that later.
The first indication I had that my Borneo visit would not quite be as uncomfortable as a Bear Grylls adventure was approaching our accommodation. Batang Ai Longhouse, managed by the Hilton group, is a resort accessible only by boat, located on the lake from which it takes its name, on the edge of Malaysia's Batang Ai National Park.
The hotel's design is roughly based on the traditional longhouses of the local Iban people – though much more luxurious of course. We may be in the jungle, but we've got access to air-conditioned rooms, terrific dining options and an irresistible cocktail menu.
That air-conditioning is essential, as Sarawak is currently in its dry season and the heat is extraordinary. In fact, an afternoon dip in the lake feels more like a warm bath, such is the temperature of the water near the surface.
But we're not here to spend all our time relaxing at the resort – we're jungle bound. Batang Ai National Park, given its status in 1989, covers 24 square kilometres and abuts two other national parks – one in Malaysia, the other in neighbouring Indonesia.
While the national park is home to Borneo's famous orang-utans, we are warned that coming across them in the vast area is not likely.
Like the resort, Batang Ai National Park must be accessed by boat – we settle down in two narrow longboats for our journey up the Ulu Ai river. Due to the aforementioned dry season, the river depth is low in points, forcing our guides to occasionally pull up the outboard motor and drag the boat along as they wade through the shallows.
Despite the shade provided by the thick foliage, the heat remains stifling. Our boat drops us at a hiking trail, where we take a mercifully short walk that leaves me utterly drenched in sweat. While we don't see any, there is one obvious sign that orang-utans are in the neighbourhood – a large pile of fresh, orange-tinged dung right in the middle of the hiking trail. Unfortunately that's the only sign we get of the jungle's most famous inhabitants.
On return to the riverbank, despite none of our group having brought bathers, we can't resist stripping to our undies and taking a dip in the river to cool off. It's wonderfully refreshing. It's also teeming with life. While we've been hiking one of our boatmen has busied himself spearing fish for our lunch, which are now staked over a fire on the bank. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
The next day we head out in the longboats again, this time seeking culture rather than wildlife. We're headed to an authentic longhouse inhabited by members of the Iban tribe.
These stilted huts are often hundreds of metres long, with a common area running the length of the structure and multiple separate living areas for the many families that live together inside.
Many Iban still live a traditional lifestyle with one key exception – they've given up head-hunting. While, our guide is quick to point out, the Iban never went in for head shrinking or cannabilism, head-hunting was a common practice in disputes with other tribes.
There's evidence of this at the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, where a longhouse display features what can best be described as a reed chandelier featuring skulls instead of lights. These fixtures feature prominently in the Iban's traditional beliefs, where they are used for offerings (though many Iban, like much of the Sarawak population, are now Christians).
After a longboat ride, this time up the deeper Engkari River, we arrive at the village and longhouse shortly before midday to be greeted by many of the Iban residents. A couple of the younger men offer up what is described as 'homemade whisky' though it's a clear liquid. I'm not particularly keen to indulge, particularly as it's still the a.m., but I take a shot and find it surprisingly smooth.
Two of the members of the village perform a traditional dance for us, after which we are invited to join in (after partaking in some homemade rice wine which, again, is surprisingly smooth).
Our guide for this trip, Edward, himself grew up in a longhouse before getting an education and entering the tourism industry. He says that while many of the residents of the longhouse may only visit a town once or twice a year, the lifestyle is dying out.
I ask if he thinks anyone will still live this way in a couple of decades. He is doubtful. Despite this, he plans to return to his own tribe's longhouse when he retires, where he hopes to be elected the chief and assist in delivering benefits of modern infrastructure – like running water – to the residents.
As we talk, one of the young men walks in with an enormous river fish – still alive – and dumps it on the floor of the longhouse. The catch causes quite a stir among the residents and it's not long before the fish has been chopped up into steaks and doled out equally among the families. It's gives us outsiders a good opportunity to see this tradition of communal living in action.
After a delicious lunch, there's just time to try a bit of target practice with a traditional blowpipe (this is just for tourists – guns are used for hunting these days) before clambering back into the longboats for the return journey to the resort.
And it's here that the only true Bear Grylls-style moment of danger happens during the trip. As we depart the river and return to the open water of Batang Ai Reservoir I notice, from my position at the front of the longboat, that we appear to be heading straight for our fellow travellers in the other boat, which has come to a rest a little further up the lake.
I convince myself that our driver is going to notice any second and change course. It's not until we get within 20 metres or so that I realise my fears were correct – we are headed straight for the rear of the other boat and we're now too close to avoid a collision.
I shout out but it's too late – our bow smashes into the rear of the other boat, shattering its wooden engine bay and knocking their outboard motor into the boat. Worse, the bow hits their driver, knocking him into the water.
Our engine shut off, we come to rest and our two boatmen dive into the lake and swim back towards the other boat. It seems like an eternity before the submerged driver resurfaces, though it was probably only a few seconds.
One of our drivers pulls his stricken colleague back to our boat, where I help get him on board and notice he has a nasty gash across his face. He doesn't, thankfully, seem seriously injured.
I realise the accident could have been much worse had we struck at a different angle – possibly capsizing the other boat and throwing us into the lake. I also realise that, due to the severe heat, I didn't bother doing up my lifejacket – which would have slipped off immediately had I actually found myself in the water.
It feels a little like a wake-up call for those of us who tend to ignore risk when we travel overseas. I'm someone who wouldn't dream of not wearing a seatbelt while driving, or wearing a helmet when on my bike when I'm at home in Melbourne. But here I've ignored a safety precaution simply because the weather was hot.
We slowly tow the stricken boat back to the resort, where one of my fellow passengers suggests we should hit the bar. Feeling a little shaken by the experience, we all agree.
Relaxing on the deck overlooking the lake, I down two Long Island ice teas (possibly the world's most misleadingly weak-tasting, but strongly alcoholic, cocktails), and chill out as the sun sets.
Today's excitement aside, I'm pretty sure Bear Grylls never managed to finish an adventure quite this way. And it beats drinking your own urine.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide from about $1200. www.malaysiaairlines.com
Batang Ai Lake is about four hours' drive from Kuching. A daily shuttle bus travels from the Hilton Kuching to the lake jetty.
Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, Managed by Hilton start from RM239 ($A76) per room, per night. See www.batang.hilton.com
Borneo Transverse Tours and Travel SDN BHD offer tours including planning, guided tours and cars. See www.borneotransverse.com.my