THE ROAD WOR­RI­ERS

In deep­est, dark­est Brunei, Vi­jay Vergh­ese dis­cov­ers the need for speed

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

HAVE you ever met a head­hunter? I haven’t. The clos­est I’ve got is in the clas­si­fieds and they wouldn’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween me in an Ar­mani suit and me in a pot of boil­ing wa­ter with gar­lic for sea­son­ing.

So when an op­por­tu­nity arises to visit Brunei, the so-called Jewel in the Jun­gle, a place teem­ing with unimag­in­able creep­y­crawlies, steam­ing rain­forests and prim­i­tive tribes who even to­day live in stilted houses on green rivers (and drive ex­pen­sive Ja­panese cars), my body thrills to a new pur­pose.

Step­ping into a rain­for­est is like com­muning with your in­ner child. Hear that happy, gur­gling, suck­ing sound? Well, if it’s not your in­ner child, it’s very likely some primeval goo you’ve just stepped in and those pricey Tim­ber­land shoes are ready to re­tire.

Still, it cer­tainly beats gaz­ing at your navel, which I’ve tried and all I’ve found there is belly fluff, enough to clothe the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Bangladesh. It is, I must say, a cheap and eco-friendly op­tion.

But take it from me, the Brunei rain­for­est is the place to be. Tough busi­ness con­cluded — chiefly en­tail­ing find­ing a cab to shut­tle us about the place — we hop into a rental car and roar off for our tryst with des­tiny in deep­est, dark­est Brunei. I take the wheel, my as­sis­tant Libby scans a large map and Toom, a col­league with a re­mark­ably short name for a Thai (which is why we hired her in the first place), hums tunes in the back.

Nav­i­ga­tion is easy. Brunei’s soli­tary and ex­cel­lent high­way runs al­most ram­rod straight, east-west across the north­ern shore­line. Af­ter an hour the road shriv­els to two lanes and wob­bles un­cer­tainly to­wards the Sarawak border. We turn off south and the go­ing gets rough. An hour later Libby is slumped glassy-eyed and Toom is in a coma in the back seat. Dengue? Malaria? Snake bite? The an­swer is deeply dis­turb­ing: a clas­sic case of what-the-heck-are-we-do­inghere, a ter­ri­ble syn­drome af­fect­ing thir­tysome­things de­prived of television and MTV for too long.

Libby is moan­ing. Just a few hours ear­lier she was re­clin­ing in her hu­mungous suite at the posh Em­pire Ho­tel, where if it isn’t mar­ble or gold it’s thrown out. Now she is in the mid­dle of a rain­for­est speed­ing to­wards, well, more rain­for­est.

Thus far we haven’t seen long houses, head­hunters or posters of Brit­ney Spears. Ter­mi­nal bore­dom is set­ting in, so I con­sider my moral predica­ment. To save my staff, I have to find a work­ing TV set, and fast. We have to plug into the latest South Korean soap or even just Tele­tub­bies. But should a 1000-year-old rain­for­est be al­lowed to dic­tate terms to you? Take that road and the next thing you know you’re hug­ging trees and singing Joan Baez songs.

Libby still has a faint pulse and Toom is stir­ring, if slug­gishly, so I press on. Labi vil­lage flashes by and soon we are churn­ing through red slush. The for­est closes in. The prob­lem with roads in rain­forests is sim­ple. There aren’t any. The few that pre­tend to be roads go from nowhere to nowhere. Here, rivers are the true ar­ter­ies of com­merce and life. Al­ways re­mem­ber that.

Just then, Libby sur­faces in the front pas­sen­ger seat. ‘‘ Loop­ing roads make me car­sick,’’ she de­clares. There are loops and bumps ahead. It is time to act. In ev­ery jour­ney there is a defin­ing mo­ment and this is it. Now I’ll show the ladies what Real Men do in Real Emer­gen­cies. I stop the car, get out and pre­pare to run. Libby ap­pears fine, for the mo­ment, so I cau­tiously re-en­ter the ve­hi­cle and give Toom the wheel.

Pluck a Bangkok na­tive out of per­pet­ual grid­lock and present 15cm of clear space in front and you’ll go from 20km/h to 40km/h. Sorry, make that 80km/h; no, 90km/h.

Back on the high­way the nee­dle quiv­ers at 160km/h. Libby grows paler, my eyes grow to saucers, but the adrenalin is surg­ing. We are awake. We are saved, but for how long? We brace and wait for the in­evitable.

Then it hap­pens. There is a sin­is­ter whoosh, the car shud­ders and a ma­tronly wo­man in a head­scarf driv­ing a Toy­ota Landcruiser roars past.

She must be do­ing 200km/h. In the Mus­lim king­dom of Brunei. With pro­boscis mon­keys watch­ing. Deep in the jun­gle where time stands still, but women ob­vi­ously don’t. Three more women roar past, all in im­mac­u­late head­scarfs as the ra­dio breaks in: ‘‘ Ex­pect fog and two de­grees tonight.’’ I am re­lieved to learn it is a Lon­don sta­tion.

I am go­ing to sur­vive af­ter all and pose to prim­i­tive tribes a ques­tion that has trou­bled so­ci­ol­o­gists for many years: ‘‘ Do your cars run on un­leaded?’’ Hong Kong-based Vi­jay Vergh­ese runs the web­site www.smarttrav­elasia.com.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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