The bugs are big but so is the wel­come in the not-so-scary jun­gles of Bor­neo

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Armed with in­sect re­pel­lent and a tremu­lous spirit of ad­ven­ture, Jen­nifer Byrne heads to Bor­neo – only to be se­duced crea­tures by by its peo­ple and a jun­gle tee ming with ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­tures.

Deserts cool off at night. Ice con­tains no beast­ies. But jun­gles? Ph­woar, jun­gles are scary, by far the most chal­leng­ing of the world’s three ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments. Vi­o­lently green and steamy and full of bit­ing things that hide in the day but hum, click and shriek loudly at night. No-one who’s seen Apoc­a­lypse Now can feel neu­tral about jun­gles – or the fierce crea­tures that live in them.

So it’s with some trep­i­da­tion – armed with my body weight in re­pel­lent and malaria pills – that I set out for our close and jungly neigh­bour to the north, Bor­neo. Partly for an old-fash­ioned ad­ven­ture; also be­cause my friend (and best­selling au­thor) Di Mor­ris­sey has been rav­ing about Bor­neo for years. Beau­ti­ful peo­ple. Great walks. Fan­tas­tic food. And a wildlife Eden, the best place to meet one of our clos­est hu­man rel­a­tives, the gin­ger-haired orangutan.

But where to start? Bor­neo is the world’s third-largest is­land, di­vided into four sep­a­rate ter­ri­to­ries, from the tip of Malaysian Sabah to the toe of In­done­sia’s gi­ant Kal­i­man­tan. Sus­pect­ing I’ll shrink to a grease spot if I try to cover them all in two weeks, I de­cide to fo­cus on just the one: the for­mer Bri­tish colony of Sarawak.

It has a fa­mous orangutan sanc­tu­ary and a World Her­itage-listed na­tional park and its cap­i­tal, Kuch­ing, is re­put­edly the liveli­est, coolest city on Bor­neo. Its neigh­bour Sabah draws more tourists but there’s some­thing about where Sarawak sits on the map: fronting onto the South China Sea, back­ing into the im­mense jun­gles of Kal­i­man­tan, while enor­mous rivers flow through the mid­dle, where fierce head­hunt­ing tribes once roamed.

I ar­rive on the cusp of the wet and dry sea­sons. Though, re­ally, it’s hard to pick the dif­fer­ence this close to the equa­tor. A few de­grees and mil­lime­tres up or down on the graph. My cloth­ing ad­viser is Bri­tish nat­u­ral­ist and ex­plorer Red­mond O’Han­lon, who, in his won­der­fully de­mented best­seller Into the Heart of Bor­neo – about a trip up Sarawak’s mighty Batang Re­jang river – coun­sels, “Get some jun­gle boots, good thick trousers and strong shirts. You don’t want to nancy about in shorts once the first leech has had a go at you, be­lieve me.”

The good news is that I en­counter not one leech dur­ing my en­tire trip. Gi­ant snails and ants, out­size mil­li­pedes, bees and stick in­sects, yes; in fact, all in­sects seem to grow to jumbo size in the jun­gle. But not a leech and that’s a mercy.

The other good news is that the malaria pills prove un­nec­es­sary be­cause scarcely a mosquito flies in the Sarawak jun­gles, for the most en­vi­ron­men­tally ef­fi­cient rea­son: bats.

Which, again, can sound like a neg­a­tive and a good rea­son not to brave the jun­gle, be­cause how many of us can say we gen­uinely want to mix it with mil­lions upon mil­lions – lit­er­ally caves full – of car­niv­o­rous bats? The an­swer is: any­one who’s had the priv­i­lege of vis­it­ing Sarawak’s Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park, a mag­i­cal place of­fer­ing one of the world’s most thrilling and un­ex­pected wildlife spec­ta­cles cen­tred on caves… and bats.

But first things first – the orang­utans. It’s an en­counter one doesn’t just ex­pect but would feel ag­grieved to miss so I’ve scarcely set­tled into Kuch­ing be­fore head­ing out to Se­meng­goh Na­ture Re­serve, an easy 30 kilo­me­tres away. Cre­ated as a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre for or­phaned and res­cued orang­utans, it has suc­ceeded so well in its mis­sion that the orangs have bred like Topsy; the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion is dozens, cov­er­ing many gen­er­a­tions. Within min­utes, a fam­ily of three – grand­mother Se­duku with her son and daugh­ter – are swing­ing down from the trees to feed on ba­nanas, co­conuts and sweet pota­toes.

Their ta­ble man­ners, frankly, are ap­palling: lots of gib­ber­ing with mouths full. But what a sight. The world’s largest tree-dwelling mam­mal – four times stronger than hu­mans – clam­ber­ing up and down ropes, hang­ing one-handed, do­ing per­fect splits (these guys are su­per-ath­letic) in a jun­gle hum­ming with life. And more to come the next day at Bako Na­tional Park, where I see pro­boscis mon­keys, mag­nif­i­cently ugly bearded pigs and, coiled on a branch, a grassy­green Bornean keeled pit viper. Ven­omous but bless­edly tor­pid.

Be­tween ex­pe­di­tions I ex­plore Kuch­ing, bi­sected by a wide river and as buzzy as touted. Small boats ferry you be­tween the banks for the princely sum of $1 or you can climb onto a big lum­ber­ing one for a sun­set cruise. The mood is re­laxed colo­nial; once a small trad­ing post, Kuch­ing was built up over a cen­tury of rule by a fam­ily known as the White Ra­jahs and I quickly set­tle into an evening rit­ual of wa­ter­front walks, fol­lowed by po­tent cock­tails at a bar named af­ter the orig­i­nal ra­jah, pri­va­teer James Brooke. I then re­treat to Kuch­ing’s old town, which of­fers cheap, bril­liant street food and rings with the sound of tin­smiths. I meet an an­cient tat­too artist, Sarawak’s ver­sion of Keith Richards, be­fore am­bling out to the old-school Eth­nol­ogy Mu­seum full of glassy-eyed stuffed an­i­mals – though its sig­na­ture at­trac­tion is a hu­man hair­ball ex­tracted from the stom­ach of a gi­ant crocodile. Along with a well-chewed Seiko watch. Ghoul­ish? You bet. Loved it. Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park is that World Her­itage site I men­tioned, way up north near the bor­der with Brunei, ac­ces­si­ble only by slow long­boat or fast plane (my choice, the lat­ter) and packed with nat­u­ral mar­vels, in­clud­ing old-growth rain­for­est, vast sculpted caves and steep, spec­tac­u­lar – but climbable – spires of lime­stone wreathed in morn­ing cloud. A won­der­land, in short, where the breath­ing, heav­ing jun­gle is all around yet vis­i­tors can walk safely on raised wooden trails, spot­ting but­ter­flies, birds and trees like the mighty be­n­uang with its fan of but­tress roots and, 40 me­tres up, branches that ra­di­ate like a star.

Be­low ground are the caves, the pride of Mulu, each with its own char­ac­ter and story. Lang Cave is the beauty of the bunch, its il­lu­mi­nated columns of lime­stone carved by wa­ter into other-worldly shapes. Clear­wa­ter has a huge sub­ter­ranean river run­ning through it, 200 kilo­me­tres of pas­sages logged to date; mea­sur­ing the river is a pop­u­lar chal­lenge for ad­ven­ture cavers but the well-marked paths do just fine for me. And Deer Cave, well, that’s where the bats live. In their mil­lions, mul­ti­ple species, cling­ing to the roof like a mass of black lichen. Each evening they trans­form into dancers in an ae­rial bal­let.

There’s sim­ply no over­stat­ing the won­der, the sheer damn marvel, of the bats’ nightly ex­o­dus. Stream upon stream of

them, pour­ing out of the high cave en­trance in spi­rals and loops first – to con­fuse the wait­ing preda­tory hawks – be­fore straight­en­ing into sin­u­ous black lines that twirl and swoop in a kind of dragon dance against the evening sky. The moun­tains turn gold, the rib­bons of bats lift and dip and swirl. It’s one of the great­est sights of na­ture I’ve ever wit­nessed – though, to be hon­est, pretty much ev­ery­thing about Mulu lifts the heart.

You can take your own night walk, search­ing by torch­light for tree frogs and vine snakes and bril­liantly cam­ou­flaged stick in­sects or you can climb high into the canopy, where the ac­tion re­ally is, for a guided sky­walk, an­chored to a se­ries of tall trees. Trans­port is by long­boat – there be­ing no roads in Mulu – and some of my hap­pi­est mem­o­ries of the trip will be of beetling up and down the fast-flow­ing Malinau River, past tall trees trail­ing their roots like fish­ing lines, watch­ing the many fam­i­lies who live along its banks wash, play and sim­ply get on with their lives.

Though Malays and Chi­nese make up close to half the pop­u­la­tion, Sarawak is a pow­er­fully tribal place. The core of its char­ac­ter lies with the scores of dif­fer­ent indige­nous groups – known col­lec­tively as Dayaks – rang­ing from no­madic for­est for­agers and hunters like the Pe­nan to the dom­i­nant Iban, the fa­mous head­hunters of yore. But the tribe I re­ally want to meet is the Ke­labit, known for the warmth of their wel­come and the gen­tle beauty of their home in the high­lands hug­ging the bor­der of In­done­sian Kal­i­man­tan. So I climb into a tiny plane (10 kilo­grams luggage max) and fly into the clouds to find them.

We land on a high plateau cir­cled by moun­tains and dot­ted with a dozen vil­lages that to­gether make up the so-called “cap­i­tal” of the Ke­labit High­lands: Bario. At its heart is a horse­shoe of lively cafés sur­rounded by bat­tered four-wheel drives; around them are green paddy fields where women work all day, in wa­ter to their waists, to cul­ti­vate the world-fa­mous Bario rice. And over­look­ing it all, the beau­ti­ful Prayer Moun­tain, which re­wards climbers with a glo­ri­ous view over the set­tle­ments, the val­ley and the green peaks be­yond.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion is a sim­ple but com­fort­able home­s­tay. The roads are laugh­ably dire and I spend much of my first af­ter­noon slid­ing back­wards down a clay track slicked by rain un­til my driver adopts the clas­sic Aussie so­lu­tion of lay­ing branches on the track to get us out. These are spe­cial peo­ple, iso­lated un­til the Se­cond World War and still true to their tra­di­tions; our long-house farewell by women wear­ing brightly beaded skull­caps ends in danc­ing, hugs and kisses all round.

So… cul­ture, na­ture, ad­ven­ture. And reg­u­lar cock­tails. Jun­gle liv­ing has never been eas­ier.

Wrin­kle-lipped bats in Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional SarawakParkPark­inSarawak, Bor­neo; a long- eared woman from the Ke­labit High­lands

Tra­di­tional stilt houses line the Sarawak River at Kuch­ing (above)

(From top) Gu­nung Mulu Na­tional Park hosts an in­fi­nite va­ri­ety of car­niv­o­rous crea­tures, in­clud­ing cen­tipedes

A tribesman in Bario in the Ke­labit High­lands (far left); north­ern Bor­neo pro­duces sev­eral types of rice, in­clud­ing white sticky, pur­ple hill and world-fa­mous Bario

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