After our delayed flight from Yogyakarta and our enforced overnight stop at a transit hotel, we said our farewells to Christa at Kuala Lumpur airport as she went off to board her 06.50 flight to Kota Kinabalu and we headed off for our 07.10 to Kuching, where we found the weather a bit cooler and much wetter.The main purpose of going to Kuching was to use it as a base to visit Bako National Park with its rich wildlife, and have an overnight stay in a Longhouse at an authentic Sarawak tribal village. We had been trying to organise these tours by email from Indonesia and had almost got things finalised, but arriving a day later than planned kind of messed things up somewhat.However, when we arrived we found a tour company sharing the hotel lobby were able to book us on the trips we wanted - and at considerably less cost than the other company had offered.Kuching is quite a nice wee city standing on the banks of the Sarawak River.Although there isn't an awful lot of interest to see we had a wander around the central area where we were staying, and along the recently redeveloped waterfront area.We had a quick bite to eat at a nearby bistro before lights out. We recognised that day that we had left the quiet Indonesian people behind and were now into the noisier Chinese dominated Malaysian community.
We were up early next morning raring to go for our trip to Bako National Park. When we opened the curtains it was to find heavy, heavy, grey skies and pouring rain.When we got downstairs we were really disappointed to be told that the trip was off because the weather conditions were too bad.We were concerned that the weather might also scupper the trip to the Longhouse, but were assured that that would definitely go ahead (so fingers crossed).But what to do with ourselves today?Well it wouldn't be that long now before we'd find ourselves in the Philippines (only four days away!) and we hadn't done a great deal of forward planning.So we made the most of this unexpected free time to do some research and make some positive plans, and fit in a visit to the Sarawak Museum.He museum has and old wing and a new wing separated by a main road. The old wing has an interesting and extensive collection of stuffed wildlife displayed in dim and dusty cabinets, and upstairs a collection of exhibits about the tribal people, their art and culture.In the new wing there was an interesting exhibition of traditional pottery making throughout history by the various tribes across Borneo. Food that evening was taken in the Chinese quarter of the city where we had an excellent meal accompanied by the Chinese dragon celebrations outside preparing to mark their New Year.It is hard getting into early starts but on Saturday we had to be up and away at 8 to go for an overnight stay in an Iban Longhouse. Our guide (Andrew) and driver (Piee) took us there via the nearby Orang Utan Sanctuary at Semenogogh. This was a somewhat different experience to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra as it is much more developed and frequented by tourists. In the pouring rain we waited and waited to see any sign of life - we were particularly interested because Bornean Orang Utans are slightly different in colour and longer body hair than those in Sumutra. Eventally as we were about to give up, our attention was drawn to movement high up in the trees.About 150ft above us we could see 2 Orang Utan beds/nests with arms and legs flailing around as they gathered branches - no doubt to make their home more water-tight. Although one climbed down to the other nest it was our only real sighting.But a ranger called to us to come and see the dominant male of the Orang Utans who live in this area. His name was Richie and he was up a tree nearer to the main entrance. Apparently it was his birthday and he was being coaxed down for a special birthday feed by the rangers. It wasn't long before he succumbed and started making his way down branches and ropes to a feeding station/table where a load of fruit and a special coconut awaited. He was certainly magnificent with very long hair and well developed cheek pads (which females are attracted to).He tucked into his food showing great skill and dexterity peeling the fruit with his left hand and jaws. We had great display for about 30 minutes while a youngster scampered up and down another tree obviously showing respect for his elders! After our possible disappointment we had been treated to sightings in their nests and a male neither of which we experienced in Sumatra. The heavy rain and low cloud obscured any real view of the real Borneo countryside as we drove the long 3-4 hours to Batang Ai, our Longhouse for the night. Stops at Serian to take on provisions and another small settlement for lunch gave us a chance to sample some local goodies.Although it is understandable that interesting places are often hard to reach this was another long day's journey for us and, with the fairly well developed settlements along the highway, we started to feel that this might not be all it was cracked up to be.However, things started to look up when stopped at the side of the fast flowing and very muddy Lemanak River, and saw the very narrow longboat we had to get into.Soon, we were zooming up-river narrowly avoiding fallen trees, rocks etc on our way to the authentic Iban Longhouse at Batang Ai where we were to stay the night. There were only a 2-3 kids hanging around when we arrived but soon a couple of women turned up to greet us and make us a pot of tea. And it wasn't long before some young teenage lads turned up to show off their tattoos (a part of Iban culture which they do themselves), while some younger lads appeared and entertained us with a game of football - sliding tackles were the order of the day on the muddy bit of ground which passed for a pitch. Andrew then took us up to the Longhouse where sat in the communal area having a blether with a few more of the Iban people. Behind the communal area are the private family rooms.We were surprised to learn that the Longhouse houses as many as 250 people, all part of the same extended family.This was totally different to what we'd expected, which was a village of few Longhouses each housing just a few people.But the Longhouse system is that when a member of the family gets married they simply extend out the side and it becomes a Long(er)house! Whilst they do have electricity (run from a generator) they don't have TV or radio and they bathe and do their washing in the river.We, along with Andrew and Piee, were to spend the night in the communal sleeping area in the guest house complex, which also comprised a large open air eating area, a kitchen and a toilet/shower block. Andrew, with the help of the women cooked up a storm and presented us with a typical Iban meal consisting of jungle vegetables, sautéed chicken and rice - very tasty. After dinner we went back up to the Longhouse for an evening's entertainment. The communal area had been strewn with rattan mats for us all to sit on and we were invited to sit down with the Chief and some of the members of the committee to drink homemade rice wine and rice whisky - very potent stuff!We were then treated to a display of traditional Iban dancing which, although more simple and less stylised, is quite similar to the traditional dancing we've seen elsewhere in SE Asia (eg Cambodia, Bali).The Iban people seem to be very creative and skilled, for instance they do basket weaving, wood carving, make jewellery etc and much to our embarrassment, as soon as the dancing was over many of them lined up and down both sides of the house displaying their goods and hoping for a sale.We asked Andrew to explain our situation and apologise that we couldn't buy anything (although we had brought in presents of jotters, pencils and sweets for the kids).However, face was saved when it was decided we should buy a couple of bottles of their home brew, which we promptly shared around and which led to an even jollier evening of chat.One chap Ken, who teaches Malay at the 'local' school (where the kids have to be weekly boarders because it is impossible to travel daily) had been drowning his sorrows because not only had he lost 400 Ringits (at about £62 a huge sum for him) on c*** fighting, but he'd also lost his cockerel.We spent a reasonably comfortable night in our section of the 'dorm', which even had a mosquito net, and woke to a fine morning - first time we've seen the sun since we arrived in Sarawak.After a slap up breakfast of fried rice, beans, French toast, fried eggs, bread and coconut jam we were a bit dismayed to learn that a c*** fight would be put on for us. However, we were assured that it would only be a short demonstration and no spurs would be used.Thankfully that was the case but it was still a pretty violent affair and not one we'd care to see again.The next event was much more fun - a display of the blowpipe which the Iban people still use to hunt wild boar, deer etc.E & M both had a go and it was much easier to send the dart flying than we'd thought it would be.It wasn't, however, quite so easy to hit the target, although after some practice E did get one bull's eye!Unfortunately because of all the rain recently we had to miss out on the walk through the jungle as it was too muddy and slippery underfoot, so we decided to head back earlier than planned.It had been really interesting to meet the Iban people and see how they live their lives.Although they have the benefit of some modern conveniences (outboard motors, electricity and even 1 or 2 cars) they still genuinely live in much the same way that they have for centuries, albeit that thankfully they have given up head hunting! But we were happy enough to get back to Kuching a bit earlier as it's now likely that we'll be able to fit in a visit to Bako National Park in the morning before we fly to Kota Kinabalu in the afternoon - so we have much to do to get ready for a 7 am start tomorrow morning.
Although E had 'celebrated' an early birthday at Mozaic in Bali we managed to mark the actual day with a couple of cocktails and a bite to eat in Kuching. E enjoyed receiving all his birthday greetings from family and some new-found friends. It was dark and raining when we woke before 6am.But thankfully we'd agreed with Andrew from Matahari Tours that he check the weather situation with Bako and call us at 6.30 to confirm. While we were having breakfast we received the call that, although it was drizzling in the National Park, the trip was on.Joined by Stewart (who turned out to be a typical Aussie) we headed for the Bako jetty for the boat to the Park.Boat is the only way to access the Park and the 20 minute trip took us down the Sarawak River into the wide mouth of the estuary where it meets the South China Sea. As it was low tide the river was extremely shallow and it was quite exhilarating riding the waves. As the tide was so far out we had to roll up our trousers, take off our shoes and jump over the side of the boat to wade ashore. This is crocodile country, and shark infested waters, so we were keeping an eagle eye open as we made our way up the wide expanse of shoreline.Although the weather wasn't bright it was really uplifting to be doing this on our last day here in Sarawak. Our target was a couple of hours walk through the jungle to another beach around a headland, and hopefully see some of the wildlife for which Bako is renowned. Hardly had we started along the track when we were really lucky to come across a troupe of Proboscis Monkeys.This was the first time we'd seen these in the wild (in fact not sure we've ever seen them before at all) and we were enthralled to watch them feeding and leaping about the trees.They are very facially distinctive with their large noses (particularly the males) and very handsome with their auburn hair and long pale grey tail.It was a really good walk through the jungle and although we didn't see much more in the way of wildlife other than some Macaque Monkeys and a few birds, Andrew pointed out various plants, flowers and trees of interest.It was really humid and steamy and we certainly knew we were in Borneo.We would really recommend to anyone coming to this area to contact Matahari Tours www.mataharitours.com who do a range of day and longer tours around Sarawak.We found them very helpful and, more importantly, flexible to tailor arrangements to suit our needs.
E M xx