Learning the rules of the rainforest in Borneo

In Borneo's Batang Ai National Park, the Iban tribe share their ancestral knowledge of the 140-million-year-old rainforest they call home — and help to track down its most famous inhabitant: the orangutan.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 6 Sept 2018, 16:00 BST
Batang Ai lies around 150 miles southeast of the Kuching. This protected, 10sq mile park is ...

Batang Ai lies around 150 miles southeast of the Kuching. This protected, 10sq mile park is one of only two places still home to the Iban.

Photograph by Getty Images

I have ants in my pants. Fire ants to be precise.

"Owwwweee," I bellow, leaping off the rotting log I'd been resting on and sprinting to a nearby stream. A burning pain is coursing through my thighs, flames are creeping up my backside, and all I can think to do is submerge myself in water; to put out the fire these tiny bugs have ignited.

After wallowing — literally and mentally — in the shallows for a few minutes, I rejoin my group: my grinning guide, Kajan, and three members of the Iban tribe. I'd arrived the evening before, the clamour of Kuching (the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak) left far behind me. It was the final night of their annual Gawai Dayak (harvest) festival and they'd each consumed enough rice wine to irrigate a small field. Today though, we've left their longhouse home behind and plunged into the jungle, and despite what must be monstrous hangovers, they're faring much better than me.

The Iban tribe have eked out their existence in the backwoods of Batang Ai for centuries, their symbiotic relationship with the natural world one of respect and understanding. It's that world I'm seeking an insight to — and into these people who call the jungle home.

Once, all of Borneo was a vast 140-million-year-old rainforest, but while the modern world eats away at Mother Nature, Batang Ai remains one of her strongholds. Around 150 miles southeast of the Kuching, this protected, 10sq mile park is one of only two places still home to the Iban.

We walk on. Leaves the size of four-year-old children float slowly down from the furling canopy, the enormous wings of a swallowtail butterfly sound like the drone of a small plane, and bullet ants an inch long scuttle purposefully across our path. This is nature on steroids.

The butterflies' hum is joined by the gecko's witchy cackle, the shrill, boiling-kettle whistle of the cicada and tweets, chirrups and coos of other heard-but-not-seen birds. Together, they form a deafening crescendo of all that's fiercely, potently alive.

It's a long held Iban belief the spirits of loved ones live on in orangutans. 

Getty Images Getty Images

Muntai, wiry and sharp-elbowed, with a wonderfully solemn face, leads us out into a stream. His knowledge of the forest is unparalleled, I'm told, and he strides ahead, sure-footed as a mountain goat while I stumble in his wake. Behind me, Kajan roars with laughter, "You look drunk, Charlotte!"

From the river, the jungle seems impenetrable. Vine-like lianas trail their long limbs in the water, while kingfishers flit from tree to tree, flashes of blue among an endless wall of green. At points, the canopy closes above our heads and we splash along in semi-darkness before emerging suddenly into blinding sunlight.

"How do you know so much about the forest?" I ask Muntai, finally catching up with the group. Dali, the youngest and quietest, with dark soulful eyes, has stopped to retrieve his fishing rod from his backpack, whipping it into the water with a deft flick of the wrist. From then on it's an almost permanent fixture in his hand, a bag of rasbora fish hanging from his belt.

"I eat everything," he replies casually, "I've been poisoned many times, but I learn." "He's almost died three times!" pipes up Rantau, the eldest member of the group. Muntai simply shrugs. "Now I know every plant, every tree. I love being in the forest — you see so much, experience so much."

An hour later at our makeshift camp, I see what Muntai means — a leech the length of my finger has managed to slime its way up my top. As I go to pull it off, it performs an incredible feat of acrobatics, flipping over to sucker onto my stomach further down. We play this bizarre game of slinky until mild panic about how low it's getting gives me extra strength and I yank it off once and for all.

Watching blood run in crimson rivulets down my stomach, I find myself simultaneously repulsed and elated. This is no mere taster course — I've dived headfirst into the very depths of Borneo's jungle.

In search of the red ape

That afternoon, as we sit around the roughly hewn camp table sipping cups of tea, Muntai seems determined to give me a real taste of the rainforest. Having disappeared into the trees moments before, he now returns cradling an astonishing selection of plant life. "Like this," he gestures, folding up a leaf and popping it whole into his mouth.

We munch our way through a pale green osabi plant, a tough galangal leaf, and some wild guava Muntai obtains by shimmying about 160ft up the poker-straight trunk of a jambu tree. By the time this impromptu afternoon tea is over, the light has faded and the guys jump to their feet. Frogging time.

If I looked drunk in daylight, I'm two bottles of wine down when we head back out into the water. With only my budget torch to guide me, I career from one side of the stream to the other, at one point finding myself on my bum, baffled as to how I got there. Overhead, fireflies buzz lazily past, their flashes seeming like half-hearted distress signals.

Our efforts are rewarded, however. Kajan points out a dwarf litter frog no bigger than a kidney bean, a mating pair of luminous white-lipped tree frogs, and the knobbly spine of a slender toad. The guys, meanwhile have caught 20 giant river frogs.

"Not bad," Rantai acknowledges, "although when I was young and fit I could catch more than 100 in one night." The slimy croakers become a midnight feast back at camp, stewed with copious amounts of lemongrass, ginger and chilli, and washed down with a mug of rice wine that we down in one — a tradition, I'm assured.

“The trek takes us about 1,000ft above sea level, where views stretch out across a blanket of forest. The trees seem so infinite it's hard to imagine this reserve is just one tiny, protected portion of what was once 287,000sq miles of jungle.”

It's peaceful, sleepy scenes like this that must keep the Iban from seeking out a city living I wonder aloud, as we lie on our backs and stare at the stars. "Nah, it's the women," Dali scoffs, before Muntai turns to me seriously: "I love the orangutans. They make me happy, as if my ancestors are watching over me."

That the spirits of loved ones live on in the animals of the rainforest is a long-held Iban belief, and despite many converting to Christianity, it's one that's remained. Orangutans are sacred here. And so the next day, we leave Dali and Rantau to their fishing and set out in search of the red ape.

Often the terrain is so steep it's all-four-limbs kind of work. At one point I slide quite spectacularly down a mud bank, my fingers scrabbling frantically for purchase until a vine comes to my rescue. Muntai, however, seems so completely in control that I have to ask: "Do you obey the forest, or does the forest obey you?" There's no hesitation, "The forest is boss, but I follow its rules. If you respect the forest, then the forest respects you." "So no bad experiences?" "None. It's my home; I'm completely safe here."

I decide against questioning whether being poisoned three times wouldn't class as 'bad'; he's found a yellow-rimmed nest of tiny stingless bees and is clearly engrossed.

The trek takes us about 1,000ft above sea level, where views stretch out across a blanket of forest. The trees seem so infinite it's hard to imagine this reserve is just one tiny, protected portion of what was once 287,000sq miles of jungle. We then plunge back into darkness and down to stream level, where lesser bamboo bats dive and swoop back into their mud bank caves.

And then, just as I was becoming complacent, Muntai pauses, scanning the treetops in fraught anticipation. We freeze. Watching, waiting. Suddenly, an orangutan swings into view, his hairy body as supple as plasticine, his face almost human. He's as fascinated by us as we are in him. Or so I think.

"Run!" Kajan yells, and we sprint upstream as a branch as long as my leg is hurled from the canopy. Romantic notions of my bonding with a wild orangutan well and truly banished, I look up again. He's hanging upside down now, staring at us — beside himself with fury.

"He's defending his territory," Kajan explains. "Wait, he'll aim better next time." Sure enough, the next branch smacks the water not five feet from where we're standing. After 20 minutes of relentless bombardment, we're subjected to one last punishing stare before he swings off, leaving us surrounded by the carnage of his jungle warfare. We pause to reflect: "That strength!" "Those acrobatics!"

But maybe it's Muntai's influence — or perhaps the pants — I'm itching to get going. I want to see more; experience more. And so, like the fire ants, we march on, the jungle swallowing us up once more.


Getting there & around
Malaysia Airlines flies from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Kuching.
Average flight time: 16h

When to go
April to September are drier with temperatures around 27-30C, though showers can occur at any time and humidity can reach 90%.

How to do it
Borneo Adventure offers trips to Batang Ai to visit the Iban tribe at Nanga Sumpa Lodge and explore the surrounding jungle. Stays include all meals and start from £250 per person.


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