It promised to be a unique journey into some remote difficult-to-access territory that's only recently opened up to tourists. Sapulot is an area deep in the rainforest and is home to the Murut, one of the last tribes in Sabah to renounce headhunting. During the two days I spent in Kota Kinabalu I saw some shrunken heads on display in the Sabah museum.
The only way to reach this part of Borneo is to sign up for a rather expensive tour, but it was worth every penny and the best part was knowing that it's an eco tourism project operated by a local family who are as much concerned with preserving their way of life and environment as welcoming tourists. Sadly, many villagers are selling their land for the sake of a quick buck. The net result is they have no longterm future and the world loses another small patch of jungle. The only ones to profit are the logging and oil palm companies and the corrupt politicians who enable these dodgy deals.
I met my travelling companions for the trip, Rochelle (from the USA) and Mads (Danish), at 6.30am in the car that was to take us to Keningau where we met Richard, our Murut host, who drive us on by 4x4 to his home, the Romol Eco village. In the afternoon when we arrived we went to a small waterfall where we could swim. The trail there passed through an area of leeches, which I've never experienced, but luckily I escaped being bitten. Poor Rochelle had two leeches though.
One of the intriguing things about the trip was that there was no attempt to provide a fake twee experience. This is an authentic view of modern life in the countryside. They have mobile phones, satellite dishes, solar panels and jeeps, but the petrol station consists of two young guys pouring in diesel through a funnel based in a wooden hut. We stayed in a modern longhouse, where families still share space. Richard was passionate about encouraging local people to find more sustainable ways of development and also keen for the young people to stay in touch with their roots. On the first night we watched them perform some traditional dances. Sometimes, these things can feel a little corny, but this was charming. We were also invited to participate in a tricky dance which involved stepping between bamboo poles which were being moved about. The rice wine we had drunk earlier certainly helped!
The next day we had to change our programme as we couldn't reach a camp on the other side of the river due to high water levels. However, the alternative, a boat ride up river to the Indonesian border through fast-moving rapids proved the highlight for me. The waters churned around us and we got pretty soaked. In places it felt like a water chute at a fairground. We stopped for a fabulous picnic lunch on the banks of the river.
The next morning was quite challenging. We were due to climb a tall limestone outcrop, Batu Pungull. We hiked through some dense humid jungle along steep muddy trails which was exhausting. Then I saw that the climb up the rock began with a walk along a ledge with only a rope for support. I left Rochelle and Mads to it. For them it was the highlight, but I was happy to wait by the boat and admire the stunning scenery.
In the afternoon we faced another challenge and this one I was determined to complete. We moved to an amazing camp close to the Pungiton Caves. We would be sleeping in this peaceful lodge with open walls facing the river and jungle, but first the caves beckoned. Unlike those at Mulu, these are completely undeveloped and involve some climbing, as well as wading through underground streams. And they are pitch black. Armed with a good torch and rubber shoes we set off. We saw bats, enormous spiders and extraordinary stalactites. At one point we had to scale a wall using a rope which this time I managed.
Last night we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle and had a spectacular show of lightning across the river. I'm back in Kota Kinabalu for one night before embarking on my final trip of the six months, to see the orang utans in Sepilok and spend another couple of days on a river.