I've finally discovered the Borneo I was hoping to experience. Not the river banks scarred by logging and the appallingly decimated rain forests (although I've seen all that too), but real jungle, albeit preserved in a national park at Mulu. As the sun set and I witnessed 3 million bats fly out of a cave in search of food, corkscrewing through the night air to avoid predators, it seemed a world away from modern Malaysia which so far has been a little disappointing.
My attempt to proceed upriver was defeated when I arrived at the port of Sibu by boat from Kuching only to learn that the upper reaches of the Rejang River were unnavigable as the low water levels meant the Pelagus rapids were too dangerous to pass. So I went to Kapit (the furthest town possible) on a day trip and returned to Sibu for another night. Both towns have a little more character than Kuching, but not a lot to do. The river journey is done in a so-called flying coffin, named for its shape rather than its safety record I was happy to find out. But it was a soulless experience in an enclosed cabin, frozen with aircon and a mindless action movie playing at full volume. I hovered in a small area where I could peer outside at the long houses lining the bank. These are traditional dwellings built in a long line, obviously, which promote communal life, although many I saw have been upgraded from wood to bricks and mortar. More alarmingly, I saw many diggers churning up the earth to make more dirt roads into the jungle to transport the logs back to the river. Felled logs lie piled up waiting for transportation. Most buildings seem to be timber merchants.
From Sibu I continued by road to Miri, a dispiriting modern place made rich on oil. Like many places here it's become so rich that all the locals have their own cars and motor bikes which means public transport has dwindled to the extent that getting anywhere is impossible unless you're prepared to be ripped off by taxis. I was stuck in this miserable place for several days waiting for my flight to Mulu National Park. From the air the extent of logging is even more visible, but the protected areas of Mulu stood out.
Mulu is famous for its caves which are enormous and one of them contains the longest underground river in the world. On the first afternoon I walked with a group and guide to Deer Cave and Lang's Cave. They are like huge stadiums or amphitheatres, with enormous stalactites and stalagmites. At dusk we waited for the bats to emerge. I was warned they don't always come out and I was dreading another orang utan no show experience. For an hour there was no sign. There are 3 million of them. Surely a few could put in an appearance I thought. One group got bored waiting and left, and then, two minutes later, the first colony emerged into the darkening sky. They twist and turn in an attempt to prevent themselves becoming dinner for the waiting hawks.
The next day I took a boat trip up a river from whose banks deeply forested hills rise vertiginously. We stopped at Batu Bungan, a Penan village. The people are still hunter gatherers and in Penan society there are no hierarchies, no wealth and no poverty, no private ownership and no sexual inequality. Everything is shared and the greatest transgression is "sihun", which translates as a failure to share. They are dependent on the forest and have fought vociferously against logging. They are also noted for their practice of "molong" which means never taking more than necessary. Pretty much the exact opposite of us, then....
On the last morning before my flight I tried to conquer my fear of heights by going on the canopy walk. This consists of planks of wood and a bit of netting strung between trees 20 or 30 metres above the jungle floor. The views across the tree tops are astonishing, the views down terrifying. I got halfway and had to turn back. But it was exhilarating. From here sadly it's back to city life in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. I'm going to miss the sounds of the jungle especially the almost deafening chirruping of frogs and crickets.