Primal stream

A journey on a paddle steamer into the heart of Borneo affords a privileged glimpse of a remote culture and precious rainforest – home to the unforgettable orang-utan. Peter Hughes reports.

The Orient Pandaw weighs anchor at dawn before heading up a tributary of Borneo’s River Rajang.
The Orient Pandaw weighs anchor at dawn before heading up a tributary of Borneo’s River Rajang. | Image: Brent T Madison

The world has just got smaller. Or should that be bigger? I’m not sure. Anyway, in this case, the particular bit of the world that may be smaller or bigger is Borneo.

It was here, on the River Rajang, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, that the gonzo travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon made the first of his forays deep in the realms of discomfort, dysentery and danger. His expedition was memorably chronicled in his book Into the Heart of Borneo. That was in 1983. Last summer – and for the first time – much of the river section of his journey was offered on a cruise. Horizons widened for holidaymakers, but another cranny in the planet was penetrated by the tendrils of tourism.

Dusk in Kuching, capital of Sarawak.
Dusk in Kuching, capital of Sarawak. | Image: Brent T Madison

O’Hanlon and his companion travelled in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor and local trackers; cruise passengers have air-conditioned cabins, en-suite showers and men to clean their shoes should they attract even a speck of mud on sorties ashore. They have bathroom lotions, complimentary cocktails, three meals a day in a breezy restaurant and DVDs in the evening.

The RV (River Vessel) Orient Pandaw may have the accoutrements of a cruise ship but it looks like a colonial pavilion. Verandas, decked out with palms in porcelain planters, are lined by varnished rails where chaps might lean in Edwardian blazers. It has timber decking, green and corrugated tropical metal roofs, and hardwood louvre doors with brass fittings. “A hundred years outta date – wonderful!” exclaimed an Australian passenger as he came aboard. The ship’s appearance puts you in mind of Somerset Maugham, as does its provenance. Orient Pandaw was built in Saigon in 2008, but it comes from a family of river steamers that goes back to the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a naval task force sent to Burma in the 1860s.


The paddle steamers deployed to carry troops soon diversified into cargo and passengers. By the 1930s, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, with its headquarters in Glasgow, was carrying 9m passengers a year in Burma and more than 1m tons of cargo. It operated 600 vessels. But in the second world war the entire fleet was scuttled to prevent it falling into the hands of the Japanese.

After the war, the company was revived. Since 1995, the present owners, still based in Scotland, have first restored and then replicated the old boats to recreate the life of first-class passengers on colonial river steamers. They named them Pandaws after the Burmese for white flower. Besides the Irrawaddy, they cruise on the Mekong and now the Rajang.

An orang-utan at the Sepilok reserve.
An orang-utan at the Sepilok reserve. | Image: Frans Lanting

The river sweeps through a cross-section of Sarawak life – past rainforest, villages and towns. The early traders were Chinese. In Sibu there is a tall pagoda and Taoist temple; in Sibu market, lines of prospective Peking ducks sit, with yogic patience, rolled in newspapers to stop them wandering off. Downstream, Sarikei is a Chinatown: Wan Lee sells hardware; Hui Chung Tong dispenses medicines and Loon Hu has given his name to the Body Building Association. We shared the river with tugs and small freighters; family sampans – here called canoes – and long, growling express boats that looked like hydrofoils. We took one up to the Pelagus Rapids, where O’Hanlon left the river to trek inland. The boat was air conditioned to refrigeration point and played a violent American movie on its TV.

All along the river there was evidence of logging. Riverbank depots screeched and droned with all the plant of industrialised timber extraction – sawmills, cranes and heavy, log-grabbing tractors. Piles of trees from all over Sarawak awaited transportation downstream on barges and in massive 150m-long rafts, hauled by tugs.

The Taoist Tua Pek Kong temple in Sibu, Sarawak, has a seven-storey pagoda.
The Taoist Tua Pek Kong temple in Sibu, Sarawak, has a seven-storey pagoda. | Image: Alamy

In our week on the water we visited a school and a sago mill and a rubber plantation; we sampled the unique palm wine called ijok. It ferments in the branch, is drawn straight from the tree and must be drunk within 24 hours. It’s mildly alcoholic, cloudy, slightly fizzy and faintly woody. We, and our ship, were objects of endless curiosity to local villagers. Invariably equipped with digital cameras, they took more pictures of us than we did of them.

We visited Fort Sylvia, a relic of the era when the Brooke family, aka the White Rajahs, ruled Sarawak. Now a museum, it was built at Kapit in 1880 to protect the tribes upstream from the ferocious Iban. On the same day we met some unferocious Iban in a traditional longhouse. Longhouses are horizontal apartment blocks, the apartments being referred to as “doors”. There need to be at least 20 for their occupants to qualify for a number of benefits including free education, health care and subsidies for farming.

Rattan chairs and potted palms evoke the Orient Pandaw’s colonial heritage.
Rattan chairs and potted palms evoke the Orient Pandaw’s colonial heritage. | Image: Brent T Madison

The Rumah Bundong longhouse is the same age as Fort Sylvia. Roofed in rusting tin and built of timber, it is as battered and patched as any other 130-year-old wooden shack. Except it’s huge. It looks like an enormous tree house or, rather, a whole terrace of tree houses, 200m long and buried in jungle. It has a population of 400 – an extended Swiss Family Robinson. The whole structure is raised some 10m off the ground on a forest of piles and is reached by a dipping suspension bridge just wide enough for someone to push a bike.

It has 56 doors. They lead off a dimly lit arcade, decked with broken planks. It has a letterbox, public phone and noticeboards. But in the middle of the thoroughfare, where in England there might stand a war memorial, a grim collection of human skulls dangles from the rafters. They have prime position, a dozen of them, clumped together in a net of vines, like beach balls at a seaside shop. Beside them is a sign: “Please donate 5RM [91p] to our spirits and soul.” To be on the safe side, I did.

Kuching City, Sarawak, Borneo.
Kuching City, Sarawak, Borneo. | Image: Brent T Madison

The Iban people were, until a century ago, among Borneo’s most dedicated headhunters. Their trophies – once important emblems of male initiation, and still held to possess great beneficial power – are preserved with a mixture of pride and awe. In the neighbouring state of Sabah I met an urbane cabinet minister, who spoke as blithely about the eight skulls in his village as he did about his appreciation of Australian shiraz.

Appeasing the spirits is a constant concern. The longhouse chief spread rattan mats on the floor to perform an elaborate offering to gain the spirits’ approval of our visit. It involved passing bowls of raw egg, and intricately arranging a plate of rice, eggs, cigarettes and cups of tuak rice wine. O’Hanlon described an identical ceremony at the outset of his journey.

Human skulls hang at the entrance to a longhouse near Kapit.
Human skulls hang at the entrance to a longhouse near Kapit. | Image: Brent T Madison

Planted on the bow of the Orient Pandaw was a bamboo pole whose top was splayed into a basket and covered with a red cloth. It too was for offerings. Before the first cruise the ship was blessed by an Iban traditional doctor. Eggs and a chicken were deposited in the basket for the river spirits. “It got a little bit smelly, so we had to remove them,” explained the captain, Sean Whalley, who used to be first officer on the QE2. Now he was taking time out from his current “day job” as commander of a Falklands fisheries protection vessel. Captain Whalley was as new to the river as the rest of us. I was curious to know if there were any “rules of the road”. “It was one of the first questions I asked, and I am still not sure what the answer is,” he told me. “At least here you know there is someone on watch, whereas at sea they may all be downstairs watching TV.” And something else I had been pondering: how do you stop a log raft? Captain Whalley gave a rueful smile: “It’s a question I ask myself every day.”

This was an early cruise, and there was a sense that some of the shore trips were being made up as we went along. We were supposed to visit a timber yard, instead we gatecrashed a party in a community hall celebrating the fact that the village of Rajang had reached the finals of the best-kept village competition. There were coffee and cakes at the door and dancing on a floor marked out for volleyball. To the villagers’ delight, the less-inhibited passengers joined in. So far it could have been Sussex. But the dance troupe, all women, made no contact with one another, and their accompaniment was a clanging, five-piece percussion band of drums and gongs. I wondered how long the novelty of foreigners trooping off the boat would last in some of these places, how long the spontaneity of the locals’ hospitality would survive.

A Chinese temple in Sibu, a port on the Rajang river.
A Chinese temple in Sibu, a port on the Rajang river. | Image: Robert Francis/

The attractions of the Rajang are all to do with people. On my cruise, little wildlife was to be seen. About the closest we came to nature was the tambourine rattle of cicadas along the river bank.

In Sabah, Malaysia’s other state in Borneo, it was different. Here, on the island’s second major river, the Kinabatangan, the situation was reversed. Human society was more evolved but the river quivered with animal life. In one day I saw proboscis monkeys and pygmy elephants, both endemic to Borneo, long-tailed macaques, langurs and squadrons of birds – kingfishers, eagles, kites, storks, broadbills, darters and hornbills.

Fort Sylvia in Kapit was built to stop battling ethnic groups in the 19th century.
Fort Sylvia in Kapit was built to stop battling ethnic groups in the 19th century. | Image: Brent T Madison

Such biodiversity belies the fact that many of these species are in danger of extinction. The proboscis monkey, whose males look like bibulous clubmen, long accustomed to plunging their noses into well-swirled glasses of fine claret, are down to their last 6,000, and the Borneo elephant, a two-thirds scale model of the Asian elephant, is more threatened still – there are only 1,000 left. But of all Borneo’s mammals the most famously endangered is the orang-utan.

To see an orang-utan anywhere is to catch sight of ourselves. In Malay, orang-utan means “man of the forest”; they share 97 per cent of our DNA. To see one in the wild is, simultaneously, a glimpse of our species at the dawn of its existence, and a vision of its extinction. In Sabah alone, 90 per cent of the population has been lost – 50 per cent in the past 20 years – with some 11,000 surviving in the wild. The easiest sightings are to be had at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre near the fishing port of Sandakan, where around 80 apes have the run of 43sq km of natural forest. Twice a day those not foraging for themselves swing by to guzzle bananas in front of an audience. But I also saw one in the wild, and that is harder.


I travelled to Sabah with representatives of the World Land Trust, a dynamic charity that raises money for local organisations to purchase rainforest, not simply to save carbon-sucking trees, but to rescue habitat. In Borneo the threat comes from logging and agriculture, in particular hugely profitable oil-palm plantations. The oil-palm crop now covers almost a fifth of the state, and returns more than 30 times as much in taxation than timber.

By buying up tiny blocks of land that lie along the Kinabatangan river, WLT has helped secure a passage of jungle between virgin forest in the hills upstream and a wildlife sanctuary on the coast. Without this crucial corridor, which is intended to become a new, 26,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary, animals would be condemned to exist in isolated and ultimately sterile colonies.

“Habitat fragmentation is one of the major threats to the long-term survival of the orang-utan,” says Marc Ancrenaz, co-founder and scientific director of HUTAN, a French NGO dedicated to the apes’ survival. “In Sabah there is still a lot of biodiversity living in small patches of forest,” he explained. “So it is now a race against time to make sure we can reconnect the areas where there is wildlife before it becomes extinct.”

Besides studying the orang-utan, 1,000 of whom live along the Kinabatangan, HUTAN has set up a tourism enterprise called Red Ape Encounters. Profits from staying in village homes and a small eco-lodge will all return to the community. One of their guides took me into the forest to find a great ape. We donned Wellingtons and calico leech socks tied at the calf, and from our landing at a log jetty on the bank picked our way through light undergrowth along a faint track, our shirts sodden with sweat. The ground was slippery. In places, where wild pigs had wallowed, our boots sank so deep in mud they could only be extracted by another person tugging.

I picked a leech off my fingers. Two of HUTAN’s researchers had gone ahead. Normally they track orang-utans around the clock, but last night a herd of elephants had forced them to withdraw to their camp.

After an hour we stopped at a tall ficus tree. The guides whispered and pointed to the forest canopy. Above us, sitting in the nest she had woven from the treetop and solemnly munching its fruit, was Jenny, a 30-year-old orang-utan, and her three-year-old baby Mallotus. If there was enough to eat they might stay there for the next three days; they would stay together for perhaps the next four years.

For a moment life was as it should be, the balance of nature upended. Man, for once, was a passive visitor to the animal realm and had come in wonder. It was not a sentiment shared by Mallotus, who began throwing sticks at us. As Borneo becomes more accessible, is it made bigger or smaller? For Jenny and Mallotus, it’s a no-brainer: their world gets smaller by the day.

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