Borneo: Where the wild things are

Travelling Well | Words: Clare Barry | Photos: David Bristow | Posted on 16 October 2018

Surrounded by natural wonders, the colourful city of Kuching offers visitors a Borneo bonanza. 

The air is singing, a friendly a cappella of frog, owl and cricket. There's the odd discordant thump as 20 or so humans tread less than lightly on a wonky wooden boardwalk in the dark. Our guide asks us to “Please slow your volume” as he zeroes in on the tiniest of brown frogs on a fat leaf beside the path.

We’re on a night walk in Sarawak’s Bako National Park and he has us hooked with some impressive early form – a poisonous green pit viper folded and still on a branch out the back of the cafeteria, a glossy black scorpion half in, half out of its lair, a civet cat – the one whose dung is pored over for coffee beans brewed into $50-a-shot coffee – high in the jungle canopy. Ninety minutes later we’ve disturbed the peace of two flying lemurs, assorted stick insects, sharp black spiders, catfish resting under a bridge and – my favourite – paired black swiftlets stuffed head first into pouch nests, their folded tail feathers making strange black ruffs on a torch-lit cave wall.

Slow is good, and the jungle rewards gentleness.
Bako National Park

Bako National Park.

Bako is just an hour on a bus plus a short motorboat ride from Sarawak’s languid capital Kuching, but stepping off the boat here feels like a search for King Kong. Walls of rock crowd the beach, bristling with green, it’s hot and it’s humming.

We’re staying just a night and while the accommodation is basic, some pretty ostentatious nature makes up for it with bearded boar, monitor lizards and feathery black squirrels outside our door. An afternoon trek takes us into the green and we’re quickly breathless in the heavy heat. But slow is good, and the jungle rewards gentleness. Quietly now and a famed and rare proboscis monkey and baby are a flash of ginger fur high above our heads.

Sarawak is a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, which it shares with sister state Sabah, tiny Brunei and, in the south, Indonesian Kalimantan. A trip to Borneo might sound adventurous, but if you base yourself in charming Kuching you can combine the laziest of holidays with hour-away day trips to matchless combinations of beasts and beauty. It feels like cheating.

We walk a jungle track down and down past stingless bees and strangling figs to a perfect cascading waterfall.

We intend to take a ferry up river but manage to run out of time, and we don’t bother to chase the humongous and short-lived rafflesia plant that might or might not be flowering in Gunung Gading National Park. Instead we laze by our saltwater pool, take in a slow sunset from a low-slung wooden boat on the Sarawak River, wander backstreet shop houses, and hire a car to chug out of town every second day or so.

The orangutans of Semenggoh Wildlife Centre are 20 kilometres south of Kuching, and some hang just metres from us behind a low rope fence as we arrive. Here offspring of rescued adults are raised in the semi-wild, gently monitored and free to feed at twice-a-day sessions attended by the likes of us.

Four or five descend from the trees for the keeper’s fruit, a mother and Fanta-furred tot eyeballing us between pirouettes on parallel ropes.

ape hanging by a tree at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

Just hanging, at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

woman walking past borneo street art which features girl running with birds

Kuching street art.

The creatures at nearby Matang Wildlife Centre have been rescued from captivity, and most are rehabilitated at the centre and taught to fend for themselves before returning to the wild. The animal accommodation at Matang is a little bleak, but we see several kinds of hornbill – the stately bird that graces so many Sarawak souvenirs – along with sun bears, gibbons, orangutans and crocodiles. 

Matang sits within Kubah National Park, where we walk a jungle track down and down past stingless bees and strangling figs to a perfect cascading waterfall with green pools for swimming.

Alongside the lurid tale of a python ingesting five live kittens, the front page discusses upping the number of international flights into Kuching.

The Fairy Cave, about an hour from Kuching, is a trip highlight. An elaborate staircase leads up to a Gaudi-esque rock chamber frothing with the brightest green plants and traced with narrow staircases. There’s just enough light, water and bat poo to make a wonderland.

Back in the city Malaysia’s melting pot is cooking. The Mooncake Festival on Chinese Carpenter Street runs into Harmony Week and we tuck into pork satays at open-air Lau Ya Keng, and trek to Top Spot on the roof of a carpark with hundreds of locals to pick fresh seafood and have it cooked on the spot. 

Four doors down from the Chinese coffin shop on Jalan Bishopgate, Cake Kak Cucur serves us tangy Sarawak laksa, a traditional breakfast dish, in the afternoon, topped with tiny zingy limes from the owners’ garden. 

We leaf through the Borneo Post. Alongside the lurid tale of a python ingesting five live kittens, the front page discusses upping the number of international flights into Kuching. 

Get in before the humans run wild.

close-up of The rare rafflesia flower

The rare rafflesia flower.

view from inside a boat with a man paddling along  the Sarawak River.

On the Sarawak River.

man kneeling down praying at an altar inKuching’s Hong San Si Temple

Kuching’s Hong San Si Temple

While in Kuching

  • Cat people: Felines are quite a thing in Kuching. If they’re your thing too, keep an eye out for cat statues, street art, a fountain and the Cat Museum. Why? ‘Kucing’ in Malay is ‘cat’.
  • Cross over: Putt across the Sarawak River in a wooden tambang. The Orchid Garden on the other side is an hour or two well spent. 
  • Watch it: Find a bench on the Sarawak River promenade and take in the passing parade. After dark the Sarawak State Assembly Building glows like a golden spaceship on the far shore.