The Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, (the only jungle hotel managed by the Hilton chain) has been built in the same shape as the local, traditional longhouses and when I arrive I have a quick dip in the pool then spend some time reading and relaxing in the sun – for the first time since I arrive in this magical country.
When I look back on my first trip to Malaysia (99) I’m amazed that I’d thought it would be slightly uninteresting, that it would have been just another colonised country: not so. The planned two weeks turned into three months and Malaysia remains my favourite Asian country – and so far, this first visit to the eastern part of the country is living up to my now high expectations.
Malaysian Borneo, and here in Sarawak, it’s different to the Peninsula, especially the population – a common saying in Asia is ‘same-same but different’ and that applies here too. With a mix of some 200 indigenous groups – collectively called Dayaks – form about 50% of the people in Sabah and Sarawak with 26% Chinese and 24% Malay making up the rest. This means the religions followed are diverse too and, despite Islam being the state religion, it is in fact, the smallest numerically in these two states.
Signs around the resort introduce us to the resorts Resident Mascot – geckos – and suggest we try counting their Resident Little Helpers – fruit bats. They remind us the geckos eat mosquitos and the fruit bats, flying around both night and day, not only clean up fallen fruit but are also help disperse the seeds, an essential part in keeping the forest alive with birds and animals.
The treetop nature walk I’ve signed up for sounds interesting. I’ve only glimpsed a couple of hornbills in this ‘Land of the Hornbill’ and maybe being in the treetops I’ll get lucky, so meet the guide and a few other guests at the front desk late afternoon.
We set off at a speed with little talk about what we’re seeing and before long we start climbing. I’m not the only one who needs to pauses to catch my breath. Partway up the hill we stop at a grave where we are harangued by our guide about local history – I’m sure he’s right but his enthusiasm gets in the way of it being a useful learning experience. He is an Iban (pronounced ee-ban) the largest of the Dayak tribes and concludes by telling us they are still head hunters and shows us a jar of offerings with coins and one-ringgit notes in it, ‘see this chief still collects heads.’ We secretly raise eyebrows at each other or give wry smiles and continue up the hill, grateful we’d had a stop, allowing us to cool down, drink water, and get our breath back.
And then I saw it. It had not featured in my mind that it was a swing bridge that was putting us among the treetops: I have a fear of heights, we are three-quarters along our walk, and there is no going back.
The first little group goes first and just watching them stop to take photos of each other and of the scenery has the adrenaline pumping through my body despite the encouragement of the others who will cross with me. I grab all the courage I can muster and set off, slowly, griping the sides as I can , running my hands along the wire rope and every few steps having to let go as I passed another wire upright that’s somehow holding this structure up. If it breaks, I tell myself, keep clutching the wire and that will break your fall. As if!
Step by painful step I cross the 130 metres (142 yards) heart in mouth – if there were horn-bills to be seen, I didn’t see any, I wasn’t looking. Fearful I would fall through the spaces in the bridge, I just kept a tight hold, kept breathing, and moving, until I got to the other side.
This jungle walk was scary as – and my walk downhill, back to the resort for a shower then dinner, was punctuated with deep breathing and slowly, very slowly, my heat-rate evened out, returned to its slow steady pace. Nevertheless, I’m glad I pushed through my fear and, like the Nike Advert – just did it!