– d + g (12 -14 Sept)
We left Bandar for Bangar on a speedboat, weaving through the narrow winding mangrove channels that form the estuary of Sungei Brunei to emerge briefly to skirt the shallow sandbars of Brunei Bay before re-entering the mangrove mazes of Sungei Temburong. Initially Temburong didn’t ring any rusty bells in my head but on the second day in Bandar, I suddenly remembered that this wasn’t my first time in Brunei. The last time I was here, I was a different man, I had no hair, courtesy of certain characters from the School Of Combat Engineers then. I fondly remember the hair-raising (but truly an experience of a lifetime!) helicopter ride that dumped us in the depths of the Temburong jungle to put our topographical skills to the grind. (Han Wee, if you are reading this, I will never forget how dehydrated and near ‘heat-exhausted’ we were after bashing through all that river lalang!) It was great sleeping in my hammock with my uncomplaining wife on top of a ridge with the wind howling on both sides. Well, it was great at least till the oreographic rain came. I had such an unforgettable time there that I decided to revisit it as a civilian with my second and moderately prettier uncomplaining wife.
True to our Brunei-government-hostel-cost-saving-theory, for $30, we found ourselves in a spacious air-conditioned room of a government rest-house, with a TV, fridge and attached bath and not knowing which of the 6 beds to occupy. We watched a Channel News Asia programme about Sungei Buloh and Park Connectors and found out that one of the Kingfishers we saw was a Stork Billed Kingfisher and soon there would be 300km worth of interconnected jogging paths. It was nice to see home again. The great thing about this rest-house were the pleasant makciks who graciously helped us to keep our clothes when the rain came, the giggly Indonesian girls working in the canteen who supplied us with boiled water and the 3 friendly cats of which one chose to make our doormat his permanent bed.
A Hitch and a Heck of a Hike
A man gave us a ride to Bukit Patoi, a 300m high ridge 15km away for $5. We intended to hitch a ride there (after being totally disgusted with the girl manning the tourist information who tried to squeeze $30 from us for transport there and back!) but $5 sounded reasonable for a 15km ride and the heat discouraged us from waiting any longer. The ride was a challenge for my smattering Malay since the chatty driver was determined to ask me a multitude of questions. To buy myself some time, I too, fired my volley of queries and tried hard to make sense of some of his answers. It was a good way to pass the time.
The 5 kilometre trek took us 5 hours and the highlights included a steep sandstone escarpment with an imposing overhang which looked very tempting to a rock-climber, the great views from the summit, several really fat buttresses, some termites nests, a small bat, a huge bug with a hum to match when it flew, interesting fungi, lichens and mushrooms and a huge bird that makes a ‘sawing’ sound when it flies. The forest din of unusual toots and hoots was also audio delight. My favourite leg of the trek was where we had to cross a dry but slippery stream bed near the lip of a waterfall. The view from the slimy moss covered edge to the rocky stream 15 meters below sent my spider-sense tingling once again. The start of the trek was mainly staircase climbing, till we reached the ridgeline where we had to negotiate a mess of moss covered rocks and use roots to haul ourselves up the steeper sections. After being misled by some inaccuracies in the map on our brochure, we found our bearings and continued, over small streams and down 60 degree slopes till we finally saw the water-tanks that marked the end of the trail. A short stroll along a tarred slipway led us beside the main road leading back to Bangar where got ourselves a free ride from a cheerful but unadventurous man from Sarawak within 10 minutes. It was Karen’s second hitch after mine…heh heh heh…to late to turn back now.
On the 25th of September, there is a 15km race of which the route that we just survived is part of. Frankly, the 5 kilometre stretch we trekked along felt like the longest I had ever done! The Bukit Patoi Challenge will be a punishing competition and I hope there will not be any broken legs and ankles especially along the rocky and often slippery sections. The winner gets $2000 and there was already quite a thick stack of sign-ups at the tourist information in Bangar. I think we should have a Bukit Timah Challenge especially since the tracks are comparatively much safer to make life in Singapore a little more exciting.
By the time we reached Bangar, we were pooped. We rested through a long blackout which was rather unexpected in such a developed country. I ventured out with my headlamp to buy 6 perfectly marinated BBQ chicken wings from a roadside stall for our temporary stomach relief. The moment I handed the lady the $5, the lights came on in the tiny town of Bangar.
Something Wrong in Temburong
The Temburong National Park which covers 50,000ha is Brunei’s first. 70% of Brunei is primary forest and the government with its tour package slant is certainly making its forests very inaccessible for budget-conscious backpackers like us (Tourist numbers to Temburong average only 4000 a year). Of the 50,000ha, a ‘generous’ 100ha is open to visitors, The rest is fiercely guarded by the Forestry department. I suppose Brunei does treasure and respect its nature.
The only way into the park is by boat. This monopoly of transport results in a $130 price tag per boat for a 45 minute roundtrip. It’s no wonder why most people surrender to the tour packages. The Temburong experience was in actual fact a complicated decision-making exercise on whether or not to take the $300 tour package. It was a mixture of wisdom and luck that we didn’t.
The boat ride up the shallow rapids of Sungei Belalong is one of the best I have been on. You can see the large rounded rocks beneath the clear and shallow river waters and you do get a kick when the boat shoots up the roaring rapids. In several places, the bottom of the boat probably cleared the riverbed by only a couple of centimetres. In the dry season, where the boat will become a burden, it could take 2 hours to get to the park. The next thing that appealed to me was the isolation. There were hardly any other boats and no other tourists on the meandering river which is flanked by the lush jungle of enormous trees. You must be very lucky to see any wildlife in this part and we were graced with a 2-second flyby of a squadron of 4 hornbills and an extremely brief but close encounter with another enormous bird which we couldn’t identify.
The main attraction in Temburong is a 45m high canopy walk. This massive steel scaffold truly is a canopy walk unlike the one in Macritchie. The panoramic views of the park from here is stunning and there is plenty of opportunity to examine, up close, the epiphytes, insects, lizards, bees and lichens that live on the tree tops as you walk along the narrow 100 metre or so metallic corridor. Looking down at the trunks of the emergent (taller) trees that plunge into the green sea of interlocking crowns is something I have never seen on the lower canopy walks I have been on. We spent about an hour enjoying the pristine surroundings since we had the whole structure to ourselves. The scaffold is minimalistic and can only support TWO persons at one crossing! (It was indeed fortunate that we were the only visitors for the day!) The advantage of this design is that the end result is not very bulky thus minimising the damage to the forest floor. The scaffold was hand-carried piece by piece up 1226 steps to its present location! Unlike the suspension bridge in Macritchie, the views here are unobstructed since only a few steel cables are needed to stabilise the relatively light structure.
Along the wooden stairway up to the canopy walk are well-written informative signboards that did a better job than our friendly guide from the forestry department who was already panting even before the halfway point. I saw a strange bug and a snail from hell (See photos). One which got away was a beautiful giant ant with a metallic gold sheen. It scurried so frantically that I would need a Nikon D2X to get a decent shot of it. There weren’t any birds to be seen from the canopy despite the late morning shower. Some would have been the icing on the cake.
We visited the mildly interesting information centre before heading back. What we found more amusing were the 8 or so employees of the Forestry Department busy playing carom and checkers beside the entrance while 2 half-naked ones were manning in the office. Not a bad job for $900 a month eh? I wanted to get a shot at these men ‘at work’ but naturally they weren’t too keen. In the visitor’s centre, there were models of tree-houses, an observation tower and a riverside campsite in the park. I hope these creative gems will be made accessible to tourists soon to give us a better run for our money.
Another dramatic story involves 4 Americans who tried to cross the suspension bridge that linked the information centre to the canopy walk in 2003. The sign beside the 109m bridge said that the maximum load was 5 persons. These guys must be amongst the world’s top Macdonald’s-‘I’m lovin it’-let’s-upsize-ourselves fans for the ropes snapped under their collective weight, sending 2 of them into the river below…and I did mention that the water was very shallow. Unfortunately for them, the Indiana Jones miracle did not happen and all were sent to hospital for injuries. The next time I cross an overhead bridge back home, I’ll be more careful. A new bridge is currently being constructed and this one’s looks a little more promising.
The brochure of Temburong National Park is deceptive. In it still exists the suspension bridge which was gone 2 years ago and a boardwalk that lead past the canopy to a waterfall. When we got there, the guide told us that that part was out of bounds. Thank goodness, we did not take the tour or we would have nothing to do at the park except a spot of tubing and rafting which had no relation to the jungle itself. As I parted with my 130 bucks I said to the boatman, ‘That’s easy money’. He smiled sheepishly.
As our ancient taxi turned into Bangar, I gawked through the dirty windscreen, at the biggest and meanest storm cloud I had ever seen. It was looming behind a mosque and for a moment, it looked as if Katrina came knocking on Brunei’s door. A timely two second stop at a T-junction enabled me to capture the tempest for you. Clouds of this magnitude just do not seem to exist back home. I paid the encik $30, muttered a quick ‘terima kasih’ and fled for shelter as someone up there started to shed some really juicy tears. It was probably not a good time to be tubing down Sungei Temburong…
One hour later, we were in another encik’s ‘lao pok chia’, again fleeing, not from the rain but from this dollar-sapping country to Sarawak where prices are saner.
*It is quite interesting how taxis seem to be operated by old men using their old cars. Perhaps it is a kind of post-retirement initiative in Bangar. Coincidentally, both boots would not stay up when opened and had to be supported by wooden poles. Both enciks were also equally patient and amicable.
*The other rare weather phenomena I was fortunate enough to enjoy was in Semporna (Sabah) on the night we took the Freezer Express to KK. There was a storm raging in the distance and many forks of lightning were streaking down. There was one particularly fork which did a long, horizontal and almost deliberate streak across the distant night sky! I don’t about you but I have never seen lightning go in that direction. Karen missed this divine moment too. She was tending to her own storm in the toilet. Sigh…another moment of Nature’s magic! Lightning does travel a little faster than storm clouds so no photo for this one.