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21 June, 2013

Borneo Ape Trail with Planet Borneo - Part One

The Borneo Ape Trail was something that I heard about since 2012 and have been waiting for a good 6 months to experience this amazing and unique jungle trek and camping adventure in the deep rainforest of Sarawak. Organised by Planet Borneo, this one-of-a-kind tour will bring you back to basics with an experience you will never forget, just like how I have not forgotten about it.

My story about this will be in two parts as it is going to be rather lengthy with the insertion of many photographs taken during the ape trail trek. As some will say, pictures tend to say a thousand words nowadays, therefore I am going to balance this with both words and photos of the Sarawak jungle trek.

Planet Borneo Tours

My journey begins in the city of Kuching which is the capital of Sarawak where Planet Borneo operates a tour company and also a lodge under the same brand name which is called the Planet Borneo Lodge in town. They are the only company here that runs this seven day and six night tour. 

I had just got in from the Ba'kalalan Highlands from another trip exploring this remote part of Sarawak as it too has been high on my must-visit places for many years. I met Mona from Planet Borneo, who is in charge of the trip at the airport where the flight got in late in the afternoon. We went straight to the lodge to check in before heading out to have something to bite in town. 

She took us to a popular spot to have the ever famous Sarawak Kolo Mee but unfortunately, the stall was closed on that day so we settled for second best which is the Sarawak Tomato Noodles. If you have never tried this, I recommend you do when you are in Kuching. So, during our meal, Mona had briefed us about our journey, telling us the pros and cons which was informative. Normally we travel with Timberland trekking shoes but it was advised that we change to the good old 'Adidas Kampungs' as parts of the trek were really tricky. For your added information, the 'Adidas Kampung' translates as Village Adidas shoes. 

The story goes that the local village kids could not afford Adidas shoes therefore local shoe makers came out with a 100% rubber made football boots or slip on shoes. These really cheap shoes (RM12 a pair) are the ultimate grip in any condition and it has been proven many times. Even jungle rangers I have met in Borneo over the years swear by them. So, no two ways about this, we got ourselves a pair of these. A quick walk around the town and we were back to the lodge for our much needed rest. 

The Planet Borneo Lodge offers dormitory style rooms and also two family style rooms which are all air conditioned. The place is surrounded by a lush garden and one portion houses a dip pool with a lazy area for those who want to relax. Inside, there is a full serviced kitchen, lockers, dryers and also a lounge area with satellite television and computers. It is also a ten minute walk into the heart of Kuching so location wise, it is pretty quiet and yet convenient. In the morning, we had our quick simple breakfast at the lodge before making our journey to pick up a friend from the tourism board who was also going with us. Mind you the total journey to Batang Ai Dam takes about five hours by using the PAN Borneo Highway. From the dam, it will take us another two hours by a local long boat to the start of the trek. So it was a long day for us. 

During the journey, we would be making two stops along the way where our first stop was at the town of Serian where we will taste a typical Malaysian breakfast of Roti Canai and coffee or tea. Serian is one of the main towns out of Kuching which reminds me of the old towns that have not changed much. The overall charm captivates me as I explore the markets while the group looks for some last minute necessities for our camping trip.



At the local Serian market, I see lots of traditional herbs and remedies being sold by the old folk here. Pepper roots are sold by the bunches while at another stall, tiger bamboo is available by the bunches. Local fruits that are not recognized by me catch my eye as I continue scanning the products and finally, I notice a kind of root or bark that is rolled up and in brownish copper. Asking about this, it is actually a special tree bark that is used to keep mosquito's away when you burn it at night. Finally we head over to a local coffee shop to try another local Sarawakian popular dish here.

Kolok Mee in Serian

Yes, my lucky day as it was Kolo Mee and Serian style too! Without hesitation, my order was placed together with the special three layered ice coffee. As far as taste is concerned, this was awesome! Much better than the many other I have tried around Sarawak, not the best but it was great. The texture was perfect and the sauce used was well balanced. So with a full and satisfied stomach, we got back into the van and continued our journey.

Sidewalk vendors at Lachau Town

When you have a full and satisfied stomach, the next thing that comes to mind is sleep. And so I slept. I woke up as we arrived at our next stop, a very small town which serves as a local Iban trading post called Lachau. The Ibans are the indigenous people of Sarawak and Borneo where they were once known as fierce headhunters. These days, they are common farmers and skilled carvers who churn out beautiful woodwork in the form of parangs (swords), shields, masks and statues.

Ants nests used as medicine

So at Lachau, you can find many Ibans who come here to trade their wares while there is an interesting sidewalk market selling all sorts of local fruit and wares. Among them are the unique fruits found in the region which look rather odd. Some of the weird things I came across are ants nest which are said to cure high blood pressure and diabetes and a few wild boar legs. After this odd experience, we settled down at one of the local coffee shops to have a drink before making our way to Batang Ai Dam.

Wild Boar legs sold at Lachau

Lachau Town

The journey was already half way and for the rest of the journey, I witnessed local village lifestyle where pepper was one of the main agriculture farming here. Rows and rows of pepper trees and modern day wooden longhouses were a common sight. The main roads that connect Kuching and Brunei are small and tricky. They are mostly two direction only therefore everyone uses these roads, from bicycles, motorbikes, express buses and even huge trucks. Driving here will require some form of skill if you ask me.

Signboards along the PAN Borneo Highway

Upon reaching the Batang Ai Dam, I was pleased to know that there was a proper washroom facility which was operated by the Hilton. Yes, the Hilton manages one of the properties here, a very unique Sarawak Longhouse styled resort which is the only one in the world. However to get here, you need to book your stay where they will ferry you across the huge Batang Ai Dam to the resort. This journey will take you a good 20 minutes from the main jetty here.

Batang Ai jetty, made entirely from metal

After easing ourselves and freshening up, we started to unload our supplies and bags on the metal jetty where our unique longboat was awaiting us. Most of the locals and indigenous people here use this as the main platform for moving in and out of the area. This dam is huge! I was told that our journey to the first stop would take about an hour or so through the dam and deep into the main rivers here. We would stop at the trekkers home, which is a traditional Iban longhouse to collect his backpack and then make our way deeper into the river towards Dampa Jelia which is the name of the camp. 


We jumped on board the slim longboats with our trekking guides and goods and began our journey through the dam. These longboats are so slim, if you move around too much, it will affect the buoyancy of the boat therefore it is advised to sit still and enjoy the ride there. Moving around will have to be done in a slow and calm matter in order not to shake the boat. While cruising down the dam, I simply sat back with camera in hand and absorbed the stunning beauty of the area.

Delok Longhouse, Batang Ai Dam

After about an hour, we had arrived at the Delok Longhouse where a floating wooden jetty was our boat parking. The local trekking guide (who looks a little like Smeagol from Lord of the Rings) and Mona had invited us up to the longhouse to have a look around. Why not, as this would be my third original longhouse visit over the years and I was curious to see how this one looked like inside. 

Climbing up the stairs, a number of chickens and a couple of dogs came by to check out the strangers but were pretty harmless. As we made our way up the main longhouse entrance, a bunch of Iban ladies were gathered at the doorway and happily welcomed our group. Looking all dressed up and ready to go somewhere, they communicated in the Iban language with Smeagol while he mumbled something at them and they greeted us with the universal 'hello' complimented with a genuine big smile. I returned the gesture and made my way in.

Inside the Delok longhouse
Unique wall decorations

This longhouse was much smaller that I expected as there are a total of about 25 families that stay here. Most of the men were out working or farming while the elderly were seen loitering around the area. Children were playing with whatever was available while the women were gathered at the outdoor section of the stilted longhouse cooking a meal. Cats, dogs and even chickens were seen running all over the place and walking in further, I noticed an old experienced Iban man doing something intricate. 

As I moved closer towards the elderly man, he was busy hand carving a sheath of a sword from wood. Looking closely, his intricacy was detailed and beautiful. Iban motifs were being created freehand by the shirtless old man whom was also covered in traditional tattoos. I stood for a moment in awe watching something I never see in the cities before I ask for permission to take photographs of him and his work. (Always ask permission before you shoot, this is something I learned along the way)


 Handmade Sawarakian handicraft for sale


The headman of the longhouse was in and we were invited to sit and have a drink with him which was customary. Usually Tuak or fermented rice wine is served but this time, it was just plain orange juice served. After mingling for about five minutes, Smeagol had got all his stuff and signaled us to move on. Passing each of the house rooms, I noticed all sorts of decorations where some of them were even for sale as souvenirs. Maybe next time I thought as we said our goodbyes and headed towards the longboat. 

Again, the other half of the boat ride started where the river got a little narrower at each bend we took. The vegetation started to become thicker while the silence was only drowned by the little motor that ran the longboat. Soon after a good 10 minutes, we passed another local longhouse and village and the boatman indicated that this was the last village before our start of the jungle trek. 

We then cruised pass pure primary rainforest as the river got even more narrower until a point where the boats had to make a complete stop to maneuver through a river filled with logs. I assumed they were from illegal logging but to my surprise, they were actually fell trees from storms and so on. The rains and strong waters carry them down the hills into this part of the river where there must have been at least hundreds of floating logs in all sizes and shapes.

Carefully moving through them, it took us another 10 minutes to get through this obstacle of wood. And finally after we were distracted by the situation, the boat made a stop. Looking up, there was no more river but a small waterfall in the front of us. Finally, we had arrived at the start of our Borneo ape trail jungle trek in Sarawak. 

My Borneo Ape Trail story continues in Part Two.... 

For this unique special adventure, you can contact;
PLANET BORNEO TOURS & TRAVEL SDN BHD
No. 10, Park Lane, 93300 Kuching
Sarawak, Malaysia.
Tel: +6 082 241300
Fax: +6 082 237400
Email: info@planetborneotours.com

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Item Reviewed: Borneo Ape Trail with Planet Borneo - Part One Description: Rating: 5 Reviewed By: David Jr
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