Day One: Kuching to Nanga Sumpa Lodge
Early in the morning we were whipped away from Kuching by our guides Paul and Schillaci in a minivan bound for Nanga Sumpa upriver from the dam at Batang Ai. “Ok, so today is going to be a long day in a longboat to a longhouse” Schillaci explained. I had no idea where this lake was in relation to Kuching nor what upriver meant, so I pulled out my phone searched Google Maps to get my bearings.
An hour out of Kuching we stopped at a local market, where our guides Paul and Schillaci gathered fresh supplies for our upriver longboat rainforest adventure. Mike and I also had a second chance to buy anything we couldn’t get late last night as everything was shut when we arrived. From the outside this local market looked the same as any market in Asia – , one large roof with tiny bright coloured umbrellas scattered around the edges and people selling their fresh goods below them. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I instantly realised it was different from other Asian markets I had visited before. It was clean, orderly and didn’t smell like old expired fish or meat. I was able to walk down the aisles of fresh fish and inspect the different species without gagging. When we ran into Schillaci inside the market, I explained the differences, he replied “Fresh fish is easily available, no one could ever get away with selling spoiled goods!”
Before we had walked into the market Schillaci asked us to take photos of any fruit or vegetables we might have not seen before and he would explain what they were back on the road. At first, I didn’t think I would find be able to find anything, I love local markets and always wander through them. However, Borneo surprised me once again. I found these light tan coloured worms, as thick as my thumb, wiggling through a pile of brown peat-like soil in a plastic container. The store keeper looked at me in surprise as I leaned in and took a closer shot of these disgusting wiggling worms. On the way back to the minivan another item caught my attention. To me it looked like a fruit, a hairless lychee but with skin that looks like a snake, I quickly took a snapshot of those to ask Schillaci about it later.
Barrelling down the bumpy road towards Batang Ai, the verge was splattered shades of green, only broken by the occasional buildings and longhouses. In the distance, Schillaci pointed out the window to a tall ridgeline that separated Malaysia with Indonesia, which we ended up following the entire way to Batang Ai. Despite being excited by the adventure, Mike and I succumbed to the warm temperatures and lack of sleep and dozed off.
Rubbing my sleep blurry eyes, I was just in time to view our arrival at the stunning Batang Ai wharf. Water stretched out before me, the edges banked with soft rolling green hills in the background. The sun was once again shining and made the water twinkle. I was feeling excited as I had never been on a longboat before – this was going to be an experience of a lifetime.
We all piled into the boat, with Schillaci up the front, me second with Mike behind me. Paul and the captain sat at the back of this narrow but long boat. We sat on miniature wooden seats, and were promptly given life jackets as we headed out into the middle of Batang Ai lake. With the unbroken glass like water, we zoomed along fairly quickly, passing the extensive Hilton longhouse resort, and headed to one of the many rivers that feed this vast lake.
The edges of the lake enclosed in around us as the deep green jungle grew taller and developed a wild touch to it as we moved away from the lake. We stopped. Looking back at our captain to see what was happening, he was looking up into the tops of the rainforest, pointing to something. Following his gaze we saw the tops of the trees moving, “Orangutans” Paul our guide calls out. But they were too quick for us and disappeared into the thick rainforest, frightened by the noise of the boat.
As the river decreased in width, so did the depth of the water. We made a stop at a longhouse on the muddy banks of the river and picked up a strong looking but tiny woman who must be older than she appears to be. Our new passenger sat with her legs tucked under her at the very tip of the boat, armed with a long wooden pole poised for action. It didn’t take long to see why we had picked up this new passenger. She was the queen of reading the river, she expertly helped guide the tip of the longboat up rapids and around boulders that concealed themselves below the surface. It was a fairly exciting experience to go upriver in this shallow longboat, fully laden with our bags and supplies for the coming few days. But in saying that, I felt entirely safe at the hands of our captain and his wife – the lady at the bow of the boat.
Before long we arrived at Nanga Sumpa lodge. Tired from our long journey but excited to be so far from civilisation, we were promptly given a hot cup of tea and a packet of biscuits. While drinking our tea and reviving from the journey, we started chatting to a group of four from England. They excitedly described their adventure while elbowing each other not to give away too many details. It was hilarious and made us both hanker to ask for more. It was just one sleep away, I am sure we could wait for day two of our upriver adventure to begin.
Day Two: Nanga Sumpa Lodge to Lubok Kasai Jungle Camp
Exactly, one year ago the longhouse that housed the community at Nanga Sumpa burnt down and two people sadly perished in the fire. It was a disastrous day for this longhouse community that housed 35 families as they lost everything and only had the clothes on their back to try and rebuild their lives with. With the kind donations of past travellers who experienced the old Nanga Sumpa Longhouse and of course Borneo Adventure’s own support, the community was able to build temporary housing and start preparing to eventually rebuild the longhouse. Despite it being the anniversary, and you know that they are thinking back, you could hear laughter throughout the lodge. It was nice to see that they are quietly rebuilding their life, their community and their pride.
That morning, after a great filling breakfast, Schillaci rallied us up for a hike through the rainforest. At the start, he gave some great tips for walking in the jungle, “If you want to look at something, then stop and look, do not carry on walking – who knows what you will be walking into, onto and off” Schillaci explained. He also purposely walked very slowly, not because he didn’t know how fit we were, but to ensure we walked quietly through the rainforest and had the best opportunity to spot birds, butterflies and hopefully an Orangutan. We hiked for an hour before meeting back up with the river, the boat and our crew.
We motored further up the river with our expert boat’s lady up the front once again, we passed another longhouse and battled up more rapids. We were heading for a waterfall located up a branch of the river. The captain dropped us off at the base of the waterfall and our guides told us we could go swimming “Just watch out for the piranhas!” Looking down, you could see little tiny fish swimming around our feet tickling them but occasionally, you would feel a larger pinch. They only stuck to the shallow waters, so if you were brave you could head deeper into the cold water. The water was too cold for us to take our clothes off and jump in, but it was really pretty to look at.
We waded back across the river to the other side of the bank, where everyone was busy preparing a bbq lunch. Unknown to us, they had been collecting dry wood along the way, strips of bamboo to put the meat or vegetables inside to cook on the bbq. We sat down on our little wooden chairs using the life vests as cushions looking out over the river. It was really peaceful and relaxing.
Before we arrived in Borneo, Mike and I had made several bets – who would get the first leech and who would get the most. I suspected I would win on both accounts and placed my bet scared by the size of leeches you see in the documentaries. While sitting on my little wooden chair waiting for lunch, I felt something cold and clammy climbing up my leg. I carefully rolled up my trousers and saw it: I had won the first bet! Lucky for me it wasnt attached and I easily flicked the little tiny thing away. I picked up the pebble it landed on and put it close to the river, far from us and our tasty legs.
Lunch was an amazing array of freshly cooked vegetables and several types of meat. Cooked both on the bbq and inside the bamboo tubes. They had even gone to the effort to make a special spicy sauce to put on our food. We love spice, and quickly dug into it. While I was tucking into my plate, I saw that little tiny leach slink back towards me over the pebbles. With one eye on the leach, I polished off my lunch.
Once everything was packed up, we got back into the boat and floated back downstream to Nanga Lalang, where the Lalang river meets the Sumpa river. It was nice to not hear the motor and just experience the rainforest at river speed. We were once again dropped off on the banks of the river. This time we were going to hike for a couple of hours to a jungle camp called Lubok Kasai.
Along the way, Schillaci pointed out many plants and their uses. The one that keep popping up was how useful the sago palm is. The core has a spongy like substance which is a major staple food in Borneo. It can be turned into pancakes, bread, noodles or even pudding – sago pearls (like tapioca). It is also used to make fibre, and of course my sago worms that I found in the market. Overall a lot of the plants Schillaci pointed out were to help women recover after a birth.
The hike took, us through the rainforest, up a ridge line through bracken and back into the depths of the forest once again. The humidity was intense and the heat radiating off the bracken was killing us as we marched up the ridge line. By the time we made our descent into our camp for the night we were soaked and very tired but had huge smiles on our face!
Lubok Kasai jungle camp was a long wooden building clad in open bark off a tree. The rooms were in the center of the building lining down the ridge line. On each side it had a veranda that served as entertainment area and protected the rooms from sun and rain. It overlooked the river and small jetty. Off to one side were two simple toilets and showers. Beyond that was the kitchen hut and sleep area for our guides.
Someone sweet had placed out hot tea and crackers as an afternoon snack. With a cuppa tea in hand, I poked my head into our room, and found someone had even made our beds for us! We had a huge room to ourselves with a single mattress each on the floor with clean linen and a mosquito net strung up and a nice woven mat at the end of our bed. It wasn’t the hilton, but this beats a tiny tent in the rainforest any day!
We were given the afternoon to spend time on our own, we decided it was a good time to pop down to the little jetty and dip our feet into the cool water. I braved the nibbly little fish and actually got into the crisp water for a brief swim. Then we both laid down to read our books and quickly nodded off. It was nice how the guides gave you plenty of space to read, write or just hang out and enjoy the environment.
Day Three: Lubok Kasai Jungle Camp to Nanga Sumpa Lodge
The Lubok Kasai jungle camp is close to the edge of the Batang Ai National Park, we had high hopes of seeing an Orangutan today on our 3 hour hike. The path was narrow and muddy from the morning fog. You couldn’t really call it a path path as it was formed to preserve as much of the rainforest as possible.
We carefully made our way down to a river. Swapping our shoes over to our flip flops we waded across the shallow but swift river. On the other side we placed our flip flops in a tree, so we could find them easily on the way back. As we creeped along under the towering giants of the forrest, Paul spotted a beautiful Kingfisher and a noisy woodpecker. I think we would have missed them if it wasn’t for Paul’s bird spotting talent and his handy binoculars!
Knowing that Orangutans are shy of humans didn’t stop us from hoping we would get to see one. We heard a branch crack high above us and looked up in hope only to see a small twig fall to the ground. We heard the rustle of trees until they were faint. Along the way, we found a lot evidence of Orangutan in the area, like broken Sago Palms and nests. Some nests looked like they had been there for weeks others looked fairly fresh. Orangutans make their nests not by breaking the branches and weaving them like a bird, but by carefully folding them over to create a sturdy platform. It’s almost like they are concerned for the conservation of their environment. However, when they decide to attack a Sago Palm, that theory goes out the window. There were several times where Paul had to cut down broken Sago branches that the Orangutans had trashed, just for us to pass without being cut by the spikes.
We were all sweating in the humid heat, you could feel it roll down your legs. Sometimes, your mind would play tricks as you think it’s a leach. In Mike’s case, it occasionally was! When we arrived back at the Lubok Kasai jungle camp, Paul found a massive leech that had enjoyed the ride too much! Mike is now ahead in the lead for most leeches!
After another satisfying lunch we piled our gear back into the longboat and floated quietly back downstream until the river got deep enough to turn the engine back on. We arrived at a community called Jambu Longhouse. I was super excited to see inside a longhouse and meet the people who live in these close knit communities. I just love looking at how other people live around the world.
The Jambu longhouse housed eight families, with several families living out in their own individual house behind the main building. When we walked inside there were only two families out of eight who were currently at home, those who were travelling hung a chair outside their room. Each family in a longhouse has their own kitchen, bathroom and living rooms. They only share their covered front porch. Its a lot like living in a single story apartment block.
Schillaci took us through the main common area. At the far end we met two women who were selling woven mats. Peering through their open door to their apartment, you could see they were in the middle of making a large 3 meter mat in bright yellow and black using a plastic material. Climbing up a narrow log with notches cut out from it, we peered into the dark loom of the attic space in the longhouse. As my eyes adjusted, old blacked skulls wrapped in a broken woven net peered back at me at of the darkness. These skulls are what remains from their head hunting days when tribes would come to raid their communities. It gave me a creepy feeling, like I was intruding on someone’s ghost. I quickly skipped down the notched ladder and joined the group of people gathered to welcome us with Rice wine. Rice wine is offered to guest as a symbol to welcome them into the community, I’m glad they did as I didn’t want to end up a skull in the attic! After the rice wine was finished we said goodbye to our longhouse hosts and continued downstream to arrive back at Nanga Sumpa Lodge for our last night.
Day Four: Nanga Sumpa Lodge to Kuching
For our last and final day, Schillaci took us on another hike in the jungle. Except this time, he didn’t just stick to the path, but we went off the semi beaten track and we hiked up a mountain through the rainforest undergrowth. It was amazing to feel the sponge effect of so many leaves piled up but it made our hiking extremely extraneous. We were climbing over rotten logs, grabbing trees to hang onto and sliding down mud. By the time we got back to camp our smiles could be felt from ear to ear.
We ate an early lunch and then made our way back downstream to the Batang Ai jetty. It felt as if we slowly shed our jungle layers and came back to everyday reality. Batang Ai lake is amazing, but upriver is even more amazing. As we passed the Hilton, once again, I had to shake my head and say to myself “Oh, you guys are missing out on something special just around the corner!”
Hot Tips From Our Guide Schillaci:
To be completely comfortable, make sure you have rubber shoes (I can help you buy them on the way out to Batang Ai), sunblock and a poncho for those unexpected downpours.