Up River, Up Tower

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March 31st 2011
Published: October 1st 2017
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A great but tiring day – no rain at all!

Our guides arrived a few minutes before 8am; we were shuttled to the jetty, where we signed up on the manifest for the boat to the National Park. The boat arrived around 8:15am – a very standard transport: looks like a tender, fully enclosed, with inward-facing seats along each side, smallish windows that were open. The two of us were the last to board, after three locals and a tour group from Japan, making the boat very crowded.

The trip up the river was fun, even if I could not see well. The windows were open, which provided a lovely breeze. We soon left all vestiges of civilization behind and turned this way and that among many different passages, some narrow, some wide. The mangroves and palms reached all the way to the river, hiding any evidence of human habitation. It's odd to see a river, especially a jungle river, with no signs of fishing or agriculture – okay, maybe a few taro or manioc crops, but that was about it. After 20 minutes or so, we emerged into the wide river delta where it empties into the sea, then immediately turned into a narrow passage and started back up the other side of Brunei, towards the national park. A further 20 minutes brought us to the town of Bandar, where we first deposited the three locals at different stops, then were taken the public jetty.

It took a moment, but we were met by a guide, who said that, because of the last-minute changes to our itinerary, we were join another couple. Fortunately, that other couple was a very nice husband and wife from the UK, so it was fine. We were given a second breakfast of coffee and egg-fired roti; nums. Then, into the van for the drive up to where we would pick up the long boat.

Five of us, plus driver, settled comfortably into the long boat, sweating because of the humidity and the life-vests, for the ride up to the national park. The river was shallow and swift, about 10 metres wide on average; the water level was a bit lower than usual (though our guide said it usually doesn't rise that much higher), so we had to slow in several places to pick our way through the cataracts. Sometimes, we were taken right to the edge, under the canopy of the riverside trees, which was a cool, enveloping experience. Once, we saw three monkeys on a fallen log, right at the river's edge; they watched us briefly, then disappeared into the forest.

We stopped at the lodge to get checked in to the Park – the lodge buildings are nicely constructed, with long, covered walkways and inviting furnishings. The grounds, however, are a little rundown, and there was a sad emptiness to the place – it must be fine when busy with corporate events, or perhaps during the peak season, but I was glad we had opted out of staying overnight.

A quick zip around one corner brought us to the disembarkation point for our hike. We were told, accurately, that we would not need mosquito repellant … but it was very muddy, so I rolled up my trouser legs and began the climb up the hill. This is the most common one-day hike: we started at river level with a few steps, then we needed to climb a hundred vertical metres (or so), up a very steep, muddy, and rocky trail. Fortunately, ropes had been secured on either side of the trail, which really helped me haul my way up.

But you climb most of the way by walking up wooden steps. It was still steep and tiring, but we paused several places to catch our breaths – not much of a breeze, so I was perspiring a lot. No birds, but we did spot some large ants and a couple of lovely brown butterflies.

Reaching the top, we had to wait for the group of Japanese tourists to climb up the canopy towers. These towers are like small metal cages stacked on top of one another. A ladder occupies half of the cage, and a platform occupies the other half. You climb up a ladder, turn, cross a platform, turn again, and climb another ladder. Each space is a box, maybe 4' wide by 6' long by 6.5' high, and there are about 18 of these boxes stacked on each other, meaning that the tower is very narrow, and very, very tall. There are four or five towers, connected by hanging bridges. It looked rickety but felt remarkably steady, perhaps because they only allowed about five or six people in each tower, and only two people on each bridge, at a time.

And the view was spectacular from the top … as was the breeze. It was incredible to be above the canopy, looking all around, with views into Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu and beyond. The only sense of movement came from the trees of the canopy swaying in the breeze: they moved slowly while we remained still, but, like when a neighboring train pulls away from the platform, you get a feeling of motion.

After crossing all bridges, and climbing to the top of the last tower, it was time to descend all the way to the river. Descending was much easier, until we reached the river. We had a quick trip downstream to a rocky beach, where we had a walk to a waterfall and lunch.

I really enjoyed the walk to the waterfall, and not just because I could cool my feet and ankles in the stream water: it was a lovely hike. It was short, maybe about 10 minutes, and you walk through the stream the whole way. The stones on the bed of the stream are smooth but not slick, so the walking was easy. The canyon is quite narrow, but the colors of the soil and the rocks contrast with the green of the trees – it was lovely. Our guide demonstrated how to use a red clay stone as chalk to write on other rocks: he said it was the way cavemen in the area wrote on cave walls.

The waterfall is a cascade that clings to the side of a steeply sloped rock: it is only about 10 feet high, but it was attractive. Our guide had us stand in the pool at the side. I went first – soon, I felt little nibbles on my feet: the "doctor fish" eating away dead flesh … and some living flesh by the feel of it. The British couple told us they saw therapy sessions with doctor fish for sale in Vietnam; our guide said you can pay as much as B$120 for an hour of being eaten by the fish. I didn't even like it when it was free – it tickled.

We picnicked on the rocky beach: good chicken curry, yams, and pineapples. Then, back to the boat and the quicker trip downstream to the van. The last stop was the mini-zoo, which was a little scary. I don't really like zoos under the best of circumstances – the Singapore Night Safari is about the only exception I can think of – and this one was a little scary. It seems like it was built a long time ago, and it is currently undergoing something of a revamp. They have small animals, some in enclosures, some in cages. One civet had scary, milky eyes – I assume it was blind. We were given 30 minutes but did not use that much.

No waiting for the boat this time, and the trip back to town was fine. The sun came out, and it was quite warm in the boat, even with the open windows and the breeze. The boat was full again, and almost everybody seemed to drop off to sleep. We were stopped briefly by the police, who wanted to see the manifest. Everything must have been fine, as the driver and the police were chatting and laughing most of the time – although the one officer checking over the manifest retained a severe expression. I'm glad it didn't take long, as the heat inside the boat, baking in the sun, without the breeze, was quickly becoming unbearable.

When we returned to the hotel, we answered email and did some work-work … then we went out to dinner. Ate at a small Chinese café; it was okay. Then had coffee and cheese cake, sitting outside. At one point, we could hear the call from the muezzin in the distance … competing with pop songs played by the speakers in the café: the conflict brought by globalization could not have been more perfectly displayed. Then, back to the hotel, to rest, journal, sleep.


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