Gunung Leuser, in northern Sumatra, is one of the biggest national parks in the world. Its steep, rainforested valleys and hills are home to gibbons, monkeys, elephants and some of the Indonesia’s last tigers and rhinoceroses. I would be happy with any of those sightings but I was trekking into these remote hills because I specifically wanted to visit the orangutan, the ‘old man of the forest,’ in his jungle home.



Logging, poaching and a growing human population have reduced Indonesia’s orangutan numbers to a dangerously low level and only about 7,000 are now believed to survive in Sumatra. Most live in the highland jungles of the far north and over recent years guerrilla warfare in Aceh has further depleted their numbers. Unfortunately baby orang-utans make attractive pets and mothers are often killed so that the orphan can be adopted by people who find its child-like grief and subsequent affection for the foster parents alluring…until it grows up. 


Conservationists believe that in fifty years there will be fewer than 250 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild and, since this is not a viable gene-base for a healthy population, total extinction will be just around the corner. For the moment Gunung Leuser is still probably the best place to see this most enchanting of apes in the wild. A steady drizzle was coming down as we climbed away from the river that runs through Bukit Lawang village. The track was slippery and tangled with roots, and my guide Adit warned me that we had a long way to go before we could set up camp in the jungle. 


Still, he was confident that the weather would not hinder us and that within the next three days he would be able to lead me to wild orangutans. As we struggled, slipping and sliding, up the slope a troop of gibbons began to follow us. They swung gracefully through the canopy as if to show us how easy it could have been if we ‘higher primates’ had never turned our backs on the trees. Then, as we crested the hill, a pair of hornbills flew past with their mighty wings making chugging noises like steam-locomotives. 


These sightings, adding to the simple thrill of being back in the jungle, made the day’s trek pass quickly. But the ‘rainforest’ continued to live up to its name and by the time we had eaten our evening meal of fried rice  we had been driven under the cover of the large plastic sheet that served as our tent. I was woken the next morning by a family of macaques that were intent on getting at our breakfast before we did and, as I pulled on my damp clothes, a big monitor lizard slithered out of the jungle to flick his tongue around our campfire. 



These visits seemed like good omens and we had only walked half-an-hour away from our camp when Adit suddenly stopped and crouched down. He pointed into the trees, doing his best to show me my first wild orangutan. You would imagine that a large, bright-orange ape would be easy to see amongst a sea of greenery, but during several sightings in the next few days I would realise just how secretive and elusive these animals can be. Finally I spotted what Adit was pointing at - not one, but two orangutans! The orangutan is the only ape that is almost entirely solitary but we had been lucky enough to find a mother with a young baby. It was amazing how silently these creatures were able to move. 


Their combined weight would have been about the same as a seven year old child’s, but the mother could judge exactly how much weight the thinnest branches could take and was able to swing herself and her baby almost soundlessly between one tree and the next. Adit estimated that the mother might be as old as thirty-five and the baby would not yet be two. We worked our way slowly closer and neither animal seemed to be disturbed by our presence. In fact, the pair ignored us completely, at one point swinging within a couple of metres of the spot where I crouched with my camera. I would see other wild orangutans during the next few days but the peaceful hour that we spent, sat in the drizzle, watching this mother and her baby stands out in my memory as one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences I’ve ever had.





There are taxi-boats in cities all over South East Asia but even the ‘longtails’ of Bangkok would have trouble keeping up with the waterborne fighter-pilots who parry and slice among the pillars of Brunei’s Kampong Ayer. In a spear-shaped, high-speed launch – emblazoned with BMW and Ferrari decals – just arriving in the stilted water village can be an exhilarating experience.



But as the snarl of the outboard motor recedes into the distance you realise that you have traded the marble-and-glass malls of the Bruneian capital for a peaceful and almost timeless ‘Waterworld’ of winding canals and snaking timber walkways. Kampong Ayer is still the largest stilted water-village in the world and its 28 separate wards combine to make an entire city, complete with schools, clinics, mosques, shops, floating petrol stations and markets. There are even waterborne police and fire-services, and a jail (although there are rarely any inmates). There are elderly people who have not set foot on terra firma for years and there are hundreds of cats that must think they are indeed the castaway inhabitants of a ‘Waterworld.’ The first westerners to visit Brunei were Magellan’s crew during their circumnavigation of the world in 1521 and Vincenzo Pigafetta, the expedition’s documenter, is generally accepted as a reliable chronicler (despite misquoting the name of the entire island and thus giving the word ‘Borneo’ to the world).


“The city is all built in salt water,” he wrote, “it contains 25 thousand families. The houses are all of wood, placed on great piles to raise them high up.” Kampong Ayer is still home to around 30,000 people and, despite the changes brought about by the momentous discovery of oil in 1928, Pigafetta would surely recognise what he called ‘The Venice of the East’ if he could see it today.


In the morning old men still fish directly from their front-porches and, in the afternoon, children gather on the quaint humpback bridges to fly their kites. Many of the pastel-painted houses now have powerful motorboats moored under their terraces – in the manner of a carport in other wealthy communities – and they are all decked with the overgrown blossoms of satellite dishes. The joy of the water village is simply to wander, aimless, wide-eyed and frequently lost around the estimated 20 miles of timber walkways. Happy children wave at you from verandas and somebody will always re-direct you with a smile, or very often, invite you inside for refreshments. Visitors are invariably stunned to see the opulence of the front rooms; several 3-piece suites and at least two perpetually blazing TVs is very common. Crystal-glass vases and hand-woven rugs are proudly displayed, and over-looking it all is the ever-present portrait the sultan.


With free education and health care, generous pensions, interest-free loans for cars and houses (and even subsidised pilgrimages to Mecca) the Bruneian man-in-the-street enjoys one of the highest standards of living in SE Asia. But experts estimate that the ‘black gold’ that has made all this possible will be exhausted by 2020 and it is not yet clear where the sultan will turn to if he is to maintain the luxurious lifestyle to which his citizens have become accustomed. Beef, rice and forestry are possible options but while fresh beef is flown in daily from the national ranch in Australia’s Northern Territory (which is actually bigger than the sultanate itself) rice is still imported from Thailand.


The exploitation of offshore oil and gas deposits has had an unexpected effect on Brunei’s onshore riches and the country still boasts more than 2,000 square miles of rainforest. Things are looking increasingly hopeful that these resources are going to be dedicated to eco-tourism, rather than the logging that has denuded much of neighbouring Sarawak and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).


The name ‘Borneo’ has always had a ring of adventure to it and many travellers are recognising in Brunei an irresistibly easy entry point into the world’s third largest jungle island. A mere 45-minute boat ride across the bay from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, takes you to Temburong District, a jungle ‘playground’ equipped with canopy walkways, rafting facilities, a research centre and wildlife that is on the verge of extinction even in the darkest headwaters of other parts of the island. There are even Dayak longhouses here in differing degrees of antiquity; oil money has clearly not by-passed the ethnic minorities and the newest ‘longhouse’ looks more like a particularly neat row of Notting Hill terraces!


While there are already a score of jungle reserves throughout the country and the developers look set to exploit the eco-tourism potential of the country it is not yet sure what the future holds for Kampong Ayer. Even today there is still no accommodation for tourists on the water village and only a couple of simple rumah makans offering fried-rice or noodle soup. There has been vague talk of converting some buildings into chalets and turning terraces into open-air restaurants but nothing has been done as yet.


A major problem of life in the water village is the fires that can occasionally sweep along the boardwalks, reducing houses to the waterline in a matter of minutes. Despite the fact that there is a well-equipped fire brigade, one large ward burnt down several years ago. By Brunei’s standards living conditions here are still considered low, and some sections of the administration refuse to see Kampong Ayer as anything but an eyesore in their vision of a bright-and-shiny future. Some of Kampong Ayer’s residents have been tempted to move out to modern homes built for them on inland housing estates.


“My family has lived here for generations,” Syed Bin Yousaf told me as we sat in his front room, surrounded by countless grandchildren. “Why would we want to move to darat?” – he used the Malay word for ‘land’ by which the ‘water-people’ know terra firma – “here we have our friends and family around us. On the land we would have to live among strangers.”


There is a very real danger that Syed’s grandchildren will be condemned to what they see as a sterile life on land…unless the ‘Venice of the East’ is allowed to claim its rightful place as one of the truly unique gems in what the Brunei tourism department is calling ‘A Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures.’


More Articles...

  1. Borneo
  2. Buses