The driver of the ‘flying coffin’ was called Marc. His T-shirt read: ‘I live with fear every day but sometimes she lets me race.’

He drove the boat like it was a jet-ski and as we leaned into yet another of the river’s hairpins, I began to think that this might turn out to be the most dangerous part of the trip. A thought all the more poignant, considering that we were making for the infamous headhunters' trail of Borneo.

Our journey had started in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, a tiny state sandwiched between the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the north-west coast of Borneo. The South China Sea and the island of Borneo were known in the 19th century for three things: rubber plantations, plundering pirates and savage, head-hunting natives.

In 1929, oil was discovered beneath the seas off Borneo and the rubber plantations were slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Until recently, the South China Sea remained the world’s pirate capital, with regular attacks on commercial vessels and private yachts, but few convictions. Although suppressed in the 1840s, head-hunting continued for a long time and we would soon meet an elderly tribal chief rumoured to have taken a head in his youth.

Tribal life

As the flying coffin docked in the Malaysian border town of Limbang, we were met by Thomas, our guide, who led us to the waiting Jeep that would whisk us along a dirt road deep into the jungle. The headhunters' trail cannot be accessed by road - you must either fly to the isolated airstrip at Mulu or start from Limbang - but the trail itself is deep in tropical jungle and can only be reached by river. Tonight we would stay at a tribal longhouse several hours’ boat-ride away up the river. Tomorrow we would need an early start to travel further upriver to the start of the trail.

Our journey upriver ended abruptly as we drew up beside a steep, muddy bank. A long, plank walkway took us from the river to a large clearing, where our home for the night stretched from end to end. Rumah Bala, the longhouse, turned out to be not so much a long house as a terrace of maybe 40 houses, with a common veranda stretching along its entire length. The whole structure was set on stilts, raising it some 10 feet above the cleared land.

Beside the walkway, at the foot of a staircase leading up to the veranda, a bare-chested, heavily tattooed man crouched over a freshly slaughtered pig. One arm was elbow deep in its belly, pulling out the intestines. Blood trickled through the mud and collected in a pool beneath the stairs. The pig twitched, then lay still.

This truly did promise to be an eye-opening evening. It was the start of the Iban New Year, or Gawai festival, a time of unrestrained celebration when pigs and chickens are slaughtered and potent rice wine flows freely. The Iban people, who live in tribal groups in semi-isolation, are a strange mix of ancient and modern. The West has brought them generators, stereos and Ricky Martin but their remote longhouses have led to the preservation of many traditional ways of life.

The veranda had the feel of a back lane, with children playing and the early starters of the Gawai celebrations lying slumped like derelicts, only to awaken a few hours later and imbibe further carefree quantities of rice wine until they passed out again… and again... in a cycle of celebration that would last all week.

Tackling the trail

The steady throb of the outboard had a soothing effect and contrasted starkly with the pumping bass and see-sawing floorboards that had been my sleeping quarters the previous night. The river here was a thick, brown soup, muddied by the logging upstream. We passed a group of children from another longhouse sliding down a muddy bank into the water with cries of excitement. We left them behind and moved into a narrower, more tranquil stretch of river with trees folding over us from both banks, vines hanging down, strangler figs creeping up and a kingfisher keeping pace with us, its turquoise breast shining in the sun.

But we had come to trek through the jungle, not be ferried sedately along the river like colonial rajahs from days gone by. Soon we would reach the start of the trail and over the coming days we would wade through rivers or teeter precariously across them on vine bridges. We would step around and over the enormous buttress roots and marvel at the bugs and beasties that crossed our path. We would visit the majestic Mulu Caves and see the perilously unstable bamboo ladders soaring hundreds of feet to the cave roof to harvest birds’ nests, which are used to produce the soup that is a local delicacy.

The trek also saw us sweat our way to the 1750m summit of Gunung Api to see the incredible limestone pinnacles that jut above the jungle canopy like jagged teeth. Staying at various longhouses over our week-long trip, we were able to dip our toes into a culture that is rapidly being eroded as young Iban people increasingly head out of the jungle in search of their fortunes.

Deep in the jungle beside the fast-flowing river in Melinau Gorge, we stopped off at Camp 5, a remote national park hostel. Here, an incessant buzzing fills the verandas as mesmerising swarms of bees descend throughout the afternoon. The bees, from nests scattered about the surrounding rainforest, come to suck salt from hikers' sweaty socks hung up to dry all around the clearing. Strong swimmers may battle against the ferocious currents mid-stream; alternatively you could cool off less strenuously in the deep, still water along the river bank.

From here, we plunged deeper into Borneo's interior to explore the limestone caverns of Lang Cave and Deer Cave, finding cave vipers and poisonous spiders lurking in the dark. And at dusk, we returned to see the daily bat exodus; thousands spiralling together from the cave mouths, high into the twilit sky, before scattering far and wide to feed.

And finally, we tumbled out of the jungle to enjoy the hospitality and comparative luxuries available at the Royal Mulu Resort.

Footnote

Borneo's interior remains one of the world's truly wild areas, as James Redmond and John Wassner testify in their accounts of separate journeys deep into Borneo's interior; journeys that took them far deeper than I was able to venture. 

Their accounts make compelling and highly recommended reading; you can use the links (above-right) to find further details of their books.

Headhunters' Trail Borneo

The trail passes through miles of unspoilt primary rainforest but in Borneo's remote interior, you will not always find a bridge.

Headhunters' Trail Borneo
The Pinnacles Headhunters' Trail Borneo

The incredible limesone pinnacles seen from the summit of Guning Api and a spectacular sunset display at the Royal Mulu Resort.

Sunset - Headhunters' Trail Borneo

All images © Jon Bigg. All rights reserved.

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Recommended reading

Into the Heart of Borneo

An Account of a journey made in 1983 to the mountains of Batu Tiban

‘Consistently exciting, often funny, and erudite without ever being overwhelming’  Punch.

Espresso with the Headhunters

A journey through the jungles of Borneo

'Wassner sets off to experience the wilds of Borneo and finds he actually quite enjoys visiting remote villages, government outposts and tribes.'  Wanderlust. 

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