Brunei Darussalam is a small Sultanate on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, sandwiched between the Malaysian state of Sarawak and the South China Sea. With a population of less than half a million and a sizeable income from oil and gas production, Brunei (map) is one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. Its capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is a small town with stunning gold-domed mosques, impressive palaces (the Sultan’s Palace is the world’s largest inhabited palace), bustling markets and a fascinating floating village. There’s practically no crime and everyone speaks English. I’d been to Brunei two times before as I have family living there but I’d never ventured outside the capital.
A Brunei jungle safari in Temburong
On this occasion, I had the opportunity to go on a jungle safari in Brunei’s eastern province of Temburong. I wasn’t too enthusiastic to be honest as the safari tour included a four a.m. wake-up call the next morning for a jungle hike (in the dark) and a canopy walk to see the sunrise – you see, I’m not a morning person. As we boarded the speedboat (in Bandar Seri Begawan) that would take us to Temburong, I noticed the excitement of my fellow adventurers. I quietly told myself to be a sport and just enjoy the experience. The boat picked up speed and soon we were whizzing by the mangrove-edged shores of Brunei Bay. We spotted a few crocodiles along the way, resulting in a few shrieks of horror (or was it excitement?) in the boat. A thrilling series of twists and turns along the curly Temburong River followed and we soon arrived in a small community where we disembarked and boarded a bus. The bus took us to a makeshift pier along the Temburong River where we hopped into long boats.
We continued up the river, the cool breeze helping to dispense the tropical heat and humidity, and negotiated several rapids along the way. The virgin forest looked absolutely majestic. The sun pierced through densely packed trees whilst the call of a hornbill and the screech of macaques occasionally rose above the almost deafening chorus of crickets.
We arrived after the two-hour trip from Bandar at the Ulu Ulu Resort [July 2020 update: the Ulu Ulu Resort has ceased operations], our base in the jungle. I was shown to my room, a spacious private chalet with a comfortable bed and a large bathroom. I parked myself on the verandah and simply listened to the sounds of the jungle. That evening, after a lovely dinner (the roasted chicken and prawns were fantastic!), I crept into bed before the lights went out.
Temburong canopy walk
The next morning, a knock on my door sounded at 4 a.m., as promised. My lack of hesitation (or grumpiness) surprised me! I gathered my torchlight and camera and even managed a chuckle once I realised how excited I was. It’s all a frame-of-mind thing isn’t it?
We crossed the river by boat and proceeded with our hike up a muddy path (it had rained the night before), steadying ourselves with the roots and branches of trees and using our torchlights to guide us. The jungle was eerily quiet. The path led us to a series of steps that seemed to disappear up the hill. “There are 860 steps”, our guide mentioned casually. “Fabulous!”, was my reply. I made no attempt to hide my disdain.
Up we went, one step at a time, taking short breaks along the way to ease our heavy breathing. The jungle gradually awoke as we made our way up the hill. First the crickets, then the birds, followed by the macaques and the gibbons. We caught a glimpse of the gibbons as they hopped from branch to branch in search of breakfast.
840 steps later, I turned a corner and froze in horror. There, at the top of the stairs, was a massive metal structure that towered high above the jungle canopy. Pangs of fear reeled through my body and I felt my legs literally go weak. “THAT’s the canopy walk?”, I asked. Our guide confirmed this, adding that the five 40-meter-high towers, connected by bridges above the canopy, are built atop a ridge. A seemingly never-ending series of ladders led visitors up the first tower.
I stood at the base of the first tower and strained my neck to see the top. “I can’t do this”, I thought as I wrapped my hands around the cold metal poles and thought of my fear of heights. “Oh, get over it! This would be another exciting challenge! Hey, you’ve jumped out of a plane before! This is peanuts.” I heard myself think. A short debate ensued in my mind as I inspected the structure. I made up my mind, summoned up the courage, took a few deep breaths and in one swift move, clambered onto the first of the ladders.
Overcoming my fear of heights
The ladders were arranged in a zig-zag pattern, strangely reminding me of the fire escapes in old New York buildings. I was grateful for that thought as it took my mind off the fear that was engulfing me. I could feel my whole body tremble but I concentrated on achieving a steady rhythm in my movements: “1 step, 2 step, 3 step, 4 step, hand on the pole, pull yourself up, turn on your left foot…” and so forth. I said this out loud on each ladder and landing until I reached the top. I peered down and felt a cold chill run down my spine. I told myself to focus on the horizon where a spectacular view awaited me: the early-morning sun was slowly rising far in the horizon whilst the forest-clad hills extended as far as I could see. Through the highest branches in the trees, I noticed patches of morning mist hovering ever so gently above the forest. Several colourful birds flew by. It was simply magical!
I felt my body relax and even managed to hold my camera steady for a few photos. I continued across the bridge to the second tower. My confidence grew with each step, and by the time I reached the third tower, I felt like a pro!
I spent about a half hour simply taking in the views and the sounds, before descending the last tower. I cheered as I set foot on the ground. I’d passed another test! I felt triumphant as I looked up at the towers and the bridges above me. It was a wondrous experience to see the jungle from above and I’m so happy that I took that first step onto the ladder.
Note: my trip to Brunei was made possible by Royal Brunei Airlines. Royal Brunei operates regular services from most Southeast Asian cities as well as from Shanghai, London and Melbourne to Brunei.