Brunei’s wild riches

Ulu Temburong National Park is full of rare medicinal plants, towering dipterocarp trees and a 50m-high canopy walkway – perfect for peering into the virgin rainforest below.

Looking out over the canopy in Brunei’s Ulu Temburong National Park, it is easy to believe you are standing at the top of the world. Nothing obstructs the view from the park’s narrow, 50m-high canopy walkway, and visitors who have not been deterred by a fear of heights can scour the vast rainforest spreading out in every direction for sightings of Brunei’s varied jungle wildlife.

Located on the west coast of the island of Borneo, Brunei is a small, oil rich nation; and the Sultan’s wealth is on full display in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. But Ulu Temburong, Brunei’s only national park, displays riches of another kind. With much of Borneo’s rainforest being destroyed by logging and palm oil plantations, Ulu Temburong offers an increasingly rare chance to experience the incredible diversity of flora and fauna found in a virgin rainforest.

The adventure begins as soon as you leave Bandar Seri Begawan, with a 40-minute water taxi ride from the capital’s main jetty to Bangar, the only town in the Temburong district. From here it is an 18km road journey to the tiny settlement of Batang Duri where the road ends, and then onto a traditional longboat for the final 30-minute ride along the fast-flowing Temburong River to the Ulu Ulu Temburong Resort, the closest hotel to the canopy trail.

Getting from the banks of the Temburong to the canopy walkway is a hard slog, with a steady 1km climb along a steep jungle path in conditions that are humid even in the darkness of pre-dawn (the best time to experience the canopy walkway is at sunrise, when the jungle’s wildlife is most active). Yet the toughest challenge is not a physical one.

At first sight, the 50m-high metal cage appears to be little more than makeshift scaffolding, and with only six discrete steel cables supporting the structure, the sway of the platform is quite noticeable, even in a gentle breeze. It is no surprise that around a third of those who reach the base of the canopy walkway decide against climbing the metal ladders that loom overhead.

Those who do brave the 20 ladders that reach to the top of the walkway are rewarded with a prime viewpoint for observing Ulu Temburong’s rich variety of wildlife. Gibbons can occasionally be seen swinging through the canopy and are often heard screeching in the towering dipterocarp trees below, many of which are more than 100 years old; and hornbills fly overhead, their long beaks and colourful horns standing out against the surrounding jungle. Lucky visitors may even glimpse a flying squirrel leaping from tree to tree. But despite the cacophony of animal sounds coming from below, the canopy is dense and the view stretches for such a distance that visitors may spend a couple of hours on the walkway and see very little.

While most people visit Ulu Temburong to experience the view from the canopy walkway, the Ulu Ulu Temburong Resort also offers jungle hikes to see the park’s tumbling waterfalls, many of which offer the chance to have a refreshing swim in their natural pools. Night treks are a memorable way to experience the sounds of the jungle at their loudest, with frogs and cicadas competing for attention.

Ulu Ulu supervisor Mohammad Mutaqin is committed to making sure the resort plays an important role in the park’s conservation. While trekking along a jungle trail, he pointed out medicinal plants and described how locals have traditionally harvested and sold the jungle’s flora and fauna with little regard for conservation. Wild pigs have been hunted, while rare trees and plants such as tongkat ali – known for its aphrodisiac qualities – have been cut down to make medicines or for use in potions by those following indigenous belief systems.

Mutaqin pointed to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia as places where jungles have been destroyed to harvest commercially lucrative resources, but due in part to Brunei’s modest population, the scale of harvesting in Ulu Temburong has been small until now. According to Mutaqin, if the resort can benefit the local community by offering employment and bringing in tourism money, there is hope that people will learn to appreciate the precious nature of the environment in which they live before it is severely damaged.

Brunei may not offer a ready-made luxury safari experience, and animal sightings do require a lot of effort as well as a fair amount of luck. But while humans have already encroached far into the wider Borneo jungle with devastating consequences, Temburong still offers access to a largely untouched, virgin rainforest; something that is becoming ever harder to find.

A permit is required to travel independently to Ulu Temburong. To avoid this hassle and the very high cost of organising private transfers, the majority of visitors make arrangements with one of the travel agencies based in Bandar Seri Begawan. The only way to reach Ulu Temburong’s canopy walkway early enough to see the sun rise is to stay overnight at the Ulu Ulu Temburong resort, where the wake-up call is at 4:30 am. If pre-dawn starts do not appeal, Freme Travel offers an itinerary that includes a mid-morning visit to the walkway. Their tours include transfers from Bandar Seri Begawan and an overnight stay at their own Rainforest Lodge, just outside the park.

Most travellers will stop one night in Bandar Seri Begawan at the beginning or end of their Temburong visit, with the luxurious Empire Hotel and Country Club (owned by the Sultan himself and used to house Heads of State when they visit) offering an affordable splash of glamour that may be welcome after a night in the jungle. The Brunei Hotel is a convenient business-style hotel in the city centre, across the road from the colourful morning market. See the Brunei Tourism website for more information.