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Exploring Brunei by kayak: An eco-tourism solution waiting to happen

Published on 20 January 2018 Brunei Darussalam

OIL wealth and an enlightened environmental policy have ensured that Brunei is the best-preserved part of Borneo. Nearly 60 percent of its primary rainforest is miraculously intact.

Yet this privileged position is by no means guaranteed. It is common knowledge that everywhere on Earth the destruction of rainforest continues at an alarming rate.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, on average 50,000 square miles of forest are lost annually along with untold animal and plant species, many of which may have been unknown to science. In the time it takes you to read this article, 150 football fields will have been cleared and lost forever.

A cursory glance at Google Earth provides an apocalyptic vision of the fate that awaits this extraordinary natural heritage if nothing is done to prevent it. Within Brunei’s borders, the green crown of the forest canopy predominates. Beyond, monotonous ranks of palm oil scar the Earth on a devastating scale. The land is green, but grieving.

The challenge that faces the nation is how to maintain this precious gift with limited financial resources in the face of ever-increasing economic uncertainty. Money shapes solutions.

Across the border at Mulu, tourists come in their droves to wander the boardwalks and explore its labyrinthine network of caves. Yet, the maintenance of the infrastructure that makes all this possible ensures that the park runs at a staggering annual loss.

Such grandiose schemes do much to raise awareness but they do not make money. Even if such projects are offered to private corporations wooed by Brunei’s natural beauty, these companies may baulk at the balance sheet

Those who frequent Brunei’s wilderness areas must already be aware of the toll an unforgiving climate takes on expensive infrastructure.

Its upkeep presents budgetary challenges that are hard to overcome.

It is a sad but an undeniable fact that for the natural environment to survive it must pay its way. No doubt a sensible forestry policy and sustainable use of its natural resources is one course of action. Another is eco-tourism. However, despite the enormous potential locally, options to explore the jungle are still few, especially when compared to what is on offer in neighboring Sabah and Sarawak.

Change is coming, and the government supports this change. Nevertheless, new and varied solutions remain to be seen.

One thing that may impede the speed of change is access. Anyone who explores the rainforest knows that access to truly spectacular areas is a constant challenge. To get to Mulu, for example, visitors have two options: a short flight or an epic eight-hour trip by boat up the Baram River.

Flying is obviously preferable, but planes don’t come cheap. But what if there was a way for the journey into the jungle to become the adventure itself?

Visitors to Temburong District know that simply getting to Pekan Bangar by water taxi is an exciting and integral part of the experience, long celebrated in the guidebooks. In fact, Brunei abounds with bodies of water surrounded by pristine wilderness areas: coastal mangroves, rivers, swamps, natural lakes, and dams.

Despite this, tourists ply a well-worn path on a mangrove tour via the Kampong Ayer. Although the journey is certainly interesting culturally and even beautiful in places, whatever impact it does have is marred or, worse still, ruined by refuse.

Action could be taken to tackle this issue, but isn’t there also an opportunity for these other unspoilt waterways to be explored sensitively to the profit of the nation and those who visit it, bringing with them the precious foreign exchange the country needs?

A group of kayakers has been exploring Brunei over the past year to show what is possible and they have discovered a world of opportunity. Brunei’s intimate scale precludes the need for lavish accommodation in the areas to be visited.

An hour’s drive from the comfort of the exclusive hotels in Bandar Seri Begawan delivers you to the starting point of many a jungle adventure, which can be tailored in duration and difficulty to suit different expectations and abilities.

There is even water to be paddled closer to home. A case in point is Empangan Mengkubau, a small reservoir not far from the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. What is so appealing about it is that it lies hidden before our very eyes. There is a subversive thrill to finding such tranquility and seclusion amidst urban sprawl. It is also living proof that wilderness areas can thrive in proximity to human settlement, offering city dwellers an escape from the hurly-burly of city life. The value of such areas should not be underestimated. So, what makes kayaking such an appealing option both for the tourist industry and those charged with protecting the environment? The advantages are many.

First and foremost is the fact that many local Malays have water in their blood so a pool of young men and women are able to offer their services to tourists.

And it is these people, who should be drawn from the areas tourists’ visit, who are the true guardians of their local flora and fauna. Any conservation initiative must win local hearts and minds and the work provided would give them an incentive to protect their natural heritage.

Also, kayaking is economically viable. Little more than equipment and training is needed to get such a venture off the ground. Modern equipment is both durable and relatively cheap. More important than any mercenary financial considerations, however, is the true magic of the experience kayaking delivers. It is the least intrusive way of enjoying the rainforest. The stealth and silence of a kayak approach and the ability to cover lots of ground means the likelihood of encounters with wildlife is greatly increased.

Furthermore, there are no engines to drown out the sounds of the forest, which is enjoyed as it should be: in devotional silence. Most importantly, kayakers don’t even leave footprints so after comers can still feel like pioneers setting out into the unknown. How many people can say they have launched a kayak onto a deserted lake so still that the heavens seemed to have taken up residence in its waters? And how many have done so to the singing of wild Bornean Gibbons?

A small band of enthusiasts is enjoying these wonders. Who will take up the challenge of making it possible for others keen to follow?

Source: Borneo Bulletin | 20 January 2018