Jungle journey: a survivor's story

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The Independent Online
I do not want to seem to boast, but I survived more than just Borneo. I survived Redmond O'Hanlon in Borneo. This is how I did it.

In the early Eighties I met up with an old colleague who had been jungle-walking in Borneo and asked him in detail how he had done it, how taxing it was, how dangerous and so forth. My colleague recommended going to Sabah, to a longhouse at the edge of the jungle, finding some people who were walking to the next longhouse along the way, and simply tagging along. If no one was going in your proposed direction, you might hire a guide. The system he described was not very taxing and required minimal equipment. A normal backpack would suffice.

When I put this idea to Redmond, who was not yet an explorer, he was enthusiastic, but later drew back, worried about the dangers involved. Just how taxing would it be? Could he survive? It would be his first trip to the tropics. Would he, like some Conrad character, be driven mad?

Refraining from the obvious reply (that he was quite barking already) I went through the plan again, which was: to have an interesting holiday, not to do anything taxing and certainly not to court danger. I wanted to see some jungle, that was all.

Redmond overcame his reluctance, and I bought the tickets. At which point, everything went out of control. First Sabah was overruled as being too tame (Sabah is where the recent rescue took place). Next, the idea of walking was jettisoned in favour of a boat trip into the interior of Sarawak, employing a team of guides, cooks and so forth. Then, in a breathtaking leap of the imagination, we were to cross the entire island (the largest in the world, as I recall), going upstream on the Malaysian side, persuading our bearers to carry our boats over the mountains to the Indonesian side, where they would leave us to navigate a river which, I could see from my map, featured many long stretches of rapids. Neither of us had any experience of white water, but this did not seem to figure with Redmond.

I can see now that Redmond's original unwillingness to join the trip stemmed not from his fear of anything that I had outlined, but from his own secret knowledge that, if he once committed himself to Borneo, it would be to the total Borneo thing. He was not just going to nibble at the jungle. Oh no. Every day of our preparations a new element was added. We would take a gun and he would shoot our meals. We would look for the rare, bald-headed wood- shrike. We would relocate the possibly extinct Borneo rhinoceros. We would be trained and equipped by the SAS. And so forth.

Astonishingly, every preposterous idea began to look as if it would come true. We were, indeed, equipped by the SAS and given, if not training, at least a pep talk. We acquired an impressive certificate to say we were looking for the bald-headed wood-shrike. An appropriate gun was added to our kit.

Now that my original holiday plan appeared to have been totally militarised, my chief concern was: I did not want to die. I thought that if we crossed, illegally, into remotest Indonesia, with SAS equipment and a gun, a quick, clean death would be the best we could hope for.

Redmond did not see things that way. Amazingly, the Indonesian embassy in London gave him a visa which - he assured me - would allow him to cross the remote jungle border. But survival tactics, for me, had begun well in advance of leaving Britain and, amazingly, I failed to find time to acquire the same kind of visa.

You would have thought that travelling internationally with a large gun would land you in all kinds of difficulties. Not a bit of it. It earns you great respect. You arrive at a Heathrow check-in and say: 'Oh, there's a gun in that bag there.' They almost seem to expect it. But they do, of course, take it off you. The same in Singapore; they are perfectly happy to see guns in transit. The difficulty with guns is not travelling with them, but getting them into countries for which you do not have any form of licence.

At Kuching airport, in Sarawak, we finally met the customs officer, who shared my misgivings about the gun. This was the second blow to Redmond's Total Borneo Fantasy (the first had been at Heathrow when it turned out that our SAS rations would cost pounds 2,000 in overweight fees), whereby we would meet the challenge of the island as soldiers, hunters, scholars, killers, scientists, explorers, photographers and writers all in one. But Indonesia remained on the menu. We had to cross the whole of Borneo. No one had done it before, Redmond thought, and if we did not do it, it would not be a real trip.

So we went to the Indonesian consulate to apply for my visa, and there I experienced my third stroke of luck. Point of entry was indeed a matter of vital interest to the official, who not only reacted in horror to our plan, but also took one look at Redmond and his visa and crossed out the word Kalimantan, thereby banning him from the Indonesian side. A nasty man, that official - precisely the nasty man I had hoped to encounter.

There was, of course, quite enough of Redmond's fantasy to be going on with. Take this business, for instance, of finding the Borneo rhinoceros. It stands to reason that, if the Borneo rhinoceros has been lost, it is going to take some finding. To say: I am just taking a few weeks holiday in Borneo where, incidentally, I hope to find the Borneo rhinoceros, is a bit like saying: I am just going to have a rummage in the attic, and maybe I will turn up the lost plays of Sophocles, or: I have got an hour to spare before lunch, so maybe I will just decipher Linear A.

When I meet people, and it is often, who say, 'Oh, are you the guy who went with Redmond O'Hanlon to Borneo?' I want to say quickly, before a look of pitying amusement crosses their features: 'Yes and no. I'm not the one in the book (Into the Heart of Borneo), I'm actually the sensible one. I'm the one who scuppered the Indonesian fantasy, which would have had us drowned or shot.'

We decided instead that to climb Mount Timah would serve as a climax to our trip to the interior, but at the foot of the mountain, where we had made our camp, I decided I was satisfied. Redmond and our guides could complete Redmond's fantasy. I would stay behind and read.

So I had a pleasant day alone in a camp by a river in central Borneo, catching up on a little work, and was rewarded with the sight of a bird rare for those parts (though common in Singapore), the black-naped oriole. There were two of them, flying round and round and in and out of a bush, so fast I was unsure at first how many birds there were. I sat on the pebbled shore, watching them in fascination and feeling I had achieved my fantasy.

A little later there was a noise behind me from the undergrowth, and something jumped out and landed with all its weight on my shoulders. It was Redmond. I have survived Redmond and his rich, exorbitant fantasies.