Ye Olde Travel Guide: Borneo 1856

In our historical holidays series, in which experts imagine they're writing a travel guide in the past, DE Meredith sings the praises of a tropical island bursting with exotic wildlife but also fraught with danger

Illustration by Jonty Clark, based on Alfred Russel Wallace's 1868 map.

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Discover your inner explorer with a trip to Borneo’s lush jungles. It’s important to make sure you are prepared mentally and physically for your stay: travel to the island’s interior can be dangerous but the zoological rewards will be great…

When to go

Borneo is sweltering year round, and often very wet. For a more temperate climate, head for the hill stations of the highlands. Avoid the months between November and February, when the rainy season will render any foray into the interior impossible.

What to take with you

For gentlemen, a pair of galoshes, three suits of tropical tweeds (and as many made of white drill) will suffice, as well as loose-fitting cotton shirts with pockets, sturdy boots, and gaiters to guard against thorns and mud. Those who intend to explore should remember butterfly nets, a rifle, botany books, a skinning knife, cat gut for taxidermy and several cases of London gin.
Some intrepid ladies have been known to arrive on ships from Singapore weighed down with ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ for an extended stay, but it is now possible to buy Bibles, enamel commodes, bath cabinets and even romantic novels in the town known as ‘Sarawak Proper’. You may wish to bring your own necessities, though, along with needlepoint, watercolours and an easel for leisure and self-improvement.
Parasols, cotton day dresses, gumboots and a number of heavy veils (for protection from insects) are essential, along with a silk dress for evenings and a decent umbrella.

Sights and activities

Colourful temples abound, and the island positively thrums with the chatter of Chinese, Malays and the local Iban and Dayak tribespeople. A few pleasant hours can be spent on the veranda of Rajah James Brooke’s residence in Sarawak Proper. As befits a man who has ultimate control in Borneo, his mountain retreat, Peninjau, is a delight, and can be reached via a long and slippery jungle trail. The Dayak longhouses will astound you. Perched high above the forest floor on stilts of iron wood, they have strange carvings around the door to keep evil spirits at bay – though not, alas, the damnable insects.
Unusual flora and fauna abound in Borneo. Red-haired apes called orang-utans – maias in the Dayak tongue – can often be seen swinging through the forests. Hunting trips to catch these man-like apes can be arranged in Sarawak Proper.
A butterfly net, meanwhile, is all that’s needed to collect all manner of entomological delights, including the bright-blue Buprestis and emerald-green longicorns beetles. You may even be lucky enough to spot the exquisite black-and-electric-green birdwing butterfly Trogonoptera brookiana, discovered last year by the notable British collector Alfred Russel Wallace.

Costs and money

Be prepared to barter in Borneo. Silver trade coins, the Indian rupee and Dutch gold ducats are all accepted, and rifles, ammunition and spirits will all prove popular with the local Dayak tribes. Brightly coloured beads and tuak (rice wine) can be purchased in town and traded for rice, wood carvings, exotic species, spices, plumage or even diamonds. Shells – especially cowries – can be used as currency along the coast. Ladies may wish to employ a local Dayak woman or boy to help barter with the mainly Chinese traders.

Dangers and annoyances

Borneo is as devilish as Africa for its heat and disease, and tropical fevers flourish. Powdered quinine made into a tonic will help ward off malaria. Be warned, though: snake bites can be fatal. Keep trouser legs tucked into boots at all times to deter biting insects.
Be alert for attacks by Dayak tribes, who may fire poison arrows. Heavily tattooed natives should also be avoided – they may be after your head. Ferocious pirates still control much of the coastline beyond Sarawak town, despite claims by Rajah Brooke to the contrary; he has done much to suppress piracy but the problem remains.
Chronic maladies of the stomach are common and it is advisable to bring at least a year’s worth of digestive salts and the cure-all Parker’s Tonic.

Sleeping and accommodation

Kampongs and lodging houses in Sarawak Proper offer commodious places to stay at a reasonable price. If you travel into the forests, camping or overnight stays in a longhouse are the only options.

Eating

Visitors can feast like royalty in Borneo for a modest outlay. All manner of strange delicacies are on offer, including bird’s nest soup (made with the saliva of swallows), fermented boar’s meat, kolo mee (a noodle dish), bambangan (a type of mango), the odoriferous durian fruit, spices, pork and, of course, rice. Fresh fish, including shark, is widely available.

Getting around

It is possible to hire a carriage, but trips into the interior will require a Dayak guide and careful planning. Dugout canoes can be used to navigate Borneo’s many rivers, but further exploration of the jungle must be undertaken on foot.
DE Meredith is author of Devoured, the first book in the ‘Hatton and Roumande’ historical crime series, published by Allison & Busby