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Self-Drive Sarawak - Roads, Rivers and Rainforests

Mike Reed hits the road for a Borneo adventure on four wheels


Borneo is famous for epic journeys. James Barclay's beautifully understated title - 'A Stroll Through Borneo' - covers a six-month trek from one side of the island to the other. Eric Hansen's 'Stranger In The Forest' has the author trading shotgun cartridges for food with the nomadic Penans, and Redmond O'Hanlon's 'Into The Heart Of Borneo' describes the hardships and hilarity experienced by two out-of-condition academics on the trail of the Sumatran Rhinoceros. What all of these books - and many, many more - have in common is that they all portray travel in Borneo as a fascinating experience, packed with bizarre encounters, pleasant (and sometimes unpleasant) surprises, and the sheer charm and generosity of the people.

The romance of a great Borneo journey has drawn adventurers to this island for centuries, and still they continue to come, each seeking his or her own personal experience of the rainforest, the rivers and the remarkable people. However, not many of us can afford to spend six months of our busy lives immersing ourselves in a journey of self-fulfilment. Instead, we have to snatch brief glimpses of other people's lives and cultures when our schedules and our wallets permit it. This is why this article proposes a great heresy, unthinkable to the bold adventurers of the past, and anathema to the so-called modern traveller who seeks hardship for hardship's sake. It suggests that one of the finest Borneo journeys of all can be made from behind the wheel of a car.

Driving through Borneo is not as ludicrous an idea as it may sound, particularly through Sarawak, which has a useful and generally well-maintained road network. The Pan Borneo Highway runs through the state, from Sematan in the south-west as far as Kuala Baram, gateway to Brunei, in the north. The best section of the road for a real journey of exploration and discovery is the 860 km stretch between Kuching, the state capital, and Miri, Sarawak's second largest town. Many Sarawakians travel this stretch regularly, and most would expect to cover the distance in twelve to fourteen hours, with the occasional speed-freak claiming to be able to beat the ten hour mark. But that's hardly surprising, as they're just getting from A to B.

What I'm suggesting, if you want to really see Sarawak, is a leisurely journey of a week or more. Of course, it could last a month, because many of the stops are well worth spending a few days at, and there are plenty of alternative stopovers. The itinerary below is very laid back, with only half a day behind the wheel on each stage, to give you plenty of time to explore when you reach your destination.

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