Raft Guide Training in the Borneo Jungles of Brunei Darrusalem

By Kelly Fischer, Nantahala Outdoor Center Instructor & Adventure Travel Guide
  |  Gorp.com
Picture of a group of rafters

The rafts are loaded, equipment is packed and we step carefully onto the long boat for the shuttle ride up-river into the depths of the Borneo Jungle. Thoughts of head hunters and large poisonous snakes are not far from the front of my mind. We sit cross-legged and single file in the boat that measures just 24 inches wide and nearly 20 feet long. The long narrow wooden boat is powered by a 40 horsepower outboard motor, a precarious shuttle vehicle at most!

The journey up the Temborung River to the put-in starts mildly. The long boat is the only practical way to reach remote interior villages when the roads stop. The boat knifes through the calm water without trouble and the dense jungle creates an impenetrable scene along the banks. The captain appears confident piloting us through the deepest channels and eddies. His eagle eyes dart about searching for the clean lines, a cigarette hangs from his lip. Just when I begin to relax he takes a sharp turn leaning the boat like a kayak. The seven other passengers instinctively counter-balance the lean and I am the only one taken off-guard as the narrow boat nearly dips a gunwale into the water. In poor canoeing style, I grab the gunwales and find that the "don't grab the gunwales" rule that applies to a whitewater canoe also applies to the long boat. Fortunately the rest of the crew anticipated my clumsy reaction and were able to make the correction.

OK, so I learned something: Counter-balance the leaning long boat. I can do that. After a few more turns everything becomes more comfortable and then I see the first significant rapid. Now, I have run many rapids in the downstream direction but never in the upstream direction. This is a new angle. The co-pilot sits in the very front of the boat armed with a push-pole able to give assistance to the captain who has us lined up on the eddy line to go over the shoulder of a three-foot wave. A Class II rapid in the downstream view, but from where I am seated this little rapid looks solid Class IV. To my relief, we negotiate up through this rapid with no trouble, taking just a few splashes inside, and continue deeper into the jungle. Moving up through that rapid my hands mysteriously returned to the gunwales with a grip that turned my knuckles white.

This is how my first raft trip began in the Borneo jungles of Brunei Darrusalem. It was a great beginning to two weeks of awesome adventure, leading a raft guide training course for the Outward Bound School of Brunei Darrusalem. Hugh Bailey and I were on assignment to teach the first raft guide training course ever offered in the country of Brunei where adventure recreation is just beginning to get a firm foothold. The course was sponsored by His Majesty's Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport, designed to add rafting to the curriculum of the new Outward Bound School. The course was a success in providing an organized framework in which to develop a safe and exciting raft program.

Brunei Darrusalem, commonly referred to as "Brunei," is a small country on the northwest part of the island of Borneo. It was once a large power throughout Southeast Asia but dwindled in size over the past few centuries until oil was discovered in 1929. Then the economy began to take off and develop into one of the most wealthy nations in the world today. Brunei is ruled by His Majesty Paduka Seri Beginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, the 29th in his line. The religion of the country is Islamic fundamentalism where strict dress codes, an alcohol ban and severe judicial punishment make for a very conservative populace. (These were not the type of raft guides I am used to hanging out with!)

Our students were ten men and one woman ranging from 18-40 in age. Most were instructors in training for the Outward Bound School. One was an executive of the Ministry, the Treasurer and President of the National Canoe Club. This was a highly-motivated, incredibly fun group of people who were excited about learning to raft.

The Outward Bound School is in its development stages, scheduled for its first official course to begin the summer of 1997. The past year has been an intense year of staff training and construction of the physical plant. Outward Bound in Brunei is a bit different than the organization here in the States. Funded entirely by the wealthy Bruneian Government there are no strict budgets to adhere to. Therefore, the school can purchase top quality equipment and build state of the art facilities. Everything has a fresh newness to it. Along with the best equipment money can buy, the school is able to put a great deal of time and resources into developing their staff. The raft guide training program was just one in a series of training seminars including search and rescue drills with the Brunei Air Force, wilderness medicine through the Wilderness Medical Associates, and kayak instruction through the British Canoe Union.

It was good to see all of this investment in staff happening but it was also fun to see all the portable phones, laptop computers, two-way radios and shiny new vehicles that would make US Outward Bound instructors drop-jaw amazed.

We ran three rivers: the Temborung, the Kiulu and the Padahs. The Temborung is within the county of Brunei but requires a taxi boat ride across Malaysian water from the city of Bandar Seri Begewan to the city of Bangar. The wooden enclosed water taxi, referred to as a "flying coffin," held all 12 of us and our equipment and gets its name from there being just one exit. If the boat sinks it is difficult to get out. Crashes happen periodically as there is no policing of the water and rules of passage are few. The safest place to ride is on the roof.

The Temborung River is the home of the operations center and the logistic center for the school, two separate structures along the river. The logistic center situated on the river at the end of the road a short van ride from Bangar is where most of the equipment is kept and group organization takes place. There are bunk rooms and a cafeteria along with conference rooms and offices. A 20-minute boat ride gets you to the operations center where much of the actual courses will take place. A Class I-II river, the Temborung was an excellent location to introduce fundamental boat handling skills and river rescue activities. This is the river that will be used for the first few years as the staff become more experienced as guides. The greatest hazard of the river is long boat traffic; the rapids are straightforward and easy.

Our other two rivers were in the neighboring country of Sabah, a member of the Malaysian Federation. A half-hour commercial plane ride brought us to the city of Kota Kinabalu where rental trucks picked us up and transported us to the Kiulu River. The Kiulu was a step up in difficulty and where our group did most training. It is a Class II-III run similar in many ways to the popular Nantahala River in North Carolina. We spent five days on the Kiulu enabling us to focus on individual guiding skills, group organization, safety and rescue. The time we spent on the Kiulu was also essential practice before heading to the mighty Padahs River.

The Padahs was a significant step up from the Kiulu into the Class IV-V level. A high volume run, the Padahs was flowing a whopping 8000 cfs on our first day there and dropped down to about 5000 in the next few days. This thrilling run is accessed by rail car only. The train ride began in Beaufort and took us up-river past the take-out and on to the put-in past an impressive group of rapids. These rapids, with names like Head Hunter and Cobra, were large, pushy rapids similar in size and volume to rapids on the Grand Canyon. We were allowed two runs per day and were able to fit five runs into our time here, all of them exciting. We had one raft flip on our first run down the river and a second flip occurred on our final trip, both of them in the Cobra rapid.

The Island of Borneo has a tremendous amount of rivers with numerous first descent possibilities. Access is the predominant limiting factor as there are no roads into the jungle interior and helicopters are the only option. This makes for some very expensive shuttles and will slow down all but the best funded groups. Adventure recreation is fast becoming a viable part of the tourist industry so it is a matter of time before more options will become available. This little corner of the world is definitely one to keep an eye on in the future.

Special thanks to Kelly Fischer, Instructor and Adventure Travel Guide for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, for sharing this adventure.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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