Twenty-five years ago author Redmond O’Hanlon embarked on a journey with three head hunters and a dug-out canoe up Sarawak’s Rajang River. Albeit in slightly grander surrounds, cruise company Pandaw recently launched a trip following in his footsteps.

When British travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon embarked on a death-defying odyssey up the Rajang River in Malaysia’s lush province of Sarawak in 1983, little did he know that 25 years later a luxury cruise ship would follow in his wake.

Reconstructing a shallow bottomed paddle steamer, British-owned Pandaw River Cruises recently launched Into the heart of Borneo, a cruise named after the raucously entertaining book O’Hanlon scribbled while on the river.

Even reading about O’Hanlon’s journey isn’t for the faint hearted. Then natural history editor at the Times Literary Supplement in London, the self confessed reluctant traveler, who had never been into a jungle before, journeys up the Rajang River and the tributary Belleh in search of the fabled Borneo rhinoceros, believe to be hiding out below Mount Tiban.

In almost impenetrable jungle, crawling with carnivorous animals and primeval tribes, O’Hanlon and his friend, the poet James Fenton- whose idea it was to go on a walking holiday in Borneo- battle with the idea of 1,700 different species of parasitic worms, wild-boar ticks (removed from the crutch “with Sellotape”, writes O’Hanlon), snakes, leeches, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, yellow and black-water and dengue fevers, malaria, cholera, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis, tuberculosis and crocodiles (“thumb in the eye- if you have time”) as they head into the islands unmapped interior. “I covered myself in SAS anti-fungus powder until my erogenous zone looked like meat chunks rolled in flour”, he notes.

Joining them as their guides, advisers, at one point life-savers, were three Iban, members of the infamous head hunting tribe that hit the headlines for decapitating Japanese soldiers during World War 11.

Naturally, Pandaw’s journey isn’t quite a match for that made by O’Hanlon’s, who travelled in a dug-out canoe subsisting on little more than fish, rice and several gallons of arak, the local fire-wine. By contrast, the RV Orient Pandaw has been fashioned to resemble an original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company paddle steamer, one of many that once plied the rivers of British- era Burma, hauling silk and lacquer-ware downstream and European imports of soap and whiskey upstream.

Built in Ho Chi Minh City, the charming four storey ship has been finished in bronze and teak. Thirty small but functional guest cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows and wicker chairs on a shared outdoor patio. There is a formal dining room where all three meals are served, and a library where Borneo themed films- The Sleeping Dictionary, Farewell to the King- are played each night. But it’s the upper deck bridge which takes the cake, with cozy lounge chairs, soaring views and a bar brimming with all-inclusive booze; the ideal spot to while away the day.

We began our eight day cruise in Sibu, a bustling town on the banks of the Rajang River and former administration centre for the White Rajahs. The Indian-born son of a British magistrate, James Brooke, also known as the White Rajah, obtained the Kingdom of Sarawak from the Sultan of Brunei after triumphantly leading the Sultans army against rogue tribes in the 1840’s. Brooke set about creating his personal fiefdom by fighting piracy, reforming the administration and establishing trade routes. For the latter he encouraged Chinese migrants to settle, even helping them to set up shop (but, to protect the kingdom’s ethnic tribes, forbad them to enter politics). For most Chinese immigrants, Sibu was the first port of call, dubbing it “New Foochow” (meaning New Fujian, as most immigrants came from the Chinese province of Fujian).

A strong Chinese presence still lingers, from the quaint rows of mid-1800’s shop houses and spoken Mandarin to the distinctive south-eastern China food, like river prawns served in a spicy star anise-spiced broth and bagel-like snack gom-bian.

Unlike O’Hanlon, who travelled directly up the Rajang River from Sibu, our ship initially meanders downstream to the Igan River. Pandaw are keen to introduce us to all the cultures and minorities living along the river. Our first stop is at the village of Sangai, inhabited by the Melanau people, who live on the coastal swamps and are considered one of the earliest inhabitants of Borneo. Trailing after our guides- Andreas, a dashing young Iban and Lewis, a Chinese-Malay- we file through the quiet village. Following 44 passengers is a bit too much like zoo-watching for me, so I wander off on my own, sampling sweet tea and stinky durian from one of the shops and making friends with school children in morning recess from Chinese lessons. “Where do you come from lah?”, they chorus before bursting into giggles and skipping off without the answer.

That afternoon we make an excursion to see the production of sago, a starch found in the pith of a sago palm.Villagers dissemble the palm and fashion each component into a product: bark for matting and insulation, pulp for eating, waste fiber for rope. They even feast on the plump grubs that shelter inside (Andreas snacks on a few live for our entertainment).

In the evening, in far more luxurious surrounds, we sit down to a meal of local delicacies: Sarawak style spicy curry, fried chicken, birds nest (the edible saliva of a SE Asian cave swift) and alarmingly, shark fin soup – so highly revered by the Chinese that one in five species of the fish threatened with extinction.

The on-board local chef proudly tells me this sharks-fin is authentic, but Pandaw, who market their cruises as eco-friendly, is adamant it is an imitation made from mung bean vermicelli. My bet is with Pandaw, as despite the environmental (and public relations) implications, shark fin costs in excess of AU$750 a kilo.

At 6 am, with coffee and tea on the bridge, the Pandaw Orient swings into action again and we start the journey up-steam, to the jungles and tribes illustriously portrayed in O’Hanlon’s book. Controlling the Kingdom of Sarawak for more than 100 years, three generations of Brooke family are praised by history books for fighting to protect the regions native people from development and capitalist exploitations. As a result many of Sarawak’s tribes were almost unaware of the outside world until well into the 20th century.

Getting these same warring tribes to stop killing each other was, however, slightly more difficult. To do this Brooke enlisted the help of the Iban. Head hunters and pirates, the Iban- otherwise known as sea dyaks- are among Sarawak’s most fabled and fierce tribes.

We visit an Iban longhouse on the fourth day. Longhouses, as the name suggests, are very long indeed, this particular one measuring more than 100 meters. A collection of higgledy-higgledy extensions added to a single, shingled room built in the 1880’s, the house accommodates 32 families, each with their own quarters but sharing a dark corridor lined with wooden coffins (where the spirits dwell, we are told).The Iban claim they have given up head hunting, though a big bag of sculls is suspended ornamentally from the ceiling alongside a box and boldly written card saying “Please donate for our hearts and souls”.

What Charles Darwin once called “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself”, Borneo is one of the most ecologically diverse places on the earth. The island, slightly smaller than New South Wales, is home to more than 15,000 plant species, including the meter wide Rafflesia flower, the orangutan and extravagant hornbill. Every year scientists discover dozens of new species- more recently including the world’s largest cockroach and a pygmy elephant.

As we inch along the mighty Rajang River, a monstrous expanse of tepid brown water tainted from its wash down from the mountains, this world gently passes by us. The forest, like a carpet coloured every hue of green, crowds at the edge- native vines strangling towering hardwoods and spritely ferns making a break for the sun.

And then we see the barges, heavy with iron wood, a slow growing dense rainforest species. Borneo has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation and trees that have managed to survive the last 20 years of voracious clear felling are on their way out now, as new roads open up previously inaccessible areas. Those species that can float head downstream in bundles guided by families in small dinghies. They are making their way to the dozens of timber yards scattered across the Rajang’s delta.

Unlike O’Hanlon who walked through an “absurdly thick patch of jungle”, full of termites and “the swish of hornbill wings” to climb Mount Tiban, our eight-day cruise on the Rajang and its tributaries doesn’t so much as glimpse wildlife or old-growth wilderness. In fact, ninety-nine percent of what we see, Andreas says, is secondary forest.

He finally manages to find us a patch of primary forest to walk through but we’re told it’s a cemetery and, naturally, off limits. Our proposed ‘jungle walk’ ends up being a stroll through a rubber plantation, one of Sarawak’s main export industries.

Pandaw’s other river cruises are littered with ancient architectural treasures and civilizations: along the Mekong in southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the Irrawaddy in Burma and just launched Ganges sailing from Calcutta to Varanasi in India. By comparison, the Rajang is a little lackluster. Most of the fellow passengers- a group of mainly Swiss and Aussies on their second or third Pandaw sailing- say that this cruise doesn’t quite stack up as the others do.

The twice-daily excursions- to the treacherous Pelagus Rapids, to a village to that makes palm wine to sample the spritzy tipple and a traditional weaving factory- are interesting, I get the feeling that the guides are working overtime to try and flush the journey out, creating an eight-day journey over what is probably better paced over five-days.

But its early days for Pandaw in Sarawak. Unlike Sabah, Malaysia’s other province in Borneo, Sarawak doesn’t have a well defined tourism industry- and Pandaw are the first luxury operator outside of the capital, Kuching.

Change is coming quickly to Borneo. Young people are being lured to the cities and the airy wooden longhouses are being replaced with concrete blocks. But there are times that feel like you have just stepped straight out of Brooke’s Sarawak.

In the town of Kapit- home to Fort Sylvia, which James Brooke’s son, Charles, built to stop the Iban travelling upstream and waging war on neighboring tribes- I spot a whole encyclopedia of plants and fruits in the market, including midin- an edible jungle fern, the feet of forest deer and a python, cut into pieces and ready for the pot.

Outside I meet a dentist from Sibu who has travelled to Kapit for a few days work. He explains that he only pulls out Iban teeth. “Christian teeth no good, they have too muches pain and blood”, he says, “but Iban jungle peoples; no pain for Iban teeth”. I study his instruments: a rusting pair of pliers and collection of photos demonstrating the process. They sit side by side a pile of recently extracted pearly whites on a handkerchief engraved with Taoist demigods. “I think your country not have dentist like me”, he says.

Pandaw River Cruises: Tel: (in Australia) 02 80805622; www.pandaw.com; Bottom deck cabins are from $5420 for two people sharing on the eight-day Rajang River cruise, all inclusive.

This article was published in the November 14, 2009 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers. Prices are in Australian dollars and were correct at the time of publication.