My guide, Nam, eyes my heavy camera pack with the clear expectation that he will end up carrying it. But I am fit – triathlon fit – and this hike is what I have been training for.
We set off from Nanga Sumpa longhouse, a jungle lodge in Sarawak, Borneo, and cross the first stream by a narrow log bridge that even a seasoned trapeze artist would look twice at. The early part of our trail is half in the river and I lose count of the water crossings after No. 11. Trekking in the jungle is like doing aerobics in a sauna; with humidity at near 100 per cent, sweat pours off the minute you enter the steamy, humid rain forest. Whatever you are wearing is saturated in moments. By contrast, my native Iban guide Nam, slight and wiry, with calves of steel, looks barely warm. I ask him: "Is the trail very steep?" "Little bit," he replies, a master of understatement as I am soon to find out. "We stop at the bottom for a rest."
Drinking water on our break, I look up to see a near 45-degree gradient disappearing into the distant mist. A wind gets up, a sure presage of rain. The forest darkens as light levels fall and even the cicadas are conned into a false announcement of dusk at 10 a.m. as they scream like sex-starved tom cats. Sure enough, the rain starts. I steel myself for the ascent.
But then the rain brings out my least favourite rain-forest creatures. Stop or sit down and first one, then many, thin waving creatures appear in your peripheral vision. These are the vanguard of the leech community, using heat-seeking sensors in their multijawed mouths to locate the steaming, sweat-saturated, heap of wet clothes that you have become. Even a mosquito can be deterred from its purpose, but a leech – no. Think of it as a blood-sucking zombie and you won't be far wrong. Flicking them off is tough – they are like sticky rubber bands. There is something quite disconcerting about watching the beasts swell up as they drink your blood.
Up we climb in the rain, stopping every so often for a breather and a leech check; they favour the armpits, and inside shoes. At the top Nam points out into the mist: another six-hour walk away is the border with Kalimantan – Indonesian Borneo. Fortunately, after crossing along a reasonably horizontal surface for a while, we are about to make our way back down.
It is still raining six hours after we began, but we made it. I am utterly saturated with trembling knees and overstretched Achilles tendons, and a shower feels fantastic. Afterward, Nam invites me to his home in the longhouse to sample some of the local homebrew. The Iban enjoy making alcohol from rice, but beware, there are two versions: rice wine (quite refined and safe to drink in small quantities) and arak (a double distilled, fiery concoction best drunk close to where you will sleep). I am in luck this time; the villagers are clean out of arak.
It could be the rice wine, but I feel a glow of achievement that only hard exercise can elicit. Nam tells me that the fastest he ever did our trek was in two hours, but then kindly smiles and confides that I did much better than expected: He had me down for eight hours. And I'd like to point out that at no point did he carry my gear.
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