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Backcountry Borneo – by plane and on foot


As the tiny Cessna bumped and glided its way over the vast tropical rainforests of East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, I started to wonder what exactly had possessed me to choose to fly into one of the most remote areas of South East Asia, completely on my own. This was the second time I had travelled solo, but the expensive and comfortably tourist-laden paradise that is Fiji does not compare to Indonesian Borneo. I had come here to get away from the more popular, bar-hopping, beaten track kind of tourism; I wanted to experience something totally new, and something I would remember. I wanted adventure, and while I was cautious not to expect too much, what I learned over the week sowed the seeds of a realisation that lasts with me to this day.

The plane chugged on. A few thousand feet below the Cessna’s wings, the jungle spread out like a green carpet, and as the land began to rise into hills, the vast logging camps near the coast slowly became smaller and less frequent, replaced by small brown scars in the undulating sea of green.

I pointed to one of the clearings. “Is that a village?” I asked Paul, the pilot of the missionary aircraft and the first white person I had seen since I arrived in Borneo, over the plane intercom.

“Huh? Oh that, no it’s a landslide caused by lightning. No one lives down there anymore; this is clouded-leopard country. We’ll be at your drop-off in about an hour”.

Craggy mountains rose out of the green, cloaked in yet more trees. “The people where we’re going are friendly, but they aren’t used to tourists”, Paul warned me. “You’ll be the first one to visit here.” Laughing over the intercom, Paul continued, “it’s definitely a turning point; fifty years ago these guys were fighting the Japanese with blowpipes and machetes, and now they’re getting their first tourist! So you’re in for quite an adventure, huh?”

I nodded slightly, barely disguising my apprehension. That’s exactly why I was doing this, and little did I know then how much of an adventure it would be. Over the next group of mountains, a clearing emerged in the jungle with a visible dirt line marking a landing strip, surrounded on one side by rice fields, and on all others by tall trees. “Here we go”, said Paul, “this is the easternmost village of the Kelabit people. Just over that next ridge is Malaysian Borneo,” he said, pointing to the horizon.

We descended, and with a bump, we were on the ground, rolling to a stop next to a group of children.

As he unloaded his cargo of food and medical supplies in front of a bewildered audience of young children, Paul turned to me. “If you’re not sure you want to stay, now’s the time to say so. I won’t be back here for a week”.

I picked up my bag, and with that, he took one last chicken out of the Cessna and gave it to a kindly looking man that had come to meet us. “This is Pastor Johan, he will take good care of you. He’s the only pastor this far into Kalimantan who speaks English”. Paul hopped into the aircraft, roared the engine, and set off back over the bumpy landing strip. The comforting noise of the Cessna floated away, and I was left standing with Johan on the grass and dirt landing strip listening to the sound of bees, cockerels and nervous giggling from the few children left around me.

“Nice to meet you, my name is Jamie,” I offered my hand.

“Selamat datang Jimmy, welcome to Long Layu”.

“We must see the village chief right away. He will be very excited to meet you.” Johan led the way past a stout-looking ox to one of the wooden stilted houses that lined the clearing.

Once we reached the top of the thick length of tree trunk that lead to the entrance, a wrinkled and heavily tattooed hand shot out of it to greet me. It belonged to Leywi, the village chief and an exceptionally strong and athletic man, whose vigour was all the more impressive given that he could remember his father fighting the Japanese. Draped over his tattooed, muscled shoulders was a Nike t-shirt.

Once inside, we sat and chatted over a meal of rice, chicken and jackfruit. “We are so pleased to have you here, we have waited for many years for tourists to come.” Almost as if to emphasise the point, Leywi brought out a guestbook, dusted it off, and handed it to me. “Please write your name and where you are from here”, he said in Indonesian, pointing to the blank front page. “Tomorrow, I am going hunting for forest pig with some village men for a few days. You are welcome to join us.”

My plans decided, we sat chatting on the veranda of Leywi’s stilt house as the sun faded over the jungle clad hills that surround the village, the sound of clucking chickens slowly replaced by the grumble of distant thunder and the high-pitched whirr of the nearby forest at night.

Six o’clock the next morning, my bag filled with several small parcels of rice wrapped in banana plant leaves, Leywi and two other athletic-looking Kelabit men, both dressed in Nike football shirts, set off through the dawn with me in tow, leaving Pastor Johan to preach his Sunday sermon to the rest of the village. At a pace that better resembled a slow jog, we passed through rice paddies and up the sides of the steep forested hills until the muddy, well-trodden path became smaller and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding vegetation, save for the occasional machete mark on a vine or sapling. I was soon soaked in sweat, and my trainers became sodden and clogged with mud. Over the next few hours, we darted up and down hills, waded through waist-deep rivers, clambered over enormous root systems, barely stopping once to take in the magnificent surrounding rainforest.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, however, the pace slowed. Leywi had brought along his hunting dogs, and they were sniffing the undergrowth, looking for signs of the “forest pig”, as he called it. The men were looking more alert; they had their homemade shotguns – a present from missionary pilots such as Paul – at the ready.

Suddenly, the dogs picked up a scent, and ran off the path into the forest. We followed, speeding through the undergrowth, jumping over roots, logs and scrambling up steep, thorny banks, to keep up with the speeding dogs. After a few hundred meters, I could still see the others running ahead but I was too weighed down by my bag to keep up. I jogged on down a steep slope to the sound of the barking dogs. Without warning, a shot rang out, too far ahead for me to see, and a shrill squeal was silenced by a second shot. At the bottom of the hill lay a huge dark brown boar, being hastily carved up by Leywi’s machete. The others were grinning wildly. With the meat divided up between the rattan pouches the men carried, we set off to find the path again.

A few hours later, we neared tiny clearing next to a river. “Malam ini, kita tidur disini – tonight we sleep here”, an energetic-looking Leywi declared, and the four of us took a seat in a makeshift hut in the center of the clearing, erected on previous hunting trips. The others chatted happily, started a fire and placed the meat on sticks. While the men told tales and gently poked fun at me for falling over so many times, I inspected my legs. They were covered in mud and bleeding from several leech bites, and my feet were wrinkled and blistered from being saturated in water all day. I felt drained, my reserves of energy depleted. This had to be one of the most tiring days of my life, I thought, but by far one of the most exhilarating. I felt more alive than at any other time I could remember.

As the light faded, and fireflies began to light up the darkening canopy, the distant rumble of thunder reminded us what time it was. A troop of monkeys darted around the trees somewhere nearby, howling to each other, and the whooshing sound of a hornbill’s wings beat rhythmically overhead.

Eventually, the pig meat was cooked, and the men dined on a two-course pork and rice dish, with the background music of insects whirring. Lightning flashes from distant storms occasionally silhouetted the gigantic trees around the clearing, but save for the fireflies and the flaming wood, everything else was dark.

With my broken Indonesian, we chatted about life, girls, and the big wide world outside this small patch of rainforest. We talked about how Philipus, one of the group, wanted to go to coastal Tarakan, the nearest city, to train as a teacher. I attempted to explain why rugby was better than football, and Philipus joked that I was too fat and my balance too bad to play any sport, much to the amusement of the others.

Peiter, the third member of our hunting group, hankered after one of the girls in the village but the others gently goaded him, saying that he was already too old, being 26, to even think about marrying her. “You will be running the village in a few years! There’s no way she would want to marry you,” Leywi chuckled. Pieter laughed, joking that he would give his entire share of the leftover pig meat to the girl’s family and bribe her to marry him. After a brief lull, the conversation then turned to the day’s hunt.

“To hunt is a natural part of life. We must do it to be healthy; we cannot just live on rice alone”, Philipus, the only one of the three with a good grasp of English, explained to me. “We did use blowguns and spears, but then the missionaries helped us make these.” He gestured to one of the homemade shotguns lying on the floor next to him, the silver barrels shimmering in the firelight. “Now it is much quicker to hunt. We do not have to hurt the pig so much. The missionaries have been very kind to us, they have given us many useful things.” Presumably the Nike shirts too, I thought.

Then the conversation suddenly took on a more serious tone.

“But we do not know what will happen to our hunting grounds in the future”, said Pieter, picking at a scrap of boar meat. “A few years ago some of the Kelabit villages over in Malaysia began hearing chainsaws during the days. Now they have no more forest to hunt in.”

Leywi nodded his head. “There is a village a few days’ walk from here, just across the border. The Malaysian government is building a road there. They say it is for the villagers, but everyone knows that as soon as the road is completed, the logging companies will take away the forest around them.”

“What will the villagers do then?” I asked, suspecting the inevitable.

“They will not be able to live off the land any more, and they will be forced to find a new way to exist.”  Leywi looked down. “Some villages accept many tourists, but in others, the men must work for the logging companies to earn the money to feed their families. They are forced to destroy the forest that has given their ancestors life for so long.”

Pieter, looking more agitated now, joined in. “Then there is the danger. Once the forest is destroyed, the logging companies move on, and the men must find work elsewhere so they do not starve. Some have to walk to places like Brunei and work illegally there. They do not see their families for months at a time. It is a dangerous journey, and many do not come back. Families are broken up; this is not good for the Kelabit way of life.”

How do you know this, I asked.

“Because the men sometimes cross the border to hunt in our lands now. We talk with them occasionally.”

“But we are lucky so far”, Philipus butted in, “this side of the border, there are too many mountains for them to build a road from the coast yet, but unless we can find enough tourists, the Indonesian government might relent and allow the companies to cut down the forest here too.”

But too much tourism is a bad thing, I say, wondering what their response would be.

“Yes it is, we have heard about it over in the Malaysian villages.” A disgusted look creased Lewyi’s old face so much that his tribal tattoos became indistinguishable from wrinkles in the firelight. “In one village a few days’ walk away, the women put on a dance for the tourists. They have to do this every night, for different groups. The tourists fly in for one day at a time, take photos, and leave. It is like an animal show.”

“Why do you want tourists then?” I ask him, puzzled.

“Because we value our lands, we want the government to continue to protect them. But we do not want that kind of tourist – only people who appreciate us for who we are.”

A while later, the conversation quietened. After a pause in chatting, taking a large bead necklace out of his bag, Leywi turned to me and said, “thank you for visiting our lands Jimmy. You have spoken with us, you have hunted with us, and you have eaten with us. From now on, you are one of us”. As I suppressed my amusement at his pronunciation of my name, Leywi passed me the necklace. “As long as you have this, people will welcome you and feed you here. You are always at home in the Kelabit lands.”

I couldn’t help but smile. We chatted some more, and I eventually drifted off into a deep sleep.

A little over one week later, the sound of the Cessna’s engine reverberated once more against the hills surrounding Long Layu, only this time the sound was not so comforting. I had only spent a short time here, but it was one of the most welcoming places I had ever been, and it had changed something in me. I shook hands with Johan, Leywi and the others, for what I hoped was not the last time, picked up my bag and hobbled to the end of the landing strip.

In one week more, I would begin my second year at Exeter University, on my way to becoming a businessman, finance expert, accountant, or an insurance broker – another cog in the globalized world. But this is a world that has little time for people like the Kelabit, unless they are willing to cut down their rainforests for timber and palm oil, and accept unsustainable tourism for money’s sake. If people are not willing to sacrifice their land for profit, they are pushed aside by a global society obsessed with consumerism and capital.

I realised then, after spending time with those as yet untouched by it, that the world I had once wanted to be a part of now unsettled me. If it meant people like this had to pay the price, I thought, I could make do without all the wealth that the business world dishes out to the lucky few at the expense of many. This is a lesson that travelling in unlikely places teaches best.

What I have spent my life wanting – new clothes, new furniture, new technology, new stuff – is just fuelling the engine that impacts on communities like the Kelabit across the globe. It might be timber and palm oil here, but somewhere else it is gold, diamonds, cattle or copper, and in each of these places lies the front line of the war against basic necessity in the name of unnecessary commodity. Something must be done, I thought as the missionary aircraft came to a halt; that cannot be the best way to live.

Paul stepped out of the idling Cessna and took a look at a muddier, more bearded version of the man he dropped off the week before.

“It looks like you’ve had quite some adventure”.

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