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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Warm Heart of Borneo: Sarawak - Page 3

Written by Alison Aitken
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Dense jungles, bats and blow-pipes. As our accidental party of four cheerfully unkempt backpackers and a quietly intrepid, forty-something Canadian couple travelled further up the Betang Rejang river and into the heart of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo’s southern province, this otherworldly combination gradually became an altogether more tangible reality. We had sped out of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, on an 80-seater catamaran which boasted a super powered air-conditioning and a steady loop of James Bond classics. Five hours later, we left the inland town of Sibuh on a vehicle older than Sean Connery himself. As the open sea changed from estuary to swirling brown river, rutted muddy tracks came into view. These jagged scars revealed the obvious presence of machinery in the previously untouched Malaysian jungles.


After enduring our failed attempts at the nose flute, the spritely septuagenarian leapt to his feet and plucked a long and narrow piece of bamboo from a nearby wall. Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, tribes people of Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, the Iban, Kuching, travel Sarawak, Betang Rejang river, Longhouse, Kapit, Belaga, Malaysian jungles, travel Borneo,  longhouse wedding, Alison AitkenWondering if this was yet another exotic instrument, we were stunned into silence as it became clear that it was something altogether more compelling. Once used by head-hunters for unambiguous purposes, the blow-pipe continues to be used by tribes-people today with wild boar, the local prey of choice. Through mime we learned the stealth and precision of the technique in spite of the fact that rifles were now a popular upgrade. All too soon, it was time for us to take our leave. The formality of our initial greeting was in amusing contrast to the farewell hugs and kisses we now received. We ended our eventful day with a candlelit catfish dinner and a few hours of rest on the floor of our guides’ home. Around us, a chorus of snores floated in and out of the thin wooden walls, as the longhouse united in sleep.


The following morning we re-energized with a few cups of syrupy sweet local coffee before the start of our next adventure. Having experienced the civilised side of jungle life, we set off an hour later to try our hands at the more primitive alternative. We slid down leaf strewn slopes following our nimble-footed guide as he made his way expertly through the mesh of sprouting foliage. Giant creepers dangled from the branches of the canopy, and unseen birds called across the treetops high above us. Somewhere ahead of us, the crash of water on rocks could be heard. After sidestepping a colony of fire ants and scrambling over fallen trunks, we emerged into a tranquil lichen-clad glade. My group and I were delighted to come upon a loud cascade of water falling from 30 metres above. After trekking through the humid jungle our clothes were drenched with filth and sweat. We welcomed the oasis-like waterfall and cast our clothes and fear of leeches aside, leaping with glee into the crisp, cool water.


Aside from a minor encounter with a swirling, potentially poisonous giant millipede, the waterfall was a success and we headed to our jungle camp rejuvenated. Our clean skin quickly resumed a sticky sheen, as we pushed on through the trees followed by a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. Arriving at the ramshackle camp not long before dark, our guides set about preparing an impressive meal of sticky rice, vegetables and freshly caught fish - much of which had been cooked inside bamboo tubes hacked from the surrounding undergrowth. As our sated campfire chatter stilled to sleepy silence, we were quickly immersed in the strangely hypnotic green noise of the jungle.

Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, tribes people of Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, the Iban, Kuching, travel Sarawak, Betang Rejang river, Longhouse, Kapit, Belaga, Malaysian jungles, travel Borneo,  longhouse wedding, Alison Aitken

The following day, it was time to pack up and head for home. Having arrived not knowing quite what to expect, we departed with fond memories of the remarkable experiences of the days that passed. With heads occupied by the striking images we had been privileged to observe, and hearts full of gratitude for the longhouse people, we took our leave and began the slow trip back to an altogether different kind of civilization.

©Alison Aitken

(Page 3 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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