Great apes and tribal vibes

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Mar 28, 2007

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Arriving in Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, was a delight.  There seemed to be no taxis, tuk tuks, baggage handlers or anyone else interested in us and the airport was surprisingly pleasant.  We'd read that it was a shabby run down old place but it had obviously recently been upgraded, the bus stop wasn't where we'd expected it so wandering off in the wrong direction, we were set back on track by the lady picking up litter whose English was excellent.  We had to wait a little while for the bus into town but that was cool, we were in no rush.  Getting off the bus in town, we were again dumbfounded by the lack of touts and stepped off to find our way quietly to a nice B&B, the Borneo B&B was where we ended up and were immediately overwhelmed by the cosy family atmosphere in the shared lounge/dining room.  Checking in and getting our key our landlady (who later we learned liked to be called Mama May) asked if we'd be taking their tour to the longhouse tomorrow, so we did.  It happened kinda fast, we'd expected to spend a day or two checking out tour operators/prices etc., but it all seemed above board and we liked Mama May a lot so we trusted that her tour would be the best.  Tomorrow we were to be taken on a two night trip into the interior to stay with a family in a longhouse. 
Longhouses if you're not familiar with them are just that - very long houses (I think ours had 28 doors).  Each of the doors leads into a fairly big kitchen/dining room which goes through to an even bigger family room for sleeping, chilling out, even watching TV if there is one.  The door at the back of that however goes through to a room which stretches the entire length of the whole 28 door building and is a common area for all of the families living in the longhouse.  That's also where they hang the skulls.  The Iban tribe we were to be staying with, although now fairly modernised, used to be some of the best headhunters in Borneo. 
We didn't have long to get ourselves organised for a two night trip but we hit the shops and did our best to get what we needed quickly.  We left the guest house at a jog to catch up with the others who were waiting in the van.  We'd already met and chatted with Victor and Linda (who would very soon become "our Swedish mates") but also in the van were Heather and Christian plus Harold, our guide.  We quickly established a great rapport and were all excited about the trip - this I realised from the barrage of questions we all had for Harold who was more than happy to answer them all and throw in a few funny asides too. 
The start of the trip took us to the Orangutan Sanctuary at Semmengoh, we could make it there for feeding time but there were no guarantees that anyone would be hungry right at that time, we crossed our fingers and tried to ignore the zillions of other tourists waiting, sometimes impatiently, to catch a glimpse at the apes.  We waited and waited, each breeze that blew a few leaves on a branch was scrutinised closely, but... nothing.  Almost resigned to the fact that we'd missed them, the park ranger guy said that we'd have a better chance of seeing one on the trail, so off we trotted with renewed hope.  Arriving on the trail, which had been a pleasant walk, our patience was rewarded with an old female who responded to the calls of the ranger guy and swung slowly and ever so carefully through the branches, with her baby clinging to her sides, and stopped just above us.  It was incredible!

To see such an elusive, endangered species so close up was humbling.  Shortly after, a smaller, younger male came crashing playfully through the trees to impress us with his agility and speed swinging from tree to tree.  It was too good.  We knew that these were rescue animals but since there weren't caged and were roaming free in a large expanse of jungle the experience didn't seem too zoo-like.
We arrived at the longhouse in Ulu Bayor fairly late since it was quite a long drive, so there was just time for a couple of warm Oranjebooms and a look at their preparation of the days "catch" before settling into our beds for the night.  Our guide explained that the tribespeople believed we'd brought with us some luck as they'd managed to catch a large wild boar on the hunt earlier that day - it seems that doesn't happen with regularity - and they wanted to show us their good fortune.   The process for preparing a wild boar we were to see in the cramped lean-to at the side of the kitchen began with burning the coarse hair off the pigs skin on an open fire, then scraping whatever residue was left with a fairly large machete.  Of course, none of this can be done with the animals head on so this sat, quite comfortably, on the floor, glazed eyes skyward.   The hairless carcass is then butchered and seared on the fire, all of which processes are undertaken in the presence of the pack of dogs who'd been out with the hunters to catch the thing.  We were immediately impressed by their obedience, not once did any one of them even look like they'd nick a bit and run off with it.   With that up close and personal introduction to life in the longhouse, we were instantly aware that we were to be living with them for the next two nights, not just be hosted by them, but that we'd be allowed to be part of their lives.  This would be an experience we would not forget.  Putting the images of severed pigs heads out of mind, we retired to the second room of the house, where very comfortable roll out mattresses with pillows and cosy blankets had been set up for us, and slept soundly in the cool evening climate of the mountains. 

As we'd expected from our first night's introduction, the trip from Mama Mays was not the touristy, don't get your hands dirty kind of affair the other operators might have offered.  Although we're still unclear of the exact details there was some family connection between May and Stewart, the guy whose rooms of the longhouse we stayed in.  So, happily for all of us, there was no 'cultural program', we just did what they did and went where they went.   In the morning, they went hunting - so we did too.  All of us, about 4 or 5 of the men from the house and a pack of six to eight dogs.  What a trip.  It started out fairly quietly, just sauntering up the road, then along a wee path into the trees and after about half an hour or forty minutes we were into the jungle and onto the scent of our quarry.  We clambered over stray branches and fallen trees, climbing down deeper into the jungle with only tree roots to hold our footfalls.  Arriving at a river, we were asked to wait, the pig was so close they'd be faster and easily more successful if we just stayed put a while, we hung there, listening to Harold's story about the time someone went round the wrong way, was mistaken for a pig and accidently shot.  We didn't move from there till one of the guys came wading back through the river a short time later dragging the baby boar through the water to wash out the blood (the dogs had caught and held it till one of the guys could get over there and chop a clean swipe with the machete, right through it's shoulder).

The others were already chasing after another, bigger boar but we'd decided that was good enough for us, we certainly didn't want to botch their attempt to catch the next one.  There was some discussion in our group as to how they'd normally carry their catch back to the house, the hunter (the one we'd later refer to as 'Champion') who'd stayed with us and Harold, demonstrated how to tie up the animals legs, with a long thin bit of tree root or something like that, so that you could put a stick through there and carry it between two people.  After tying it up though, it was just small enough to fit into the woven basket he'd brought along and Erik volunteered to be the pack horse - that is what I brought him all this way around the world for after all!  Our arrival back at the house was met with some delight as Erik carried the catch home.

We were a lucky group and they seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm for their culture and willingness to participate.  I suppose it might all sound a bit bloodthirsty and gory, but being there, knowing that was dinner for the next couple of nights, it didn't feel wrong.  As the fire was getting started to prepare the pig, the girls in our group were given a chance to learn how to cook sticky rice in bamboo.  There's a special technique to getting the rice and the right amount of water in there which consists of shaking tapping and turning the bamboo so the rice kinda falls in from your hands.  They found it quite funny to start with, but their expert tuition, even although we couldn't speak the same language, meant we soon began to get the hang of it.  The stuffed bamboo canes were sealed off at the top with leaves and propped up next to the fire to cook - I loved the simplicity.  Sitting by the kitchen table after our hunt, we could see that people from the other doors along the house would come by and peer in a little bit, interested to see what we were like, but they never came in.  We later learned that it was custom to treat visitors as VIPs so although people were keen to interact, they felt we should be bothered and were a bit shy because they couldn't speak any English.  We'd done our best to learn some pleasantries from Harold before getting there, but it doesn't take long to get those out of the way, and the Iban actually spoke a different language, their own local dialect, which was different to the Bahasa we'd been using.   Preferring to be out there with the folks, we went out the front to hang out and be seen.  It wasn't long before a table appeared, then chairs for us, so we'd be more comfortable - they were hospitable in the extreme.  That little table and chair set up soon turned into a bit of a party as pieces of wild boar were cooked on the fire and shared around along with the rice whiskey...  Yowzer!   That's some strong tasting stuff but we liked how it was shared around.  Using only one glass, the 'barman' would refill the glass and pass it round the circle, making sure everyone took their turn.
The afternoon barbie turned into an evening's performance, after we'd eaten again (it's very important, culturally you understand, to gratefully accept all the hospitality offered) we were informed by our good friend Harold that our hosts would like to play some music for us - we were delighted and couldn't wait to hear it.  There was no pomp and ceremony, there was no costume or fuss, they just brought out their instruments and started to play, mocking and chastising each other playfully as they did.  We huddled near the back and listened carefully, nodding and smiling our appreciation.  All of the families from the other rooms down the line gathered, some in the light with us, others in the shadows, observing.  I wouldn't have known some were there except when I later heard some of their giggles.  Much to our surprise, we were invited to join in their music making, so one by one, we went up front and tried our hands.  Delighted that we'd joined in we laughed together at our poor attempts and mistakes.

The rice whisky and arak were now flowing and everyone was in the party mood.  Harold explained that with a few rice whiskies would come the courage to communicate more, it surely did.  We'd been impressed and humbled by the kindness and generosity of our hosts and that night, they became our friends.
Another very comfortable night was spent in the house but after a solid night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, it was all too soon time to go.  We were very sad to leave and wanted to stay longer... much longer.
The ride home with Harold was just as much fun as the ride there, and I'm sure we had just as many, if not more, questions which he gladly answered.  Harold, we can't thank you enough for making that trip such a great experience for us. 
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