“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a poor wretch like me…”
The strains of that beautiful hymn, no words, just the tune, came from the hillside deep in the tropical forest on a hot day in Borneo. I looked ahead, but could not see. The music continued, right on tune, sung, not hummed, with a joy and peace I could feel just from listening to it. As I got closer, a small man, seemingly as old as the trees, made his way down the steep hillside toward me. I waved. He cleared the ditch and stuck out his hand.
We shook. With a toothless grin, he looked up from under his straw hat, touched his heart and said “Moo-sha”. I touched mine, and gave my name in return. Golda arrived, and the introductions were repeated, as they were again when we all caught up to Yon. All the while holding his spear-tipped blowpipe, he laughed and smiled and shared his small English vocabulary, a little collection of words like “good” and “please”, said with a hand gesture that meant “welcome”.
Welcome to the Kelabit Highlands.
One of the best travel decisions we ever made was coming here to the Kelabit Highlands in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, the big island shared by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The Kelabits, with the small settlement and airstrip at Bario as its centre (just 1,000 residents), is not far from the border with Kalimantan, Indonesia. According to local histories, the Kelabit people have lived here “since time immemorial”, at some point having moved from Kalimantan “as a result of inter-tribal headhunting and competition for scarce resources there”.* Kelabit society was once highly structured, with three classes (aristocratic, middle and common); these days, and since 1973, most are evangelical Christians. The area has no fewer than a dozen churches – one for every 100 of the 1,000 living in Bario and estimated 200 more in surrounding villages. A few small settlements of the Penan – a nomadic indigenous group who’ve done it very tough over the last few centuries – also dot the landscape. Looked down upon by Kelabits and Malays, they tend to stick to themselves.
Messing about in boats
There’s supposed to be nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. So just after arriving in Bario, we went out with Stephen, our local guide and homestay owner, and met a longboat captain on a small, muddy river quite deep in the jungle. He seemed a friendly fellow, and capable too. As he strapped in the gear, he stowed a shotgun on top. For hunting, said Stephen, not for security.
We set off along the river, shallow in places, never wide, and occasionally with very gentle rapids. The motor spluttered away, and other than two buffalo who hustled off as we came around the bend, and a single white egret that wheeled gracefully away from its perch on the buffalo’s back, the only wildlife we saw was a solitary eagle far above. Trees soared high over the banks, and bamboo burst out of the ground in big fans, as though the soil was a vase too small for the job. The river worked its way further into the jungle, or rather, we worked our way upstream against it as it worked its way out.
Here and there a hidden log glanced the wooden hull, with a sudden thump and slight lateral wobble. The first time was a surprise, but by the tenth time we hardly noticed. I settled into my inflatable seat, worried less about getting my camera wet, and bathed in the sun as the motor grunted away. I was hardly paying attention when we hit another log, louder than before. I still barely noticed as we lurched to the right, and I was just bringing my brain into action as the boat stood up on its right side and Yon, in front of me, went overboard.
In an instant I followed her, pointlessly trying to brace my fall with my right arm which sank straight into the river. My left arm, holding the camera, instinctively shot into the air and my feet swirled in search of the river bed. But we had crashed in deep mid-stream, and as I began treading water I saw that everyone had been spilled. Still my arm held the camera high and dry, submerged only at the elbow, the rest of me below the neck underwater.
I looked around. Everyone seemed ok and the longboat was back on its hull, three quarters full of water but still floating quietly having tossed its contents out. We struggled over to the bank, a slippery wall of wet clay. I snapped off a picture before thinking, and then heard Yon say she’d struck her knee during the crash. An Englishman, the only other non-local on the boat, helped her ashore while Golda gathered up our bags, now floating around us. Then I noticed the captain of the boat, somehow upstream of me though he’d been steering from the rear. Shirtless now, he was duckdiving beyond the nose of the longboat. After a few moments, he came to the surface dragging something obviously very heavy.
It turned out to be the motor, not an outboard but a small engine with a long propshaft suitable for narrow river work. He lugged it ashore and water poured from every component, reeking of petrol and spilling a metallic blue sheen onto the brown water. We all gathered our wits. Stephen checked everyone was ok – we were, despite Yon’s throbbing knee. He seemed most shocked of all. In perhaps a thousand longboat rides in his long life in the Kelabit Highlands, this was his first ever capsizing. For us, not knowing what to expect, it could have been a daily occurrence.
The poor captain was mortified. He knew the word “sorry” and uttered it profusely. But we were all calm. It was an accident, and all of us could readily see that. Yon felt her knee was not permanently damaged. The Englishman had dropped his waterproof camera, but I had saved mine. In fact, we felt worse for the captain – here he was, a long way upstream, looking at a drenched and probably sand-ridden motor and a spilt cache of fuel, a precious commodity in a village where fuel comes by a long and winding forestry road. We did our best to put him at ease and quietly thanked our lucky stars no-one had drowned, caught under the boat had it totally gone over, or been hit by the falling motor which weighed more than a typical lawnmower. Yon and the Englishman helped bale out the longboat. There weren’t enough buckets for the rest of us.
Stephen broke out the inflatable canoes. Soaked in water, covered in mud, and still a bit bewildered, we got them ready and farewelled the longboat captain. He smiled and said “sorry”; we smiled and said “no, it’s ok!”; he went back to field stripping the motor, pouring water from a forlorn looking carburetor, or whatever it was.
And then we paddled back, riding the gentle current, bouncing over logs with a little concern at first given what had just happened and nonchalance by the end. It was quiet and peaceful without the motor, but hard to control. Our canoe spun circles and collided with the muddy banks as we got the hang of steering it. And before long we reached the end of the trip, back where we had met the longboat captain before. We dragged ourselves ashore, deflated the canoes, and humped them back to the car. Still Stephen seemed in shock. “We were very lucky”, he told me quietly, out of earshot of Yon and Golda (by design or otherwise I wasn’t sure). “The boat man is very sorry”.
Behind the valley floor, we climbed up a narrow path towards a few more remote settlements. Passing one, we heard ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” pumping through the forest. Upside or downside of globalisation? Depends who you ask, but it sounded like someone was having fun in that village.
Further uphill, deeper into the forest, we came to a small Penan settlement, noticeably far poorer than everywhere else. Just shanties on stilts. The people here were doing it tough. And yet, as almost always in such places around the world, the few people we saw were smiling and welcoming. They let us stand around, just near a chained up monkey, and watch what seemed to be an elder giving a younger man instruction in the use of the blowpipe. I couldn’t see what, if anything, they were aiming at up in the tree, but it must have been something. After a few darts zipped through the air, the younger man moved uphill a little and tried from a different angle.
Tom Harrisson, who spent much of World War Two around Bario fighting with the locals against the Japanese, writes:
“A master blowpiper can hit a monkey in a treetop, provided the foliage is not too dense. …Hold the stem with the left hand cupped under and the right just behind it…right back at the base end, balancing the length of wood with the wrist. Aim on the upper knot of the binding which lashes the spear to the other end…Slightly bite the circle of the pith which enfolds the dart shaft, so that this fits tight and close into the hole. Now blow, not hard but with a quick, sharp, quite-as-possible pouft… and the dart should rip out, sibilant… to strike with sharpened head into the flesh for the eating.
“What does it matter to miss, anyhow? The thin sliver of wood slides past the squirrel unnoticed; shoot another, and improve. In this it is vastly superior to any introduced weapon”. **
The next day, Stephen dropped us at the end of the concrete road just short of the little village of Pa Ukat. We set off along the trail, into the tropical dry forest beyond. Before coming, we’d worried about visiting in the tail end of the dry season, but it didn’t rain once while we were there. We’d feared the legendary tiger leeches and bought leech socks from Mrs Lee in Miri, but I saw just a single pathetic leech. We were lucky. The trail was dry, though muddy in places, the sun shone and a breeze cooled us from time to time and gave some life to the trees which swayed in the wind and screeched with the zing of cicadas.
And just before Pa Lungan, deep in the forest, I heard the music of “Amazing Grace” and met old Moo Sha. We walked with him into the village, a well-kept place of about twenty houses loosely arranged around a big green field. A man was mowing it (a big job, which he was still doing the next day when we left).
Our host here was David Atu, who had a homestay in a nice pink house on stilts, all built by his own hand. His daughter met us at the gate, and he arrived later with a water buffalo hooked to a sled. With fine English, he welcomed us and pointed at the contraption around the buffalo’s powerful front shoulders. “This is our four-by-four!”
David had lived in Singapore for seven years in the 90s, working oil and gas, until returning at his parents’ request as the youngest and favourite of their ten children to nurse them through their last days. Now he farmed rice, hunted wild boar, sent his kids to school in Bario and hosted visitors in his immaculate house. Just a few families lived in Pa Lungan, he said, and few other than older folk knew how to speak Kelabit properly. Like so many small, tribal dialects, it is disappearing from the face of the earth.
David’s son, just ten, had that afternoon hunted a wild boar, assisted by one of the many dogs that roamed the village.
“It is difficult for outsiders to understand the Kelabit attitude to a dog. …Dogs are the essential adjuncts of hunting, particularly hunting for pig (much the most important kind). But beyond that, few people feel about dogs. If a dog is a very good hunter, its master is liable to take particular care of it. But by and large, the dogs don’t have to be particularly good or bad. They just have to scent a pig and get around it, yapping. Most any dog can do that. The hunter then comes up and does the rest.
“…dog loving is seldom to be seen. …The idea of patting or calling a dog is…ridiculous. Generally, you kick it, throw something at it, or take it up by the tail – too swiftly for it to snap at your hand – and swing it out of the way”.**
This didn’t seem entirely the case in Pa Lungan. David’s wife’s uncle, a jolly man, had a pack of new puppies at his place across the way. Yon fell hard for one of them, a black and white little fellow, much to the amusement of not only the uncle, but several other older folk who came past. One old lady gently steered the hapless pup away from the hooves of an oncoming buffalo, complete with sled. Much laughter followed, especially at Yon’s effort to use the few words of Kelabit she’d just picked up: “dou-do-oi nungai”, she offered the old lady – walk slowly!
The night sky there was as clear and bright as any we’d ever seen – the equal of the renowned deep skies of Bolivia or Utah. We ate Kelabit cuisine, pineapple shoots and wild ferns (gathered from the “jungle supermarket”) and freshly slaughtered chicken and deep fried little fish, the kind that swim around in the rice paddies. And Bario rice, famous country-wide as the best there is. David shared most of the typical concerns of people everywhere – working hard, providing for his kids who that week would hike four hours back to Bario to their school dormitory, and pushing the authorities to make good on their promise to install solar panels in Pa Lungan. “Every government promises to do this before the election”, he lamented. “After the election, every government goes back to sleep”. Developing or developed world, it’s a familiar refrain nearly anyone can identify with – useless governments and their hollow promises.
Before konfrontasi – the 1963-66 stand-off between Malaysia and Indonesia about the creation of Malaysia, in which Australian forces fought (and which I studied at uni, never thinking I’d visit the scene) – Bario had just one “long house”. A long house is a traditional, communal living space on Borneo. That one long house was called Bario Asal Longhouse, and we visited it on a lazy sunny afternoon.
Our last night, back in Bario, we ate more jungle greens and some smoked deer. We strolled the village’s long main street, stopping in at “Y2K” to see what was on the shelves (tinned fish, snacks and hardware). The place had a pool room attached, where already-drunk men were mauling a karaoke tune and inviting Yon to join them for beers. I said to Golda, “so this is the kind of bar you don’t bring a lady”. Nearby, someone had caught and caged a wild boar, evidently fattening it up for some future feast. It paced its tiny cage, probably well aware of its fate.
At the airport, waiting for our flight, we met another bunch of locals. Two older guys, retired teachers, joked around with us about being lawyers. “Wouldn’t it be better”, the older man thought, “if at the end, the freed man could give the judge a big hug?”. He flung his arms around an imaginary judge and everyone laughed. I got some laughs with the story of the longboat crash, which Stephen then explained quietly in the local language, concern still written on his face. We asked about their teaching careers. “We had to teach everything – maths, science, history, languages…”. “And… what was it called?”, the other thought out loud. “Moral instruction”, they laughed. “And sports! You had to be a good footballer, a good basketballer” – he mimed dribbling a ball – “a good volleyballer”.
“Jack of all trades, master of none”. But they had done some good work, because many Kelabit people were highly educated professionals – doctors, lawyers, pilots. Indeed, one of these men’s sons was a fly-in fly-out engineer for Shell in Gabon. Another local was co-pilot on our Twin Otter back to Miri.
We farewelled these fellows and said our goodbyes to Stephen, his Danish wife Tine and their kid Noah. We climbed into the Twin Otter feeling we’d found a remarkable place, and feeling a strong desire to return.
* Stone Culture of the Northern Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysia: A Visitor’s Guide, International Tropical Timber Organisation, p 6.
** Harrisson, T., World Within: A Borneo Story, 1958