A trip up the Batang Ai river brings travellers into contact with a range of locals – some friendly, some terrifying.
Our motorised canoe makes its way up the snaking Batang Ai River into the island’s dense jungle, bearing us ever closer to the longhouses of the Iban tribe, the formerly notorious headhunters of the Sarawak jungles. The only sound coming from the surrounding undergrowth is the occasional hoot of a gibbon from somewhere high up in the trees. Not so long ago, most of this dense tropical rainforest was ruled by ethnic tribes and Borneo went mostly unexplored by westerners until World War II.
“They say that orangutans used to be able to swing from branch to branch all the way across Borneo,” says Gendup, my Iban guide.
These days, while the forest may not seem as menacing, the wilds of Sarawak still offer plenty of surprises. We creep deeper into the jungle where the river becomes shallower and the bends in it more pronounced. Our boatman, a tall and sinewy Iban with large scorpion and tiger tattoos on his torso, has to shut down the motor and make progress by poling with a large wooden stick. Soon the river is so narrow and rocky that the boat can’t even be poled, and it isn’t long before we are scraping bottom and needing to get out and portage.
Borneo, full of impenetrable jungles and vast river systems, remains one of the most unique places on earth. It contains the oldest rainforest in the world, 130 million years old to be precise, and has the most biodiversity to be found anywhere on the planet, with more than 15,000 species of plants and 3000 species of trees.
Gandup leaves the boatman to maneuver the craft upriver and leads us away from the water, up a steep ravine and into the jungle. The canopy is dense here, there is no sunlight whatsoever, and the relief at standing up and moving a bit soon turns to terror when something looking like a pig that badly needs a shave appears, standing just metres from us.
“Bearded pig, the largest mammal in Borneo. Don’t worry, it’s harmless,” Gandup explains.
Gandup strides ahead, only to come to an abrupt halt and take several steps back, motioning for me to be still. He points ahead to what looks like a piece of phosphorescent wood, glowing in the forest. Further scrutiny reveals a lime green pit viper curled around a branch in the jungle. The snake is the only poisonous creature to be found in Batang Ai, and is one that you don’t want to mess with, as its venom can paralyse the nervous system within minutes, leading to all sorts of wonderful complications such as intense pain, vomiting, respiratory failure and death. Gandup whispers to me the story of a Chinese visitor who thought that a viper seen near the longhouse was a rubber fake, planted there by the Iban to impress tourists. It didn’t end well.
We go around the snake and continue over a small ridge where the trail continues back toward the river. The silence under the forest canopy is suddenly broken by loud honking sounds coming from the trees above, and my renewed fear is soon replaced by amazement, when several large monkeys with the largest noses since Jimmy Durante come swinging toward us. It is a rare glimpse of the endangered proboscis monkey.
“The males’ noses grow up to seven inches,” Gandup says. “Bigger than your average pornstar. And yes, they are there only for one reason, to attract a mate. You see my friend, size really does matter.”
There are only about 7000 proboscis monkeys left in the wild. Indigenous to Borneo, the monkeys are famed for their bizarre body make-ups, which feature the enormous pensile noses and equally enormous potbellies, which make up more than 20 percent of the proboscis’ weight. They are also known as orang belanda, which is Malay for ‘Dutchman’, as Indonesians see a resemblance in the bellies and noses of their early Dutch colonisers.
The proboscis swing past overhead, seemingly taunting us as we make our way down out of the trees and back to the canoe, where our boatman stands staring intently into the river, heaving a large fishing net into the deeper current, almost immediately hauling out a catch of more than 30 small fish. While many of the Iban have migrated to Kuching, becoming some of Sarawak’s leading business and political leaders, back up-river traditions and survival in nature survive.
We paddle on and soon approach the longhouse and Gendup chuckles and says he hopes that I won’t behave like the last tourist they welcomed here, a Japanese woman whom he says had probably watched a too few many horror movies and read too many accounts of headhunting prior to arrival. When they reached the longhouse, she took one look at the two village elders who came out to greet the boat, saw their elongated throat tattoos – which signify they’ve taken a head – and plunged into the water, screaming as she made for the opposite bank.
Back when Borneo was a lawless land and ruled by territorial clans, intertribal warfare was common and the Iban made raids into rival territory, where the practice of taking an enemy’s head served both as a way of ensuring that his spirit would be captured for good, as well as a rite-of-passage into manhood for young warriors. The practice of headhunting pretty much died out during the reign of the British Rajah of Sarawak James Brooke.
We arrive at the longhouse and the chief comes out to meet us – a spry old man who has a daunting warrior tattoo on his throat but a shy disarming smile, who happily takes time off from mending his fishing nets to inspect the packets of chips and biscuits we have brought as a gift. With Gendup translating, he tells of how much the times have changed. He remembers when, during WWII, the Japanese arrived and he and his brothers took up spears to defend themselves, whereas now it is friendly tourists arriving bearing gifts. He nods in assent when asked about his taking of a head, but doesn’t say much more, other than to say that his tattoo, representing bravery and manhood, was extremely painful to receive. Another man who has been listening to us chimes in: “There is an old Iban proverb that says ‘A man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods’.”
Invited into the ruai, the long internal corridor that serves as the common room of the longhouse, we are seated in a circle and introductions are made all around. This is where the Iban women spend the day weaving and men work on their fishing, hunting, and rubber tapping tools. The headman beckons all of us for a round of tuak, the potent local rice wine, and soon the entire longhouse is toasting our safe arrival.
Getting There: Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines have several daily flights to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur. From Kuching, it is a four-hour drive and then a three-hour boat ride upriver to the longhouses. You can no longer just show up at the longhouses up the Batang Ai River, which has nothing to do with keeping one’s head intact. Getting to the longhouses does take a bit of advance planning. Borneo Adventure, Sarawak’s most established operator, has been running sustainable tourism and community involvement programs for more than 30 years. They run the gamut of other tours around Borneo as well. See borneoadventure.com.
By Dave Stamboulis