Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon

I recently went to Borneo, but nowhere near its heart. In fact the heat got to me so quickly that I even abandoned a trip I had planned to a national park to see some wildlife.

Redmond and his mate, James Fenton, walk, boat and carry a boat right into the centre, to a place which had had no explorers for 50 years (I'm pretty sure there were some local inhabitants). Their destination is a Mt Batu Tiban, which is sort of accessible by going up the Rajang and Baleh Rivers.
I don't know how they did it! Its not like they're commandos: they're a reviewer of natural history books and poet respectively. O'Hanlon gets off the plane in Kuching and is sweating withing 15 yards and thinks "a mile would be impossible; five hundred miles an absurdity".

This is the book of their trek, which I read in my comfy seat in the Air Asia plane taking me to Malaysia (Borneo is an island (third largest in the world) to the East of mainland Malaysia, comprised of two Malaysian states (Sarawak and Sabah), Brunei and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan):


The first couple of chapters are about their preparation - lots of reading very quickly:
Powerful as your scholarly instincts may be, there is no matching the strength of that irrational desire to find a means of keeping your head upon your shoulders;... of barring 1700 different species of parasitic worm from your bloodstream and Wagler's pit viper from just about anywhere...
He wanted to wear a wetsuit and steel waders but for obvious reasons could not. Luckily he gets help from the SAS (I like the line from their visit to a SAS training area: "impossibly burly hippies in Levi jeans and trendy sweaters piled out of a truck like fragments of a hand grenade").

There's public transport available from Kuching upriver to Kapit: from then they have to find their own way. The local Iban Tuah Rumah, or headman, agrees to lead the party along with a couple of young Iban guys. Right from the beginning, they show they care, asking "Redmon" if he has been with the women from the hotel, they'll make his spear rot, there's a disease, they don't know the English word but in Iban, its called syphilis.

As they travel, Redmond is frequently consulting his history and natural history books, which give depth to the story. By way of contrast, James reads poetry as they putter upriver, pausing as they go through rapids - very stylish. So, too, are the Ibans when they have something to laugh at:
There was a weird, gurgling, jungle-sound behind us [Redmond has just hooked himself in the rear with a fish hook]. Dana, Leon and Inghai were leaning against the boulders. The Iban, when they decide something is really funny, and know they are going to laugh for a long time, lie down first.
Dana, Leon and Inghai lay down.
If the heat wasn't enough, there was also the insect life that attacked every night and the fact that the only fish to be caught were like "a hair brush caked in lard". The river journey lasts several days - there is only one incident in which one of the party nearly dies - James loses his footing and is swept into a whirlpool, but his crew save him, and are very proud to also save his boater. The writing is a revelation - it gives a very realistic account of the river, the birds and other wildlife they encounter and of the good humour of the men.

At one point, they come across another tribe, the Kayan, and after exchanging formal greetings, its time to party in the longhouse (I hadn't realised how high off the ground they are or that they're accessible only by scrambling up a notched log, one which was muddy and very slippery when Redmond tries it). There are war dances (Redmond tries one and is so good at it his Iban mates need to lie down), singing, dancing, clowns, what read like a fantastic dance performance by the headman's young daughter, story-telling and lots of the local booze, tuak.

But it is not all song and dance - Redmond and James provide medical aid for lots of people and learn there is an extremely high mortality rate - there are many threats to life in the jungle and they're too far from medical help for it to do much good. This is one of the sad aspects of the book, the other is the feeling that this life is coming to an end. Redmond is quite keen to see some particularly rare birds he has pictures of in his book, but he has great trouble finding anyone who has even seen these birds. Saddest of all for me was the visit to the Ukit longhouse - the Ukit are the people who live right in the centre of Borneo, the most nomadic and independent of all, so having a government provided longhouse is something of a contradiction. Its an unfinished sort of place and the younger generation know nothing of their parents' way of life, are quite disparaging of it.

As they get near journey's end, where the Baleh river splits in two, they find themselves in a particularly beautiful spot, an "enclosed, still world of gentle water", "ringed with ochre-coloured shingle, edged with boulders and driftwood". So what do they do in this oasis? They have a cook-off, Masterchef-style - James v Leon. The former cooks something which look like peas but which the Iban dismiss as tasting like rat shit (Redmond finds that they taste like a particular haemorrhoid cream made from the oil of shark fins). Leon's contribution is a fish soup with spaghetti - at least it looks like spaghetti, but are actually "the little snakes that live in the fishes", otherwise known as worms.

The end, when it comes, was curiously anti-climatic. They've had to abandon their boats and climb, even the early slopes were so steep Redmond is reduced to hands and knees, then its up and down through the horribly humid jungle (98%), temperature well over 100 degrees F, James is attacked by a leech (which causes another Iban lie-down). There's three days of this then "suddenly the steep slope levelled: we had reached the top". They look around a bit, did a peasant dance, exchanged hats and "returned to camp at great speed". It is no time at all, one day and a short chapter, and they're back where they started, yet going up had taken more than a week.

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