Hanging out with the headhunters

How experience in eco-tourism development in Nepal came handy in Borneo

1/2 Gurkha Rifle C Company soldier in Ba Kelalan crossing a bamboo bridge that was built over a small river near the company base.

I was not at all concerned about the rising wind but my headhunter companions were alarmed. They hurried with increasing urgency along the blustery forest trails, glancing nervously up at the swaying treetops. It took me some time to appreciate the danger of falling branches from the towering trees of the Borneo rainforest. Strong winds are rare, and loose foliage crashing to the forest floor would be lethal.

I picked up my pace behind their inky tattooed calves, but it was not until we reached the riverside clearing and their longhouse home that they relaxed. That stormy afternoon was the only time I observed these consummate forest dwellers ill at ease in their environment.

The former warriors of Sarawak, one of two states that comprise Malaysian Borneo, had skulls decorating their tribal homes, especially the ones visited by tourists. To survive in the remote rainforests along the mighty river arteries of tropical Borneo required communal living under one roof in wooden longhouses – extra rooms were added as the family expanded and everyone shared the wide veranda.

The ritual practice of headhunting, displaying enemy scalps as a rite of passage and prestige, had long been eradicated under the rule of  James Brook in the mid-nineteenth century, an eccentric British adventurer who appointed himself Rajah of Sarawak. His white castellated fort on its green manicured mound still dominates the riverside capital of Kuching.

My indigenous headhunting friends, more correctly known by their Malay Iban and Dayak tribal names, were disappointingly dressed in modern t-shirts and shorts, their longhouses modernised with single bulb electricity and corrugated iron roofs. They did still carry intricately woven baskets as backpacks and traditional gourds for water, and used blowpipes for hunting birds and small animals in the rainforest, although there were no longer any naked tattooed torsos, animal skin loincloths, beaded bodices or colourful headdresses decorated with tall feathers.

Their self-sufficient lifestyle included collecting medicinal plants and leaving secret messages along the path – a knotted grass or broken twig to signal local conditions such as “I am hunting in this tract” or “two cows are grazing nearby”, and we came across leafy offerings to appease the jungle spirits, despite the influx of Christian missionaries post World War II. Baggy cotton ‘Mary dresses’ worn by Iban women betrayed their influence, and we came across painted statues of Jesus and an occasional church -- even a newly constructed ‘cathedral’ on a hillside clearing close to the Kalimantan border.

It was 1992 and the reason we were walking the backblocks of Sarawak was to research potential adventure activities for tourists – longhouse visits, caving, river trips, waterfalls and wildlife walks – to supplement the beach resorts and quirky colonial history and Chinese culture. We had been asked by the State government to prepare a tourism master plan for Sarawak. Les Clark and Dave Bamford, founders of Tourism Resource Consultants Wellington, had just won their first major contract, and asked me to be responsible for the marketing aspects.

My experience with Nepal eco-tourism had helped us win, along with their New Zealand national park tourism planning backgrounds, but it was my maiden consulting job and I was terrified. Les was the brains of the team, nudging me past my blank-white-board panic, and Dave the adventurer was an energetic kindred spirit in the field. As Dave and I negotiated the stream on a tenuous bamboo-pole bridge, we were distracted by the whoosh whoosh sound of a flock of hornbills and a dazzling flash of bulbous yellow bills – Borneo has eight species of hornbills, their straight wings and wedge-shaped tail look like a child’s drawing of a bird in flight.

That night trying to sleep on the longhouse floor, after a meagre meal of rice and bananas with our headhunting hosts, deafening rain hammered the tin roof and the hard floorboards were unrelenting, but it was the cold that bothered us most as the temperature plummeted during the night. It never occurred to either of us to cuddle up.

Next morning we visited the remote border post between Malaysia and Indonesia, not much more than a village of wood houses with thatched roofs, where a desultory guard in a hot concrete office told us that precious few foreigners tried to cross here. These clammy jungles, tangled riverine and dripping dipterocarp forest had been the scene of fierce warfare during the Indonesian Konfrontasi of 1965 and 1966, where Nepali Gurkhas distinguished themselves fighting alongside British forces. It must have felt a very long way from home.

Lisa Choegyal


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