By Tim Lewis
Filming trip: April 2014
Raymundus, leader of Sungai Utik a community set deep in the forests of central Borneo sat perched on the trunk of the fallen tree. Its great limbs, brought down in a long ago storm, now resided in the slow eddying flow of the river. This river, shallow and smoothly lined by pebbles we had waded across and presently we were filming his interview. He, crouched resplendently on his haunches on the wide trunk, an old shot-gun resting across his lap; us, knee deep in the clear water our bare feet occasionally nibbled by the small fish.
Raymundus as was his nature patiently and generously answered our questions, smiling and nodding, eloquently explaining the Dayak’s culture, their unique connection with the forest, the threats they had faced and overcome, his planned hunting of game. Throughout he was very attentive giving us his time for the interview, however ever so slowly almost intangibly you could sense a growing distance. Somehow he was becoming absent, that his spirit was elsewhere, absorbing the sounds, absorbing the forest around him. The changing pattern of bird calls in the canopy or the shrill rising hum of an insect and you could see his alertness adapt, collect and assimilate. He was painting in his mind a picture of the forest, a world he was about to enter, he was feeling ahead of him, creating a sensory map of a world, an environment only he and others like him can know. And for us, those privileged enough to enter and witness these lives, even close at hand such as this; there remained an eternal mystery.
As we finished, Raymundus laughed and grinned, raised his head scanning around him, his eyes focussing through the complicated chaos of greenery, plucking a handful of water he drank, then in one fluid movement rose, turned, climbed silently into the thick undergrowth of the river-bank and was gone. We looked at each other, lowered our gear from straining shoulders and smiled, butterflies in a shock of colour collected in a pall of light on a single stone on the shore; from across the river came the jangling bleeping sound bizarrely of a play station portable.
This expedition into the forest had started like many before. The discussion and planning late into the night, sat across the smooth wooden beams of the longhouse. The stuttering bulbs working off the old generator, which lined the inner colonnade of the long house throbbed a dull yellow, ringed by a screen of whirring insects of all sizes and peculiarities. The sickly sweet smell of clove cigarettes, the rancid zesty taste of jungle beer in your mouth, the perceptible tingle that mosquitoes have bitten your toes. After a long talk it was agreed we would leave early before first light the following morning.
Pack enough for two days in the forest. Travel as light as you can. We readied our film gear, checked our batteries, flash lights, insect spray, nets and water proof bags then settled down to sleep in the stifling heat of Raymundus’ living room. The heat smothers you, even in the darkness, even after the sun has gone; you are almost always damp, clothes cling to your limbs. It took a while to sleep, you listen to the insects and the forest outside of the long house, it’s a sound full of depth and variety. Then closer the sound of a dog barking into the darkness at the edge of the community, geckos calling on the ceiling above you, the stirring of your companions, somewhere below the raised platform of the house, among the stilts and rotting rubbish, a pig or a hen moves disturbing the ground, a branch snaps and falls; the insect chorus pauses for a moment, silence almost overbearingly loud, then the insects begin again and in the shadows nearby someone starts to snore.
In the morning coffee is served from flasks into small glasses, the children and the women fuss in the adjoining kitchen, raising a fire and soon the smell of cooking emanates wonderfully. We dress and eat breakfast, a wonderful Dayak breakfast, different small courses spread across a variety of bowls, plates and palm leaves. Handfuls of wild rice and scrambled eggs, small fried fish like sprats, deep-red cubes of chewy wild boar, smoked meats, dark green ferns with a softness and taste much like spinach, little delicious mushrooms, a handful of chillies, bananas and mango.
We begin to pull together the kit we will take with us, we lace our boots, then we sit, we sit for a long time, watching Raymundus and the other men get ready. Cooking pans and fishing gear are placed in reed baskets, old shotguns are greased and cleaned, machetes are sharpened. Many cigarettes are smoked. Hours pass. We gradually accustom ourselves to the fact that we won’t be leaving in the cool hours of the morning and instead we will most probably be walking through the stifling sweltering heat of midday. This is something we have grown used to over the years.
A young boy talks with us, his english is surprisingly good, he is schooled in a nearby town. He and his school friend are local scouts they will be accompanying us into the forest. He has a small baby monkey a tiny fragile creature with enormous soulful eyes. We take turns holding it, taking its tiny hands in ours, gazing inquisitively into those eyes so similar, so utterly familiar, yet deeply foreign. The fascination ends when it begins to urinate on whoever happens to be holding it.
Soon after the group cheerfully musters. We number perhaps just over a dozen. Pak Jungit is our leader. He is one of the village elders and an astonishing man, tall for a Dayak, his face is finely lined and his eyes are sparklingly bright, he is bedecked in tattoos and an endless serenity. Despite being in his seventies he lifts the heaviest basket onto his back. It’s an astonishing weight and he seems quite unperturbed.
The next few hours, as the forest closes tightly around us blur into a mixture of prolonged agonies and ecstasies. There is little other than a slow steady exertion, the mind closes down, you follow the man in front, you are aware the pressure of the straps on your shoulders, the sweat stinging your eyes and dripping from your nose, the leather material of my belt sagged with the moisture and became useless. Walking in the rainforest carrying the paraphernalia of filming a documentary is not an altogether easy task. The towering vegetation renders everything into a sweltering gloom, pools of light open up here and there, you struggle through rising undergrowth or slowly wade across a river, the pathways and tracks become less pronounced, harder to follow, the ground is usually sodden, you are always one badly calculated step away from sliding and toppling down an unexpected slope or into the razor sharp thorns of lianas and vines. At one point, balancing precariously on a branch slung across a creek, my weight breaks it and I descend in slow motion sinking up to my knees in sludge. I have to be helped out.
All the while ahead, as if by some strange force of magic, you see Pak Jungit patiently waiting, he’s sat on his haunches and he regards us with a wry smile across his face; you remind yourself of the immense weight he so effortlessly carries, he’s also barefoot, how on earth does he do it?
Half way into the afternoon we reach a shallow river and the men drop their packs and stretch out along a narrow strip of pebbles and sand. The river runs briskly, the light sparkles on the surface, it’s clean enough to drink, it’s of course too much for temptation, dropping our kit and unlacing our boots we plunge into the water.
The guys start to immediately busy themselves on the embankment, they chatter casually, collecting firewood and splitting fresh green bamboo, emptying provisions wrapped in banana fronds from their packs. Some extract fishing nets and wade across the stream. Within an astonishingly short period of time a fire is burning on the riverbank, cooked boar and deer meat is being stuffed into the bamboo along with rice and some ferns. The nets are trawled and small fish and prawns are soon deposited around the flames on little spits. Everybody smokes furiously; there is chatter and laughter. Between sitting by the fire or returning to wallow in the shallows it’s sincerely one of the most beautiful lunch breaks of my life.
We set up camp some miles further into the forest in an old location long familiar to the villagers. Its setting is alongside the same river, which meanders through the trees in this deeper part of the forest. Around eighty years ago, nearly beyond the span of communal living memory there once stood a Dayak longhouse on the opposite bank. You gaze across and try and imagine the people living here in that time. There’s was a period of upheaval and colonial expansion, had their lives been impacted by the invasion of foreigners then, did they know of the trade along the coast, of the white men who came in search of minerals and spices? Were their lives still untainted by humanity’s expansion? There is little to show of these people now, the clearing and the longhouse have become forest again, creepers and mature trees crowd the bank where possibly the women had clambered to the waters edge to launder.
The water at points is unusually deep and again we swim to cool off and sooth the bites and scratches accumulated along the way. There is a frenzy of insects, bugs, mosquitoes and aggressive butterflies; most common and trying are the forest bees, ecstatically they feed off the deposits of salt left by our sweat on the surface and straps of our bags and our crumpled clothing. Its practically impossible to cautiously swat them away as they are too numerous and we are all nervous of being stung, so we strip down to shorts and trousers. Soon the bags and shirts, sequestered at a safe distance, are covered in bees. Over the coming days we are all stung magnificently. A fire is quickly raised to counter the problem and a cauldron bubbling with water brings the smell of coffee and the promise of dinner to everyone’s nostrils.
The men busy themselves through the late afternoon, they clean the shotguns and count out their cartridges some of which are handmade and look potentially lethal. Others sharpen their machetes before withdrawing into the forest; others with goggles, home made spear guns and unravelled nets descend the embankment and slide quietly into the river. Soon there are just a few of us left behind, with darkness looming there is little to film so we rest by the riverside or under the smoky tarpaulin, the men stoke the fire and the two boy scouts, bored now that most of the local men had left to hunt, sit a little way off playing energetically on a play station portable. The modern world, a million miles from this place, is encroaching slowly and surely.
Throughout the night a variety of things occurred. In the encroaching darkness a sudden violent storm erupted across the forest. A deluge of rain and thunder swept among the trees, the top most branches quivered and shook in anticipation of the storm and then we were immersed in an enormous frenzy of cascading water which quickly turned the ground into a morass. We furiously dug out ditches in the mud to allow the water to drain away from the camp. Eventually the storm passed and with it came the arrival of the men who had left earlier. They appeared as small bobs of dipping light from their head torches. They came with small game, little shiny-scaled fishes and bright green frogs. Soon the evening meal was sizzling in pots over the fire and the local brew of a level of potency only equalled by its similarities in flavour to petrol is retrieved from hidden corners of rattan bags. We all sat and ate the food, globules of fatty rice accompanied by pieces of chewy meat; in the darkness it was open to conjecture whether it was a chicken foot or a frog leg.
Far away came the rumbling of thunder as the storm passed across the forest. From across the river and the abandoned site of the old community long house insects began their choral tapestry of sound and in a corner of our camp, as we settled down to sleep, came the bleep-bleep once again of a portable play station.