Imagine arriving in a small village, surrounded by primary virgin rainforest, in a remote area of Kalimantan, Asia’s Amazon. It is late afternoon and streams of filtered light cast a lovely soft glow upon the village. People come out of their simple dwellings to greet you in a spirit of friendship and curiosity, everyone is smiling and seems happy to see you. They welcome you as family and feel honoured that you have taken the journey to visit their home in the jungle. They are also a little shy, especially the children, who look away when you try to take their photograph in that innocent way that suggests they seldom see foreigners.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID METCALF
Imagine arriving in a small village, surrounded by primary virgin rainforest, in a remote area of Kalimantan, Asia’s Amazon. It is late afternoon and streams of filtered light cast a lovely soft glow upon the village. People come out of their simple dwellings to greet you in a spirit of friendship and curiosity, everyone is smiling and seems happy to see you.
They welcome you as family and feel honoured that you have taken the journey to visit their home in the jungle. They are also a little shy, especially the children, who look away when you try to take their photograph in that innocent way that suggests they seldom see foreigners. Eventually, they get their confidence up and beam the most beautiful natural smiles; the smiles of Setulang.
This place does exist and this very ancient Dayak culture, which has survived for centuries, stands very proud with a determination that their customs and traditions will continue to survive. This is the story of the Kenyah Dayaks.
Kalimantan, the third largest island in the world was never colonised by the Dutch as they were reluctant to venture into the forests of Borneo (Kalimantan), afraid of the Dayaks and their feisty reputation as headhunters. The Dayaks were believed to have special supernatural powers, to possess tails and the ability to fly between the trees.
In the past 50 years though, the missionaries have made their way up the rivers and converted many of the traditional Dayaks (like the ones from Setulang Village) to Christianity and their ancient beliefs and practices have melded into a Christian based way of life and belief system.
The word Dayak means inland or upriver people, however Dayak is an umbrella term for members of culturally diverse tribes, each with their own language, customs and traditional practices.There are many groups within the overall Dayak culture with the largest ones being the Punan, Kenyah, Kayan, Barito and Ngajo of Central Kalimantan.
The Punan still live in the forest and move around nomadically in the jungle, in the north-eastern part of the island. The Kenyah from Setulang live in the eastern part of Kalimantan and mostly live in traditional villages in the highland areas, although many can now be found in the larger towns of Malinau, Balikpapan, Samarinda and Tarakan.
The Dayak tribes not only have their own language but other unique practices including their different styles of music, dance and very elaborate, colourful clothing. Their history is oral and very little has been recorded in writing.The traditions and beliefs are passed down through the generations, through their own unique languages and ways of communication. The world has yet to discover many aspects of the Dayak way of life, and the modern Indonesian sees them as primitive and has little understanding of their culture and who they are.
On my most recent visit, I reconnected with Pilius, my good friend and elder of the village. He is very passionate about his culture and in particular the connection between the Dayak ways and the environment. The village of Setulang is on the edge of a vast area of pristine rainforest about 100 kilometres from the Malaysian border.
“We call this place Tanah Olan,” Pilius explained to me. “In Kenyah Dayak language this means forbidden forest, forbidden to log or destroy. We are spiritually connected with this place and we love the forest as much as we love our children. We enjoy taking our children up the river to hunt and fish and teach them the old ways,” he explained. This includes dressing in traditional costumes for ceremonial dancing and singing long into the night. “When we dance and sing, we believe this is a way to connect with our ancestors and we can feel their presence.” Pilius continued, “Everything has a meaning and we have many words for rocks, water, waterfalls, plants and the many insects and animals that have survived for thousands of years.”
This is indeed a very special place with many unique plants native to the area. In fact, many botanists have visited this part of Kalimantan and believe there are species of plants living in the forests here that have yet to be identified and discovered. Many of these plants hold very important health benefits.
Pilius and the other elders in the village are concerned that the younger generation are losing touch with the forest, and their culture, as they drift into the cities and spend less time with their families. As Pilius explained to me, “We have no high school in our village, so the children must go to Malinau or further away to attend high school. After graduation there are very few employment options in the village, so they have little choice but to live in the cities, as that is where there is work. We want more tourists to come and visit, so we can take them to Tana Olen and we are in hope of tourism developing with trekking guide job opportunities and other jungle camp activities. This is our vision for the young people”.
To reach the forest you need to take a very exciting but safe two-hour boat ride up the rapids in a small dug out canoe from Setulang Village, deep into the jungle. The men from the village have built a Jungle Camp, hoping more people will visit, sharing the love and respect they have for their forest and enjoying a special time in the wilds of the jungle.
Raymon, was our guide on a recent visit. His knowledge of the forest and the ways of the Kenyah Dayaks made this trip an adventurous and educational one. I was in awe of this nimble, agile Dayak man, who seemed to glide through the forest. When it came to our river crossings, he literally skipped from rock to rock with ease and grace. In comparison, being a foreigner, from the city, I stumbled and slipped my way across the wet rocks, with a bit of nervousness and absolutely no grace.
I am yet to meet a Dayak with shoes! Raymon escorted us through the undergrowth and rugged jungle tracks completely barefoot. He ventures into the tropical, dense, rain forest for days at a time, connecting with the spirits of the forest, always aware and acknowledging the dangers and guided by the hornbills, the native birds of Kalimantan.
The future of the Kenyah Dayak, and many other Dayak tribes is an uncertain one as Kalimantan comes under increasing pressure from mining, palm oil operations and forestry companies, whose motivations are solely commercial. Recently the Indonesian government gave approval for two mega dams to be built in East Kalimantan, which will have a huge impact on the indigenous communities of the area. The dams and subsequent changes to the river systems may misplace many of the Dayaks living in these areas. It will affect their local hunting and fishing grounds and will cause disruptions to their way of life.
Before progress and commercialism impacts the forests and its native people of Tanah Olan, a journey on a boat to this special place will link you to a strong-willed and proud native Dayak culture. Take the trip to East Kalimantan and share some Kenyah Dayak stories and journey to a deeper place of discovery and learn from this ancient culture that has lived harmoniously with their natural environment for centuries.
Travelling sometimes takes us on journeys beyond ourselves, our world and our perception of life and this will be presented to you at a small jungle camp, deep in the forest, which may soon disappear, so open yourself to a journey of discovery before it is too late.
David Metcalf runs specialist photography and cultural tours in Indonesia. For information on visiting Setulang Village please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Also his website has information on upcoming tours. https://www.davidmetcalfphotography.com