Text & Photos David Metcalf
Bilung, a young Dayak tribesman, navigated his way through the shallow river treading carefully. Towering ancient pines surrounded him as his eyes focused on a movement nearby. Instantly, the young man dived into the river emerging with a big smile and an even bigger fish in his bare hands.
Bilung was repeating what his ancestors have been doing for thousands of years in the rivers and forests of North Kalimantan, near the village of Setulang where he now lives.
There are more than 70 Dayak tribes in Kalimantan and many sub-tribes like the Omak Lung, who inhabit this area, deep in the heart of what is now Kalimantan. They have inhabited these lands for thousands of years.
The Omak Lung is a sub-tribe of the DayakKenyah, one of the largest Dayak tribes who these days live mostly in small towns, like Setulang, on the many rivers of East and North Kalimantan.
The Omak Lung are a very proud people who had their initial contact with white folk in 1932 when the missionaries first made their way up the mighty Bahau River.
I sat on a wooden porch talking with Lai Ngau, an Omak Lung tribesman one afternoon as he recounted his life in these words.
“My father told me the missionaries were not very popular and were seen as a threat to my people when they first came, so we chopped off their heads. We also chopped off the heads of our tribal enemies, to prevent the bad spirits from harming our village and our people. However, with the missionaries, this did not stop them coming. Eventually, they were successful in persuading us to move away from the forest, embrace a new religion and settle in towns where they built churches.”
“I was around 30 years old when I left my former village of Long Saan. It took us about 30 days by foot (and river) to Setulang,” he continued, “My father and grandfather were famous Dayak warriors and took many heads, especially of the Iban tribe, who would come into our forest on head hunting raids”.
Lai Ngau told me how he remembered sitting in the village long house as his grandfather told stories of the many battles he fought protecting the Omak Lung tribe. “It is not unusual for stories to go on for days and never really have an ending,” he explained, “Many, many lessons were learned in those stories.”
I learned about life in Long Saan from this softly spoken, tribal elder. He described his former life as paradise, with plenty of game in the hills and many fish in the rivers. The Omak Lung used a sophisticated irrigation system and grew wet rice. The forest provided a bounty of forest fruits and vegetables. The tribe consisted of around 1600 people living in three large longhouses and life continued pretty much the same as it had done for eighty generations before they moved to the village of Setulang.
“It was not always idyllic,” Lai Ngau continued, “Sometimes people would get sick and die and nobody knew why. Sometimes people died from Malaria. The plants in the forest would help make us better but sometimes they did not work.”
The Omak Lung people live mostly in Setulang now with some smaller sub-tribes scattered throughout the forest, alongside the Kayan and Bahau rivers of North Borneo.
The forest is still very much original primary rainforest with little impact from modern civilization, although that is starting to change. There are plans to build a dam on the Kayan River, which may result in some of the Dayak people having to relocate.
“Our ancestor’s graves are very important to us,” Lai Ngau continued, “So, if they flood our villages we are not sure what to do. There are many important tribal artifacts in these gravesites, which are simply irreplaceable. The spirits of the dead are there, so there is plenty of power in these hills. It is sacred ground. This must be respected.”
69% of North Kalimantan is still original forest cover (approximately two million hectares). These are some of the most ancient and bio diverse forests on the planet. In these thick forests the variety of wildlife is extraordinary including; orangutan, clouded leopard, flat-headed cat, sun bear, Bornean gibbon, estuarine crocodile, pygmy elephants, Asian elephants, Bornean tree shrew tupaia, macaque, proboscis monkeys, fresh water dolphins and many bird species such as storm stork, Borneon peacock, pheasant, eagles, and hornbills.
“The future of our culture is uncertain. Already, our children are moving to the cities in search of higher education and job opportunities. I feel we will lose touch with our old ways,” this gentle elder explained. “This concerns me greatly and I hope the international community and Indonesian people take notice of changes to our land, which will impact our culture.”
“Please tell people about us,” he said, “We seem to have a bad reputation as fierce head hunters, but that is something of the past. We are a gentle and very friendly people. We love to receive guests. We are encouraging people to come and see our great forests before they change. We greet and respect visitors when they come. We love to show them something of the way we live and our ancient beliefs.”
To witness Bilung that morning rejoicing in being a Dayak, in true harmony with the ancient forest and the rivers of his home, was indeed a sheer joy to witness. It was clear to me how important it is to preserve the natural environment. For the prosperity of future generations, the Dayak people have so much to teach us about love, respect, balance, and how to live in harmony with nature. They possess a purity of spirit and are indeed the true custodians of the forest.
Setulang Village, North Kalimantan has a well-established eco-tourism jungle camp. Fully escorted trips can be arranged with an experienced English speaking conservation guide who arranges your jungle camp stay including daily forest activities. For more information https://www.davidmetcalfphotography.com/setulang-adventure/
David is also involved in a documentary film about Long Saan and the Dayak culture. http://www.thejourneyback.info
David Metcalf is a masterclass photographer and co-author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, Cultural Journeys of Discovery. David runs half-day photography tours in Bali, and 8 days photo tour workshops in Java, Kalimantan and beyond.
View David’s work on www.davidmetcalfphotography.com and www.facebook.com/davidmetcalfphotography