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“Huge boulders ahead, keep left!” yelled the boatman, balancing precariously on the fron of our 10m longboat as we ploughed through yet another set of huge rapids on our journey up the mighty Kayan River in North Kalimantan in Indonesia’s Borneo.
We had been traveling all day, and as dusk began to shroud us in darkness with still no sign of human habitation I feared the possibility of taking rapids in the dark. As the rain started to tumble down I was contemplating a rather uncomfortable night on the side of the river, as we had no tents and very little shelter.
But like an oasis in the desert we came upon, of all things, a logging camp, which seemed to appear out of the early evening darkness; quite surreal. We had seen very few signs of logging as we made our way up the Kayan and had no idea of this camp’s existence.
As is often the case when travelling in Indonesia, the local people greeted us like family and, within an hour of us arriving unexpectedly at their camp, we had clean comfortable accommodation, a delicious meal cooked for us, much laughter and an exchange of photo taking.
So how did we end up here in the first place?
After 18 months of planning, I had set out from Tanjung Selor, the provincial capital of North Kalimantan (Indonesia’s newest province). I was accompanied by 14 other men, including six from the local Dayak Kenyah tribe. Others were from backgrounds spanning Bali, Sumatera, New Zaeland, Australia, the Lakota tribe from North America and a token Englishman.
Our objective was to take these six Dayak men back to the place of their ancestors, to a location in the forest called Long Sa’an of the Punjangan River, deep in the heart of Borneo. Time is irrelevant when travelling up these rivers, and we were told before embarking on this journey it could take us two days or a week to make the dangerous trip to Long Sa’an. It would depend entirely on the weather and amount of rainfall. Too much rain and the river becomes too dangerous and powerful to navigate; too little and we need to drag the large, heavy boat across the shallows, which is physically challenging and time-consuming, greatly slowing the journey.
The river spirits were clearly kind to us as the rain from the night before was just enough to keep the river at the right navigable depth, so we set out on our journey, and on day two we made good time before arriving at the small friendly Dayak village of Long Punjangan.
From here we were told we would change over to a smaller craft, because as we got closer to Long Sa’an the river was shallow. However, our crew had a different agenda. During lunch, there was a lot of discussion. Someone left and came back with a bottle of local arak (rice wine). After more discussion, it was decided the boat crew would attempt to get all the way to our destination of Long Sa’an in the longboat.
Around 2pm the river changed. We were approaching huge rapids and our captain made the call to pull over. It looked impossible to attempt to navigate through this rough stretch so, not surprisingly, we were advised to lighten the load and disembark. We would continue the journey by walking along the riverbank and wait for our boat further upstream. The captain and crew prepared themselves to take on the rapids.
Their screams of delight could be heard above the sounds of the rapids as they managed to somehow steer their way through the turbulent waters as we watched safely but nervously from the riverbank.
That night we sat around listening to the sounds of the forest and lilting melody of sape, the traditional Dayak guitar. We shared a beautiful evening of music as the Lakota Indian, Kevin Locke, played the flute, evoking his ancestral spirits in the heart of the Borneo jungle. Together with the Dayak musicians, we shared a common ground trough musical collaboration and melding of cultures in the world’s most ancient rainforest, estimated to be 150 million years old.
The next morning we set off on foot, for a three-hour walk (one-hour walk for the Dayaks!), hight above the river. I had a pretty restless night, as thoughts of the whole of the jungle crawling into my sleeping bag kept me awake. We arrived at Long Sa’an around noon.
The village of Long Sa’an was once a thriving community of Omah Long people, a sub-tribe of the Dayak Kenyah, yet just a single cabin is all that is left of the village. The Dayak Kenyah existed in this area for thousands of years and their history traces back 80 generations. They lived in harmony with the forest and rivers with plentiful food, and the six men we had accompanying us still had distant but treasured memories of living in Long Sa’an. They spoke fondly of it being a kind of utopian existence.
With great reluctance the village council made a decision in the early 1970s to leave Long Sa’an and move to Setulang, a village about 120km further north, were they live today. There were challenging health issues living in such an isolated place, and they decided their children need to be educated. For these two reasons the entire village packed up their belongings, including dismantling three longhouses, and gradually made their way across the mountains.
But for many, including 60-year-old Philius, their hearts still belong in Long Sa’an, as the Dayak people love to live in the forest as true custodians of the land. They have a deep reverence and respect for Mother Earth and an ability to live in harmony with the environment and the jungle animals and have done so for thousands of years.
We spent the next four days in this beautiful forest environtment and were given the honour, as the first foreighners, of visiting the ancient burial grounds of their ancestors, high up in the cliffs, where the hornbills dwell.
We began as an adventure up the wild rivers of Borneo became, for many of us, a spiritual and emotional journey into a very powerful place with the Dayak people, for whom we gained enermous respect, and who guided and protected us. They showed us the ways of their people and presented a tantalising glimpse into their rich cultural heritage and an experience that will live with us for rest of our lives.