Saturday, November 03, 2012

Rainforest trekking with the Penan in Sarawak

The Borneo jungle can be an unforgiving place; it’s humid, it’s mountainous and around inhabited areas, although there are trails, it’s easy to get lost. However, last year in a moment of spectacular spontaneity, I booked a trip to head into the Ulu, or interior, of Sarawak.

I would stay with a local indigenous community, the Penan, and as famed ex-nomads of the rainforest, they would guide me on a trek through virgin jungle.

It was to be my first time in the jungle and my pre-trip nerve levels were at a fever pitch. It didn’t help matters that to first get to into the Ulu, I had to board a tiny, 22-seater MasWings Twin Otter plane that rattled throughout the flight. Looking back, I really should have been more relaxed about the whole thing, as these rural flights have been running for decades without incident.

As our plane descended into a gap in the vast greenness of the interior, my anxiety made way for childish excitement. You know how sometimes a situation demands you to hum the Indiana Jones theme tune? Landing on a tiny air-strip surrounded by jungle is one of those situations.

I was to spend the next few days pottering around a Penan village staying in a homestay, eating fish freshly plucked from the river, going out with the women to forage for greens and attending three-hour long church services. The Penan are indigenous to Borneo and before the days of missionaries, they wandered the rainforests as hunter-gatherer nomads, practising an animist faith.

However, with encouragement from the government and missionaries, they settled into villages and the majority of all Penan have now settled. There remains, however, a very, very small number who still practise the old way of life. This nomadic heritage makes them the best people to trek in the jungle with; their vast knowledge of medicines, foods and other resources of the jungle is unparallelled.

This is not to say that the modern way of life hasn’t reached the Ulu; you will find that a few houses will have TVs and sound systems blaring out bad, dated American films from night to night and it’s quite a disconcerting effect of globalisation that even in the interior of Sarawak you will find young kids dancing along to Lady Gaga.

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