Wednesday, November 23, 2016

National Geographic Traveller: Meet the Iban of Batang Ai

Get to know the real Borneo in Batang Ai National Park, where the Iban tribe live among the boughs and branches of the jungle

Kuching sheds its skin awfully quickly. The capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak has all the noise, clamour and clutter — motorbikes scuttling, cars growling, shops spilling onto the street — that comes with any sizeable city in the Far East.

But as the car passes through the outskirts, the jumbled homes start to press the road with less urgency and the jungle steps in instead: deep, green, all-encompassing.

Once upon a time, Borneo was like this in its entirety; all 287,000 square miles of it, one vast stretch of 140-million-year-old rainforest.

But some things don’t change. Batang Ai National Park, 150 miles south-east of Kuching, is one of them.

And here, amid the dense growth, my journey into the real Borneo is gaining pace.

I’m seeking the Dayak, the indigenous people of the island, who have long lived a simpler, less intrusive life among the boughs and branches.

Specifically, I’m looking for the Iban, the Dayak tribe who eke out their existence in the backwoods of Sarawak and Sabah, their homes seamlessly slotted into the jungle, rather than overpowering it.

Batang Ai Reservoir fades behind me, the Delong River pulling me east in a wooden boat — more an extended canoe than a ferry — so low to the brown-green water that it seems likely to be swallowed by it at any second.

The motor snorts and coughs every time the pilot has to swerve us around a floating log or shallow section or through a patch of rocky rapids.

There are shrill calls and rhythmic beats from the canopy, hornbills and woodpeckers at work.

And the trees seem to crowd ever closer with each mile, as if the jungle wants to pluck me from my damp seat and hold me close.

t will have its way. After 90 minutes, we pull ashore at what seems the smallest of gaps in the foliage. And there it is in a clearing: the Nanga Sumpa Longhouse.