Following a day of detailed in-country equipment preparations and safety briefings at the guest-house, the adventure really begins, when we board a small prop-plane to fly to a jungle airstrip deep in the interior. Flying over miles of palm oil plantation provides a stark perspective of the level of destruction to the rainforest environment, as such, as it is only during the latter part of the flight that you pass over the remaining areas of intact primeval rain forest… your home for the next ten days.
From the Twin Otter aircraft we jump into 4×4’s and bump and slid along the logging roads for a couple of hours until we reach the Selungo River, where if all is going to plan, we will meet our Penan guides.
Continuing upriver in the Penan’s rough-hewn wooden longboats, you experience the increasing vibrancy and diversity of the forest as we draw closer to the Penan village, where we spend our first night.
Arriving in the village at twilight, you will be guided to one of the Penan stilted houses where you will be hosted by a family. The Penan are a gentle, gracious people who are egalitarian in their socio-cultural structure.
Your hosts will cook for you, the staple being wild greens with home-grown hill rice, and it is not uncommon to share a meal of fish, barking deer, wild boar (babui), pig-tailed macaque, squirrel, snake or lizard!
The next morning we walk out into the forest to establish a base camp. On this first training day you will be issued with two knives – the parang (poeh) and the rattan knife (darhad), which are carried together but in separate sheathes. You will be taught how to safely and correctly draw, sheath and cut with your parang while moving through the dense jungle vegetation and wading rivers – moving around safely with a parang takes practice!
We will also focus on constructing a large tarped living area, constructing a group latrine, setting-up our hammocks, potable water and hygiene protocols, wet and dry drills, etc.
The next day we build a traditional Penan hunting hut (selap), which is made from cut poles bound together with rattan or vines. Usually the floor is about four feet off the ground, but we tend to keep ours lower as it usually serves as our food store.
We also make a raised alter fire with a hearth of mud for cooking inside the shelter, and a wooden rack above the fire for drying firewood. The roof is thatched with banana leaves or giant broad-leaves.
If time allows, we look at making non-traditional sleeping arrangements (like pole-beds) and other camp-orientated projects, like swing-away pot-hangers, etc. We’ll also chop some bamboo to prepare and sundry it for a future project, learning how to cut this amazing species of grass is an art in itself!
Day six is all about rattan (Calameae sp.) or rotan in Malay, as we venture out into the forest with the women for the morning to harvest these flexible palm tendrils, with their wicked little babed tips. This is a great excuse for an ethno-botanical walk, looking at time-honored medicines and bush foods, such as the sweet and sour wild ginger seedpods (Achasma sp.).
Back at camp we’ll have our daily swim to cool off before lunch and then head to the village to learn how weave simple baskets during the heat of the afternoon. You will also have the opportunity to buy traditional Penan woven crafts, like rattan backpacks (keva) and intricately patterned mats.
On the menu tonight is a spicy coconut chicken rendang curry, the coconuts are from the village and the chickens need to be dispatched and prepared. (This lesson is not compulsory).
Friday is spent with Balan, the blowpipe maker, as he teaches us how to drill out a traditional 6-foot long blowpipe (keleput) from one solid piece of tropical hardwood. Sitting on his bamboo scaffolding he will instruct you in how to keep the drill straight and how to float the waste material from out of the hole.
If we are lucky he will provide a demonstration of how to use this hunting weapon, and you can have a go at using his own personal hunting blowpipes. He will also show us how to make the darts from nibong palm (Oncosperma tigillarium) and coat them with the milky latex from the bark of the tajem tree (Antiaris toxicaris). Don’t be offended if he doesn’t let you touch them – they are lethal, causing their victims to suffer fatal arrhythmias.
In the afternoon we collect our sun-dried bamboo and work on crafting quivers (tehloh) and darts – a delicate but rewarding project.
See Balan talk about his lost art in Ross Harrison’s wonderful documentary ‘Sunset over Selungo’ – www.selungo.com
On the eighth day of the expedition, you will learn the secrets of the Penan’s complex sign language (oroo), made up of intricate combinations of bent twigs, cut sticks and folded leaves. This is the language of the jungle hunter.
The next lesson is on the most efficient methods of manufacturing and employing traps and snare in the forest to catch birds and mammals.
Sago palm (Arecaceae sp.) is a dwindling resource in the forest, as are the elders who still hold the knowledge of how to process it into flour.
So far we have been lucky enough to be privy to two sago trees being felled. It is quite an event to witness one of these giant palms being felled and rolled down into a stream, the trunk split and the core pummelled This pulp is stamped through a rattan mat so the starches begin to leach out and condense into a thick goo, that is then dried into blocks of solid carbohydrate for the community to share.
Through out the trip you will learn lots about the Penan’s traditional spiritual beliefs, their current cultural beliefs (they have been Christians since the 1930’s), the threats to their forest, from acacia and palm oil plantations, logging companies, corrupt officials, deliberate forest fires and hydroelectric dams.
Find out more and add your voice at www.survivalinternational.org
This enchanting rainforest is home to an incredible array of wildlife, including the rare clouded leopard and the sun bear, our Penan guides will tell us all about any tracks or wildlife signs that we find.
Sunday is a day of rest and worship for the Penan, so the Woodsmoke team step in to teach you emergency evacuation techniques, advanced river crossing methods, swift-water swimming skills, improvised flotation aids, etc.
The afternoon is spent on personal admin, laundry, relaxing, breaking down camp, as well as packing and preparing food for the trekking phase.
You will also get an opportunity to use the Woodsmoke satellite phone to send a text message home to let friends and family know you have survived so far…
It’s fresh chicken again for supper in a spicy thai-style stir-fry.
The trekking phase is designed to refine your skills at jungle travel, as you develop your own systems for efficient lightweight travel. By this time you will feel very comfortable with jungle living, however the length and difficulty of the trekking phase is dictated somewhat by the ability of the group. We will be on the move from first thing Monday morning until Thursday afternoon, carrying all our own rations and provisions.
Previous expeditions have involved venturing into cloud forest to summit a jungle peak, hiking along a series of waterfalls and exploring the gorges and on our last trip we climbed a mountain to see a majestic waterfall, hundreds of feet high. Each trek has been pretty tough, by the end of it you will be convinced that the Penan don’t have a word for flat!
This really is the epitome of adventure travel at its best! The experience of travelling far from the beaten track, to visit a remote tribe in some of the wildest jungle on earth, is an experience that very few westerners would even contemplate.
The Penan’s most treasured legacy, their ancient rainforest home, is part of a rapidly vanishing world, as experts conservatively think that what little remains of Borneo’s primary rainforest will be entirely destroyed by 2020! Come and experience one of the most diverse environments on earth and the rich ancestral heritage of the Penan way of life, as their lineage of an inter-dependant relationship with the intricate ecologies of the jungle environment is quickly disappearing.