Penan Naikas Bushmen

A 4x4 trip into remote jungle to visit the last remaining Penan of Brunei...


I met Jungle Dave at the tourist information office in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. He manages a company from there called Mona Florafauna Tours and what he doesn't know about the Brunei jungle and it's wildlife isn't worth knowing!

He was given the name 'Jungle' Dave by no less a person than Sir David Attenborough himself when he was visiting Brunei to make a documentary about proboscis monkeys. Sir David was so impressed with the way that Dave was able to talk to the monkeys in their own language and call them over that he gave him the epithet Jungle Dave and the name stuck!

After my rather disappointing experience in Temburong where I learned next to nothing about the jungle ecosystem I knew that Dave was the guy I wanted to have along. My plan was to visit a Punan (Penan) settlement that lay deep in the jungle in Brunei, and as far as I could ascertain this was the only settlement in the entire country where these hunter-gatherers still lived.

After discussing my options on how to get there we finally decided upon hiring a 4x4. Dave was almost as excited about visiting the settlement as I was, but for quite different reasons. Like me he had never visited the area before but was keen to investigate the virgin rainforest around there and see what wildlife it had to offer.

This was a lucky break for me because normally Dave would only have sent one of the younger guides to accompany me, but he was so excited by the trip that he decided come along himself as well, free of charge!

DAY 1 – New Year's Day 2010

The white Ford Ranger pulled up outside my hotel early in the morning. On board were my two guides, Saiful and Dave. Saiful was a young guy who was now working for Mona Florafauna as a trainee guide after a stint in the Brunei army. Dave I was most relieved to see as he wasn't sure until the last moment if he'd be able to make it.

Dave was happy to let me drive the car myself so off I set westwards out of Bandar along the heavily populated coastal strip.

We stopped at a roadside café for a late breakfast of rotti chenai, Indian flatbread with a spicy curry sauce, before turning off the main highway at Sungai Mau, and very soon we were in the land of 4x4 tracks with no signposts.

Dave was clutching an old-looking map with a red mark tracing a line through the jungle all the way to our destination near the settlement of Sukang, but where is the turn-off? We decided to stop and ask some passers-by.

The news was not good. The road indicated on Dave's map had been closed for 5 or 6 years! Flooding and collapsed bridges had made the road totally impassible; but all was not lost! Logging companies had built a new road, further south and deeper into the jungle, and that one should be passable.

Although Brunei has very limited logging compared to it's neighbour Sarawak, some logging does still occur. In this case the government had asked the loggers to build a road to some remote settlements (including our destination Sukang) and in return they could keep any timber they found along the way.

Heading down the 4x4 track the going was fairly good. I was actually quite disappointed as I was looking forward to a real adventure, and if loggers had built a descent road all the way to our destination then this trip was going to be nothing to write home about. If only I knew then what lay ahead!

The area a few hundred metres to each side of the road had been heavily logged, but in the distance we spotted tantalising views of virgin rainforest, huge trees forming an unbroken canopy that the loggers had taken this long, thin slice out of like removing a piece from a cake.

The logging was already taking its toll in terms of erosion. The brown smear that was the road was spilling out further brown smears on either side that were eroding into gulleys and canyons. It was hard to see how the land could ever recover.

After a while we arrived at Rumah Buau, a huge, concrete longhouse built by the local Iban people; the collection of large 4x4's parked below indicating that these people were not short of a bit of cash with many of them commuting to work in the oil refineries by the coast.

Confirming our directions we continued on our way until we arrived at a small wooden house set in lush, green, agricultural land. Keen to get out and stretch our legs we walked over to the house to ask directions. Plank walkways led over waterlogged soil to the front of the house where some people were relaxing while others were out working in the paddy fields.

We were warned there that the road ahead deteriorated somewhat but that we should make it to Sukang ok. While there Dave pointed out to me a sago palm, it was the first time I had seen such a plant. The sago palm is the staple food of the Penan from which they extract starch to turn into flour, paste and bread.

While walking back over the planks, admiring the sago palms, Dave suddenly called out to me:

'Fire ants!'

I looked down to see hordes of fast-moving ants with torpedo-shaped abdomens scurrying around everywhere. I hopped around trying leap off the planks to safety as I remembered the stories I'd read of the aggressive fire ants who each sting like a wasp! Luckily I was not to sample their venom that day and made it safely back to the car.

We continued down the road and after a while we noticed a vehicle coming the other way. It's khaki-green colour identified it as an army vehicle, some kind of small personnel carrier. Worried that we might be getting into trouble I was relieved when Saiful greeted them with great enthusiasm. Among them were some of his old army buddies!

After exchanging stories and much hand-shaking and slapping-on-the-back they sent us on our way with fresh warnings about the road ahead.

We came to another longhouse, Rumah Panjing Biadong Ulu. This one was made of wood and not quite so wealthy-looking, but it still had the ubiquitous 4x4's parked underneath.

Confirming our directions again we continued on our way, passing abandoned logging vehicles with caterpillar tracks until we came to a collection of houses called Rumah Biadung that had a couple of 4x4's parked outside in the road. The road here was getting very muddy and one of the 4x4 was parked right in the middle of it, blocking our way.

We found the owner of the house and asked him if he could move his car.

'I can't, it's stuck in the mud', he said, 'I'm just waiting for the mud to dry out first.'

He told us that there had been lots of rain recently and that the road ahead was a quagmire.

'Another car is stuck further up the road', he said.

Not wanting to admit defeat we were determined to continue on, so we asked him to move his other car which was parked on dryer ground by the side of the road. He obligingly did this and we were able to continue onwards. Very soon we were stuck in the mud too.

The road had turned from an orange, sandy clay into a deep grey, squidgy clay that would have been perfect for throwing pots! We were stuck right in the middle of it and going nowhere. We tried everything to get out, pushing, pulling, digging, and building a wooden trackway, but to no avail.

The midday sun was beating down fiercely and we were all exhausted and covered in sweat and mud. I thought we were going to be stuck there all day, and all night too! But just then we heard a vehicle approaching from behind. It was Saiful's army buddies again! Hurray!

These guys will be able to pull us out, no problem!

They attached a chain to the back of our vehicle and had us out of the mud in no time. Being pig-headed and not wanting to give up I was determined to press ahead. I could see where we had gone wrong and entered the deep mud, so I figured that I could just drive around that patch and continue. Again I was warned that up ahead the mud was even worse, but we had to just try and hope that luck was on our side.

Getting around the first patch of mud was no problem, and I kept the vehicle moving until I reached firmer ground on top of a rickety wooden bridge. Dave and Saiful caught up with me there and jumped back into the vehicle.

We hadn't gotten more than a few yards further before I noticed very deep and soft-looking mud ahead. We stopped the vehicle and got out to have a look. The mud clung to our feet in huge clods until we were stomping around with feet as heavy as lead.

The road was wide here so I checked out the right hand side while Dave and Saijun checked out the left. My side was full of deep ruts, it was squidgy but didn't seem too bad. Dave's side didn't have the ruts but the mud seemed softer to me.

While we were still checking out the road the army truck arrived.

'Take the left side!” Dave called out.

I wasn't so sure.

The truck revved up and ploughed forward along the left side, right up to it's axles in soft, squidgy mud! They were completely stuck! They tried to back out, pushing and pulling as we had done earlier but to no avail.

At that point a local guy passed by on foot.

'Should've taken the right side', he said without even pausing.

I guess that the ruts on the right side should have been a clue that others had gone that way.

Now that the army was stuck in the mud another army truck had to come to the rescue. I thought they they would just pull the truck out of the mud backwards, like they had done with us, but in their infinite wisdom they for some reason decided to get in front on the first truck and tow it out forwards.

They drove past the truck to it's right, no problem. They got in front of it, no problem. Then they attached the chain and tried to pull the first truck out. Wheels were spinning and the trucks sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. Very soon there were two army trucks stuck in the mud!

At this point we decided that there was no point in hanging around and so we made a swift exit. I teased Dave about telling the army guys to go to the left and he laughed as we drove back the way we had come. We found out later that the army guys ended up having to spend the whole night stranded in their vehicles!

It seemed like our only option now was to take a boat along the river. We had ruled out this option earlier as being too expensive, but now that we had already come most of the way maybe we could find a local guy who could take us down a tributary and into the main river.

We tried every settlement on the way back, but our hopes were in vain. Nobody had a boat, it seemed like nowadays everyone relied on their 4x4's instead.

Eventually we were all the way back in Sungai Mau, the one place where we knew they had boats because this is where the boat trips to Sukang depart from. By this time it was getting late in the day and we couldn't find anyone who was willing to take us. The journey would take several hours and they didn't want to be on the river after dark.

'Come back in the morning,' they said, 'maybe we can find you a boat then, if you're lucky.'

Then we got even worse news; Luyah, the headman of the Punan, had arrived in Sungai Mau that morning by boat and had gone into town to visit relatives. So even if we made it to Sukang then the one guy who I really wanted to meet probably would not be there. Luyah is the last real Penan in Brunei, the last of a dying culture, he was raised in the jungle and knows all the old ways. To miss meeting this guy would be a real blow.

So now what? We couldn't go on and we had nowhere to sleep. I wanted to do something that would raise my spirits a bit so we opted to visit a waterfall in the primary rainforest and camp there. This at least sounded exciting!

We followed a different road into the jungle this time, a proper sealed road that led to Teraja.

We arrived near Wassai Wong Kadir waterfall and I was disappointed to see a small car park with several cars parked there, one of which was blaring out loud music while a guy was lying fast asleep on the front seat with the door wide open! This was not really what I was hoping for.

Suddenly Dave got excited and pointed to the tops of some nearby trees.

'Red leaf monkeys!'

I got my binoculars out and watched as a whole troop of red leaf monkeys swung by, occasionally stopping to check us out.

'No hunting around here,' said Dave, 'otherwise they would not stop!'

Dave and Saiful started chatting with some of the locals in the car park, so I decided to take a trek into the jungle and visit the waterfall.

Despite the fact that this was a local tourist attraction it was pure, virgin rainforest, almost completely unspoilt apart from the slippery, root-covered track that had been worn down by human feet.

To the left ran one of the most beautiful streams I have ever seen covered in the most delicately beautiful plants. The scene looked ancient and undisturbed, prehistoric somehow.

Clearly people did not stomp around here otherwise this idyllic scene would have been ruined. I can only assume that the Brunei people must stick to the paths, go for a dip in the waterfall, and then walk straight back again, without bothering much to examine the environment around them which I guess they must take for granted. People like Dave, who have a keen interest in nature, are quite a rarity in this part of the world.

As I continued down the path I passed people coming the other way, locals just having a day out, some fresh air and exercise, just like we would do in the woods back home. The only difference being that this was a tropical rainforest, and it was millions of years old!

I saw pong-pong fruit lying on the ground, huge trees to each side, and the now-familiar sounds of cicadas, frogs and bird-calls.

I arrived at the waterfall where a wooden shelter and picnic place had been built, and locals were splashing around in the pool beneath the waterfall. This didn't interest me much and just detracted from the experience of immersion in this ancient forest.

As I walked around the glade by the waterfall I noticed a small track leading upwards into the deep forest. I remembered Saiful telling me that he had done army training around here. They had simply been dropped off here and told to tab through the jungle for several days to a set destination. It sounds extreme to us but to the Brunei army it's just basic training.

I wasn't going to go far but I thought it would be fun to explore the jungle alone for a while so I set off uphill. Now I really was immersed in the jungle, the sights, the sounds, the humidity; the ever-present cicadas and the columns of ants in all different shades and sizes; and the rainforest giants growing all around me.

I managed to scramble my way back to the stream, high above the waterfall this time, and spotted a little tree-frog sitting by the bank. He didn't try to jump away so he was probably not used to seeing people around. Despite the familiar jungle sounds I got the impression of a silent and timeless world, unchanged for millennia.

I didn't want to leave but I thought I'd better turn back before the sun went down and Dave started sending out search parties.

Back at the car park Dave had been talking to a fat, jolly chap called Kamalludin. He said he had a boat and would be willing to take us to Sukang the next day. Hurray! All we had to do was camp at the jetty near his house at Bukit Sawat and he would take us first thing in the morning.

It didn't take us long to find the jetty at Bukit Sawat. It was a small wooden jetty jutting out into a broad, fast-flowing river. The jetty had a small, roofed platform halfway along it's length, so we decided to set up camp there. Bukit Sawat itself seemed to consist of a huge village green, which we back on to, surrounded by wooden houses and a school.

As the sun went down we watched swallows skimming over the surface of the river catching flies, as well as some egrets and a fish owl hunting.

'Many crocodiles here!' Saiful said, remembering his military training.

As Dave shone his torch over the surface of the river we noticed two red eyes near the far bank staring back at us in confirmation of Saiful's warning.

But Dave was getting too excited to worry about crocodiles. In the trees near us some red leaf monkeys were turning in for the night, while on the bank opposite were a troop of long-tailed macaques and off to their left a troop of grey leaf monkeys.

'That's three kinds of monkey!' said Dave, stating the obvious.

He was particularly excited at spotting the grey leaf monkeys.

'No hunting around here either. That's good!' he said.

He then told me that it's usual for monkeys to sleep in trees that overhang the river. Nobody is really sure why but Dave seemed to think it was because monkeys sometimes fell out of the tree in their sleep, and if they landed in the water they wouldn't break any bones! With all these crocodiles around his explanation seemed unlikely.

As it got dark we settled down for the night and surrounded our little platform with smoking mosquito coils which were of limited usefulness as the mosquitoes just flew up between the floorboards instead. We then went to perform our evening ablutions in the local mosque (a first for me!) as we didn't fancy using the crocodile-infested river.

Just as we were nodding off to sleep a car pulled up nearby and out came Kamalludin. He'd come to give us the news. His engine was broken and he wouldn't be able to take us in his boat the next day after all. Just great!


I awoke at first light the next day to a rather aggressive sounding, grating cry: 'Hoo HOOO hooo!

'What was that?' I asked.

'Just the grey leaf monkeys,' Dave answered, 'They always do that in the morning!'

'We had visitors last night too. Wild pigs rooting around below the trees.'

It seemed that Dave was not a good sleeper and had spent most of the night wildlife-spotting.

A new day and a new adventure! So what now? Well it hadn't rained since the previous day, so perhaps the road had dried up a bit? It was pure optimism but we had to give it a try, so we set off back down the road to Rumah Biadung.

It was early morning and the sky was cloudy which kept the air cool. There seemed to be lot more wildlife out today, probably due to the cooler weather. We saw a kukri snake slithering across the road, a pair of black hornbills flying overhead, several coucals flying off into the trees as we drove by and a white-breasted water hen.

It seemed like no time at all before we were back at Rumah Biadung where we had got stuck the previous day. The ground did seem firmer and we got through the first quagmire with no trouble at all. We drove over the wooden bridge and arrived at the place where the army truck had got stuck the previous day. We climbed out and tested the ground. Maybe it was a bit better than yesterday, but it was still bad.

I remembered that yesterday the right hand side was OK, it was only the left which was the problem, but just to make sure we decided to fill the ruts with wooden logs to give a firmer footing.

I still wasn't at all sure about this but I thought 'What the hell!' and went for it! The car revved and hit the logs as fast as I could take it. It ploughed on through the mud and started sliding left and right. The car almost stalled but just managed to make it through to the firmer ground on the other side. What a relief!

Dave and Saiful jumped back in the car and we continued on. We didn't get far. Within about 50 yards we came upon mud worse than any we had seen so far, with ruts more than a foot deep in mud as soft as wet clay. There was no way we were getting through this!

Resigned to our fate we were left with no other choice, we would have to continue on foot. It was hot but the sky was overcast, so it shouldn't be too bad (hopefully!); but we couldn't leave the car here, if the rains came it would be stranded or even worse, washed away.

I gave Saiful the keys and told him to drive the car back to Rumah Biadung and park it there. Mistake! Saiful completely missed the track we had padded out with logs and ended up ploughing axle deep into the mud! So here we were again, back to square one! Out with the shovels! But the shovels were no more effective today than they had been the previous day.

I was totally despondent by this point, what a waste of time this trip was turning out to be! I came to see the jungle and the Penan but mostly what I'd seen so far was mud! Lots and lots of mud!

Then out of the blue came the last thing I expected:

'You can go on without me,' Dave said, 'Take Saiful and walk to Sukang, I'll stay here and look after the car.'

I knew how much Dave wanted to go to Sukang too, so I couldn't believe he was passing up this opportunity, but he insisted that I go on ahead without him.

'I'll meet you there later this evening,' he said.

Saiful and I loaded our packs ready for the journey. Dave insisted that as Saiful was ex-army that he was used to carrying heavy loads, so he could take most of the gear. He seemed to be carrying lots of unnecessary stuff though, cooking gear, a stove, tons of food and water. Didn't they have kitchens at Sukang?

I set off down the road, feeling rather guilty to be leaving Dave behind.

'I'll see you later!' he said.

We passed the area of squidgy mud and soon the road started climbing, rolling over hill after hill as the jungle closed in ever nearer on each side until we were down to just a single track road. The footing underneath was firm all the way. Damn! If only the car had made it this far!

Saiful was lagging further and further behind. Despite his army training he was not handling the heavy pack and the hilly terrain very well, but the what the hell! He was young, it will be good for him!

Eventually I came to a T junction in the road. I wasn't sure which way to go so I waited for Saiful. I waited quite along time but eventually he came puffing and panting up the hill. He was obviously not having a good time of it, but he didn't complain and was as good-natured as ever.

We decided to turn right as we figured that the river must lie in that direction. We soon came to another junction and were surprised to see a house with a neatly trimmed garden. Were we in Sukang already? We called at the house but no-one was at home.

My instincts told me to go straight on, as I figured that the river must lie in that direction, but I was using Dave's out-of-date map and to be honest we had no idea where we were on the map. Saiful convinced me to take the left turning, that way the main road seemed to continue, whereas straight ahead the track became narrow and overgrown.

The road went on and on, the house that we had seen could not have been in Sukang, it must have just been a remote farmstead. It was getting hotter now, patches of blue sky could be seen overhead and I was getting through a lot of water. Still not entirely convinced that we were heading in the right direction I ploughed on regardless.

Using Dave's dodgy map we had calculated that the walk should take around two hours. We had now been walking for three hours, but at least now we seemed to be heading downhill, perhaps into a river valley? Rice paddies on the left hand side gave the first hopeful sign, and then a couple of houses on the left.

Up ahead was what definitely seemed like a village, there was a telecommunications mast and a large concrete building. Old 4x4's lay abandoned in the street. We still hadn't seen a single soul, it was like a ghost town.

We walked to the left, past the large concrete building which turned out to be government offices, we were definitely in Sukang! We came to huge wide-open grassy space where we could see a school, but still no people. So where now?

Saiful told me to follow him, back the way we'd come and on down the hill. At last we came to the river!

It was such a relief to be here at last! We sat down in the shade by a jetty and dropped our packs. Saiful was probably even more relieved than I was!

Behind us, at the end of a long wooden walkway was a huge house built on several levels. Saiful said he would go there and ask for help while I waited at the jetty.

He soon came back and told me that the headman of Sukang had invited us to his house, the huge house that lay behind us. Grabbing our packs we headed over there.

The Penghulu (or Chieftain) was an old man who sported a pot-belly from too much of the 'good life'. He was from the Dusun tribe and his name was Dato Maharaja Setia.

Despite the huge size of the house and his obvious wealth we squatted down on the floor on rattan mats in a bare and empty room while his wife picked leaves from some vegetables.

We were then presented with roasted tapioca root and sweet tapioca wrapped in palm leaves. Delicious! They were quite amused that I seemed to like their food and kept presenting me with more until I had to say 'Enough!' so they gave me more to take away with me anyway.

I was already thinking that with hospitality like this Saiful had been wasting his energy carrying that huge pack full of supplies!

We told him why we were here: 'To visit the Punan!'

Luckily for us he didn't have a problem with this, he just seemed disappointed that we didn't want to stay with him instead!

He showed us around part of his huge house. In the centre was a massive room filled with sofas that I assumed was used for social gatherings or conferences. At one end of the room was a collection of gongs used for playing their unique style of tribal music.

Against some of the pillars were strapped ancient-looking brass canons that had obviously come from a ship in the dim and distant past. How on Earth did they end up here though? The Penghulu couldn't say, they had just always been here.

On the wall was a notice-board which showed the local hierarchy, mug-shots of each of the local officials were pinned onto the board in a pyramid structure with the Penghulu at the top. It looked kind-of funny but it was common practice here in Borneo. They obviously found this hierarchical structure very important and I couldn't help but contrast this with the original hunter-gatherer way of life that had no hierarchical structure at all.

We thanked him, said our goodbyes and walked back down to the jetty. By this time some young men and small children were hanging around and they offered to give us a lift over to the other bank of the river where the Punan house was.

The man who ferried us over was called Mohedin, he was stripped to the waist and muscular, he reminded me of Bruce Lee! Saiful told me that Mohedin was a Penan, he was the first Penan I had ever met.

Arriving at the other bank I saw the sign saying 'Welcome to Rumah Panjang Punan'. That magic word 'Punan', we were here at last!

The Penan longhouse was built in typical longhouse fashion, high up on stilts with a wide verandah running along the front. The Penan, of course, were not originally longhouse people, they were hunter-gatherers who lived in temporary shelters deep in the jungle.

This longhouse had been built for them by the government of Brunei, as part of their project to make the Penan settle down and give them a 'descent' place to live. As far as I was aware, every Penan in Brunei now lived in this one longhouse.

As we climbed up the steps to the verandah we were greeted by an older guy named Ali. Another strangely Muslim name for these animist, hunter-gatherers.

I asked Ali if he still went hunting in the jungle. It was a naïve question really. This is Borneo, the jungle is all around, hunting is a way of life. He took out his blowpipe and darts and showed them to me.

The blowpipe is around 6-7 feet long, perfectly straight like it has come out of a factory, but these blowpipes are entirely made by hand from natural products taking huge amounts of painstaking care and attention. On the end is tied a long, iron spear-point, like a bayonet. I wasn't sure how traditional it was to have a spear attached to a blowpipe but it turns out the the spear-points used to be made out of bone, so perhaps this type of construction goes back a long way.

They also showed us the thin, feather-weight darts which were already coated in poison. These guys really meant business!

What was disappointing was the modern clothes and the fact that they seemed to know very little about their own traditions and spirituality, but in a modern state like Brunei I didn't really expect much more.

Ali then took us out for a walk in the local area where we passed by a more traditional looking shack.

He showed us some useful herbs and plants including 'Silun Pulaki' which they use against a sore throat. He also told me that any left-over medicine must not be given to animals to eat, or this would negate the effect of the medicine. It was interesting stuff but unfortunately it was approaching dusk and I had forgotten my mosquito repellent so I was being eaten alive and had to rush back to the longhouse before we could go very far.

Back at the longhouse I noticed a small outbuilding. Inside were new-looking toilets covered in weeds and dirt. The government had built this toilet block for the Penan too but I guess that they could find no use for it, some habits die harder than others! It was 'jungle toilet only' around here!

As we relaxed on the verandah, listening to the Penan chatting away, and getting curious stares from the children, there was a sudden commotion outside.

It's Luyah! Luyah has arrived! The last true Penan in Brunei!

His attire was rather eclectic to say the least. He was wearing a feathered headdress, white shirt and red shorts, an orange life-jacket and carrying a blowpipe and darts! He was either very tired or very preoccupied because he didn't notice me and just stared at the ground ahead of him as he returned to his home, the longhouse.

He was greeted by his family like a long-lost wanderer and I thought I'd give him time to settle in before I introduced myself.

Shortly afterwards Saiful called me over and sat me down in front of Luyah.

'Ok, what do you want to ask him?' Saiful said.

Luyah and Saiful both looked at me expectantly as I was put totally on the spot and totally unprepared.

'Thanks Saiful!' I thought, 'Thanks for the warning!'

No introductions just straight into the interrogation, maybe this was the Penan way?

I shook his hand anyway and said 'Hello' and then asked him the first thing that came into my head:

'How did you end up here in this longhouse?'

Saiful was translating (badly) while Luyah gave long, long answers to all of my questions which Saiful seemed to translate into just a few words. Luyah was pointing, gesticulating and talking endlessly, directing his answers to Saiful who took notes occassionally which was kind-of reassuring.

He was born, he said, in the jungle, near the river Kerduan. His family were jungle nomads who moved from place to place, never settling down for more than 2-3 weeks. Later in life though, they were forced to settle down by the Brunei government, who required all it's citizens to have an ID card and a permanent address. After being moved from place to place they were eventually settled here in the longhouse at Sukang with all the other Penan.

He told me that the Penan had no concept of dates or time, and that in order to trade their forest products they would be given a piece of rattan with knots tied in it by the traders. They would untie one knot each day and when all the knots were finally untied it would be time for the next trading day when the Penan would emerge from the jungle to trade again at a pre-arranged location. While explaining this Luyah demonstrated the knots on a piece of rattan.

So far so good, I was getting the gist of what he was saying, even if Saiful was missing all the minor details out.

I was curious of reports I'd heard of Penan wandering in the jungles of Brunei and crossing over the border from Sarawak. I asked him if anyone could be found in the jungle nowadays and if anyone still crossed the border.

He went on to explain that he sometimes visited his relatives in the Baram province of Sarawak.

'Do you walk through the jungle?' I asked him.

'No, I take the bus!' he replied.

Not exactly what I was angling at but Saiful warned me that Luyah would quite often answer a completely different question to the one which was asked.

'It doesn't matter,' I said to Saiful, 'just translate everything he says, it's all interesting!'

He then told me about the holes in his ears, how in the old days they believed that malicious ghosts would steal your ears and make them into drinking cups, thereby making you deaf. Therefore if you made holes in your ears they would be no use as drinking cups and so the ghosts would not steal them! Perfectly logical when you think about it!

I asked him what they used to eat in those days and he told me they ate lots of sago as well as shoots from rattan, bamboo, nibong palm, banana and tapioca, as well as ferns, roots and of course meat! He assured me that any animal can be taken down with a poison blowpipe dart and then finished off with the spear-point.

At this point a young woman walks over carrying a very strange-looking creature!

It looked completely prehistoric, like a baby pterodactyl!

It had the body of a plucked chicken, the wings of a young black crow, big round eyes with a huge beak, and huge, ungainly feet. As she sets it on the floor it just sits there and cheeps, looking quite terrified while all the time gulping and shaking it's tail.

Saiful tells me that it's a baby black hornbill. Luyah has just brought it back as a present for his grandchildren.

'What will they do with it?' I ask, worried that the poor thing would just be tormented for a few days before it died.

'They will raise it', he says, 'they have raised them before.'

The Penan love their pets, and when they're old enough to look after themselves they usually let them go. Apparently Luyah had rescued this one out of a tree. I had a hard time imagining the old man climbing high into the trees looking for hornbill nests, but apparently that is what had happened.

We had a rest from talking and then later on everyone went for a swim in the river. There is a long wooden walkway that angles down deep under the water and as I edged my way along it I was nibbled by the local river-fish, this gave me a shock at first which caused the local kids much amusement, but I soon got used to the nibbling (cleaning?) and it was quite pleasant after a while.

The kids were having a great time, diving into the water and doing back-flips etc. They seemed totally at home there and were not at all shy about showing off to the strange foreigner.

After we'd dried off and got dressed Saiful noticed some 4x4s pulling up on the opposite bank.

'You want to go over there?' he asked me.

'Sure,' I said.

We took one of the small boats and the local kids ferried us to the other side.

Saiful greeted the 4x4 drivers and passengers enthusiastically who were by now having a big picnic. Some of the guys were relatives of Saiful's, his cousins! Did he know everyone in Brunei? These were rich kids from the city who liked to go out at the weekends in their 4x4s exploring remote areas, having a picnic lunch, and then going home again the same day.

These guys had proper 4x4's with knobbly tyres, jacked-up suspension and snorkels, also there were four vehicles so if one got stuck the others could pull it out. They told us that they had come the same way as us, but they hadn't seen any sign of Dave. We wondered what could have happened to him?

They had tried to get further into the jungle too, to Melilas, but the road there was too bad, even for them.

Just as quickly as they'd arrived they were off again, heading back home after their picnic in Sukang by the river. Luckily for us they left us heaps and heaps of food, enough for a huge banquet of our own!

We took the food back to the longhouse and spread it out on the verandah to share with the Penan. Everyone tucked in but even so there was still food left over at the end. The Penan did not seem to eat a great amount and they all looked very thin and muscular. It made me wonder at the excesses of these rich city kids who bring so much food just for a day out.

After dinner I watched the sun go down from the verandah.

Later on we had tea with Luyah and talked some more, but by this time everyone was getting tired and Saiful's translations weren't making much sense. Then the rain started. Heavy, heavy rain! Rattling down so hard on the tin roof that we could hardly hear each other speak. This was bad new for me because I had hoped to follow the Penan on a hunting trip the next day, but after heavy rain like this they said that it would not be a good idea.

After all that tea I asked Saiful where I should go for a pee and he indicated a hole in the floorboards in our sleeping room!

'Are you sure?' I asked.

'Yes, go ahead!'

It was a bit embarrassing as by this time the kids were getting over-excited and following me around, peering through the window and trying to get into my room.

I wanted to talk some more with Luyah but Saiful was not enthusiastic about translating.

'I tired, we sleep now,' he said.

It was early but I was getting tired too so I agreed. After an hour or two's rest I got up briefly again and noticed that Saiful was still up, talking to a girl on the verandah and learning how to speak Penan.

'Tired eh?' I said smirking.

Saiful ended up staying up most of the night, despite his 'tiredness'!


We got up early the next morning to a breakfast of rice and small river fish, and Luyah asked us if we'd like to take some photos of him with his blowpipe. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and so we went outside and posed by the edge of the jungle.

Saiful insisted that I take several photos with him and Luyah. He said that his friends would be very impressed to see him with Luyah, the last Penan in Brunei and personal friend to the King himself, or 'His Majesty' as everyone seemed to call him.

In an absolute monarchy like Brunei being seen with a friend of the King was a big deal! Just why this old Penan guy was a friend of the King I didn't manage to find out, but the King seemed to be sympathetic to the Penan cause.

After our photo-shoot we collected our things and got ready to leave. Saiful left behind all the food he had carried there in his backpack with such great exertion. The hospitality had been so good that we had not eaten a single thing that we had brought with us!

We thanked the Penan warmly for their hospitality and took a boat back over the river. Mohedin (Bruce Lee) then accompanied us back to the headman's house where we were sat down and forced to eat a second breakfast of bread and butter and fried jackfruit fritters by the Penghulu and his wife.

They were interested to hear what we had to say about the Penan, their 'poor cousins' from over the river, but they still couldn't really understand why we preferred to stay with the Penan and not them.

We still had the small problem of how to get back to our car, we could always walk again (Saiful was not keen on this idea) but for a small fee the Penghulu agreed to get one of his minions to drive us there. I was not confident, the road was bad and the rain last night had been heavy. We had passed several quagmires on the way and these could only have gotten worse since the previous day.

Of course we were still wondering just what had happened to Dave. Had he got lost in the jungle and been eaten by wild animals? Or had he been washed away in a flood? We had no idea.

Our driver arrived and the Penghulu and his daughter decided to accompany us. We negotiated most of the quagmires without any difficulty, the driver obviously knew the road and knew which line to take. We got as far as the first road junction we had reached on our walk, but at this point the driver got out and checked the road. It had been raining, the road was very steep and the old car didn't have much power. He decided that he couldn't risk it and so we'd have to get out and walk the rest of the way.

We thanked the Penghulu and continued on foot. The weather was cool again and our packs were lighter, so it was little more than a stroll. After what seemed like minutes we spotted Jungle Dave ahead, binoculars in hand, staring into the trees, seemingly without a care in the world.

'What happened to you?' we said.

Apparently he had no luck in trying to get out of the mud and ended up having to walk many kilometres in the opposite direction to try to find someone who could tow him. After a long, hot walk he found some forestry workers from Indonesia with a caterpillar tracked vehicle. They weren't interested in helping him but he offered them 50 Brunei dollars and they relented.

By the time he got out of the mud it was getting dark so he slept in the car. In the morning he found a local Iban longhouse that was almost deserted with only five people staying there. After chatting with the Iban and having breakfast he went out and did some bird and wildlife spotting and that's when we met him. It turned out that Dave's trek had been even longer than ours!

We walked back past the place where the car had been stuck, the heavy rains had seemingly been not as heavy as we thought, at least not here. The road was in the same condition that we left it in and the river had not risen up and swamped the whole place as we had feared might happen.

We got back to the car and set off in high spirits, telling the tales of our adventures. Dave was talking as if the trip was already finished.

'It's not over yet!' I said.

At that precise moment, just as we were driving around a bend, we saw that a tree had fallen right across the road directly in front of us! Dave, who was driving, slammed on the brakes!

'Like I said, it's not over yet!'

The tree was heavy and the trunk was several inches thick. There was no way we were going to lift it. Luckily Dave was prepared and had brought along two axes and a saw! So we set to work, chopping, sawing, chopping, taking the tree away piece by piece.

It only took around half an hour of exertion before the road was clear again and we were free to drive past.

The road became firm and compact again and the going was easy, the route was familiar as we had driven it already, so it seemed like we would be back on the main road in no time.

Just then we noticed a car parked to the left ahead and there were guys nearby carrying small cages. I just had to stop to find out what these guys were up to.

The cages contained small birds, parakeets taken from the jungle. Dave pointed out to the guys that what they were doing was illegal, the parakeets were a protected species and this was a forest reserve.

'We didn't know it was a forest reserve,' they lied.

Dave pointed to the huge sign that their car was parked under, it said 'FOREST RESERVE'.

'Oh,' they said.

Just then some more guys arrived with yet more birds. They had parakeets in cages and yet more in small, plastic mesh bags.

Apparently what they do is take some birds out into the forest in cages to act as decoys, set up nets and then catch all the birds that come to check out the decoys. It's an effective method and requires minimal effort.

These were local people and this was just a fun day out for them. Most of the parakeets will be kept or given to relatives as pets, but no doubt some would be sold too. The parakeets can also be eaten as food. Local officials turn a blind-eye and these local guys were not worried about being prosecuted. They certainly had no concept that they were threatening an endangered species.

We made it back to the main road without further incident, but before heading back to Bandar, Dave had one last thing to show me.

We pulled over by the side of a busy main road and Dave disappeared off into the bushes. Saiful and I followed him through dense undergrowth, there was no path so we had to force our way through. Dave would stop occasionally and look around as if he wasn't really sure where he was.

'Where the hell are we going?' I asked.

'This way!' said Dave, and off he went again into the bushes.

Before long I started to notice small pitcher plants dotted around the ground and before long there were pitcher plants everywhere of all different shapes and sizes.

There were several different species there, ranging from small one's on the ground that looked like ink-wells, to huge hanging varieties covered in red spots. Dave picked one up and showed it to me, careful not to spill the sticky liquid that was inside.

They were absolute marvels of nature, and impossible to believe that such a random process as evolution could ever come up with such a bizarre and complex solution to the problem of survival in a mineral-poor soil.

We placed the pitcher plants back where we had found them, careful not to disturb this secret location that lay so near to a major road.

We hopped back into the car and soon arrived back in Bandar. As we returned to the tourist office we were treated like long-lost wanderers. Everyone there wanted to know what we had been up to and so we quickly downloaded our photos and gave them a slideshow on our laptops.

There were howls of laughter when they saw us stuck in the mud and even more wild laughter when they saw the pictures of Saiful carrying a heavy pack that was almost as big as he was!

It had been a fun trip and the people from Mona Florafauna tours are great to hang around with, and what's more it had been a success, I had met the last Penan in Brunei!


Mona Florafauna Tours are based in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Tel: +673 223 0761

Email: mft.brunei@gmail.com

You can contact me for more information: robt@jelldragon.com

Copyright © 2009 Robert H Taylor