Penan Naikas Bushmen

Jungle training with the Iban of Brunei...

My jungle training began in Brunei, it was the ideal location. Well developed, with a largely English speaking population, 70% of the country is covered in primary rainforest. I figured that it would be easy to arrange a trip into the forest here and get a taste of the real primeival wilderness.

The small oil-rich state of Brunei, completely surrounded as it is by it's poorer neighbour Sarawak, has left it's rainforests largely intact. This is due in no small partly to Brunei's incredible oil wealth, and partly to the benevolent will of it's autocratic ruler the Sultan of Brunei. Brunei is classified alongside Britain and the United States as a developed nation, and in fact is the fifth richest country in the world in terms of GDP per head. It's citizens get the full range of social services, pay no taxes, and are virtually guaranteed employment, so there is far less pressure here to exploit the environment or engage in poaching and illegal logging activities.

By contrast Sarawak has systematically looted it's rainforests for valuable timber which is then shipped off to China (one of the few countries that will still buy timber from primary rainforests). The difference is so striking that the borders of Brunei can actually be discerned on a satellite map, Brunei being a deeper shade of green.

Brunei is split into two halves, the western half contains the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan and all of the countries oil wealth, with most of the population strung out in towns along the coast. While the eastern half, called Temburong, has only 4000 permanent residents and is mainly covered in lush primary rainforest including the Ulu Temburong National Park. It was here that I decided to get my first taste of the real Borneo jungle.

Arriving by plane in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan, with it's over-the-top shining gold-domed mosques making it look like a moslem Disneyworld, I immediately set about the task of finding a tour operator who could take me to Temburong.

After making a few enquiries I discovered that it was not possible to trek in the Ulu Temburong National Park or the vast area of rainforest to the south of it without going through the lengthy process of obtaining a permit. I did however discover that just outside the park there were operators who could take you to primary rainforest alongside Ulu Temburong which is no different to that deeper south in the province.

I arranged a tour in town which would first take me on a day trip to the national park with some other tourists, and then take me on my own personal adventure to spend a night sleeping in the jungle.

Taking a speedboat from Bandar the next morning we passed through the maze of channels and islands which flank the coast of Brunei. The channels were completely enclosed by vegetation, first mangroves and then nipah palms; we could have been hundreds of miles from civilization for all we knew. Fourty minutes later we arrived in Temburong province where we transferred onto a bus which took us to Semirang eco-camp by the Temburong river. The camp consisted of a few simple shelters and a shower / toilet block. After lunch we continued by motor-powered longboat up the river to the national park.

The boat ploughed up the river, deeper and deeper into the jungle, at first a few bungalows and strange tree-houses flanked the river but soon we were into the primary forest, a landscape that is constantly changing but timeless, existing as it has in this location for millions of years. The river became shallower and at times it seemed like we were scooting just inches over the surface of bubbling rocks, but the boatmen knew what they were doing and skillfully steered the boat through the navigable channels.

Eventually we arrived at the park headquaters and went for our jungle walk. The walk is pitifully short, a 20 minute hike up some muddly and slippery steps to reach the canopy walkway. It seems almost beyond belief that these few hundred yards are all that tourists are allowed to see of this vast and unspoilt wilderness.

The canopy walkway itself is a vertigo-sufferer's hell! 50M high scaffolding towers up through the canopy and has to be climbed on what are basically metal stepladders with narrow metal steps. Look down between your feet and you can see all the way to the jungle floor below, but what I in fact did was try desperately NOT to look down!

Upon reaching the top it was no better, long narrow metal walkways connected the shaky towers and had to be traversed one person at a time. The canopy walkway was never designed for tourists, it was built by scientists on a limited budget who wanted to study the rainforest canopy, but now that the scientists were gone the national park was cashing in on it's unique attraction.

The view from the top however was stunning! Nearby the huge trees could be viewed in all their majesty while far off into the distance in every direction stretched the endless rainforest canopy, a spongy, bubbling surface containing every conceivable shade of green.

I asked a fellow tourist on top of one of the towers to take my photograph but his nervous shaking brought on by the dizzying height of the tower made me convinced that he was going to fumble my camera and drop it through the leafy boughs to the forest floor far below..

Unfortunately I didn't see any wildlife while I was up there, not a single hornbill, squirrel or flying lizard. My fellow tourists and their screaming kids were making far too much noise to make that a realistic possibility.

Determined to make the most of what little freedom we were allowed here, I headed back down the path and decided to walk across the suspension bridge which spans the river, but before I could do so an attendant stopped me and made me put on a life jacket! The park only had a handful of visitors at moment, but apparently a horde of 2000 Koreans had recently descended upon the park and despite being told to cross one at a time had swamped the suspension bridge with their bodies causing it to collapse into the swollen river far below. There were several fatalities from drowning and since rebuilding the suspension bridge the park authorities had insisted that everyone wear a life jacket from now on.

Once our brief visit was over we stepped back into the longboat and returned the way we had come, stopping once along the way to walk up a stream to a small waterfall.

By the mouth of the stream I got my first sighting of the Rajah Brooke's birdwing butterfly, the most amazing butterfly you can imagine, it looks like a small black graceful bird as it flits around from place to place to suck at patches of mud and rock by the waterside. It's wings, as it's name suggests, are birdwing shaped, a deep black with iridescent green triangles that reflect the sunlight. While it's thorax is a deep red. I could have watched it all day but we were soon huddled back into the boat and on our way again.

We disembarked at the eco-lodge and after an agonising hour or two the other tourists and their hordes of children finally left and returned to Bandar. I was now free at last to lounge by the river and enjoy the sounds of the jungle, the chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs and the call of the birds, and to take in the local wildlife, the ants crawling, the bees buzzing, the lizards scuttling about and the dazzling array of multi-coloured butterflies, each one I spotted displaying a new palette of unimagined colour.

Later in the evening my guide Zeidi took me to the local Iban longhouse, there I met Apai, an old Iban tracker and soldier who would be my guide in the jungle the next day. Unfortunately Apai did not speak any English, despite fighting alongside the British during the Brunei revolt in the 1960's, but Zeidi did a great job of translating so communication was not a problem.

It was my first visit to a longhouse and despite this being a very small one I still got a taste of longhouse life. The house is divided into many residences (called biliks) down one side, and each of these biliks has a door which opens onto the long, wide veranda which runs the length of the entire building and is a communal area shared by all.

Sitting talking on some mats on the veranda we were soon joined by more and more people who wanted to join in and see what was going on. The Iban are famous hunters and blacksmiths and we soon got around to talking about these traditional activities. Guns are completely outlawed in Brunei and even the possession of a spent cartridge shell can incur the severest of punishments (capital punishment and floggings are still carried out in Brunei). This means that more traditional weapons must be used for hunting, such as spears and blowpipes, although the Iban here admitted that they used compressed air in their blowpipes nowadays!

They were more than happy to show me their hunting weapons; small, light spears and harpoons for hunting small game and large hefty spears for hunting larger game. The harpoons were designed so that the head detaches itself and the shaft gets caught amongst the trees, preventing the animal from fleeing. All the weapons were made at their local forge, the traditional village blacksmith tradition still being alive and well here in Brunei. Almost any animal could be hunted, from birds, monkeys and squirrels to larger game such as sambar deer and wild pigs.

Next they brought out the parangs, lethal-looking single-edged machetes that in the past were used for head-hunting but nowadays are more commonly employed clearing a path through the jungle undergrowth. One particular parang was a rusty-bladed family heirloom with an ornately carved bone handle in the shape of some kind of animal, perhaps a boar. They told me that this parang had been used in the past for head-hunting and had taken several heads. They all seemed very pleased about this and I couldn't help but smile at their reactions which only encouraged them further. They then enthusiastically told me that the handle was carved from a human leg bone, which only caused my smile to widen at the shamelessness of these former savages, but I'm not sure that I believed them. Attached to the handle was a lock of hair, in the past it would have been human hair from one of the blade's victims but this hair was clearly just a replica.

Apai told me that a parang needs to taste blood regularly or it's spirit gets restless, in the past this would have meant another head-hunting expedition, but nowadays they make do with a few drops of chickens blood. He also told me that the parang has magical powers and can be used for healing by dipping the blade in water and then making a potion out of the water, interestingly a similar belief is mentioned in Anglo-Saxon sources.

Apai then proceeded to tell me all his war stories from the 1960's uprising, how he fought alongside the British against the Kalimantan (Indonesian) army, how he had ambushed and killed many soldiers, all complete with actions and sound effects! It was in striking contrast to the average European soldier who would usually be unwilling to discuss such things.

He then told me jokingly about how he was ambushed in his house one time, how the enemy were running underneath and shooting bullets up through the floor (Iban houses are raised on stilts with a large open area underneath). Bullets were hitting the ceiling and even broke a glass just as a man was about to drink from it. Apai thought this was hilarious!

'These people glorify in war!', I thought, but should I be surpirsed? The Iban in the very recent past were the veritable 'Vikings' of Borneo, liking nothing better than to go on a raiding party in their longships and take a few heads which they then brought back to their longhouses and proudly displayed as trophies of their prowess while reciting poems about their exploits!

In fact Apai proudly told me how his grandfather had taken heads in the past and had hung them up in a basket in their living room after ritually devouring some of the flesh. I was starting to look at Apai in a new light. Here was a guy who was brought up with the skulls of his grandfathers enemies hanging up in his living room! His father also kept the skulls on display and made offerings to them to appease their spirits, it was only recently that the skulls were removed.

He also told me about an “Isle of the Dead” some way down the river where the skulls would have been taken to be defleshed, the island is full of evil spirits and the people are now afraid to go there unless it is to make offerings to the deceased.

It was dark outside and the cicadas were chirping ceaselessly as we got up to leave. We passed by many finely woven rattan baskets hanging up on the walls and I noticed bunches of leaves hung by each door, 'To ward off evil spirits', I was told, more baskets were hanging outside where offerings were made to the spirits.

It was curious in a country as developed as Brunei to find such ancient beliefs and customs still alive and thriving.


I awoke early in my tent by the river at Semirang Eco Camp and was soon met by Apai and a rotund English-speaking student guide called Peter.

We took a small boat across the river and then started to walk into the jungle. The trees here were small and thin, the area having recently been used by the Iban for their slash and burn agriculture. It was a hot, sunny day and small trees were proving little shade. Fortunately we soon entered denser forest where we picked up some wild fruit to eat called tampoi. First red ones and then yellow ones with sweet, juicy white segments inside. They were very tasty and quite acidic like grapefruit, but the segments were small and the flesh was rather hard to suck away from the large hard seed that made up the majority of each segment.

We stopped by some leafy plants and Apai picked off a couple of large leaves and stuffed them inside his belt: 'To help prevent stomach pains' I was told, the leaves can also be crushed and used against back pain.

A little further on we reach a smaller river, I thought we were going to have to wade across but fortunately a couple of Apai's sons just happen to be paddling by in a small boat with their children and offer me a ride.

Not long after I hop off the boat Apai suddenly stops and raises his hand, he looks to the left and creeps off into the bushes. Thinking that he must have spotted something to hunt I carefully follow him.

'Wild boar!'

'Where?' I say, but then I notice it, a pathetic little piglet caught in a snare.

Apai shouts and soon his sons arrive to retrieve their catch. Everyone looks happy as wild boar are not so common nowadays, but the piglet looks wretched and terrified, desperately running round and round in circles, caked in sticky mud, looking for a way to escape.

Apai's son pulls back the piglets heads and cuts it's throat with his parang. It takes a while for all the blood to drain out into the mud and for the piglet to stop convulsing. The meat will be taken back to the longhouse and shared out with the rest of the relatives.

Meanwhile Apai's other son has noticed some strange looking pods growing nearby, covered in red scales. He peels one open and starts eating the insides. It's full of small black seeds covered in sweet white flesh, another jungle snack!

We leave Apai's sons behind and continue on our way, Apai suddenly rushes on ahead and I wonder where he's disappeared to when suddenly I hear: 'Drrrrrrr', 'Drrrrrrr', 'Drrrrrrr'.

I look left, right and behind, I just can't work out where the noise is coming from, it sounds like it's right next to my ear!

Suddenly I notice Apai standing in a hole only a couple of yards away to my right, he's laughing his head off and acting like he's pointing a machine gun at me: 'Drrrrrrr!'

'OK you got me!' I say.

He's laughs and says he used these fox-holes to ambush the enemy during the war. Why he finds all this blood and death so amusing though I can't really say...

Next on the menu is wild jackfruit, the jungle supermarket delivers again! It's large, green and knobbly and inside are soft peachy segments of pungent orange flesh, it's not bad! This is soon followed by some small rattan berries which are like mini-lychee's but not so sweet. Apai collects some of the fresh rattan shoots to roast in the fire later. He also points out some wild ginseng that can be used against stomach pains and to give energy.

Finally we start to enter the primary forest, huge dipterocarp trees draped with twisting vines and lianas that curl around each other like a mass of contorted serpents.

We soon pass by a smaller tree which has been felled and had some of it's heartwood removed: 'Eaglewood!' I am told.

The heartwood of this tree is sometimes infected by a fungus which creates an extremely rare and valuable resin that can fetch around 3000 pounds per kilo. Poachers, mainly from across the border in Malaysia, sneak into this forest to try to steal the valuable resin and make their fortunes. Despite the best efforts at conservation little can be done to stop them so the tree is rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Apai next shows me a Jelutong tree, which is a kind of rubber tree that exudes latex when the bark is cut. Curious I ask him what rubber was used for in past times and it turns out that it's main purpose was starting fires!

'Burns very well!'

Another fallen tree contains seams of hard, transparent resin. Apai burns a piece and it smells like frankincense.

'Damar', I am told, but fortunately this resin is not valuable and the rotting tree has fallen naturally. Apart from smelling nice the burning incense also keeps away mosquitoes and evil spirits! Useful stuff to have so I pick a piece to take along with me.

The trees now are getting very large, centuries old trees preserved in a timeless environment that has existed since the dinosaurs. Apai decides to climb the vines attached to one particularly huge specimen and just perches there, the huge tree making him look like a tiny monkey. I could just imagine him blow-piping his enemies from up there or leaping down on them with a dagger in his hand to cut their throats, no doubt with a big grin on his face while he was doing it.

After a couple of hours walking through the lush rainforest we arrive at our campsite for the night. It's nothing more than a small clearing by a stream and I am very disappointed to see lots of garbage strewn around everywhere. My guides blame it on a government youth training scheme, and on the Singapore army, who also use this campsite sometimes, but I am not impressed and decide to clear up the unsightly mess myself.

I pick up soggy packets, tissues, bottle-tops, cans, batteries, plastic bottles, tin-cans, rope and ring-pulls, I cut multi-coloured string off twigs, roots and branches, and almost two hours later I have a big pile of garbage ready for burning and a clearing that no longer looks like the local garbage dump. I am covered from head to toe in slimy sweat and I am not in a good mood by this point, but at least now I can walk around in the dark without running the risk of slicing my toe on tin-can lid.

Meanwhile my guides have been using their machetes to construct our crude shelters for the night, simple a-frames connected by two long poles which support a stretcher-like bed called a 'jolly', covered by a simple tarpaulin roof. The jolly lies about a foot off the ground and apart from the tarpaulin is fully exposed to the elements and jungle creepy-crawlies.

After our packed lunch of cold rice and curry sauce we go for a walk to a small waterfall. The 'footpath' turns out to be the river, which we wade out into, the rivers and streams seeming to form highways here through the impenetrable undergrowth.

The rainforest is constantly in twilight, the high canopy of trees blocking out most of the sunlight, but it's not until you try to take a photo without flash that you realise how dark it is. Even the river is in darkness, with the trees of the rainforest canopy meeting high overhead, only allowing small patched of dappled light to reflect off the surface of the water.

After wading down the shallow river for a while we turn off into a much smaller stream enclosed by high banks at least twice my height. How long, I wonder, did it take the stream to erode to such a depth? And how deep must this stream be after heavy rains?

At the end of what was almost a tunnel we reach a sparkling waterfall sliding down a bare rock-face into a shallow pool. Again, despite the full glare of the midday sun above the canopy, only a few dappled patches of light are revealed.

We decide to cut through the jungle to make our way back to camp, and along the way Apai demonstrates the construction of different types of snares for catching wild animals. Small ones for catching ground pigeons and mouse-deer, and larger ones for catching wild-boar.

Back at camp we inspect a net that Apai had laid out in the river earlier, it contains about a dozen small, brightly coloured river-fish which will be fried to supplement our dinner. We also eat the rattan shoots, which are quite tasty, like asparagus, and a shoot called tuwau which tastes rather bitter and unpleasant. The fish are gutted, fried and then eaten whole; heads, bones, fins and all.

As darkness falls the noise from the cicadas, frogs and birds intensifies. There is nothing to do in the jungle at night other than to sit around talking, listening to the jungle sounds. My guides don't offer me a night walk so I decide to do my own and shine my torch around the clearing to see what I can find. On a tree trunk just above my head I spot a large green spider crunching on a big stick insect.

Then turning off my torch I see a flickering spot of light, a firefly! And another spot of light in the undergrowth which I track down and discover is a glow-worm. I'd like to discover more but I'm tired and have a headache from hiking in the heat so I decide to climb onto my jolly and rest.

This is my first night ever in the jungle and I'm not sure what to expect. Will I get covered in ants, mosquitoes and leeches? I make sure I'm wearing my long-sleeved shirt, long trousers, leech socks and plenty of mosquito repellent, but as it turned out the most irritating thing in the jungle that night were my guides who kept me awake by talking all evening! Once they finally stopped I was awoken occasionally as large nuts came crashing down from the canopy high above to land just feet away from our shelters.


I awoke at first light to the strange sound of gibbons calling in the distance. It's a sound that's almost impossible to describe, but imagine the sound that a whale makes (whale-song) and then imagine it whooping rhythmically, in a cave; 'Whooo whooo whooo who-hoo who-hoo wu-wu-wu-wu', first from one direction, then from another as if calling to each other.

After breakfast we pack up camp and head back, taking a diversion along a ridge and past more huge trees. We see tracks of mouse deer and wild boar and even find a muddy wild-boar wallow by the roots of a tree.

We hear a hornbill calling, it sounds something like a cross between the cawing of a raven and the honking of a goose, but the undergrowth is too dense for us to see anything. On the ground we find fresh nutmeg that has been recently nibbled by a hornbill, perhaps the same bird we had just heard, nutmeg is one of the hornbill's favorite snacks.

Soon Apai gets all excited. First he shows me a place where he caught a huge sambar deer in a snare. Being worth more alive than dead he had tied up the living sambar deer and carried it many miles home on his back, it took him all day from dawn till dusk and the deer kicked him and scratched him, but eventually he got it back and sold it to a dealer for comfortable wad of cash.

Next he showed me a place where he had caught a bear. He was going to finish it off with his parang but his son held him back and told him that it was too dangerous. Whether his son was afraid of his father getting injured or was afraid of the powerful spirit of the bear I couldn't quite ascertain, it was probably both. In any case they left the bear alone and by the next time they came back it had broken free.

In high spirits after telling of his exploits Apai then showed me how to fashion a bowl / drinking cup out of a large leaf.

He then pointed out some red fruit lying on the ground which he said were deadly poisonous. Two children from the longhouse had been out alone here, had eaten several of the fruits and had consequently died, a real family tragedy. I couldn't help wondering though how people brought up in the forest could make such a mistake, and how could I possibly survive here without such extensive knowledge? In any case this was end of my jungle training experience and we soon arrived back at the river bank opposite the lodge.

Unfortunately the lodge on the other side was deserted and despite loud whooping calls that reminded me of the gibbons we were unable to attract any attention and so were stuck on this side of the river. Eventually though we were heard all the way over in Apai's longhouse and soon his complaining wife appeared to punt out the boat and ferry us back across. Peter seemed to think that this was hilarious and had a good laugh at Apai and his wife.

I spent the rest of the day at the lodge, taking in and photographing the local wildlife, the colourful butterflies, the ants that crawled everywhere, the lizards that disappeared quickly into cracks and crevices, a tiny pygmy squirrel that looked more like a dormouse and strange black giant bees with huge bug-eyes that lived in holes bored into beams in a nearby boat-shed. The beam was so riddled with these bee holes that I was sure it must collapse at any moment, but the bees buzzed in and out regardless.

After another night at the lodge I was awoken again by the sound of gibbons calling in the distance, reminding me that the jungle was still very nearby.

I made my way back to Bandar the way I had come, by bus and speedboat, back to civilization and the call to prayer of the imams in the mosques.

Copyright © 2009 Robert H Taylor