The still, silent, dead of night, deep in the Borneo jungle. The full moon casts a silvery, dreamlike trance over the primal rainforest.
Gently, two paddles sink into the inky water, the surface breaks and we glide soundlessly downstream.
The moonlight adds a sheen to the edges of the virgin forest but beyond the riverbank is impenetrable darkness. Only the rattling chirp of the cicadas and the mooted calls of owls taint the silence.
It is a canvas of calm and the night is achingly and hauntingly beautiful.
The silence is finally broken by a low murmur from behind me. Two beams of light flash to the bank on our right. There in the rays of death stands a mouse deer.
With a few rapid strokes we reach the riverbank. Two tribesmen race from the canoe. They scramble up the muddy rise. Their torch beams slash through the trees and undergrowth in a frantic search for their prey.
It is to no avail and one of the hunters gives up and returns empty handed to the boat.
As we wait we catch fleeting glimpses of torchlight off in the distance but silence has settled once more on the jungle. It seems the deer has escaped with its life.
But 15 minutes later the peace is shattered by the grave, echoing sound of gunshot.
A few minutes pass before Jangolin reappears at the riverbank. He carries a rifle in one hand and from the other dangles the bloody, still and lifeless mouse deer.
Seventy years ago the Kayan were a feared headhunter tribe living in the remote upper Rajang river of Borneo. Nowadays they hunt only for food. Their lives depend upon it.
Lower down the river at Kapit, which is only accessible by boat, I discovered that many of the traditional Iban longhouses have gone. Most people now live in modernised concrete versions, often with electricity and TVs.
But in some of the older wooden longhouses the past still lurks, skulls of headhunting victims hang in baskets.
Belaga, which is mainly Kayan territory, is a further six hours by boat through the Pelagus rapids. The settlement is small and I soon meet Bruno. He has good English and agrees to be my guide for a couple of days.
Early the next day he and I set off, we’re heading for a remote longhouse. It’s an arduous journey.
When we finally arrive the people are distant but not unfriendly and although dirt poor they’re generous. Smoked fish is soon brought out along with a bottle of tuak, Borneo’s notoriously strong rice wine. Bruno explains that today is a rest day so drinking will be heavier than normal.
The women mostly keep their distance. Some of the older ones have fully inked lower arms and long, drooping earlobes from days when this was considered fashionable. The practice is no longer en vogue and has died out.
Note the inked lower arm
A common area runs the length of the longhouse. Off it are small rooms for sleeping and cooking. Even in the daytime they are dark and dingy.
There’s neither electricity nor running water. Food is cooked over an open fire.
For lunch there’s a selection of meat the men have hunted. Wild boar, rich and quite sweet; mouse deer, which looks and tastes a little like pork; and ‘wild cat’, civet, I think. Its meat is gristly and I find it almost impossible to chew.
There’s also rice and tapioca. Everything they eat they either grow or catch themselves. Even the cigarettes they smoke are from their own tobacco.
After lunch it is time for a wash and bathe.
Grooming is taken seriously and the boy checks all the men’s hair
A nearby stream is the communal bathroom. Similarly, the jungle is their toilet. But only in daylight. Bruno warns me the night can be dangerous so I should just stand on the longhouse verandah and do what I need to do over the side.
Late in the afternoon, after several bottles of tuak, we get in a boat and go fishing up river. A catfish is quickly caught and an impromptu barbecue is soon underway. But after some loud mutterings my guide tells me that we need to return to the longhouse as one of the men is not well. ‘A bad head’, he informs me. He means the man is completely drunk.
The drinking continues into the night and I am a little wary when two homemade guns are produced in readiness for the hunt. However, drink or no drink the Kayan are experts. The mouse deer is taken with a single shot.
Dinner – it’s subdued after a day on the tuak
On our return Bruno shows me our ‘bedroom’. There are no blankets, no pillows and, of course, no bed. The floor is where the Kayan sleep and we will be sharing with Jangolin and Malacca. There is very little space. This will be a snug fit.
I place my BlackWolf backpack under my head and put on an extra top for warmth.
Within moments Bruno is snoring grotesquely loudly. Next to me Malacca begins a whiney version of the same thing. I inwardly sigh and turn onto my side. It is, unsurprisingly, not comfortable.
Thirty minutes later Malacca, whose breath I can feel on my neck, suddenly throws a leg over me. Worse still it grips tightly around my own legs. I freeze. Is he asleep or is he amorous?
Many scenarios rush through my head. None of them end well.
I manage to wriggle away and convince myself he’s just in a drunken stupor.
Thirty long minutes later the leg comes snaking around me once more. Again I am hooked tight in his clutches. Oh hell, I think he might be having a frisky dream. I’m desperately hoping I’m not in it.
Through the endless hours of the night this scenario is repeated five times. On each occasion the embrace gets more vice-like. Sometimes I push him gently away, other times I give him a jab. I’m not sure how wise this is, his hunting knife is almost within reach.
I remain planted on my right side. The idea of turning over and coming face to face or cheek to cheek with Malacca is not comforting.
Finally, dawn arrives. I am first up.
Malacca chopping fish
Bruno and I set off back towards Belaga. The Kayan give us the mouse deer as a gift. We give them tuak.
Once on a logging trail we hitch rides in the rear of beaten up old utes. Huge logging trucks rumble past and we are coated in thick, gritty blankets of dust.
We’re crammed in tight between boxes and bags. The only thing moving is the dead mouse deer and it slides ever closer to me. For the next 90 minutes splashes of its congealed blood rub against my backpack. Australian customs will not be happy.
After a couple of hours we reach a road and I take my leave. I hitch a long ride back to the modern world. I’m hunting a hot shower, clean clothes, a wire brush to clean my bag and, most importantly, a bed that I will share with nobody.