Into The Heart of Sarawak

An anthropologist rediscovers his roots with the Sa’ban tribe of Borneo, in this fascinating story of adventure, home, and humanity.

By | March 1, 2021

The late Bulan Balan, a Kelabit woman with Sa’ban tattoos, in Long Peluan. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

I could not understand what he meant, but from his expression he clearly expected immediate action, which was unusual in a longhouse.

“Your brother is in Long Puak”, he repeated.

“Deson?” I asked, through a mouthful of rice. He looked blank.

“Tama Apoi?” I ventured.

My tribal brother, Deson, had recently become a father, Tama. His son is called Apoi. Every adult in the ulu immediately became known as the mother or father of their oldest child, boy or girl. Still I was surprised how quickly his old name had been forgotten. It seemed deliberate. Was it, I wondered, a matter of etiquette or related to some old cultural taboo? I should investigate.

Me with my tribal brothers in 1968. Photograph: Beatrice Clayre

Me with my tribal brothers and sisters recently in Miri. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

“No, your English brother. And his wife.”

I almost choked. This was highly implausible. I was in Long Banga, deep in the highlands of Sarawak, far above the navigable reaches of the mighty Baram river. My real brother, Jeremy, lived in the urban jungle of New York. He was unlikely to wander off into the wilderness anywhere, let alone get married. But the impatience of my informant and my own curiosity got the better of me.

I ran the forest path to the nearby village of Long Puak. A Long is typically where a smaller river joins a bigger one. Since people travel by boat whenever possible in the ulu, it is to them much like a Lorong is to urban dwellers.

There I discovered Chris and Debbie, a young British couple I had met a couple of months ago in Miri on the coast, chatting to Tama Peronet on his balcony. Unbelievably they had hitched their way up logging roads to find me. Clearly any other white people straying this far into the interior must be my family. They were in good company. Tama Peronet was one of the most engaging characters in the ulu. He loved animals. He’s The Bird Man of Long Banga on Vimeo and wouldn’t eat monkey. Together we had been mapping ancient megalithic burial sites nearby.

 

Tama Peronet showing me an ancient megalithic tomb near Long Puak. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

In 1995 the logging was coming to this remotest of areas. Recently I had climbed a limestone escarpment, Batu Salit, with the Penan, to see its distant, mud-brown tentacles spreading ever nearer along mountain ridges.  I had taken the year off to spend as much time here as I could before the inevitable changes it would bring.

Chris and Debbie had easily caught lifts on logging trucks whose drivers were astounded and curious to find two young Ang Mohs by the roadside. Or they may have been suspicious. A Swiss environmental activist, Bruno Manser, was drawing international attention to blockades going up throughout the Baram district. Finally, fortuitously, they had met the headman of Long Puak at the end of the road and followed him down to the village from the last bulldozer.

 

Logging roads reaching towards Long Banga. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

I spent my earliest years in Long Banga. My parents were documenting the obscure language of the Sa’ban tribe who lived there before moving the family back to Winchester in the UK. I tried to come back in 1987, on the tail end of some research in Pahang, but the journey then was too long, too hard, and too costly.

In 1988 I dedicated my summer to returning. From London I flew to KL, then on to Kuching and Miri, before taking an express boat up the Baram to the little trading post of Marudi. There I boarded a Twin Otter to Bario in the Kelabit Highlands. For many, this might seem about as remote as you can get, but the children from Long Banga had to walk five days through the mountains to come to secondary school in Bario, sleeping out in the forest for two nights on the way. I planned to follow their path back to Long Banga with a friend from university. It was a very tough but beautiful five-day trek, though we foolishly guided ourselves and were lost much of the time.

When we finally made it, seemingly the entire village had turned out to greet me and it was not long before I was adopted by several families. This is common practice in the ulu. Villagers forge ties with people across wide distances to facilitate travel, trade and alliances. Tama Maria, who had worked with my parents, gave me the name of his brother, Parel. The original Parel (intrepid and fearless, I like to think) had died in his arms, delirious in the jungle, far from any settlement, foolishly daring malevolent spirits to come out and fight him.

Long Banga longhouse in 1968. Photograph Beatrice Clayre

As we strolled back to Long Banga, I told Chris and Debbie a little more about life in the village. I had spent the last few months mostly with a band of kids while their parents were busy farming. They taught me essential Sa’ban words like play (nnyeen), swim (langooi) or hungry (pa’au). I taught them “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”. They begged gleefully to be whirled around by their hands and feet, as my father used to do to me, until one mother asked if I was trying to make them taller. And invariably, as a gaggle, we leaped, cartwheeled and splashed into the river, under the bridge by the school. I was enchanted to see how gently they looked out for each other. Young children looked after younger children, irrespective of gender. Adults looked out for any child whether family or not. The whole society seemed to be focused on its children, which was refreshing coming from a country and culture like ours where children should only be seen and not heard.

 

A vanishing world. Note the old, adzed (hand-hewn) boards. Sadly Long Peluan longhouse burnt down in 2018. They are rebuilding.
Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

“If you can tell me whose kids are whose within three days, I’ll give you a prize,” I joked with them.

“Most importantly,” I suggested, “be ready to make a fool of yourself. Everyone likes a good laugh. The kids called me Mr Bean the other day when I fell in the river trying to throw a fishing net.”

They didn’t look impressed.

“It was a particularly heavy fishing net,” I added lamely. “The one thing I would advise everyone to bring to the ulu, apart from those fabulous Adidas Kampung shoes, is a sense of humour.”

Quite the best jungle footwear. And the cheapest! Note the rattan laces to replace rotten ones. Photograph: Chris Martin

As we neared the village, we had to walk through the school grounds. Pupils streamed out of the classrooms and dormitories through windows and doors shouting “Parel! Parel! Mai langoi!” and we all jumped in the river, most of the kids still in their school uniforms. I dare say I tested the patience of the teachers at times.

Chris and Debbie were equally charmed by the children and overwhelmed by ulu hospitality. I once asked a friend in Bario what it meant to be a Kelabit. He didn’t answer with the geographical, linguistic, or historical explanations I expected, but reflected for a moment and replied: “Nuuh sakai is the most important aspect of being Kelabit.” Roughly translated, this means being hospitable.

Like me, my British friends were amazed that here were four tribes, Kelabit, Sa’ban, Kenyah and Penan, living side by side in the small area around Long Banga. They intermarried and worked together, yet maintained, even celebrated, their differences.

 

Inside Long Peluan longhouse before the fire. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

Debbie, a school psychologist, thought the kids pretty quick at learning new things. In no time they had mastered her Nikon. Chris, a car designer for Honda, joked that he “would soon be out of a job with this lot!”

I thought they were being kind. “Surely kids everywhere are cleverer with aircon controls and mobile phones than their parents,” I suggested.

But Debbie had a theory. She speculated that their particular adeptness came from the attention they paid each other, and from overcoming their cultural and language differences. I wondered if this was not the secret strength of hospitality: to be accommodating meant to be attentive and adaptable, surely the greatest of human assets. Most adults in this community speak five or more languages and many of the men are prized as workers offshore, in the oil industry, for their hardiness, team spirit and quickness at learning new skills.

We hiked over to Long Lamai where the Penan had first begun to settle and farm when they left the forest in 1958. We shot the rapids down to the Puak river and took the longboat out on the broader reaches of the Kelapang, the local name for the Baram. We fished at Um Wang, a huge pool formed where the Kelapang dramatically cascades down several meters, a place few outsiders had seen. We followed a hunting party up to Arol Ano, the high, crystal, chilled waterfall that never runs dry. From here the villagers piped water several miles to their homes. We looked for megaliths. And over the week, Chris and Debbie resolved to continue their adventure by trekking out to Bario the way I had come a few years before. I offered to go with them.

 

Shooting down the rapids from Long Lamai. Photograph: Alasdair Clayre

Before Chris and Debbie left, their new village friends threw them a farewell party in the longhouse.  We ate wild boar, leaf-wrapped rice, and pounded casava leaves. After food there were a few short speeches celebrating Chris and Debbie’s visit, thanking them for coming and hoping they would come again soon. Visitors were always welcome but these two had made themselves especially welcome, bringing joy and teaching the children new skills. From now on they should be known by their Sa’ban names, Ajang and Kijang.

Everyone settled on the floor around the edges of the long room with their backs to the walls. Two elderly Kenyah men brought out their sapes, the long local lute, and began plucking out haunting, entrancing rhythms. Five women appeared, dressed in traditional costume: ankle-length black skirts embroidered with colourful, interwoven vines, and strings of yellow beads around their heads. Each of their hands supported a bloom of black and white feathers as they danced in unison the slow flight of the hornbill. Then there was a “Whoop!” and out sprang a man in a loincloth with a flash of long pheasant feathers in his cap, brandishing a parang. He acted out a hunt, peering into the canopy and twirling, crouching impossibly low as he spiralled down onto his heels.

 

My tribal nephew, Andreas, performing the warrior dance. Photograph: Andreas Bato

I nudged Ajang and Kijang, as they were now known, and warned them they would have to perform. “When the time comes, have fun and dance a story,” I suggested. Sure enough, one by one people were dragged up to dance. Everyone feigned reluctance but all were clearly keen to entertain. Debbie joined the hornbill flight with a grace and elegance remarkable for a first-timer. Chris mimicked the low, crouching steps of the warrior dance, before pretending to climb into a canoe and throw a fishing net, only to fall in the river. I heard sniggering whispers of “Mr Bean.” Everyone looked at me and the more I protested the more they rolled on the floor laughing.

The evening reached a climax with the line dance. One by one we joined the swaying snake of people swiping and stamping their feet in rhythm on the worn, adzed boards. The whole house resounded like a hypnotic drum. Seemingly at random, someone in the line would sing out a verse, then everyone joined in a harmonious chorus which ended with one definitive thump of feet. Just writing about it makes me long to go back.

 

The next day we left for Long Peluan, a gentle three-hour walk, and on to Long Beruang. The trail often forked. Following the most worn path might just lead to a recently harvested fruit tree, or a fishing camp by the river. These forks were most frequent and confusing when leaving a village or approaching one. Chris and Debbie learned to look for the tell-tale diagonal parang cuts by the path at knee-height. Human markings. Otherwise, you might just be following an animal track.

From Long Beruang it was a three-day walk through the mountains to the next village. We asked Lalung, a Penan friend who had often accompanied me in the jungle, to guide us. Early the next morning we climbed steeply up from the valley floor for a few hours until we gained the ridge and rested. A landslide had opened up an unusually panoramic view across the Temabu range. A vast expanse of uninhabited, mountainous forest. Here Lalung surprised us by saying that I could easily guide them the rest of the way. My head swelled with pride that he now thought I was so competent in the jungle. He had never allowed me to go alone before. But it was hubris. We were lost for much of the next three days. It poured with rain and only at dusk did we stumble across the rudimentary shelters provided for the school kids to rest for the night. Little did my friends know how much I muttered silent prayers for glimpses of those zinc roofs as the light faded, exhausted and soaked. I began to wonder if we might not end the same way as my namesake, Parel.

The writer hiking The Red Ape Trail. Hiking in the Highlands can be steep! Photograph: Chris Martin

The myriad leeches were the least of our worries. We were constantly peeling them off. Every time we rested, within minutes the forest floor seemed to be alive with tiny threads waving in the air and inching towards us. Chris’s feet suffered badly. They were puffy and cracked from trench-foot, from being continually wet. In places narrow logs, slimy with moss, served as bridges across small but treacherously rocky ravines. Doubtless the kids scampered over them, but we humbly shuffled astride them on our bums.

Finally, mercifully, on the third day we skidded down a muddy slope back towards the Kelapang. I knew Ramudu, the next village, to be just on the other side. Despite the river being very swollen by days of rain, Chris bravely lifted his backpack across the tops of his shoulders, behind his neck, and waded in. The torrent whirled up to his armpits but no higher, so we followed. Staggering out the other side, drenched and spent, we clambered up the bank towards the village. It wasn’t there! Instead, there was a solitary farm hut on stilts. Defeated and demoralised we slumped beneath it. Chris could now barely stand, let alone walk, and our situation seemed dire. Hopelessly, I pulled myself up and just started shouting, in Sa’ban, Kelabit and Malay, and for all I knew in French and Swahili, “Hello! White people here! Lost!” Over and over again. Nothing. I blew on my whistle. Silence.

Dusk was approaching. We resigned ourselves to spending a night on the dust under the farm hut with no food left. Then, out of the gloom, a diminutive figure emerged very cautiously. Later Lawai explained he had heard us but was scared we might be ghosts or evil spirits trying to entrap him. Lawai led us to the longhouse. It had moved! Within a couple of years there was almost no trace of where it once was, where we expected to find it. The jungle had grown back.

The right footwear and looking after your feet are essential. Hiking in the highlands involves continually crossing small streams. Photograph: Chris Martin

The last 45 minutes’ walk were agony on Chris and seemed interminable to me. My heart went out to the children who made this trek to school and back several times a year. But I bet they didn’t get lost. Bario was still two days’ walk away.

Some months later I met up with Chris and Debbie in Oxfordshire. They had travelled throughout South East Asia for five months before settling back in Cardiff, in the UK, to start a family. Despite the hardship, they claimed their greatest experience by far had been their trip to the highlands of Borneo!

 

HOW TO GET TO THERE:

Today access to Long Banga is much easier. There are now two scheduled Twin Otter flights from Miri per week. The more adventurous can take a 4-wheel drive, eight hours up the logging road from Miri, with spectacular views. The most intrepid fly to Long Lellang and trek from there.

There are several homestays in Long Banga. There is a rustic decadence to stepping off the plane and strolling across the tarmac to Billeng Lemdin’s, perched on a hill. His wife Ludia is a delighful host and excellent cook. Alternatively, in the heart of the village by the bridge to the school is Chris Homestay built by Philip and his wife Norainie. Our family house is just opposite and my brother Semion is adept at taking guests around.

Guests can visit all five villages, Long Banga, Long Peluan, Long Puak, Long Lamai and Long Beruang, by foot, boat and 4×4, to meet the Sa’ban, Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan. Ludia and Norainie will happily make arrangements to visit the waterfalls and megaliths, go fishing, or take a longboat out onto the Kelapang. Children are very welcome.

There is no longer a good path to walk to Bario, but I would recommend the drive by 4×4. Bario has three flights a day to Miri. Or making the journey in reverse. Transport should be organised ahead of time, through the homestay hosts. In Bario there are many established lodges, but I usually stay at Labang’s, Sina Rang’s or Ngimat Ayu’s.

And lastly, be prepared to make a fool of yourself, always take guides and let me know if you finally work out whose kids are whose.

Homestays in Long Banga:

Billeng Lemdin Homestay: +601114006714; www.facebook.com/billenglemdinhomestay

Chris Homestay: www.facebook.com/pages/Chris-Homestay-Long-Banga/421118101612526

Lodges in Bario:

 Labang Longhouse: +60198155453; www.labanglonghouse.com/

Sina Rang Homestay: +601125081114; www.facebook.com/SinahRangHomestayAndHandicraft

Ngimat Ayu House: +6012380808;www.facebook.com/The-Ngimat-Ayu-House-Bario-210872098968818/

Alasdair Clayre

Alasdair Clayre

Alasdair Clayre grew up in Borneo, then Winchester in England. He studied Anthropology at Cambridge and went to Columbia University Film School in New York. He has mostly worked in travel. Currently he is writing a PhD thesis about the Sa’ban tribe of Sarawak, at UNIMAS in Kuching, and still hasn’t worked out where he belongs.