I awoke shortly before dawn to the familiar clatter of tin cooking pots and, opening a reluctant eye, tried to make sense of the shadows dancing in the fire’s amber glow. Slowly the squatting form of Kolop, our guide, detached itself from the darkness. He was offering his palms to the flames, lost in meditation. The tip of his bush-cigarette, like a spark from the fire, hovered above his chiselled jaw.



I snuggled down in my hammock and tried to make my mind blank . . . without success. Our plan had seemed so feasible back in London when, after months of research, I had explained it to our prospective sponsors. Accompanied by photographer Paul Bailey and four local guides I would cross the Müller Mountains of Central Borneo at their remotest point. Along the way we would also make contact with the Punan, Borneo’s last remaining fully nomadic jungle dwellers - the original ‘Wild Men of Borneo.’


But within a couple of weeks of our arrival on the island, we had been shipwrecked in a tiny Malay kampong, press-ganged into a three-day-drunk at a Dayak wedding and feasted upon such dubious ‘delicacies’ as porcupine, anteater and barbecued mouse-deer foetus. Now, a month later, at a riverside camp deep in the Müllers we were mere shadows of our former selves . . . racked by malaria and amoebic dysentery and further weakened by a diet of boiled rice and smoked fish (supplemented by the occasional boiled frog)!


“Minum kopi! Kopi panas!” - My thoughts were interrupted by the call with which Kolop habitually roused us from our hammocks with a cup of extremely sweet black coffee. As I sat up and reached for the steaming enamel cup I caught sight of my filthy shorts, hanging beside the fire. On the shredded right buttock there was a bloodstain the size of a beer-mat where one or more of the hungry leeches had managed to feast on me without being noticed.


For days now we had been trudging ever higher into the Müllers, groaning under the weight of our packs. The leeches, after the initial shock of pulling the first few away from our crotches, had become a minor irritation compared with the bruises and scratches of our frequent falls. Paul and I passed the hours of trekking in keeping a running ‘leech tally.’ In one unforgettable eight-hour march I recorded a champion innings of 72 leeches . . . for a ‘trekking average’ of one every six minutes!


At that rate there was no possibility of burning them off and we very quickly resigned ourselves to simply plucking them off as we walked. If however someone felt a leech wriggling in his shorts our entire platoon concertinaed to a shuddering halt and, for a few minutes, we stood around snickering at the contortions of our stricken companion. But there is a strange contagion about standing in dripping rainforest while someone else writhes around trying to extract leeches from his nether regions and pretty soon all six of us would be having a quick fumble for the sake of reassurance. I was uncomfortably aware that if we were ever to come across a group of previously un-encountered Punan it would be at just such a moment!


I would hurry along behind Kolop, carefully watching his footsteps and following in blind faith. There were times when he would seem to dash through the trees and I would stumble desperately after him, occasionally loosing sight of him entirely. Then I would strain my ears for the ‘thud’ of his parang as it bit into a branch that encroached on the trail and scan the area for signs of his passage: the short white flash of fresh wood that marked a decapitated sapling or maybe just leaves that had been bruised under his bare feet. Usually I would be forced to stop in frustration until one of the Dayaks strode up to point the way as if it were signposted. At these times it was worrying to realise how inadequate Paul and I really were in the jungle.


The tougher the trail became the more our guides enjoyed it. Most Dayak’s have an instinctive love for travel and Kolop was particularly exhilarated by this adventure. Staggering grimly up a near-vertical slope, hauling on roots to force myself onward, I would be startled by a sudden cry from up ahead: “Baru, baru duniaaaa!” (the Indonesian equivalent of ‘Brave New World’) and I would look up to see Kolop smiling down at us, fist held victoriously aloft. Our companions would shout back at him – and it was sickening to realise how fresh they sounded!


By the time we finished our kopi the narrow band of sky where the riverside vegetation struggled to meet was already brightening and it was time to break camp. We untied the hammocks, put out the fire and folded the huge plastic sheet (home to all six of us) with an efficiency that was born of weeks of travelling together. It was heartening to see how our little mixed band had learned to share the workload and how thoroughly these tough little Dayaks had accepted our challenge as their own.


Suddenly a long whooping call echoed down to us from higher up the slopes and we stopped once again to listen to the gibbon serenade that had cheered us every day since we had entered the mountains. We knew that the troop would be driven by curiosity to follow us until it got hot and that we could rely upon their whooping call to motivate us through the first part of the day’s ‘jungle-bashing.’


Then, as we checked our vacated campsite for dropped equipment, we heard another sound. ‘Hruumph . . . hruumph . . . hruumph’ and two hornbills, as big as swans, wheeled around the bend in the river and chugged up the valley with the air-pockets under their wings making a sound like labouring locomotives. We watched them until they disappeared around the next bend and then as one we turned back towards the shadows of the rainforest. The Dayak’s sacred ‘good-luck birds’ had given us their blessing and as we led our gibbon escort onwards into the jungle every one of us was wearing a smile.



By Mark Eveleigh