His barrel-chest and tree-trunk thighs were tattooed with the marks of rank of an Iban headman. He was a walking mural, depicting the beliefs and influences of his people: a burly paragon of Dayak warrior manhood and I was more than a little surprised to learn that his name was Judi. We had arrived at Judi's longhouse at the end of a three-month journey through Borneo, a journey in which Paul and I had become the first westerners ever to travel up the fabled Mandai River. The Mandai, deep in the heart of the world's third largest island, was the mythical valley of the spirit-world - in Iban belief, 'headhunter heaven.'



I was now lying on a rattan mat on the longhouse's veranda - 'Main Street' in a Dayak village - watching Judi peck holes in my left biceps with three needles. The hardwood hammer vibrated so fast that I could barely see it and the flesh near my armpit throbbed where it was beaded with inky droplets of blood. I struggled to remind myself that Judi was paying me one of the greatest compliments that his village could offer.


My flesh tugged sickeningly at the needles as they bounced and Judi stretched the skin taut with a splayed foot - one of the few parts of his own anatomy that wasn't covered with blue designs. His legs and back were patched with stylised palm leaves and webbed with the traditional Iban 'tramlines.' The mermaid on his chest and the anchor on his left shoulder were more contemporary memorials to his people's reputation as ferocious pirates. The first British Raja of Sarawak knew the Iban as 'Sea Dayaks.' He hired them for his mercenary army and paid them in heads.


Judi had been working for almost two hours and it was the narrow tramlines, separated by a row of 'eyes,' that he was now etching into my arm. This is one of the most popular Iban motifs and, as he sat up to massage his aching shoulders, Judi began to tell me the story of the first tattoo: “Long time ago - before the birds had colours - Cuckoo and Argus pheasant agree to tattoo each other. Cuckoo was very clever and he carefully tattooed all along his friend's tail with beautiful 'eyes.' But Argus was clumsy and lazy and he quickly got into a mess. In frustration, he screeched a warning of danger and dashed away through the bushes - because, as you know, he's even too stupid to fly - but as he went he tipped the pot of dye over Cuckoo. This is why, to this day, Cuckoo has a messy blue stain over the upper half of his brown body while Argus is still the most beautiful bird in Borneo.”


I saw Judi pick up his tools and managed to delay a return to the needles for a moment, by passing around a pack of Marlboro (without which it would be folly to visit any Borneo community). As the Iban smoked, I re-filled an enamel cup from the ubiquitous tuak jug. Tuak - known to Paul and myself as 'milk of amnesia' - is the bitter fermented sap of a palm tree. It was impossible to hide a grimace as the rancid 'soup' slipped down, but I was grateful for the anaesthetic qualities that had eased the passing of my afternoon.


With an alarmingly fluttering stomach - due, I told myself, to that vile beverage - I had watched Judi preparing the tools of an Iban tattooist. He had wedged the needles into a slit in the end of a softwood 'chopstick' and wound cotton thread tightly around them, building it up to within a short distance of the points. This 'cushion' would keep the needles from striking too deeply while, at the same time, act as a reservoir for the ink (soot from a rice pot mixed with sugar-cane juice and water).


All too soon my already puffy arm was back under the jabbing needles. The pain was worse now that Judi was going over the design for the second time, darkening it. I stared along 'Main Street' and tried to divert my mind with thoughts of how perfectly longhouses have evolved to fit the Dayak lifestyle. Raised on stilts, ten feet above the swampy jungle, the communal veranda was ideally positioned to pick up whatever breeze there was to be had. Now that the daily chores had been completed, the villagers were wandering out to discuss the happenings of the day and to watch the orang ingris being tortured.


Many of the tattoos that decorated my spectators were merely simplified copies of the fine work done by Kenyah and Kayan tattooists. Tattooing is a relatively new art to the Iban. It was traditionally used to celebrate fighting and headhunting prowess and occasionally as a charm, to ward of evil spirits. But among the Iban, tattoos have never developed the religious significance that they have in other interior tribes. The Kayan, for instance, believe that the spirit-world is a negative image of this one, and that tattoos become luminous after death. For a Kayan to die without a tattoo would be a tragedy: he would be condemned to perpetual blindness in the sprit-world.


It is the Kayan women who are the greatest artists and the most enthusiastic recipients of tattoos. A girl will receive her first marks at the age of four or five so that by the time she is married her thighs will be almost completely covered with an intricate blue lacework. The work is carried out in bouts of no more than an hour (more could result in the child becoming delirious) and a narrow band is left up the back of her leg 'so that the poison can escape.'


Judi's stamina was something to marvel at; after four hours working on my tattoo, he was still fresh enough to begin immediately on Paul's design. With typical Dayak hospitality, he expected nothing in return for his labours. But - remembering the old Kayan adage that 'if the artist is not amply rewarded the tattoo will slip off' - I rifled through my pack for a gift.


It may not have been the most traditional repayment - a Chinese gong or some rare beads would have been infinitely more appropriate - but when we woke early the next morning my dictaphone was already doing duty, among Judi's prodigious offspring, as a portable karaoke machine…Time to move on!




Gunung Leuser, in northern Sumatra, is one of the biggest national parks in the world. Its steep, rainforested valleys and hills are home to gibbons, monkeys, elephants and some of the Indonesia’s last tigers and rhinoceroses. I would be happy with any of those sightings but I was trekking into these remote hills because I specifically wanted to visit the orangutan, the ‘old man of the forest,’ in his jungle home.



Logging, poaching and a growing human population have reduced Indonesia’s orangutan numbers to a dangerously low level and only about 7,000 are now believed to survive in Sumatra. Most live in the highland jungles of the far north and over recent years guerrilla warfare in Aceh has further depleted their numbers. Unfortunately baby orang-utans make attractive pets and mothers are often killed so that the orphan can be adopted by people who find its child-like grief and subsequent affection for the foster parents alluring…until it grows up. 


Conservationists believe that in fifty years there will be fewer than 250 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild and, since this is not a viable gene-base for a healthy population, total extinction will be just around the corner. For the moment Gunung Leuser is still probably the best place to see this most enchanting of apes in the wild. A steady drizzle was coming down as we climbed away from the river that runs through Bukit Lawang village. The track was slippery and tangled with roots, and my guide Adit warned me that we had a long way to go before we could set up camp in the jungle. 


Still, he was confident that the weather would not hinder us and that within the next three days he would be able to lead me to wild orangutans. As we struggled, slipping and sliding, up the slope a troop of gibbons began to follow us. They swung gracefully through the canopy as if to show us how easy it could have been if we ‘higher primates’ had never turned our backs on the trees. Then, as we crested the hill, a pair of hornbills flew past with their mighty wings making chugging noises like steam-locomotives. 


These sightings, adding to the simple thrill of being back in the jungle, made the day’s trek pass quickly. But the ‘rainforest’ continued to live up to its name and by the time we had eaten our evening meal of fried rice  we had been driven under the cover of the large plastic sheet that served as our tent. I was woken the next morning by a family of macaques that were intent on getting at our breakfast before we did and, as I pulled on my damp clothes, a big monitor lizard slithered out of the jungle to flick his tongue around our campfire. 



These visits seemed like good omens and we had only walked half-an-hour away from our camp when Adit suddenly stopped and crouched down. He pointed into the trees, doing his best to show me my first wild orangutan. You would imagine that a large, bright-orange ape would be easy to see amongst a sea of greenery, but during several sightings in the next few days I would realise just how secretive and elusive these animals can be. Finally I spotted what Adit was pointing at - not one, but two orangutans! The orangutan is the only ape that is almost entirely solitary but we had been lucky enough to find a mother with a young baby. It was amazing how silently these creatures were able to move. 


Their combined weight would have been about the same as a seven year old child’s, but the mother could judge exactly how much weight the thinnest branches could take and was able to swing herself and her baby almost soundlessly between one tree and the next. Adit estimated that the mother might be as old as thirty-five and the baby would not yet be two. We worked our way slowly closer and neither animal seemed to be disturbed by our presence. In fact, the pair ignored us completely, at one point swinging within a couple of metres of the spot where I crouched with my camera. I would see other wild orangutans during the next few days but the peaceful hour that we spent, sat in the drizzle, watching this mother and her baby stands out in my memory as one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences I’ve ever had.


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