Photo: Very under rated.

Rainforest trekking with the Penan

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The Borneo jungle can be an unforgiving place; it’s humid, it’s mountainous and around inhabited areas, although there are trails, it’s easy to get lost. However, last year in a moment of spectacular spontaneity, I booked a trip to head into the Ulu, or interior, of Sarawak. I would stay with a local indigenous community, the Penan, and as famed ex-nomads of the rainforest, they would guide me on a trek through virgin jungle.

Perhaps, the smallest passenger plane in the world. The scariest, at least.

It was to be my first time in the jungle and my pre-trip nerve levels were at a fever pitch. It didn’t help matters that to first get to into the Ulu, I had to board a tiny, 22-seater MasWings Twin Otter plane that rattled throughout the flight. Looking back, I really should have been more relaxed about the whole thing, as these rural flights have been running for decades without incident. As our plane descended into a gap in the vast greenness of the interior, my anxiety made way for childish excitement. You know how sometimes a situation demands you to hum the Indiana Jones theme tune? Landing on a tiny air-strip surrounded by jungle is one of those situations.

Gratuitous tree shot.

I was to spend the next few days pottering around a Penan village staying in a homestay, eating fish freshly plucked from the river, going out with the women to forage for greens and attending three-hour long church services. The Penan are indigenous to Borneo and before the days of missionaries, they wandered the rainforests as hunter-gatherer nomads, practising an animist faith.

However, with encouragement from the government and missionaries, they settled into villages and the majority of all Penan have now settled. There remains, however, a very, very small number who still practise the old way of life. This nomadic heritage makes them the best people to trek in the jungle with; their vast knowledge of medicines, foods and other resources of the jungle is unparallelled. This is not to say that the modern way of life hasn’t reached the Ulu; you will find that a few houses will have TVs and sound systems blaring out bad, dated American films from night to night and it’s quite a disconcerting effect of globalisation that even in the interior of Sarawak you will find young kids dancing along to Lady Gaga.

It’s easy to see why village elders worry about the loss of their culture, with young adults heading out to the cities to find jobs as precious few are left at home. It is, in part, due to this that the Penan villages I visited set up a community tourism co-operative, in the hope that bringing an income into the villages would stem the tide of youth migration and place some monetary value on their traditional culture.

Barbecue fish, freshly caught.

Three days into my trip, I finally decided to brave it and head into the jungle. Guiding me were two Penan men, one about 40 years old, the other about 25, and each encumbered with at least 20 kilograms worth of stuff. Needless to say they were both much faster than me. We walked through some of the most pristine jungle I have ever seen, each tree seemingly more covered in moss and bigger than the last. The difference between primary and secondary jungle is noticeable, even to the layperson. Secondary jungle is hot and the forest floor is barely visible through shoots and fern; primary jungle is cool, even sometimes cold, and the floor is clear of any plant life — just dead leaves dissolving into the forest’s life cycle.

Drinking water from a forest vine.

Jungle trekking is hard work, but trekking through primary jungle was a dream, with even my inner Indiana Jones awed into silence. Through some parts, tiny orchids flecked with colour lined my path while in others, hornbills swooped overhead creating a rain of foliage as they landed in the canopy. At night, we set up camp, me in a jungle hammock and my Penan guides making simple wooden huts roofed with a tarpaulin to keep out the rain. We cooked on open fires, eating whatever we foraged or hunted that day. After dinner we talked, me in broken Penan and they in passable English, about our respective lives. Then one night, towards the end of the trip, my younger guide pulled out his mobile camera phone, and I flinched in anticipation of the ever ubiquitous Lady Gaga. Instead, I was met with the tinny sound of the forest and a grainy video of himself with his blowpipe, hunting in the jungle.

Read more about how you can travel with Picnic with the Penan.

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What next?

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