I finally reached a Kelabit long house after a two day hike in the Sarawak jungle . My guide told me that the plan was to rest and continue my trek the following day.
Looking forward to luxury of a mattress that night I took off my muddy boots and laid down my rug sack at the entrance of the Kelabit house dwelling whilst an elderly local man stood and stared at me with a smile. He approached and spoke while my guide translated his words.
“We’re going out hunting tonight” he said hesitantly. “We’ll leave just after sun set. You can come along if you wish but you should try to make yourself useful”.
I didn’t quite understand what he meant as he shuffle to the far end of the long house to pick up what looked like some sort of a spear. “Here’s a blowpipe”, he said as he handed the pole over to me. “I’ll show you how to use it, but you need to practice this afternoon”.
A trek in the forest after dark, hunting with the locals, using a blowpipe, what could possibly go wrong?! I thought to myself. It sounded too good an experience to be true.
Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.
The Kelabit are a small indigenous ethnic group, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago these indigenous people lived in almost total isolation, shielded from the outside world by what used to be thick, impenetrable jungle.
First “real contact” with the Kelabit communities occurred during the second world war when a number able men from their community were trained by the Australians to fight the Japanese occupying forces. Then, during the fifties and sixties it was the the missionaries from the western world who reached the Kelabit communities and converted them to Christianity. In more recent years, rampant timber and palm oil industries have devoured most (if not all ) the jungle that separated the Bario Highlands from the northern coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.
A Kelabit elder.
Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the “long house”. These are wooden dwellings lived in by extended family groups of tens of individuals dedicated to farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 estimate the size of the Kelabit community stands currently at around six thousand however, many Kelabits no longer live in their native highland area. A considerable portion of the community have relocated to the urban centres of Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and further still.
Kelabit Lady with the iconic ear lobe pendants.
Traditional Kelabit heritage calls for striking body adornments. The most notable of these are tattoos on arms and legs (mostly for for the ladies) and heavy pendants, worn by both sexes, that can stretch ear lobes to well below shoulder level.
I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to gave me a demonstration of what to do.
He held the blowpipe in one hand and briskly placed a wooden dart into the hollow with the other. Some 20 to 30 meters away in front of the long house was a a worn cardboard target pinned to a tree. My teacher inhaled deeply, brought the pipe to his lips and squinted as he took aim holding the pipe steady. Then suddenly his cheeks puffed up like two small balloons an with a single burst of the lungs the dart shot out from the end of the pole faster than the eye could see. It hit the target, punctured the bark on the tree behind it and half buried itself in the wood with a dry knock. I could tell that what I had witnessed was a potentially fatal stab delivered with surgical precision.
I was impressed. My tutor knew what he was doing and had made sure I was aware of the standards I needed to match. As he handed the blowpipe back to me I felt perplexed wondering how I could possibly hope to match the mastery I had just witnessed in the space of an afternoon.
I spent the following hours on a quest to gain a minimum of blowpipe competence. My initial efforts were pathetic, my darts travelled no further than a few feet from where I stood and then twirled to the ground lamely. They were hardly lethal shots.
Blowpipe Practice, sore cheeks and pitiful results.
I persisted though and gradually improved. My wooden little arrows started to travel further and further although none made it close to the cardboard target on the tree. In the end I had shot a dozen darts into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out several times due to hyperventilation. It was not going well but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping I not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.
The Hunting Posse
As the sun set down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house for the hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon and a fist full of darts ready for use.
My new friends looked at me bemused.
“What are you doing with that?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I didn’t quite understand what he meant.
“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.
Another Kelabit elder
“You wont need that” he replied.
“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.
“We use shot guns” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.
I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my hunting pals could be clearly heard echoing across all of the Kelabit highlands that evening….the joke squarely on me and my naivety.
I took it all with a smile, nonchalantly placed the pipe and darts back in the long house and joined the the hunting party again this time armed with nothing more than a flashlight. I remember my pals still chuckling at me t even after we all disappeared in the bush.
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