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Blowpipe hunter, maybe.

Blowpipe hunter, maybe.

I finally  reached a Kelabit long house after a week long hike in the Sarawak jungle . My guide told me that the plan was to rest  and continue the trek the following day.

Looking forward to the 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.

Forest Canopy from the plane

Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.

The Kelabit

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

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.

A Kelabit Lady with the iconic ear pendants

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.

Target Practice

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

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.

Everyone sniggered…

Another Kelabit elder

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.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown, Penang

It sometimes feels as though there’s a drive, not to mention unspoken competition, between the larger cities of the world to create iconic architecture and flaunt this as a symbol of local pride. Some older historic towns of the world have always had options available for this. Rome for example has the Coliseum, Barcellona has the Sagrada Familia,  Paris perhaps the Eiffel Tower and Moscow always shows off  St. Basil’s’ Cathedral when it can.

In recent years some extraordinary feats of engineering have been completed in the Middle and Far East and there are currently some very stunning modern icons of architecture to be added to the list above. The Burg Khalifa in Dubai, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan and the Shard (a real abomination)  in London are just some examples of the latest arrivals. They all seem to add a touch of extra glamour to the cities they belong to, and certainly promote tourism greatly. It remains to be seen though if they will withstand the test of time.

Kids on a Bike.

Children a bike, another captivating piece of work from.

In it’s own small way, colonial Georgetown, on the island of Penang in Malaysia, has found a clever (and certainly less costly) way to promote itself and attract masses of younger tourists to visit.  Steering away from colossal works of architecture, Georgetown has placed itself firmly on the tourist trail by embracing stylish street art as a way of embellishing its narrow alleys and fading building facades. For this it employed several talented street artists and encouraged them to use the town as their own personal canvas.  The results are fascinating indeed.

The Oarsman

Some interesting wall art here with “The Oarsman”.

One young artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania, set the standards very high when working on the Penang street art project back in 2012. I personally I found his work clever and entertaining.  Ernest’s   “Kids on a Bicycle” and “Boy on a Chair”  murals are definitely eye catching and good examples the artist’s creative style. I wasn’t alone in appreciating his work as there was always a small crowd of admirers in front of his creations with cameras and words of admiration.

Boy on a chair

“Boy o a Chair”. This scene looks so realistic it’s hard not to stop and stare.

Within the space of a few years the murals in Georgetown have proven to be a huge success. Teams of young backpackers from all over the world fill the town’s many guest houses and spend days roaming the narrow streets seeking out bigger than life  paintings to admire. There are mapped itineraries to follow, with or without a guide, available at every hostel to make sure visitors miss nothing of what there is to see. A walk around Georgetown admiring the many murals on display can take several hours, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.

Night life, in the Georgetown area of Penang.

Of course there’s night life in Georgetown as well especially around the Love Lane area. Here there  are plenty of bars and clubs with live bands, music and cheap beer to enjoy.

I liked  Georgetown and it’s street art quite a lot. It had a friendly and relaxed atmosphere which was exactly what I needed  when I got there in late December 2016.

The Biker

My favourite! Always help a biker in need…

Penang was also my departure point for Sumatra, Indonesia.  Lucy (my motorbike) was ferried across the Malacca Strait on two day voyage on board  the Setia Jaya, a well known cargo vessel that has ferried the machines of hundreds of overland bikers throughout the years, while I took a cheap Air Asia flight to Medan from Penang. .

Waiting for the Sets Jaya

At the harbour in Penang waiting to load Lucy (my bike) on the Setia Jaya, her chariot to Sumatra.

I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no longer than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!

The Setia Jaya

The amazing Setia Jaya, an old wooden cargo freighter that has has been used by hundreds of overland bikers to ferry their precious machines from Malaysia to Sumatra in Indonesia.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.