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 back pack 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 me, my guide translating his words.
“We’re going out hunting tonight” he said. “We’ll leave just after sun set. You can come along if you wish but you should try to make yourself useful”.
Tired as I was I didn’t quite understand what he meant as he shuffle away to the far end of the long house to pick up a spear looking shape. “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, this is great, what could possibly go wrong?! I thought to myself. It genuinly sounded too good to miss.
Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.
The Kelabit are a small 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 a life of almost total isolation, shielded from the outside world by what used to be thick, impenetrable forest.
First “real contact” with the Kelabit occurred during the second world war when a number able men from their community were trained by the Australian servicemen to fight the occupying Japanese forces. Then, during the fifties and sixties it was the the missionaries from the West who marched through the jungle to 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 a definite end to Kelabit isolation.
A Kelabit elder.
Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the so called “long house”, wooden dwellings occupied by extended family members of maybe ten to thirty people. The communities traditionally lived off the land farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 estimate the size of the Kelabit population stands at around six thousand however, many Kelabits no longer live in their native highland grounds. A considerable portion of the community has relocated to the urban areas of Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and further still and work for the oil and logging industries.
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 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 from earlier on gave me a quick demonstration on how a blowpipe should be used.
He held the pipe 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 host 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 reach his level of mastery within the space of an afternoon.
I spent the following hours humiliating myself. My blowpipe 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 and possibly less efficient than a fly swat.
Blowpipe Practice, sore cheeks and pitiful results.
I persisted though and gradually improved. My little wooden 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 several dozen bamboo darts into oblivion, gained some seriously sore cheek muscles and risked passing out several times due to hyperventilation. It was not going well but I put my best effort conscious that I didn’t want 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 one of the party 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 even after we all disappeared into the darkness.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.