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 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 know 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 miss.
Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.
The Kelabit are an indigenous people, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago this ethnic group 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 turn of the missionaries from the western world who reached the Kelabit communities to converted the, with success, 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 coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.
Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the “long house”. These are wooden constructions home to extended family groups of tens of individuals generally dedicated to farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 census 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.
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 hight.
I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to earlier 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 25 meters away in front of the long house entrance 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 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 mastery 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.
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 several dozen darts into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out to hyperventilation. It was not going well, but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.
The Hunting Posse
As the sun came down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house ready for the hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon in hand and a fist full of darts ready for use.
My hunting pals looked at me bemused.
“What are you doing with that thing?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I felt confused, what did he mean?
“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.
“You wont need that” he replied.
“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.
“We use shot guns for hunting” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.
I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my friends could be clearly heard echoing across the Kelabit highlands that evening. The joke was 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. The chuckling however, continued long after we all disappeared in the bush.
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