Rent a Real Man in Borneo
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

Addicted to the conveniences of modern-day life, a city dweller ventures to the wilds of Sarawak, Malaysia, and discovers the ultimate jack-of-all-trades.

Borneo travel

Sometimes, the toughest thing I do in a day is snap dry spaghetti in half before boiling it. Not the stuff of an outdoorsy Renaissance man, but I'm betting that, off camera, survivalist stars Bear Grylls and Les Stroud occasionally define their daily workouts with spaghetti cracking. In Borneo's jungle, an unsung survival master named Belansai made me re-examine my mojo and wonder if I'd gone soft.

Belansai's talents included bamboozling (cooking hand-caught fish in a campfire-heated bamboo tube), machete-hacking 20 square-feet of jungle foliage into a four-man shelter in 20 minutes, and chatting with wild orangutans. Taught by his grandfather, not only did he use the machete always fastened to his hip to chop down trees and fashion vine-twine to build our shelter, he also used it to finely chop garlic.

Sarawak adventure

He was late fiftyish—his tribe doesn't keep track of their ages so they guess—and trim and ripped without ever doing a single crunch. The only time he wasn't smiling, something he did even among poised-to-strike cobras, was when a cigarette dangled from his lips to support a pack-a-day habit. That was his only vice besides home brewing rice wine.

Standing back and watching him do pretty much anything was the beginning of five humbling days that begged the question: "What can I really do?" Well, translating Belansai's advice for the modern man does come to mind.

Belansai lives near Batung Ai National Park, in a Malaysian state called Sarawak, which borders Indonesia's vast Kalimantan region. This part of Malaysia is mountainous tropical rainforest full of ornery apes, hungry leeches, and now us. The territory's indigenous people, the Iban, are historically known as skilled warriors and headhunters. The heart and soul of Borneo, this stretch of biomass is the Iban's unwritten ancestral land, and a good place to be a machete wiz.

An Iban animist himself, Belansai had a voice like a classic FM-rock-DJ, though he didn't speak a lick of English. Unlike other primitive tribesmen, he also didn't cave into missionary pressure to praise Jesus. As a happy partner in an arranged marriage, Belansai shared this advice about women (while finely chopping garlic with his machete): Fight as long as you are still alive. Wait, that was his overall advice.

The ceremoniously tattooed Iban are a relaxing reprieve from Malaysia's busier vibe where transplanted all-business Chinese and Indians peddle to the Muslim Malays who seem to hold most government jobs.

fishing in Sarawak

I nicknamed wiry, affable Belansai The Bamboozler, not for his rice winemaking, but for his culinary prowess. He hand-caught 15 fish in a river in 10 minutes with a hand-sewed, chain-weighted net and a kid's facemask. He made it look easy: cast net, peer underwater, grab fish. A half-hour later, we dined on steamed fish with tea. Campfire cooking without pots or grills, the cooking tubes were fire-heated bong-sized cuts of bamboo. Add a bit of water, rainforest-picked herbs, and fish. My organic campfire chef also threw a few frogs on the grill; two sticks perched over the fire. One of the wood-fired bamboo cookers was chock-ful of steamed string beans. They provided us with forks, but ate with their hands. Another recipe, bamboozled chicken, tasted odd, as it wasn't the caged hormone-swollen sort I'm used to on American menus.

I didn't parachute in. After a four-hour van ride from the bustling city of Kuching, I took a 90-minute longboat ride (handmade, 25-feet long, very narrow and tippy, outboard engine) that had to navigate two log jams. Eventually we met a waterfall. Then, after an hour uphill hike into the slippery jungle, darkness fell and it was time for bed, so Belansai built a bush dorm in 20 minutes.

With machetes a whacking, our shelter rapidly materialized into a rectangular log skeleton with a tarp stretched into a roof. The hut was bound by long strips of shaved, moist bark that doubled as rope. Four bed platforms were taut fabric stretched between parallel logs. With a patch of thick forest transformed into a shared open-air bedroom, there was nothing to separate us from the billions of ambulance-volume insects and bellowing birds who peaked at 3am. A minimalist's primitive vacation comes to mind, but without our guide we'd be toast just on account of the thumb-sized ants and leeches vying for any thin skin, especially scrotums.

Borneo wild camp

Although watching Belansai tinker around the camp was the most interesting part of the jaunt, the stated recreation was hiking. Our first trek involved tromping shin-deep for miles in the Jelia River. We'd sidetrack into the slick, angling jungle to bushwhack around frequent waterfalls. Frequent pit-stops were required to yank blood-sucking leeches off of our legs and feet; a sweet spot being between toes. At one de-leeching rest area, Belansai put his finger to his lips and pointed up at an orangutan glaring down at us from 40 feet above. The Bornean rainforest orangutan is an Asian specie of surviving great apes. Tourists visit Sarawak's rescued but still captive orangutans in zoo environments, but this tree-swinging fellow was all wild and a bit crabby. He first challenged our neighborhood raid with aggressive limb shaking and broken branch throwing. Then, after swaying nimbly between five gigantic trees, he yelled at us. That was Belansai's cue to converse. Yup, he also talked to animals. The ape mellowed out and we trudged on. Surely aware of the decimation of their habitat to make room for more crops, a minute later, Belansai said, "Orangutan mad, maybe sad."

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