Our longboat skims across the Batang Ai reservoir, past deadwood still rooted in the land beneath the water two decades after it was created. This is the land of the Iban, once considered the greatest of the headhunters on the island of Borneo.
It is more than half a century since the last heads fell in Sarawak, but still the thought adds an extra frisson to the journey.
We head up the Delok Ai, one of the many rivers flowing into the reservoir, on our way to visit the Nanga Sumpa longhouse, home to an Iban community living beneath one roof in much the age-old way. We pass slopes cleared and given over to pepper plantations and dry rice cultivation by local families.
As the river narrows, the forest canopy encloses us in shade and passage becomes more difficult, forcing our boatman and guide to deftly maneuver the longboat over small rapids and around rocks, stumps and floating jungle debris.
The longhouse standing on stilts, an hour-and-a-half upriver, houses some 30 or so families. It consists of a great long communal corridor with door after door leading off to one side, each opening to the private living quarters of one family. To the other side of the corridor is the open veranda where peppercorns and rice are dried on mats in the sun, clothes and textiles are dried or aired, and various other chores undertaken.
Greeted by spirited, laughing children, we are taken to meet the headman who, like all the men we see here, is abundantly tattooed. Tattooing is customarily done in a longhouse not one’s own, so each individual motif represents a souvenir of travel and friendly tribal relations. A well-tattooed man is, in fact, a brave, well-traveled man.
A grave insult among the Iban, our guide explains, is to accuse a man of not even knowing the mouth of his own river, but there seem to be no men of that lazy or cowardly nature here. A few women are also tattooed, marking them as elders with exceptional knowledge or skills, such as weaving or healing.
We are made to feel welcome and invited to share a glass of tuak, a potent drink fermented from rice, yeast and sugar. With the help of our multi-lingual guide, we can chat with our hosts and learn about longhouse life. Women bring out some of their handcrafts to show and sell. Paging through the longhouse guestbook, we see that travelers from much of the world have made their way to this remote place.
After lunch, an educational guided walk in the surrounding forest reminds us that nearly everything humankind truly requires is provided by nature, if only one is wise enough.
Back in our longboat for the easier and shorter trip downriver, we savor the pleasure of having glimpsed, even so briefly, the world of the Iban. We enthusiastically begin imagining another trip, another time, when we will venture further into more challenging and distant Sarawak terrain.
But for today, we will settle for a Sarawak Sling and a cooling dip in the pool waiting for us back at Batang Ai Resort.
WHERE TO STAY
For creature comforts in the rainforest, Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort is an ideal base for a river trip to an authentic Iban longhouse, or simply for a relaxing getaway in luxurious rusticity. Five hours by road from Kuching, the resort is finally reached by a short boat ride across the Batang Ai reservoir to the roadless area of the opposite shore.
One hundred guest rooms are offered in 11 longhouse-style buildings connected by covered walkways and built around a swimming pool, an exceedingly welcome amenity following a hot day of jungle touring. The resort’s resident naturalist is available to lead guests on nature walks and share his knowledge of Sarawak’s flora and fauna.
Borneo Adventure, in business since 1987, is the experienced and reliable leader in eco-tourism in Sarawak. It offers travelers an interesting variety of local tour packages: longhouse experiences; trips into the Bario Highlands, Mulu National Park and Bako National Park; tours to view the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower; treks into deep tropical forest to see orangutans in their natural habitat.
Custom-designed tours are also available. The company can arrange the featured longhouse trip with overnight accommodations at the Hilton resort or, alternately, at their own basic but comfortable jungle lodge.