The trek was already organised for a fellow Aussie traveler, Tahlia, who I met at the guesthouse we were staying at in the beautiful town of Bario in the cool Kelabit Highlands, deep in the heart of Borneo. Our guide for the three days rambling in the jungle was an unassuming local Kelabit named Johnson. He seemed friendly and relaxed like all the locals here and spoke English, though most his replies at that time were “yes” or “can”. I noticed Johnson was shorter than me (quite a rarity), though solid in build. He had a strong air of confidence and reminded me of a military commando – there was his strange haircut, his plain neat attire, Jungle-style backpack, machete, oh yeah and his shotgun and home-made ammo belt!
Hunter gatherer – Johnson here with his trusty shotgun and the fresh seedling of a nameless exotic fruit gifted by his uncle.
My enquiries mainly involved comfort, specifically how we would sleep in such an inhospitable place as the wild jungles of Borneo. No sooner said than done, I was handed a hammock kitted out with a mosquito net, a tarp, and an impressively compact sleeping bag. I’ve always wanted to camp out in a hammock and if there’s one thing Bear Grylls has taught me, it’s that getting off the ground is key when it comes to jungle slumber. In true form, I had barely had breakfast and was already looking forward to the night’s sleep. Aunty Linda handed us a packed lunch wrapped in banana leaf and wished us a happy if not foolhardy journey.
So Tahlia and I were destined for an unknown wilderness, where for millennia the Kelabits have turned to for their livelihood. As Uncle Scott thrashed his 4WD down ever bumpier roads, I blissfully watched the sun-drenched scenery, lapping up the cooling wind like so many summer road trips gone by. Perhaps it was partly this connotation that reminded me of Australia. The exposed earth was rocky and dry (despite months of rainy days), the sky so clear and blue that gave the sun such a piercing warmth. For a moment I had forgotten where I was, not lost, but at home.
When we finally came to a stop at a nondescript hole in the bush, my two companions donned their specialist leech socks – a knee high device of material not unlike the radioactive biohazard suits seen in disaster zones. Meanwhile I sheepishly tucked my skinny pants into my happy socks and focussed on breathing. The warm fuzzy feelings disappeared as quickly as the midday sun did when we stepped through the portal and into the jungle.
I had no idea where we were, no map, no mobile reception, not even a damned paring knife. I admit that my first few hours were focussed solely on the ground. Our boots would often squelch and sink ankledeep into muddy silt. Skating and sliding was as common as scrambling and scaling. On the areas of flat terrain, I would be busy sidestepping those creepy little bloodsuckers as they writhed on the forest floor, seemingly sniffing the scent of our blood, groping furiously like tiny elephants trunks of death. Countless times they latched on to my boots and climb ever higher in their mindless quest for my flesh. Tahlia would often wait for me as I routinely performed my purging dance, scraping them off furiously whilst never standing in one spot for more than a second.
Apparently we trekked for three hours until we made it to out first camp. Suffice to say I arrived relieved and rather dishevelled. Our camp was a well-used clearing by the river, with an established seating area and table under a waterproof tarpaulin roof. Kelabit men would often camp here during their hunting expeditions and a party of 20 or so had revelled here just days earlier. There was even a wooden shack and power cables for such occasions when a diesel generator would be used.
After enjoying our packed lunches of rice, chicken curry and water spinach, Johnson shifted into gear. In no time at all he had set up all our hammocks and raincovers, gathered water from the river, started a fire with the billy on for a hot cuppa, and was skipping down by the river to set up a fishing net.
Meanwhile I had just started to take in my surroundings and scratch my belly. To my utter horror there was a wet squishy feeling below my navel. Somehow a leech had infiltrated my defences and was latched on to my belly as I frantically tried to pull the sucker of. A slightly painful little circular lovebite remained which bled afterward but it was my frazzled mind which was scarred. I needed to regroup. I wriggled into my hammock, zipped up the mosquito net and for the first time felt safe and calm, floating in my cocoon.