Blowgun hunting with the Penan tribe
Fulfilling a Promise
When friends and colleagues would ask what I would do when I quit my job my standard response was, “I’ll be off blowgun hunting with the indigenous tribes in the rainforests of Borneo.” It seemed exotic and wild. A fun way to show my love of “off the beaten path” travel and adventure. When I started saying it, I hadn’t even realized that they still hunted with blowguns in Borneo. So when Lee Sha drew a poison dart out of his bamboo quiver, slid it into his blowgun, and shot a bird out of a tree, it was surreal. This was it. I had arrived.
My new gear
The Penan kit load-out includes a handmade, hardwood blowpipe with a 14” spear blade fixed to one end with a rope-like vine that hardens to industrial strengths when dry, a bamboo quiver filled with poison tipped darts, and a sheath with a machete and a smaller knife for finer jobs. In their packs they also carry a hand net to fish the thundering rainforest rivers, still teaming with life.
"Sharing among the egalitarian Penan tribe is not viewed as a generous “above and beyond” gesture but is rather common place."
As we hiked the narrow footpaths, Lee Sha would skillfully swing his machete to cut back the underbrush. Vegetation grows so quickly that without regular attention the path would become completely obscured in a week or two. When we passed three other Penan hunters going towards Bario, he gave each of them a cigarette to smoke and two more each for the remainder of their journey. Sharing among the egalitarian Penan tribe is not viewed as a generous “above and beyond” gesture but is rather common place. On our return journey, without being asked, two other Penan hunters on the trail would give us tobacco and some of their bracelets, woven from the same vine used to secure the spear.
Extremely strong vines used in tools and bracelets
Four muddy, steep, slippery, humid, leech-filled hours into the day’s hike it became evident that the brothers weren’t going to take it easy on me. We had to make it to “Bow-gow”, that night’s hunting camp, before sundown. The perpetually wet roots and rocks are all black ice to the hiker. With a full pack, slipping off balance is compounded by the shifting weight, making missteps exhausting to catch and at times extremely dangerous, especially along narrow portions with sheer drop offs.
The death march
Making Jungle Camp
At 4:30pm, drenched in sweat, we trudged up to a clearing on top of a bluff overlooking a small waterfall. Before us was our glorious camp, an open-air, tarp-covered shelter adorned with several wild boar jaws. Rajah Lee disappeared into the forest with the fishing net while Lee Sha and I chopped wood, made the fire, and extended the shelter with a tarp from their packs. It was dusk and raining hard by the time Rajah Lee returned with 5 fish for our dinner. There was no complaining or bickering. Both brothers new what had to be done and worked almost silently in tandem. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is very labor intensive. A significant amount of time is spent setting up camp, going to find food, catching it, preparing it, and eating it.
"When the rain stopped a jungle fauna cacophony erupted."
Comfortable and dry under the tarp roof with a fire at our feet, I dozed off to the sound of rain on the roof. My bedding consisted of a waterproof bivy sack with an inflatable sleeping pad. The brothers, on the other hand, slept directly on the sapling trunks of the shelter’s floor, lofted on a log a few feet off the ground, with nothing more than a thin blanket. When the rain stopped a jungle fauna cacophony erupted. The rainforest is always filled with bird and insect calls but at night it gets turned up to full blast. It sounds like someone put the “rainforest sounds” setting on their keyboard, chugged a bottle of vodka, and started violently mashing the keys. But eventually the day’s exhaustion set in and I drifted off.
The second day was another jungle death march to the Penan village of Lamin on the far side of Pulong Tau National Park. We spent two nights in a Longhouse there, which was opened to us with no expectation of payment. The Dayak tribal custom is to provide lodging to anyone who comes to the village, similar to the practice of “Pashtun Wali” in Afghanistan. The village was ten longhouses with no more than 40 or 50 people, although some of the semi-nomadic inhabitants were likely off in the jungle during our stay.
Penan Longhouse Tradition
Once we got settled in, Lee Sha took me visit the village chief, as is customary for all visitors. As soon as we sat down on the low, wooden stools by his longhouse hearth, the chief took several of his handwoven bracelets off and handed them to me to put on. I smiled gratefully as I slid them over my hand. During the past two days with the brothers I had developed a modest lexicon of words and phrases in the Penan dialect. It seemed like a good time to take them out for a spin. I put together a phrase that I thought was “I like Penan food” but it actually turned out to be “I like to eat Penan people” which was met with the most laughter I’ve seen from these stoic people yet. Maybe they wouldn’t take my head as a trophy after all.
Two day trek from Bario is the Penan village of Lamine
We spent what felt like a long time sitting there together, largely in silence. In western cultures these types of meetings are usually most comfortable when there is near constant conversation. In contrast, the Dayak are content to sit together in silence, breaking it only to share a few sentences. It was dusk and the mosquitoes were absolutely murdering me but, out of respect, I did my damnedest not to fidget. Before we left, the chief accepted my gifts of 60 RM ($15), some over-the-counter painkillers, and antibiotic cream for topical infections.
"Maybe they wouldn’t take my head as a trophy after all."
Giving out notebooks and pencils to the Penan children in the village
The next day I gave out all of my notebooks and pencils to the Penan children, complete with custom artwork. On three separate occasions, other kids that hadn’t received one came by our longhouse to collect their booty after being tipped off by other young recipients. In the late morning, the brothers, a village boy, and I headed into the forest to go fishing and blowgun hunting for small game. During our hike to the river the young boy farted. He looked at Lee Sha and everyone burst into laughter. A Borneo tribe, that could hardly be more different from western culture, finds farts funny. This anthropological case study seems to suggest that breaking wind may in fact be universally humorous.
A Penan lunch prepared in bamboo
Lee Sha and Rajah Lee showed me how to get drinking water from bamboo shoot compartments and a type of thick vine, caught fish for lunch, and then cooked rice and the fish in bamboo. That evening, next to our longhouse hearth we had a delicious meal of wild boar before preparing darts and dipping them into poison for the following day’s large game hunt. Our intended targets would be boar and deer.
After breakfast we trudged back to Bow-gow camp and took a nap. That evening a successful hunt yielded a deer, brought down with a poison dart and finished with a spear, which was promptly butchered in the stream and smoked to preserve it. The following day was spent hunting birds and small game near camp. In preparation for that night’s fire I was chopping a large log with a machete when the blade skipped up and bit deeply into the left knuckle of my index finger. I got one good look at bone and cartilage before my hand was covered in blood. Without hesitation, Rajah Lee quickly made strips of cloth from a shirt to stop the bleeding while Lee Sha boiled water and added salt to clean the wound. That night, laying in the darkness under the tarp with a throbbing hand, I thought to myself how swell it would be if I had a few of the painkillers I had given to the chief of the village a day’s hike in the opposite direction.
"We had to knock on the town docs door but he graciously opened the clinic and fixed me up, tetanus shot and all."
In the morning we had breakfast and broke camp for the seven hour hike back to Bario. When we finally made it back to the brother’s longhouse at the outskirts of town, I was absolutely smoked. They gave me a quiver with poison darts, some bracelets from their arms, and a handwoven game bag as parting gifts. When Ricky picked me up with a pick-up truck, I paid the brothers the $150 we had agreed upon for the six day adventure, gave them another $70 for a traditionally handmade blowgun which they procured for me, and gave them the fishing speargun I had brought along. They had been fascinated by it and I was happy to give them a gift to show my appreciation for their companionship. Using Ricky to translate, they were able to clearly communicate with me for the first time in a week of spending every waking hour together. They said they enjoyed having me along and hoped I would come back with my brother to go hunting with them again some day. I told them it had been an honor and I looked forward to our next hunt.
Rajah Lee checking out the speargun I gave them, stitched hand, Penan longhouses before Bario
After we got back to Nancy’s guesthouse, Ricky took me to get my hand sewn up. We had to knock on the town docs door but he graciously opened the clinic and fixed me up, tetanus shot and all. Words can’t explain how delightful it was to have a hot shower, put on clean clothes, and go to sleep in a bed. Then, as quickly as it had all begun, I was looking down from the little Twin Otter plane at the misty rainforest as I headed back to civilization.
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This post's corresponding travel video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbQPTJU5qu8