A VERY MOD­ERN VIL­LAGE

One, as a rule, should avoid put­ting one’s life in the hands of teenagers. Clasp­ing the welded metal bar on the back of the screech­ing, skele­tal Chi­nese dirt bike with blis­ter­ing hands, I re­alised, with a de­feated sigh, I had.

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - Dan Kerins

THE NAR­ROW OR­ANGE path slith­ered its way higher into the Dyak Heart­land as we splut­tered phlegmy glob­ules of oil and clay, ne­go­ti­ated chas­mic div­ots, slid through pools of slip­pery leaves, and ducked stray branches. For sev­eral par­tic­u­larly nerve-shat­ter­ing sec­tions, there was lit­tle room be­tween the han­dle­bars and a pre­cip­i­tous bone-crush­ing fall into the pri­mor­dial Bornean jun­gle be­low; a dark, thorny place where no one would hear your whim­pers.

On one cur­va­ceous and ex­cep­tion­ally nar­row sec­tion, the back end slid out again. I'm 90 ki­los on a good day, a fur­ther ten with cam­era gear and per­sonal ef­fects on my back. As the back wheel jud­dered to­ward the red­dish edge, I closed my eyes.

The 18-year-old to whom I was en­trust­ing my life man­aged to wedge a cal­loused foot down and swing the wail­ing bike back around, sav­ing us both from a night in the bush tend­ing to rapidly fes­ter­ing wounds. Half an hour later, we reached a small red mud pass. The pal­pi­tat­ing en­gine gave a sigh of re­lief as it was turned off, leav­ing us to free­wheel down a death slide of clay and loose stones with only my young driver's meaty feet and overde­vel­oped legs to con­trol our de­scent into the val­ley and on­ward to the vil­lage of Pa' Padi. Get­ting this far had taken some do­ing, in­clud­ing hitch­ing a ride on a small Cessna pi­loted by the stoic, yet per­son­able, John from the Mis­sion­ary Avi­a­tion Fel­low­ship (MAF). Say what you will about mis­sion­ar­ies, these guys are out there do­ing it – a not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion and a much-revered vi­tal life­line for these re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. In this ruth­less ter­rain, these guys save lives re­peat­edly, day in, day out. Fly­ing sick pa­tients, soon-to-be-moth­ers and var­i­ous life-pre­serv­ing sup­plies from the coast, MAF makes a dif­fer­ence. My bet­ter half and I had been wait­ing it out in the swampy bor­der town of Tarakan, in the north­ern reaches of Kal­i­man­tan, the In­done­sian side of the is­land of Bor­neo, camp­ing in our un­der­wear be­neath a fan to avoid the in­tense, muggy heat. We fi­nally man­aged to se­cure two seats on the next flight, which in­volved me sit­ting in the co-pi­lot's seat, try­ing des­per­ately to sup­press thoughts of an emer­gency land­ing in one of the brown rivers cut­ting geo­met­ric shapes across the forested shag-pile land­scape be­low.

The steamy green ex­panse be­gan to ruf­fle and crease up­ward, un­til we were cross­ing a wild sea of moun­tain jun­gles and val­leys, bright-clouded peaks and deep river-bot­tomed troughs. The wispy

clouds of the low­lands had now given way to bul­bous white columns sway­ing above a range of moun­tains, John deftly mov­ing through them like a waiter in a crowded room. Sud­denly, he raised the lit­tle Cessna up and pitched the left wing to slip through a gap in the clouds, re­veal­ing a fer­tile plateau be­low. We spi­ralled to a text­book land­ing on a small run­way in Long Bawan, the re­gional hub of the Krayan High­lands of north­ern Kal­i­man­tan.

The Krayan are one of sev­eral tribes that make up the indige­nous peo­ple of Bor­neo, col­lec­tively known as

Dyaks. For­mer an­i­mists (the world's old­est re­li­gion, where the be­lief is that all things – peo­ple, an­i­mals, plants, rocks – are alive and have a soul), the Krayan have lived in these vast hills for gen­er­a­tions. They have a rich his­tory, un­ri­valled knowl­edge of the land­scape and a deeply-rooted cul­ture that has man­aged to thrive in this re­mote, wild and chal­leng­ing place.

Their tra­di­tional home­lands strad­dle both sides of the more re­cent In­done­sian-Malaysian bor­der that slices through cen­tral Bor­neo. This area had played host to many a skir­mish, none more fa­mous than the de­feat of the Ja­panese dur­ing the Sec­ond World War when the Krayan worked with the ec­cen­tric and un­con­ven­tional Bri­tish of­fi­cer Tom Har­ri­son and his Z squadron to wage a guer­rilla war in the dense lo­cal jun­gles. It's a swash­buck­ling tale in­volv­ing plenty of skul­dug­gery and dar­ing do, one the Krayan hold in high es­teem; then there's the in­ge­nious con­struc­tion of a run­way built from bam­boo (def­i­nitely worth a google). To­day, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Long Buwan re­tains a fron­tier town feel, with a smat­ter­ing of small shops, cor­ru­gated iron churches nes­tled amongst mod­est wooden homes, a large foot­ball field used to graze horses and host nightly kick­abouts and, un­sur­pris­ingly, a va­ri­ety of mo­tor­bike re­pair out­fits. The Krayan were friendly and in­trigued by our pres­ence; peo­ple stopped us ev­ery­where we went, although my piti­ful knowl­edge of In­done­sian meant most con­ver­sa­tions con­sisted of an­i­mated por­tray­als of wel­come and grat­i­tude, be­fore fad­ing into smiles, hand­shakes and waves.

We stayed with Alec, a lo­cal man, and his fam­ily, and ate rice paddy snails, fish, and green spinach-like ferns washed down with boiled smoky wa­ter. An en­tre­pre­neur­ial kind of chap, Alec is try­ing to de­velop tourism, a new in­dus­try for Krayan. He's build­ing a small ho­tel and at­tempt­ing to pro­mote his peo­ple and their lands to the world, a chal­lenge with lim­ited tele­phone cov­er­age and one in­ter­net con­nec­tion for the whole re­gion. Alec made ar­range­ments for us to visit his un­cle in a nearby vil­lage as our trans­port was due by lunchtime the next day – that, as you al­ready know, was to be an ad­ven­ture in it­self.

Pale, aching and sweaty, we pulled into Pa' Padi. Like some long-lost dream of the Asian idyll, a small vil­lage of

no more than forty wooden homes on stilts hunched on a hill­side in a nar­row val­ley, with a net­work of paddy fields cov­er­ing the val­ley floor, be­yond, for­est-cov­ered hills con­tin­ued in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Com­mu­nal stands of bam­boo fringed the fields, along with sago palm, while buf­faloes roamed the wa­ter-filled squares of empty pad­dies, di­vided from one an­other by nar­row clay walk­ways and bam­boo fences. In the dis­tance, work­ers mov­ing through the land­scape were re­flected in the wa­ter in the pad­dies, pigs grunted in sties, and hunt­ing dogs lounged in small packs while cats flicked flies with their tails.

This was out there. There were no roads ex­cept the thin jun­gle we had en­dured; the vil­lage had stood for hun­dreds of years with ev­ery­thing ei­ther hewn from the sur­round­ing land­scape or brought in on a dirt bike. This wasn't a time warp, though. The vil­lagers have smart­phones, just no sig­nal. There are TVs, just not flat screens. Tim­ber is pre­pared by chain­saw and food is kept in Tup­per­ware. But these mod­ern tech­nolo­gies serve only to com­ple­ment a way of life that has changed lit­tle.

The Krayan were keen for me to take part in many of their day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties, most of which in­volved squelch­ing around in brown wa­ter with clay up to my thighs, try­ing to keep up and not drop any­thing.

We met up with Jonas, Alec's un­cle, who was will­ing to take us on a small so­journ into the jun­gle. We en­listed a porter to help share the load and pre­vent our in­evitable demise should we get lost, who upon first meet­ing, and for the rest of the jour­ney, re­mained cata­ton­i­cally quiet.

We set off early the next day, walk­ing along one of the many ir­ri­gat­ing rivers, mak­ing sev­eral cross­ings and work­ing our way fur­ther down­stream deeper into what Jonas termed ‘for­est'. At a fork in the river, we stopped to pick off leeches be­fore cross­ing to a small trib­u­tary stream where Jonas proudly in­tro­duced us to his an­ces­tral home. Sud­denly it felt dif­fer­ent. The for­est we'd been walk­ing through to this point would ri­val most tropical na­tional parks, but this, this was a dif­fer­ent realm.

It felt in­tim­i­dat­ingly old, like a wise pair of eyes look­ing through you, dark and fusty. Mono­lithic trees reached sky­ward fifty me­tres or more, hold­ing up the canopy like a leaky, creaky Cathe­dral roof. Thick, thick, vines and lianas tan­gled from tree to tree like wooded cob­webs, an un­der­story of dark green that took up ev­ery avail­able space. It smelt of death and life at the same time.

One must quickly ab­sorb the brief mo­ments of majesty in a place like this, be­cause be­fore long it will come after you; blood suck­ing leeches, scream­ing mosquitoes, ma­raud­ing flies, swarm­ing bees, flay­ing hooks, stab­bing spines and grap­pling green ten­ta­cles with slic­ing

epi­der­mises. Ev­ery­thing will at­tempt to make use of you, to glean some ge­netic ad­van­tage over their brethren. We trekked un­til mid-af­ter­noon, at which point Jonas and Uno the mute porter set about mak­ing camp. There is no greater way to de­flate the del­i­cate male ego than to watch the speed, dex­ter­ity and brute strength of two Dyaks mak­ing a jun­gle camp. In less than an hour of flail­ing perangs (a type of ma­chete), food, shel­ter, wa­ter, bed, cut­lery, mat­tress ham­mocks and dry fire­wood had all ma­te­ri­alised from the for­est, dur­ing which time I'd man­aged to as­sem­ble a small stack of lightly smoul­der­ing twigs.

We spent three days in the bush, wak­ing daily to the morn­ing gos­sip of gibbons, spot­ting horn­bills and count­less other crea­tures of wild de­sign and in­cred­i­ble va­ri­ety, in­clud­ing an alarm­ingly well-cam­ou­flaged snake, dead from nat­u­ral causes, as was al­most the case for me when I saw it. Jonas took us to a tree, known to his an­i­mist grand­fa­thers as sa­cred, the mag­nif­i­cence of which isn't ex­press­ible by the ve­hi­cle of prose, nor the ve­hi­cle of nor­mal com­pre­hen­sion for that mat­ter. I have no idea how old it was, or big, or beau­ti­ful, or how many species it sup­ported.

We emerged from the jun­gle lumpier and scab­bier than be­fore, yet re­vi­talised, and joy­ful that places like this still do ex­ist, where na­ture can be left in her quiet splen­dour side by side with peo­ple who call her home, and that in our brave new world there are still places you can lose your­self.

The temp­ta­tion is to frame Pa' Padi as some ide­alised para­ble of par­adise, a throw­back, an un­touched bub­ble where the rav­ages of the mod­ern world haven't en­croached. It isn't. There are squab­bles and hi­er­ar­chies, as­pi­ra­tions, in­equal­i­ties, in­stances of cru­elty, gos­sip and all the fun­da­men­tals of the hu­man con­di­tion. In fact, it was, by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, a very mod­ern vil­lage, a place with enough au­ton­omy for its res­i­dents to make their de­ci­sions, the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of which they must live with; un­like our own, where de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion in­su­late the de­ci­sion-mak­ers from the con­se­quences of their ac­tions.

Out there, close to the wilder­ness and far from help, prag­ma­tism is king. Re­sources are man­aged be­cause if they're not, all will know hunger.

The for­est is re­spected, be­cause if it isn't, all will suf­fer. Peo­ple work each other's land be­cause it ben­e­fits them in­di­vid­u­ally and as a whole. Peo­ple take what they need, and lit­tle more. Make no mis­take, life there is tough and pre­car­i­ous, but so it is in many places. Un­like many parts of the world, where the abil­ity to self-sub­sist and gov­ern has long been sold to the high­est bid­der, the res­i­dents of Pa' Padi still, for now, con­trol their fu­tures.

From Pa'padi at least, it ap­pears it is us who are liv­ing the past.

We boarded the weekly over­loaded In­done­sian plane and as we flew back down to the swamps of coastal Tarakan I could see the ‘mod­ern' world wasn't far away. Now liv­ing in New Zealand, cu­rios­ity got the bet­ter of Dan Kerins long ago, set­ting a course to spe­cialise in ill-planned and un­der­funded ex­cur­sions into the lesser known for the best part of two decades, al­ways with cam­era in hand. To this day travel re­mains a deep pas­sion and pho­tog­ra­phy a com­ple­men­tary ob­ses­sion.

www.dankerin­spho­tog­ra­phy.com @dankerin­spho­tog @dankerin­spho­tog @dankerin­spho­tog

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