Borneo: in the footsteps of headhunters

by Jon Bigg

Borneo is a land of mystery, an exotic, untamed destination. Following the headhunters' trail makes for a uniquely cultural experience, as modern life merges gently with ancient customs

The driver of the ‘flying coffin’ was called Marc. His T-shirt read: ‘I live with fear every day but sometimes she lets me race.’ He drove the boat like it was a jet-ski and as we leaned into yet another of the river’s hairpins, I began to think that this might turn out to be the most dangerous part of the trip. A thought all the more poignant, considering that we were making for the infamous headhunters' trail of Borneo, deep in the Gunung Mulu National Park.

Our journey had started in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, a tiny state sandwiched between the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the north-west coast of Borneo. The South China Sea and the island of Borneo were known in the 19th century for three things: rubber plantations, plundering pirates and savage, headhunting natives.

In 1929 oil was discovered beneath the seas off Borneo and the rubber plantations were slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Until recently, the South China Sea remained the World’s pirate capital, with regular attacks on commercial vessels and private yachts but few convictions.  Although suppressed in the 1840s, headhunting continued for a long time and we would soon meet an elderly tribal chief rumoured to have taken a head in his youth.

As the flying coffin docked in the Malaysian border town of Limbang, we were met by Thomas, our guide, who led us to the waiting jeep that would whisk us along a dirt road deep into the jungle.  The head-hunters trail cannot be accessed by road. First, you must either fly to the isolated airstrip at Mulu or start from Limbang, but the trail itself is deep in tropical jungle and can only be reached by river.  Tonight we would stay at a tribal longhouse several hours’ boat-ride away up the river. Tomorrow we would need an early start to travel further up river to the start of the trail.

Our journey up river ended abruptly as we drew up beside a steep, muddy bank.  A long, plank walkway took us from the river to a large clearing where our home for the night stretched from end to end. Rumah Bala, the longhouse, turned out not to be so much a long house as a terrace of maybe 40 houses, with a common veranda stretching from end to end. The entire structure was set on stilts raising it some 10 feet above the cleared land.

Beside the walkway, at the foot of a staircase leading up to the veranda a bare-chested, heavily tattooed man crouched over a freshly slaughtered pig. One arm was elbow deep in its belly, pulling out the intestines. Blood trickled through the mud and collected in a pool beneath the stairs. The pig twitched then lay still.

This truly did promise to be an eye opening evening.  It was the start of the Iban New Year, or Gawai festival, a time of unrestrained celebration when pigs and chickens are slaughtered and potent rice wine flows freely. The Iban people, who live in tribal groups in semi-isolation are a strange mix of ancient and modern. The west has brought them generators, stereos and Ricky Martin but their remote longhouses have led to the preservation of many traditional ways of life.

The veranda had the feel of a backlane, where children played and the early starters of the Gawai celebrations slumped like derelicts, only to awake a few hours later and imbibe further carefree quantities of rice wine until they passed out again… and again... in a cycle of celebration that would last all week.

The steady throb of the outboard had a soothing effect and contrasted starkly with the pumping bass and seesawing floorboards that had made my sleeping quarters the previous night. The river here was a thick, brown soup, muddied by the logging upstream. We passed a group of children from another longhouse sliding down a muddy bank into the water with cries of excitement. We left them behind and moved into a narrower, more tranquil stretch of river with trees folding over us from both banks, vines hanging down, strangler figs creeping up and a kingfisher keeping pace with us, its turquoise breast shining in the sun.

But we had come to trek through the jungle, not be ferried sedately along the river like a colonial raja from days gone by.  Soon we would reach the start of the trail and over the coming days we would wade through rivers or teeter precariously across them on vine bridges.

We would step around and over the enormous buttress roots and marvel at the bugs and beasties that crossed our path.  We would visit the majestic Mulu Caves and see the perilously unstable bamboo ladders soaring hundreds of feet to the cave roof to harvest birds’ nests, which are used to produce the soup that is a local delicacy.

We would sweat our way to the 1750m summit of Gunung Api to see the incredible limestone pinnacles which jut above the jungle canopy like jagged teeth.  Staying at various long-houses over our week long trip, we were able to dip our toes into a culture that is rapidly being eroded as young Iban people increasingly head out of the jungle in search of their fortunes.

We would be mesmerised by the swarms of bees that descend throughout the afternoon on Camp 5, a national park hostel beside the fast flowing river in Melinau Gorge, deep in the jungle.  The bees, from nests scattered about the surrounding rain forest, come to suck salt from hikers sweaty socks hung up to dry all around the hostel.

We would explore the limestone caverns of Lang Cave and Deer Cave, finding cave vipers and poisonous spiders lurking in the dark.  And at dusk, we’d watch hundreds of thousands of bats leave the caves to feed.
And finally we would stumble out of the jungle to enjoy the hospitality and comparative luxuries available at the Royal Mulu Resort.

Organising your trip

The headhunters’ trail is a three- to five-day trek through the tropical rainforests of Malaysian Borneo. Different schedules allow a variety of other attractions to be visited as part of a package ranging from three to ten days. Treks can be arranged through a number of tour operators including: