I lay cocooned in my hammock. Rain hammered on my tarp and a raging torrent flowed close by. My three teammates had moved their sleeping rigs up the side of the gorge to escape the Sungai Tutoh river, which was now full of dismembered trees. I wriggled deeper into my sleeping bag as an image of being ripped from the trees and swept into the gorge whirled around my head. It was foolish of me to sleep so close to the river, but I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams that said river would rise ten metres in just 20 minutes. Water began to lap at the ground beneath my bed so I donned my soggy paddling kit and thrashed up the river bank with my machete to establish a slightly drier spot for my hammock.
We were deep in the jungle of Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site in Sarawak. The objective for our three-month ‘rolling’ expedition was to discover and paddle some of the most inaccessible rivers in the world. We knew that the Sungai Tutoh would be particularly challenging given its location, gradient and geology, but we accepted these risks as the physical price to pay in order to explore one of Borneo’s finest primary jungles.
The rolling concept was the brainchild of kayaker Dave Burne. Given the logistical difficulties in Borneo, plenty of time is needed to access and explore its rivers. Eight European paddlers joined the expedition for up to eight weeks at a time. Overlaps between insertion and extraction dates allowed information and contacts to be passed from incumbent paddlers to arriving kayakers.
I woke in my damp hammock the next morning to the sight of a swirling chocolate mess of a river. The decision not to paddle in the aftermath of the flash flood was an easy one and returning to our respective perches, we soaked up our incredible surroundings.
The next day, the water receded until it was only slightly higher than when we had exited it. By this stage of the expedition, packing the mass of equipment into the back of our boats had become second nature. We slid back onto the Sungai Tutoh and accelerated down the gorge. Waves crashed over our heads as we negotiated an unrelenting series of rapids. There was no room for error. One mistimed stroke, or a single lapse of concentration, could result in a kayak packed with crucial survival kit disappearing down the river (to say nothing of its occupant). The boats we were using were specifically designed to carry everything we needed to be self-sufficient on the river for up to a fortnight. They were slightly larger than a normal kayak, and therefore provided additional buoyancy for our heavy kit.
When the sun disappeared behind the gorge walls, we started to look for a place to stop for the night. Pulling onto a beach overlooked by trees that appeared to be suitably spaced for hammocks, we stood to stretch our legs. Suddenly heads began to pop through the thick undergrowth. Over the next little while, an increasing number of people congregated in front of us. We tried to ease the tension in the air by muttering a few broken phrases in Malay. No one responded.
Eventually, the village chief arrived. He calmed our nerves by introducing himself to us – in English – as Hamilton, welcomed us to his settlement and invited us to stay. Hamilton led us along a dirt track which passed several small, terraced vegetable patches. On the way, Hamilton explained that his tribe doesn’t speak Malay. They speak Penan, a native tribal language only spoken by the occupants of a few villages.
We rounded a corner into a clearing and gazed upon a 200-metre longhouse on stilts. Families peered out from their cottages as we marched towards the middle of the structure, which I presumed was sub-divided into numerous dwellings, including Hamilton’s home.
We ducked into a narrow, gloomy room where rugs had been scattered along the floor and Hamilton beckoned us to sit on wooden benches, which had been placed around a table. His wife brought sweet coffee. He asked if we ate meat and we nodded enthusiastically. As we chatted to Hamilton, village elders joined us around the table. In the warmth of the candlelight, we noticed their wrinkled skin, vibrantly coloured loin cloths and necks adorned with bright beaded necklaces, while their earlobes had been stretched with long holes containing wooden loops. Each elder propped his prized kelepud (blowpipe) within reach, and placed a short holster on the table. We later learnt that the holsters contained sharp darts, made from the sago palm, that had been dipped in sap from a tajem tree. The sap can kill a person in a few minutes.
Hamilton explained that the Penan tribe used to be nomadic until 1980, when they decided to settle with the help of a grant from the government. Previously, they had lived solely off what they found to eat in the jungle. They collected fruits, gained starch from the sago palm, and hunted barking deer and wild boar. Their accuracy with the kelepud enabled even small birds to be felled.
The kelepud is a perfectly straight pipe, around three metres in length, made with wood from the Belian tree and finished with a blade that is lashed to the top. Hamilton’s tribe carve out theirs using bone drills, rather than splitting and carving them as other tribal people do.
After being loaned a kelepud by a cautious elder, we headed outside to use it. Hamilton tentatively pulled out a dart from a holster and stabbed it into the ground to break the tip. He lit the end of the dart for effect, pushed it into the tube, raised it to his lips and pffft… a glowing dart shot out, flying 20 metres into the air like a tracer from a machine gun. We admired this small firework display and were eager to have a go ourselves. Hamilton reloaded the kelepud with another blank dart and passed it to me. I raised it to my lips and blew. The dart shots into the air with a satisfying sound.
When we returned to the longhouse, the table had been covered with food. In the centre, a huge wild boar head was releasing a rich, smoky smell. Hamilton carved the meat off the head and encouraged us to tuck in. The meat, which had spent the day smoking over an oil drum, was succulent and flavoursome. We gorged ourselves until our plates were empty, and then enjoyed another sweet coffee to finish off the banquet. We thanked Hamilton’s wife profusely, rolled out our sleeping mats, and fell asleep.
Over breakfast, we quizzed Hamilton about the river. He explained that we were heading for a deep gorge with water that flowed under rocks. The chief’s description confirmed our fears from the research we conducted before the start of the expedition. Hamilton drew a sketch map and highlighted the locations of towns and tracks on the riverbank. As we carried our kit back to the river, we passed a couple of elders heading into the jungle on a two-day hunt. I compared their single machete with the 35 kilograms of kayak and kit that we were each lugging around.
We continued down the river for another day before reaching the crux of the gorge. After Hamilton’s tales of unrunnable sections, we advanced apprehensively and stopped at another longhouse to ask for more advice. The occupants explained that two days earlier a man was washed into the gorge and drowned. This sad news confirmed our doubts. We’d had a fantastic time on the Sungai Tutoh, but with so many unknowns downstream it was time to return to civilisation.
In Kinabalu, we met the three team members who were replacing us on the expedition. Over beers, we shared tales of tribes, flash floods and unrunnable gorges. We also handed over our contacts, together with a list of places that we thought would be worth exploring. Their eyes were drawn to the countless blue squiggles on the map that flowed from places even deeper in the jungle than from where we had just emerged.
Upon arriving home, I read about their adventures along one of those squiggles. It required a taxi, a jeep, a river ferry, a speedboat, a bulldozer and a tractor ride to reach the top of the river. By all accounts it was a fantastic paddle out.
At the end of the expedition, the team sold the kayaks – which had been donated by the manufacturer – and gave the money to ‘Heart of Borneo’, a rainforest conservation charity that works to conserve the island’s diminishing jungle. Our hope is that future generations of kayakers will be able to experience some of the same landscapes, cultures and floodwaters that we encountered on our rolling expedition through Borneo.
TEN OF THE BEST
Kayaking through terrain as tortuous as Borneo’s river systems present a host of physical difficulties. As Jonny Hawkins discovered, packing the right variety of equipment into your boat is essential, from hammocks and shelters to spend nights in, to rescue lines and sturdy knives to deal with obstacles. All of which needs to fit into the kayak to begin with...
Pyranha Everest – £900; 21kg
Designed in 1976 for the first descent of Nepal’s Dudh Kosi river, the modern Everest remains a cutting-edge expedition kayak. Its large volume and length make it the ideal boat to withstand abuse.
Werner Powerhouse Carbon – £293; 1.04kg
A carbon fibre paddle that has an ergonomically cranked shaft to reduce strain on the wrists, plus a large, stiff blade capable of delivering the kind of immediate power required on technical rivers. This is the most impact resistant paddle that Werner produces.
DD Hammocks Frontline – £49; 860g
The Mulu National Park contains 60 mammal species and 1,200 species of insect, so getting off the floor at night is essential. With an integral mosquito net and a two-layer design, the Frontline repels even the most persistent critter. I coupled mine with an Alpkit Rig 7 tarp for an unbeatable sleeping set-up.
Alpkit Rig 7 – £60; 520g
Cocooned in a hammock with rain smashing onto your seemingly indestructible tarp is a satisfying feeling. The lightweight and durable Rig 7 is made from siliconised Cordura and takes up little room in a kayak.
MSR Whisperlite International – £110; 441g
Capable of burning several liquid fuels (including paraffin, unleaded petrol and white gas), the Whisperlite International boasts a simple construction, impressive durability and dependable performance. This stove is an obvious choice in damp, dirty jungles.
6. Dry bags
Alpkit Airlok Xtra 20L – £11.50; 190g
Keeping gear dry and protected is vital in the wet jungle environment. Kit inevitably gets thrown around in the back of the kayak, and I trust these dry bags with my camera equipment, communications, food and sleeping items. Available in a range of capacities.
7. Buoyancy aid
Palm Extrem – £170; 1.49kg
On the river, a good buoyancy aid can be a lifesaver. The Extrem will keep you afloat in turbulent rapids so you can reach the bank. It also holds all the kit necessary to rescue a teammate or equipment. The pockets of my Extrem contain slings, karabiners, pulleys and a knife.
8. Throw line
Palm Alpine – £40; 1.17kg
I’ve used the 20-metre line to rescue paddlers in the water, retrieve pinned boats and support my tarp. It’s also served as a clothes line. The high visibility‚ floating polypropylene cored rope is supplied in a Cordura bag that boasts integral foam flotation.
Martindale Golok – £30; 520g
A machete is as inseparable to a Malay tribesman as a paddle is to a kayaker. We loved getting our hands on these knives from local markets. Closer to home, the Martindale Golok is a quality offering. Although we used our machetes to cut portages, scout rapids and clear camp, nobody wanted them rattling around in their boat while negotiating rapids.
Toyota Tacoma Double Cab;$50 rental per day
Our biggest challenge revolved around finding ways to reach the rivers. Jungle roads made by logging companies quickly overgrow after the timber is extracted. Consequently, roads marked on maps were non-existent and new roads seemed to appear overnight. Our Tacoma was indispensable in forging paths to the pristine rivers.
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.