We sit with the last of the headhunters. Deep in the mountain jungles of Sarawak in north Borneo, one hour upstream from the nearest township, darkness has fallen and we have just witnessed a warrior dancing demonstration on grass mats inside the Iban tribe’s traditional longhouse which holds 20 families – about 200 people. Tuairumah, the wily 97-year-old chief of this house, beckons me closer, inviting me to look inside his private rooms. And what I see shocks me: an overstuffed vinyl lounge suite, modular wall unit filled with DVDs, and many framed pictures depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The era of the headhunter is over. The tribes of north Borneo mostly converted to Christianity just over 100 years ago, when the British white rajahs came and took rule. Now there are alters within the longhouses – gaudy hand-made wooden shrines that fold open like pub dartboards, emblazoned with hand-painted slogans announcing God Is Best.
Still, look closely in the gloomy longhouse and you can notice blackened skulls nesting in a woven grass net, high above the entrance doorway. It’s a superstition to ward off evil spirits, explains a guide. Not all the old ways are gone just yet.
The term headhunting conjures weird notions of cannibalism and pagan ritual, but the decapitation of enemies killed in battle was a sign of the Iban’s ferocity as warriors. The cut heads were placed in baskets at every jungle access point surrounding their villages, sounding a clear warning to any invaders that a similar fate awaited them.
Domesticated though he may be, Tuairumah remains fiercely proud of his warrior origins. He peels off his shirt to display a wild gallery of faded tribal tattoos across his strong, wiry frame. He has a flowering aubergine to identify his role as tribe leader, hibiscus flowers and facing hornbills represent Sarawak, and a black panther running down his throat to signify he is a warrior – a headhunter.
In fact, Tuairumah was the chief who revived the practise of headhunting – briefly, near the end of World War II. After the invading Japanese forces treated the people of Sarawak with extreme violence and cruelty, the mountain tribesmen retaliated by staging guerrilla raids and beheading Japanese troops.
The Iban longhouses concealed in the deepest jungle eluded the Japanese troops, and it remains a challenge to reach the Serubah longhouse in highlands close to the border with Indonesian Borneo (about 250km from Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching). Our guide Jaga pushed us off in a long, skinny, carved log longboat from a slippery landing beneath the shabby village of Sebeliau. For an hour, we hunkered down against driving rain, the swollen Lemanak River surging past and the tiny outboard motor with extra long driveshaft straining against fierce currents and eddies. We get occasional glimpses of paddy fields, rubber and paper plantations and sago palms, but the river banks are mostly hemmed in by thick primary forest. It feels like being on an Indiana Jones movie set, and a sense of danger heightens as we pass beneath a partially collapsed box girder bridge. Recent rains had seen the surging river sweep away the foundations; it had been repaired only six months earlier. In the jungle during monsoon season, such torrential rain can fall for weeks, and the Lemanak will rise four metres.
Once we stop, we find that life at Serubah longhouse is slow. The young men have driven in the village 4WD to work in nearby plantations; the old men give blowpipe and cockfighting demonstrations, show how to tap rubber trees, then tend to black Sarawak pepper seeds drying in the afternoon sun on the longhouse veranda.
The mysterious deep forest holds greater attraction with its teeming vegetation. We investigate, following a sprightly 92-year-old village guide with heavily tattooed legs and an imposing machete. While we crane our necks upwards as we walk, to marvel at the height of the old forest, he is busy scanning the forest floor for new life, cutting edible roots and sprouting leaves, and stashing them in his woven basket to be used as medicines and cooking agents.
He then sets up a little demonstration; a vicious spring-loaded, spiked stick trap that snaps shut with violent force. They’re illegal now, but he smiles as he shows off the old ways. It’s his gentle reminder that this remains headhunter country.
Iban Longhouse visits can be booked through Borneo Fairyland Tours.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved