May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Pak Rabun and the wilderness

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Ciaran Harman

Pak Rabun was padding along the mulch in the sparse undergrowth when he stopped and went tense. When he turned around, he had an enormous grin on his face. 'Babi!' he mouthed past me to his grandson Tusung behind me. 'Thank God!' I almost said out loud. Even I could see them. The track we were following sloped downward between giant rainforest trees and the straining saplings between them, and turned left to run upstream beside the Hubung River. Just on the other bank, lit up angelically (or so I remember it) by a shaft of light let into the forest by the slice the river cuts through it, were a family of wild boar.

Pak Rabun was doing a little dance while Tusung quietly dropped his pack and began stripping down to his shorts. They were as happy at the prospect of something other than rice and fish to eat as I was. Tusung took off his rubber shoes and the long flour-sack socks that tied up under his knees to keep the leeches off. He tied a bandanna around his head, picked up his ten-foot ironwood spear and with his grandfather right behind, trod down the track, around a tree and out of sight.

They were such an odd pair. Tusung was huge, his shoulders a mile wide, but coloured like an old map where the untreated eczema that covered them and ran down his arms had taken the pigment out of his skin. He spoke rarely but deliberately, and usually jokingly. He had an appreciation of sarcasm. I liked him. His grandfather Nyurabun, or just Pak Rabun, was the toughest 63 year-old I had ever met. He didn't wear shoes. Ever. He kept leeches off with chewing tobacco and a large and expertly wielded mandau, a type of machete. He had long stringy hair and a metal bar through his penis and I am quite sure he thought I and every other tourist he had taken through the jungle were completely mad.

The rainforests of Borneo have the greatest species richness of any patch of ground on this earth. They are also rapidly disappearing. Rafts of giant logs lashed together had floated past my riverboat every half-hour or so on my three-day journey up from the coast at Samarinda. Every now and then a red scar and a logging camp would appear on the banks as we pushed past. As though some rough beast had hauled itself up from the river and begun devouring the jungle. My plan was to travel up the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan as far as I could, then find some guides to take me across the Muller Ranges and into the catchment of the great Kapuas River, which led to Pontianak on the west coast. I wanted to see what was left of the wilderness. I wanted to breathe it all in. I wanted to become part of it. As it turned out I became more a part of it than I intended. The leeches siphoned off about a pint or so of my blood and thus made me well and truly part of the ecosystem.

From Samarinda in East Kalimantan, the Mahakam kinks and bends up through the lakes and the plains, through Long Iram where it crosses the equator, past mosques of diminishing size (the Javanese transmigrants prefer the coast) to the inland town of Long Bagun. You can only get so far inland by riverboat though. To get the rest of the way to the last major outpost on the river, Tiong Ohang, you have to either fly in with the missionary airline from the coast or spend a couple of exhilarating days in a high powered longboat shooting the rapids above Long Bagun. Always the sucker for the long way round, I spent one amazing day in a boat gunning against the forces of nature between cliffs of fern and waterfalls. On the second day rain set in. With water all around me I had little choice but to sit under a leaky tarpaulin beside chain-smokers and crying children, only now and then getting a glimpse up into the vast forests I was entering.

Fortune seekers

Tiong Ohang was a mixing place, a strange sort of frontier town where the local Penihing Dayak people co-exist with young Banjar men from the south. Upstream there was only the forest and a few small and very old Dayak villages, but in Tiong Ohang the Banjar fortune seekers live. They scale the crumbling limestone cliffs to collect edible birds nests for about four million rupiah (approx. A$800) a kilogram. The young men told me you could make a thousand dollars in a month. Many did, they said, only to go down to the coast and blow it all in a couple of days of carousing. One even bought himself a motorcycle and managed to lug it all the way back to Tiong Ohang.

Some of the young fortune seekers told me they knew some people that could take me across the mountains and into West Kalimantan. They took me to the end of the town, out where the slash and burn fields began. Pak Rabun's house was raised up on stilts like all the others, and inside was furnished with rattan mats. He certainly looked the part of the Dayak guide. He had broad feet and thick stumpy legs. His hair seemed like hanging lianas, black and ropy. At first Pak Rabun reminded me of an old English gaffer. He kept his viney hair under an old flat cap and smoked a pipe as we negotiated costs. No quiet old Englishman could boast Pak Rabun's strong nimble body though.

Across his muscled chest and shoulders the skin sagged only slightly under his tattoos. 'Devil' was printed roughly on his left arm. Pak Rabun was Catholic. He said it was to remind him that evil was always close by. As close as his left arm apparently. Across his chest was written 'Hatiku Bahagia Karenalah Engkau', or 'My heart is happy because of you'. He was always ambivalent about who this referred to. On his right arm was the most cryptic: 'Masaq Lona'. 'It is what it is,' he would say, 'Masaq lona. Far from my eyes, close to my heart.'

We settled on a fee for Pak Rabun and his grandson Tusung. A couple of days later we set out. In a long thin boat called a 'ces' we pushed upriver until well into the afternoon and camped in the unoccupied home of a friend of Pak Rabun. The next day we began climbing up from the river and into the forest.

Shades of green

The journey through the forest was painted in manifold shades of green. At times it was like walking underground. There was not the sense of distance or time that pervades the Australian landscapes I am used to. This was an ecology of the intricate, not the vast and explicit. Trees fought their way into the canopy, spreading roots like armies across the wet ground. When they died they did not really die, they were chewed up by a billion termites and bright fungi and became new. Sometimes a skeleton of fig vines would remain to mark the spot. The air was cool under the canopy but thick with life. It hummed. I had expected it to sound different. I thought rainforests sounded like zoos, with thousands of birds and howling monkeys. Instead, one bird would sing with a voice that filled up the whole forest, and always off to the left or the right was the bright rustle of the river. Otherwise it was quiet.

Perhaps the quiet was my fault though. My puffing stumbling frame could probably be heard for miles and could have scared off most animals. That was why when we came upon those wild boars on about the fourth day, Tusung and Pak Rabun hushed me up and sat me on the ground as they stalked off ahead. I picked leeches out of my shoes as I waited. Socks were no defence against them and wearing boxer shorts instead of briefs had been a very bad idea. Sitting there alone, the silent forest felt bigger. I felt like I was inside a living thing, rather than just surrounded by trees.

Suddenly, with a rustle and a crash, an animal bounded out onto the path in front of me. When it saw me it stopped rock still. It might have been a barking deer or a kijang. It was no more than four feet high and had a brown velvety coat. For about half a second, we stared at each other in shock. For that deer it must have been as strange to see me sitting there as for me to see a wild deer skipping through the centre of my native Perth. The lovely animal caught its wits and bolted, crashing away through the undergrowth again.

I felt like an intruder. As though I had walked in on Mother Nature in the shower. I had seen parts of nature that would otherwise have tried hard to remain hidden. It wasn't an epiphany or anything of that sort, but I understood then the importance of wilderness. To strip nature down to resources and a few scattered national parks was to leave it dressed in rags. Wilderness, the untamed places, where those like Pak Rabun and Tusung become part of the forest in order to survive within it, rather than bend it to their own will: those are the places were we can see into the life of things.

Tusung and Pak Rabun soon returned empty-handed. I was not really disappointed at all.

Ciaran Harman ( is a student in environmental engineering and Asian studies at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He was participating in the Acicis Study Indonesia Program in Yogyakarta (

Inside Indonesia 65: Jan - Mar 2001

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