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Picnic with the Penan – An unforgetable week

Planning
Searching the internet for a nice and adventurous jungle trekking in Borneo,
Malaysia we only found organised package tours into national parks. Some of
them already fully booked, all of them working with permits and obligatory
accommodations. Slowly the image of us spending our holiday completely
planned in between hundreds of tourist walking on beaten tracks appeared. That
was not why we wanted to go to Borneo, in our minds a rough and pure part of
Malaysia with a redundancy of wildlife and beautiful nature. Although surfing on
the net and later on during our trip we found out that this was a bit naive
thinking -Borneo is not that untouched, rough and pure- you can still get to very
special places if you go 1 step further….

While questioning our destination and getting interested in Kalimantan, we ran


into a travel blog that mentioned www.picnicwiththepenan.com. We immediately
got enthusiastic and started an email conversation about when and how. The
answers raised our enthusiasm but also made us uncertain. Where are we
actually going? Is it safe? Is this a real organisation and not a tourist trap or so?
We sent many emails with even more questions to
picnicwiththepenan@gmail.com. They must have gone crazy... Finally we realized
that we wanted an off the beaten track experience an now we certainly had found
one. With the little information we had and with the motto ‘no guts, no glory’ we
decided to give it a go...

And off we went...


Day 1

fter leaving our bags in the ‘Highlands’ hostel, we left Miri in the morning
heading to Long Lellang by a small propeller plane. While flying the earth became
more and more green and after 2 hours we landed on a small airstrip in the
middle of the jungle. There was no way back now: the next plane was bound to
leave in 2 days. Now we crossed our fingers that there would be somebody to
pick us up. And there they were, our guide and two porters, all of them a bit shy
but friendly from the first second. Isaac, Haguy and Allen. After collecting all our
bags & food we went to a wooden house nearby where we repacked our stuff.
The handy rotan backpacks where filled with food and water and we packed our
clothes etc. in our own backpacks.

Around midday we left for the first part: a beautiful and rather easy walk through
several primitive villages, amazing green jungle and a small and shallow river.
After about three hours we arrived in a small village close to the river with about
10 beautiful wooden houses. The headman of the village welcomed us in his
house and introduced us to his family: his sweet wife, 3 boys and their very old
and quiet grandmother. After a cup of coffee and nice bath in the river we join the
warm family life and shared our food with theirs. Together we prepare a
wonderful meal of rice, and green vegetables. For the first time we eat tapiyoka
(?) which soon became our favourite jungle vegetable! After dark we put our
tired bodies to sleep on the wooden floor, hearing the quiet voices of our guide
and the headman talking in their native language in the background together
with the million noises from the jungle outside…

Day 2

mazingly we slept very well and after a good rice and vegetable breakfast we
wave the family goodbye and head for our second heat. Isaac leads us via an
indefinable path through the green and lush jungle that changes every hour in
colour, plant species and height of bush and trees. The path got more slippery,
really muddy every now and then, and we raved about the greatness of our jungle
shoes. And there they where: the horrible Leeches! On our shoes, trousers, and
shirts. But the socks & stockings did their work and at the end of the day we only
discover 1 small bite. Isaac thought us how to remove them and had to pick them
off his bare legs every half hour. Soon we stopped being preoccupied with them
and considered them to be part of our wonderful trip. The walk leads us through
stunning nature and at the end of the day we stop at a lovely place close to a
waterfall and river. Here Isaac shows his real Penan survival spirit and within 2
hours we have a complete camp made from what the jungle delivered: a fire,
benches, a roof, plates from leaves, beautiful wooden cooking spoons and enough
wood for the whole night. We hang hour hammocks and prepared the dinner
together during nightfall. What a lovely evening: eating, talking, relaxing under
the stars with the sound of the jungle as an overwhelming orchestra.

Day 3

After a great night of sleep in hour hammocks and a good breakfast with fresh
frogs (and not just their legs) we prepare ourselves for another beautiful but
heavy hiking day. Again the route was beautiful, but rather straining this day.
Humidity went up to 100% in dense forest, we crossed knee deep rivers a least
ten times, then, had to climb deep slippery river beds and entered hills. High up
the hills the air was dry again and scenery majestic. We where soaked, and
muddy but after 8 hours of strolling, we finally arrived at the rather cultivated
village Long Sait. Happy that we survived this day we rest. Though Isaac had
another plan: we should move on to Long Kepang, 1 hour walking and nicer and
better as he said. We collect our last energy and after 40 minutes walking and
passing another 2 rivers we arrive in this again friendly village at dawn. Here we
stayed at Ians house where we spent the evening playing guitar on the balcony.

Day 4

The heavy rainfall of the last night seemed to be in our favour. The river was high
enough to take us all the way to Long Spiegen without walking/carrying the boat.
The boat ride was fantastic, exciting and beautiful. Around midday we arrived in
Long Spiegen, Isaac’s hometown. Isaac apologized several times for his humble
house but we loved. Also we met his lovely wife and son. We spent the afternoon
and evening collecting food, preparing food, hanging around the river, going to
church and watching the women making beautiful and time consuming rotan
baskets (that we decide to buy as souvenirs). Impressive was Isaac’s proud: the
‘tropical tree plantage’. Near the river he and other villagers planted hundreds of
tropical hardwood trees, Maranti, that were grown to be replanted at logged
sites, to prevent these sides to become palmtree plantages. Also this important
project is part of the picnic with the Penan project and increased our already so
high respect for the people living in the jungle and the people that fuel the project
from the city. This was definitely a day to remember and we pitied the fact that
we already had to leave the next day. We could stay here forever…

Day 5

After again a thrilling boat ride we arrived in Long Siut, a village that cooperates
with ‘Samling’, the company that logs the woods. We were shocked about the
mud, cars, lack of trees and the so-called wealth that apparently came to them via
the logging. Since here people own big 4WDs, a villager could bring us to Long
Banga, the airport. The 3 hour drive made us sick, not only because of the bumpy
ride but especially because we know could see what Isaac all the time was talking
about. Many many trucks loaded with big trees, the cut down and devastated
forest and the muddy fish-less rivers. After experiencing the pureness of the
pristine jungle this was a real wake up call. Our consumption of hard wood and
palmoil, causes this horrible demolishing of pure jungle and pure people.

Tips:
 This is not a last minute trip option: because the guides live in remote
areas contacting them can take a while. Booking/planning in advance is
therefore a must.
 We can imagine that a lot of questions will rise when planning your trip:
don’t hesitate to email again and again if you want clarification. You can
also email carenbouwmeester@hotmail.com.

Preparation

With the information letter & emailing information this is what we prepared.

Flights.

We opted for a couple of days jungle trekking as our main interest was feeling
and experiencing the jungle. The options were to fly to Long Banga or Long
Lellang and trek to the other place (there are many more options). Flights leave
Miri twice a week and vice versa so book and plan in advance via
www.maswings.com.

Things to bring: organise before coming to Borneo:

 Dry bags: as the jungle is wet dry bags are a must if you want a set of dry
clothes etc. Take more than 1, they are handy!
 Toiletries: Biodegradable soap, available in the outdoor stores, and
mosquito repellent with at least 40% DEET.
 Medicine kit: take a good medicine/first aid kit.
 Mosquito net (and some rope to fix it): in some of the villages they will
have one but better to bring your own if you want to be mosquito free.
 Leech socks: don’t count on finding them in Malaysia, so buy them on the
Internet. If you can’t: a good alternative is to bring stockings and long
socks: put them both over your trousers and spray them with mosquito
repellent. But you’ll never have a 100% guarantee on a leech free trip,
even with official leech socks. I had one entering my trousers from the top.
And at the end they are not so bad, they don’t hurt and you can pick them
easily off. Remember that the Penan are walking the jungle bare feet!
 Clothes: bring a pair of synthetic hiking trousers: light and easy to dry.
Long sleeves shirts for the night and maybe a light rainjacket.
 Shoes: Whatever outdoor professionals back home may tell you: don’t
bother buying expensive jungle or hiking shoes! In Miri/Kuching/KK you
can buy ‘kampung shoes’ (see picture) in local stores. Don’t look in the
shopping centres but in the local street stores. They’ll cost about 10
ringgit (2,5 euro/dollar!) and are great for the slippery roads and walking
through rivers. Tip: put the soles of your normal shoes in your Kampung
shoes for a little more comfort.

 Backpack: bring a good size easy to wear backpack. There will be porters
but they will mostly carry the food (depending on where you go and how
many porters you book, we had 2 porters and 1 guide for 3 persons). We
left most of our stuff in the city and carried our big backpack bags since
they were more comfortable than our small backpacks. They were far
from full, so even more relaxed to carry. Count on carrying your own
luggage and maybe water, so pack light. If you don’t want to carry
anything, book enough porters and don’t bring a backpack because the
porters will bring their own backpack. You can pack your food in a box,
that makes it easy to redistribute to the porters.
 Food: Bring some bar-snacks (mueslibars/nutbars/etc.) if you like to eat
something else than rice and vegetables. For example 1 to 2 per day,
including your guide/porters. You can also buy them in Borneo of course.

Organise in Borneo (kuching/kk/miri)

 Shoes: as said above buy your kampong shoes in Borneo.


 Food: How much and what food to bring was a big concern for us in the
days before the trekking when we stayed in Kuching. After all we ended up
fine and found out that the jungle also has some lovely veggies available.
But still, good shopping is important. Count on 3 meals a day in the
villages on a resting day and 2 meals while trekking. Every meal consists
of rice, 1-2 types of veggies and only when available some meat/frog/fish.
Some tips:
 Rice: 150 grams per person per meal (al little more than the 125 grams at
home, since you will eat less often and certainly more). You can also take
noodles, but the Penan are more likely to eat rice. We took 5 kilos for 3
days of trekking with six persons.
 Veggies: eggplant, spinach, cucumber, tomato, other green veggies. Take
veggies that can last for a while in a humid surrounding. For example: 1
meal, 6 persons: 3 egg plants + 1 big bok choy.
 Further bring: garlic, oil, salt, sugar, instant coffee/tea/milo
 As well: lighter, cup, plate and spoon, knife.
 Drinking: during your trekking and in the villages water will always be
boiled for the quests and is also provided to refill the bottles you want to
carry. The water is fine for water. Just take enough bottles with you as a
start and reuse them. When trekking you will have to bring enough water
for the whole day, so you can only fill up in the morning. We started with 3
big bottles, so 4.5 litres, of water each, which was more than enough.

Memories
An amazing trip with a message: that is how we remember our 5 days with the
Penan. It was exciting, amazing, tiring, lovely, dirty, different and most of all
touching because of the nature and the people. Just do it, enjoy it, experience it!

If you have any more questions, I’ll be happy to answer them if possible: email
carenbouwmeester@hotmail.com