Camping in Borneo: Thugs, Gold, Coal, & Local Myth.

The midwife of Apuai says the whole world will end if Pahayangan Mountain is ever destroyed. “There will be no people. It will all be done with,” she says.


Apuai, Riam Kanan, Kalimantan Selatan (South Borneo)


We get to the banks of Pahayangan and K leaves the narrow, wooden boat as though leaving a flip-flop behind, then heading off into the woods to hunt for deer and ready the camp before us. He moves with an extra sense guiding his feet over fallen logs – even while he’s looking at the sky. The deer hunter moves like a deer. My blood runs cold with envy realizing I’ll never walk that way.

Intact. Only this word could describe the world we found on that plateau on top of the mountain. The trees stood as tall as the shelves of limestone leading to the sky, reflected in a freshwater pool, busy with fish and monitor lizards.


Villagers say that three monks once came to meditate here, leaving these three freshwater pools behind them – where they sat. Their beards grew long, and the monks were transformed into trees. If you cut them, they say, the trees here bleed. At times the trees even have faces, sobbing and waling in the night, says the chief’s mother in Rantau Bujur.

An effective ecomythos, I hope.


On the banks of the largest pool, the two rubber farmers and I settle down for the night. I clean the fish and fetch water from a nearby river while K starts the fire and D mixes spices.

The three of us doze off, as if surrounded in something soft, and wake up to a navy blue sky and stars. Waking before the others, I alone am blessed to hear the powerful screech of a cat in the jungle – may just have been a black panther.

We give in to a subtle, midnight hunger, and finish off the fish – while swatting mosquitoes.

Conversation takes form like a high-fiber bowel movement. I paid more attention to the sounds of the jungle, because I didn’t like where this was going.

No wonder their eyes had lit up when a foreigner walked into their village—the first foreign visitor in 40 years: The brothers had managed to extract a shipment of high calorie coal – from a protected forest – and were finding it especially hard to get rid of.

“Just take it back to Canada, or somewhere! Why not? You wouldn’t have to say where it’s from! They don’t know this area!” said D.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, in Bahasa Indonesia.


Since he was a child, D’s father had him going down narrow tunnels, often too small for an adult, looking for gold and diamonds. He hardly schooled. He grew up in all-male camps where violent murders took place, every day. He drank mercury to be invulnerable to knife attacks.

Purchasers looking for wholesale prices often hike into these camps carrying money. D had worked his way up to becoming their protector. The way he cast his eyes to the soil, there was no question: he’d worked his way up tooth and nail – and not without a little blood.

“But I have a family now so I am trying just to get along planting rubber trees for our future,” he said (to paraphrase). “But every few months I have to go back.”

We went silent for a while. My mind was realizing how it always assumes the best about people. But also realizing that I may have become the same person, if I were born as D.


“By the way, how do you know about this place?” I said.

The deer hunter walks through the forest like an office worker down a busy street. He enters China town. He threatens a few people, says he’ll protect them if they grease his palm. And then he returns back to a village without electricity or cellphone signal. And if that isn’t far enough, the two brothers come here.

They once hid away here for an entire month, just fishing and lying low. The area is protected by myth, and they say even the forest rangers do not dare intrude.


Stars shoot in the sky above. I melt and hammer our conversation back in the direction of myth.

Watching the stars – but through the glare of the fire – I compare D’s tall tales with those I’d overheard in previous settlements, previous camping trips, all encircling the mountain of Pahayangan.

From every which angle, from every shantytown, Pahayangan Mountain has the shape of a monolithic, green coffee table. This is because, D reiterates, the mountain is a seven-headed snake – and it is always watching us; a specter of the three monks, whom were likely Chinese, like dragons. And they turn in our direction, staring us down, wherever we stand.

A few years ago I realized that mythology has huge effects on ecology here in Indonesia, and around the world. From Hindus unable to eat cows but able to eat critically endangered sea turtles, to Muslims unable to eat pigs or dogs – which therefore have very healthy numbers, and the western fetish for dogs and cats – over the unfortunate ones we consider ‘livestock’. I am always enthralled by the connections this line of thought can put together. I call them ecomythos.

In the area of Riam Kanan, these myths are working better than government regulations, logging restrictions, zoning restrictions, hunting restrictions—to keep ecosystems healthy; to keep the waters of an important catchment, powering a hydroelectric dam, and two provinces, from going dry.


D tells me about the Chief of Rantau Bujur, who fled to the woods after the Dutch took control of the area (and started killing all previous rulers). To this day, people still see him in these woods. He has a long beard now. And he appears only when he wants to. He can help you find your way if he wants. Or not. And if you take food without asking his permission, you will end up like that University student last year, who died after eating a freshwater shrimp – in actuality. And if you forget to offer him some of your food when you are eating, something bad may happen.

Anyway, they say that this spectral man married a woman from ‘a neighboring nature’ – an Islamic notion of another dimension, existing on top of visible reality. This neighboring nature becomes a convenient dumping zone for the old beliefs of converts – lore now deemed taboo, safely contained as though in the trap of Ghostbusters.


D tells me about the prince with the appetite. His kingdom supplied him entire cattle to eat. He decimated entire villages, and he was still only a baby. And so he was buried here—in the fertile dirt. And for this reason, once a year, women bake cakes and give them to the forest—to satiate the prince. But also to give thanks to the forest for what it brings—else it should close off in a wall of smoke.

Appreciate the forest or it will close in a wall of smoke.

Have not the Dutch gone? Have not the Japanese buggered off? Have not the communists been done away with? Have not the gerombolan gangs stopped pillaging and forcing tribes to enter Islam? Is Indonesia not finally independent?

For these reasons, the people continue their taboo ceremony—of making 42 cakes, and giving them to the ‘little people’ of their allotment, their dear ‘neighboring nature,’ where all of their lovely taboos and animistic hunches run free.

Contrary to their wishes, however, these woods are turned into walls of smoke for about four months of every year – as the rainforests are being slashed and burned.


Within the last few weeks there has been a rise in the poaching of endangered, proboscis monkeys in the province—after a Chinese businessman successfully spread a myth about the benefits of eating their meat.

“It’s time we start using myths against them,” I suggest to Feri Hussein, the owner of the largest proboscis monkey conservation effort in Indonesia. It’s time we start being like Dian Fossey, the woman who died protecting the gorillas, who used to put on a dollar-store Halloween mask to convince poachers that the forests surrounding her gorillas were haunted.


Apuai, Riam Kanan: The Leaf Frog (Kodok Daun!)








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