A Jungle Odyssey

updated 07/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1988 01:00AM

If you like snakes, bugs, poisonous plants and recently reformed headhunters, you'll love Borneo's 120,000-square-mile Kalimantan rain forest, one of the largest primeval jungles left on earth. How thick is the Kalimantan? Thick enough that the first Westerner to walk from one side to the other, Dutch surveyor A.W. Niewenhuis, took more than a year and required the help of 110 porters and bodyguards to make a 700-mile traverse in 1897.

In 1982, adventurer Eric Hansen, now 40, decided to set out on a similar trek, initially guided by two hunters from Borneo's nomadic Penan tribe. "I've just never been satisfied with armchair fantasies," says Hansen. "If I think of some dream destination, I just get up and go there." A native Californian, he has rattled around the world for two decades, supporting himself with very odd jobs. He has labored as a goldsmith in Israel, smuggled polyester saris in the Maltese islands, hunted wild dogs in New South Wales, Australia, and worked as a barber in Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. His new book, A Stranger in the Forest, an account of the Borneo walk, marks his debut as an author.

Hansen, who lives in New York City with his Swiss-Russian girlfriend, Valerie Braunschweig, is currently trekking through North Yemen, returning to the spot where he was shipwrecked for two weeks in 1978.

I entered the rain forest just outside the village of Pow-O-Pan, 200 miles from the north coast of Borneo, and the sunlight quickly dimmed. So did most traces of civilization. The jungle canopy blocked direct sunlight, and the air was hot and supersaturated with moisture. You could never see very far in any direction; the sensation was a little like being submerged in a 12-foot bubble in an endless green sea. With leeches.

My equipment consisted of a rattan backpack, a mosquito net, a bed sheet, one change of clothes, malaria pills, tobacco and 250 shotgun shells to use as barter with the indigenous tribal groups. I also had a 24-inch machete-like knife called a parang and wore a pair of Nike running shoes with camouflage laces that a friend had given me as a joke.

Bo 'Hok and Weng, both experienced Penan hunters, had agreed to be my guides in exchange for one 12-gauge shotgun shell apiece per day. In addition, I was to replace any shotgun shells they used for hunting along the way. We had walked only a few hours when we happened upon a giant iridescent python coiled on a river rock. I was admiring the sleeping snake when Weng suddenly drew his parang and hacked the animal's head off. Weng proceeded to fasten the headless 10-foot snake to his pack, where it continued to writhe for hours as we walked. The snake, our first dinner, was delicious.

In the weeks to come, we frequently feasted on wild boar or deer. I also grew accustomed to bee larvae, roasted rattan shoots, lizards, monkeys and bats. The small mammals were the hardest to stomach because Bo 'Hok and Weng never skinned the animals before throwing them into the fire. By eating the local food and drinking river water, I believed that I would build up a resistance to most common jungle diseases. But what worried me most was that wounds, even small scratches, would quickly fester into tropical ulcers if left untreated. I was mindful of the fate of Bruce Sandilands, a surveyor with 23 years' experience in Borneo, who in 1975 was abandoned in the jungle by his guides when his feet became badly infected. He starved to death and was eaten by wild animals.

Though I had spent enough time in Borneo before the trek to learn a good deal of Indonesian, Bo 'Hok and Weng had an indirect manner of speaking that was difficult for me to understand. They frequently used the expression tie neet-neet, which translates as "we are going into the jungle to pull our foreskins back." I assumed this was a crude way of saying they were going to pee. Then they would be gone for hours and return with game they had shot. Tie neet-neet, I eventually learned, meant Bo 'Hok and Weng were going hunting. They avoided announcing their true intentions so that mischievous jungle spirits wouldn't overhear them and let the animals in on their plans.

One day we were preparing morning tea when Bo 'Hok and Weng heard a rustling noise and reached for their guns. To our utter shock, a man in blue jogging shorts and high-top tennis shoes came staggering out of the jungle, carrying what I eventually recognized was a treadle-powered Singer sewing machine on his back. We were 80 miles from the nearest village and hadn't seen another human being for six weeks! I had been feeling pretty good about myself, but with one glance at the sewing machine I felt my trip fade into insignificance. This traveler, Pa Lampung Padan, had left his family village two years earlier to embark on a peselai, a long journey in which young Kenyah men set out to acquire wealth and social status. He had traveled several hundred miles to work in a stone quarry, where he saved enough money to buy the sewing machine for his wife. Remarkably, on his return trip he took the most difficult possible route, over mountain terrain, simply to see some new country. For him the landscape was not a barrier. It was a place to explore, a place to learn.

As I continued my own peselai, I nearly fell victim to overconfidence. I cut my feet and ankles, superficially, on some rocks and foolishly failed to treat the wounds immediately. Ten days later, my toes had swollen together, and lymph dripped from the sores like candle wax. Every step was agony. Luckily we were near some settlements on the upper Bahau River, where I sadly bade goodbye to Bo 'Hok and Weng and rested my feet while new guides took me downriver by longboat to Long Bia, an American missionary outpost 40 miles from Borneo's east coast. When I arrived at the whitewashed bungalow overlooking the river I felt exhilarated, in spite of my painful feet. In four months I'd achieved my goal: I had crossed the jungle and stayed relatively healthy.

But as I stood at the door, my vision of a friendly reunion with a Westerner quickly vanished. The missionary, a Protestant named Ian who, I later learned, came from Fort Worth, looked like a redneck sheriff in his aviator mirror sunglasses. His greeting consisted of, "Well, what do you want?" His wife, Julie, was a bit more hospitable and invited me in for tea. When she led me to the bathroom—everything was baby blue, I felt a real jolt of culture shock—I looked in the mirror and realized why Ian hadn't been eager to invite me in. After all those months in the jungle I looked, basically, half mad.

Ian and Julie were not in the least interested in hearing about my adventures, so I guiltily gorged myself on chocolate chip cookies while trying to sort out my thoughts. My leg was still slightly infected, and prudence dictated that I should return to the States, where I could proudly tell everyone I had crossed Borneo on foot. Then I thought, "Big deal. I don't feel satisfied." So, on impulse, I decided to walk back across the jungle to my starting point, this time by a more difficult route.

I made only one big mistake. In ignorance, I set out during musim takoot, the season of fear. Every year around October and November, which used to be the traditional headhunting season, people in the jungle live in fear of balai salang, a tall, fair-skinned and brown-haired spirit they believe is sent to collect blood. I thought it was dead folklore until I reached a small village called Long Uro. I had been treated kindly in most of the villages I visited, so I was shocked when two dozen men, some armed with spears, ran down the trail toward me. They threw me on the ground and kept yelling, "Why do you walk by yourself? Why aren't you afraid of balai salang?" It dawned on me that they thought I was balai salang because only spirits walk alone. I was frightened, but I remembered I was wearing a fabric banana pin, about three inches long, which a friend had given me before the trip. I told them the pin was my magic charm and protected me from evil, This seemed a sensible explanation to everyone, and I was allowed to go free.

After wandering several more weeks, I had one final leg of my journey left before reaching Sarawak, my original point of departure. In the village of Long Nawang, I joined a group of native travelers headed upriver in a boat carved out of a 40-foot log. When the river became too shallow, my companions began to haul the longboat, which weighed at least a ton, over a 5000-foot mountain pass. We would all shove the boat 10 feet, then stop and pant. On the third day I collapsed from exhaustion, but they kept going. Later that day I rejoined the men as they reached the pass and began lowering the boat down the far side with jungle vines. It seemed as if we had just moved Noah's Ark.

Floating down a quiet stream with my chest pounding, I felt euphoric. Sweet-smelling aran trees blossomed along the bank, and their pinkish-white petals coated the water. Within two days, we reached the village of Long Busong, at the edge of the jungle. I took off my running shoes and entered the village longhouse for tea. When I came out, the shoes were gone. I looked around and found the culprit: a hairless mongrel who had eaten everything but the soles.

My Nikes had walked 2,400 miles. I was heartbroken.

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