I was not at all concerned about the rising wind but my headhunter companions were alarmed. They hurried with increasing urgency along the blustery forest trails, glancing nervously up at the swaying treetops. It took me some time to appreciate the danger of falling branches from the towering trees of the Borneo rainforest. Strong winds are rare, and loose foliage crashing to the forest floor would be lethal.
I picked up my pace behind their inky tattooed calves, but it was not until we reached the riverside clearing and their longhouse home that they relaxed. That stormy afternoon was the only time I observed these consummate forest dwellers ill at ease in their environment.
The former warriors of Sarawak, one of two states that comprise Malaysian Borneo, had skulls decorating their tribal homes, especially the ones visited by tourists. To survive in the remote rainforests along the mighty river arteries of tropical Borneo required communal living under one roof in wooden longhouses – extra rooms were added as the family expanded and everyone shared the wide veranda.
The ritual practice of headhunting, displaying enemy scalps as a rite of passage and prestige, had long been eradicated under the rule of James Brook in the mid-nineteenth century, an eccentric British adventurer who appointed himself Rajah of Sarawak. His white castellated fort on its green manicured mound still dominates the riverside capital of Kuching.
My indigenous headhunting friends, more correctly known by their Malay Iban and Dayak tribal names, were disappointingly dressed in modern t-shirts and shorts, their longhouses modernised with single bulb electricity and corrugated iron roofs. They did still carry intricately woven baskets as backpacks and traditional gourds for water, and used blowpipes for hunting birds and small animals in the rainforest, although there were no longer any naked tattooed torsos, animal skin loincloths, beaded bodices or colourful headdresses decorated with tall feathers.