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Travelling in Apokayan

In Lidung Payau, deep in Apokayan, we woke up with the first light. My girlfriend Irene and I wanted to leave early to look for a mysterious stone statue, which should ber somewhere in the neighborhood of the village. Irene worked in the art trade, and the story had created our curiosity, because there were no known stone Dayak statues.

When we went outside, the guides, which we had ordered last night, were already waiting for us. They wanted to leave as soon as possible. That was good, because we wanted to visit another village nearby. We are a few hands of cold rice and left the village.

I told the guides, that we first wanted to see the statue. They didn't really want to because they thought we could better safe the experience for later on the day. Probably they hoped that we were already too tired to make a detour for that.


I had to think again about the reserved village head, when we started talking about the mysterious stone statue last night. He didn't really want to talk about it. And when he heard that we had to go to Lidung Payau to catch the weekly plane to the coast, he doubled the traveltime. In the first place he said that it took about four hours on foot, but when we mentioned the statue, he told us it would at least last eight hours.

I was stubborn: i wanted to see the status, and it had to be the first thing today, on the way to the village. Sometimes you can reach something with subbornnes, and finally we paid the guides to do something we thought out. Not a long time ahead, they returned and said that they could not find the statue. We could better go ahead, they said.
Picture: Beads
But I didn't trust their story entirely and I wanted to run down the freshly chopped path anyway. Irene didn't agree with me; another point of view want't to be expected from an arts trader anyway, someone which only wants to see unknown statues. We were nearing a river, which we crossed over the slippery stones. At that time, the guides were getting time again. They were pointing us at leeches which were looking for a way to enter our bodies. We didn't get that through to us. 'Just find the statue', I said stoical. The men dissappeared, to return again after a short while. They smiled in a not funny way; they had found the statue.

We hurried us towards the stone statue. It was a very weird statue: a strange figure on a feet of one meter, probably a mix between money and human. The lines were simple but powerfull. Big eyes stared into infinity.

Holy Soil

By our big surprise the area housed several other stone statues. A small, hunched up figure was ready to jump. Where to? Two flat stones were home to two human-like statues. Kind of vague, because the statues had suffered heavy erosion. Specific aspects from the Kenyah-style art were hard to find. Maybe we were watching the remains of an ancient megalyth culture? Maybe we were on a spot which used to be the location for rytes?

Our guides couldn't tell me much; it was their first time here as well, they said. But why the subbornnes of the village leader in Lidung Payau, and the distraction of the guides themselves? A location for secret or at least kind of strange rites from a time long ago? That time could not have been a long time ago, because we were on an open spot, so it had to be used just recently.

Holy, still holy soil? That could create the resistance of the Dayak. The brand of the 'holy' is that is repells or attracts. People have respect, holy respect. Art traders mainly think of the artistical spects of the objects they see, but I had the feeling that there was more than only the aspects. I was confronted with a riddle, which I was not able to solve during the time I stayed in the area. The discovery of the stone statues are a climax, but start and finish of our adventurous journey were somewhere else: the airstrip near Long Ampung. There we arrived to make a journey on foot and by canoo to one of the most remote area's of Borneo.

Expensive Beads

The group of elderly Kenyah women neared us, talking enthausiastically. Irene tried to make contact by talking with them by taking off her neckless with 84 rare beads.
All of a sudden, the preservations among the women dissappeared, which is different in Long Ampung then somewhere else. With amixture of almost instant love and respect they slided the old beads through their fingers. Their heads moved, the one to the other. The earlobes, stretched by the dozens of rings, hit their shoulders.

The beads were imported from Europe, Africa, China and India by Arabic and Chinese traders in the past. They were used as a tradegood. Some were very precious. A single bead could represent the value of an entire village or in any way one entire longhouse with it's hundred residents; the cost 'the world'. The big value can also be guided from the fact that every kind had it's own name, masculin or female; there were hundreds of names. In the past, it was unthinkable that a bridal gift among the aristocrats was given withour beads.

There are hardly any 'shiny' ones left in Apokayan. They were sold by traders who wanted fast money, which also know the high prices that were paid by collectors. Several expensife old beads are still in use as heirloom, as decoration on children carry baskets or as neckless.

Show in Long Ampung

On the way to the kepala desa we passed several communal rice sheds on pillars. A difficult pattern of sunlight beams, painted on the wall of the wooden shed, made it have a nice view as well.The house of the head of the village, which also served as communal house, had a big open veranda at the front side. The room was decorated with wall paintings, in which modern and traditional motived were brought together.

Images of Jesus and Indonesian politicians were watching over the people carefully. The roof was decorated with wooden figures of humans and animals. The upper part of a foreigner with a moustage and a baseball cap was very remarkable. With a somewhat strange, surprised experssion on his face, he lifts both hands above his head. The belawang in front of the house, a long pawl with a warrior with sword on top, reminded of the headhunting past of the Kenyah.

After dinner we were envited to see a special show. Girls in traditional and western clothing opened with a group dance. After that, several solo dancers came up. With refined movements, the females imitated birds. The men were dressed beautifully: leopard skins, beads and decorated shields. Waving fierce with their mandau, they started an imaginary battle. A group of young men guided them on several instruments. Between the dances several women and men sung together.

At the end of the night, when everyone was about to return home it started to get really cold. We were almost exactly on the equator, but at an altitude of 800 meters it wasn't really nice at night when you don't have a sleeping bag. With all available clothing we got under the thin blankets.

On foot to Long Nawang

The following morning we decided to go to Long Nawang to report us by the police and the camat, head of the hecamatan Kayan Hulu. The village head kicked his head; unfortunately there was no canoo available. But, he continued, there was a good path through the jungle to Long Nawang. The route along the river would take us about five hours. The carriers could take our luggage. He warned us that it was a heavy trip. Recently, several Indonesian civil servants had walked the route, and they were almost killed by exhaustion.

Against the time we left, the sun was high on the shy already. The path was wide enough for a jeep, but of very poor quality. The first hour, the path followed the river fairly well. After the first rapids the bad part came: the remaining part of thepath was created over hilly terrain. Along both sides of the path, trees were chopped to keep the soil dry, so the sun had open field there.

With the increase of the temperatures, our interest in the environment decreased; we got ahead, hand over heel, wet from our own sweat. After a few hours of hard walking, the worst was over. The path turned towards the river again and lead to an freshly chopped ladang. Under a roof, a family was eating, they envited us to join them. At first, we turned of the offer, just like it's normal, but then we accepted of course. The man had catched a wild pig with his dogs. The remaining part of the trip was much better actually.

In Long Nawang we reported us by the police and the camat, which offered us a place to stay. The village of then 800 residents used to be the governmental center of Apokayan during the colonial time. The military post was still staffed by Indonesian soldiers. Several soldiers were constructing a bridge over the river.

Nawang Baru

The next day we continued our trip to Nawang Baru. On our way we found a burial side for noble families. The graves were marked with brightly colored and woodcarved decorations. The woodcarvings were over three meters high. The high grass along the foot of one of the 'grave-palws' hides a strange, catlike animal in wood.

The ramshackle bridge separated us from the village. These bridges are totally unsafe, but they still have a strong influence on the adrenaline-level of western people, which try to overwin these barriers as good as they can. Nawang Baru looked deserted. Only several people were in the village, the others were working on the field, busy seeding rice for the next harvest. An old man was making baskets from ratten, a woman was making a beads mosaik for the back side of the baby basket.
We found shelter in a longhouse, which was dominated by a big wooden statue of a Dayak warrior. A difficult painting was made over the entire back wall. The traditional curls and spirals, a brand to the style of art of the Dayak, decorated the roof. The same motives decorated the walls of the rice shed. Most villagers still live in traditional longhouses, but they are slowly being replaced by private houses.

In 1952, a religious argiment lead to the separation of Long Nawang and Nawang Baru. The villagers of Nawang Baru wanted to keep the traditional religion; nevertheless they are christian at this moment as well. In 1930, a similar event took place, when several villagers from Long Nawang founded the village of Long Temunyat, a few minutes from Nawang Baru.

Accompanied by the village head we walked to Long Temunyat. Nothing much was to see there, but the wall painting in the communal house made it up all together. On the way back we visited the grave from the former camat of this area. The path towards it was cleared and just a while later, we could see the tomb in all it's macabre glory.

Two coffins rested about three meters above the ground, on pawls of ironwood. One of the coffins held a skull in a decaying cloth. Time and termites didn't pass this spot as well. About 45 year after the undoubtfully very nice aristocratic burial, which controlled the traditions for entire Apokayan, the structure was about to collapse right now. A direction of his status was found on the ground directly below the coffin, a big Chinese vase, decorated with dragons.

By canoo to Long Betaoh

The next moning we took a canoo to Long Betauh. The long, narrow boat was kind of deep in the water; the edge only had a few milimeters left before the boat flooded entirely. Once the boat had some speed it became stable again and we dared so relax again.

We passed several very small rapids, while our guide pushed the boat away from any dangerous rocks. Several very fierce rapids were good enough to get us out of the boat, afraid that we would end up in the strong currents, if the boat turned upside down.

All of a sudden, after a bend in the river, we saw our destination: Long Betaoh. The village only counted ahundred villagers. The village head told that only several years ago, a big part of the population neft for the Malay region of Sarawak.

Sarawak had more to offer than Apokayan: enough food, good environment, low prices and good paid jobs, especially in the woodchop. The exodus also benefitted the people who stayed. The long walks to the fields were a thing of the past; there was enough land close to the village.

The number of wild animals also increased since the number of hunters had decreased dramatically. If there was need for a jeep or petroleum, a trip to Sarawak was made. Or people did just without it.

The news of our arrival must have spread really fast, because while the village head was telling all this, his house got flooded by curious village people. All people there listened carefully to the village leader, who told that they were all very proud to receive is, especially because we were the fist foreign visitors to speak Indonesian.

Bowls with rice and pork were brought in and I have the instant noodles to the village head, always a welcome gift in a remote area. When we left the villagers kept on waving until we dissappeared behind the first trees of the tropical forest again.

Muscles and beads

Soon the shipper turned of the motor, afraid that the blades would hit the rocks. He moved towards the front of the boat and took a paddle. His muscles worked under Irenes supervision. At this moment, by recently learned things about expensife beads came to use. While Irene followed the shippers movements carefully, I told her she could buy them as personal slave. No village head would be passed by that. But then she had to come several years earlier.

It was a very pleasent time when we could do without the noise of the outside motor. The boat now slided through the water gently and the river seemed to enclose us. Branches reached over the river to the other side and formed a tunnel in all kinds of colours green. Now we were able to hear the call of a single bird, a moment later there were thousands of birds making noise.

Still not done watching the river villages from the canoo we rented another one next day. Past Long Ampung, which we reached after a couple of hours, the waterlevel was very low. Near Long Uro the boat was not able to continue. Carriers took our luggage to the next village, Lidung Payau. On our way we stopped at a bizarre burial site: the graves were no only decorated with the traditional woodcarvings in the shape of birds and fish, but also with modern things ars planes and a chainsaw.

In Lidung Payau we went to the village head right away, as is common for visitors. He told that most of the 322 inhabitants still lived in five longhouses. Only the village teacher and two families had built their own house upto now.

On the way from Lidung Payau toLong Sungai Barang we visited mysterious stone statues. Next we smelled a heavy scent of fire when we walked on the path over the hills. It came from a ladang which was in the process of being made. The overwhelming noise of a chainsaw made it clear that it was possible that such a big part of soil was cleared, and why the images of this also decorate graves in the woodcarvings.

Just before Long Sungai Barang, we reached a lake. It was man-made with a dam. From there, a beam of water was aimed at a wooden wheel. The wheel, moved by the water, was connected to several roped with a moving machine, which was used to clean rice. They told it was a very usefull machine, designed by a westener, which had lived in the village for a year.

We settled on the local veranda of a longhouse, where the village head, a dignified, old man came to meet us. We visited the warm and lively catholic church. All walls were painted with colorfull Kenyah-motives. On the way we met a man with a big basket of deer meat. He carried his weapon, a sharp javelin, in his hand. Irene still had bad memories from the diner of the last night, an eel full with fish-bones, and insisted on buying a few kilograms of the meat.

We stopped at one of the longhouses to photograph a big, hand-made hat. It was decorated with beads. The very refined mozaic of small beads was finished with strings of old beads and coins from the colonial time. Claws and teeth from bears and leopards almost covered the entire middle part of the back.

Long Sungai Barang

Just before Long Sungai Barang we reached a lake. It was man-made with the use of a dam. From there, water runned to a wooden wheel, which was attached to a moving machine by several ropes. The machine was used to peal the rice. They told it was designed by a foreigner which stayed in the village for a year.

We settled on a veranda of a longhouse, where the village head, a dignite, old man, came to welcome us. He told several people what to do and several minutes later, an entire meal was finished.

Long Sungai Barang used to be a big village, but only a few scattered buildings remind of that time. We visited a warm and lively church. All walls were decorated with colourfull Kenyah-motives. On the way we met a man with a big basket of deer meat. He carried his weapon in his hand. Irene still had to think about last night's meal, an eel full with fish-bones, and insisted to buy several kilograms of deer meat.

We stopped near one of the longhouses to photograph a wide, hand-made hat. A woman showed us a basket for babies. The very refined mosaics of very small beads was finished by precious beads and coins from the colonial time. Claws and teeth from bears and leopards covered the back almost entirely.

Barking Deer

On the way back I slowly walked ahead of Irene and the carriers. Slowly I climbed against the hill. On top I faced a deer. I don't know which of us got more frightened. The animal paniced, made a hard noise and ran towards the forest. The sound betrayed him: it could only be the muntjak, the barking deer.

When we had installed ourselves in the longhouse for the nicht, several women visited us, carrying arms full of traditional clothing and decorations. They wanted to dress-up Irene as an aristocratic soman following Kenyah tradition. A big honour, because power has decreased, but still, the power can be felt through respect.

Irene was very tired, but let it happen anyway. I was watching sleepy while she was changed unto a Chinese-Kenyah dancer. Eventually the people left her to enjoy her nights rest as an aristocratic woman.

The next morning there was a canoo with four people waiting for us in Long Uro. The quiet trip passed like a dream. The canoo didn't have a motor, so we didn't have to get out in shallower parts of the river. We had plenty of time left when we arrived at the airstrip.

We left in a cloud of dust and flew over now unknown terrain. From out comfortable seats we could see the jungle paths, and they looked very easy. We wanted to see more, more stone statues and spend more time in the longhouses. Unfortunately we didn't have that much time. You will never have enough time in the vast island of Kalimantan.

Last revised on April 05, 2012
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