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Leeches, exhaustion and hunger

'While I removed the third leech from my groin, the unavoidable question raised: was it worth it? Earlier on the day I had disturbed a dozen leeches during their lunch when I took of my boots. Some were already finished, others were still eating, and some late ones were looking for a nice spot.
We moved on, falling over tree roots, slippery stones, and bathing to fast-streaming rivers, which were about a meter deep. When we were in the next river, we heard a strande sound, like an old steam engine was gearing up. Two beautifull rhinoceros-birds flew over us, their big snails covered in red spots. They sat down on the lowest branches of a majestic tree, which thirty-meter-high stem pierced the sky. The question, which was still floating around in my head, weas finally answerred: Yes, it was worth it.'

Novice mistakes

A journey on foot through Kalimantan is not an adventure which is too heavy, but it certainly is not an easy thing, especially not for pedestrians without any jungle experience. The route which we did in one week will take a Dayak about two or three days. A young Dayak, which followed our path in front of us, broke a leg and had to be taken back on a stretcher. His journey took over three weeks.
And then there was my namesake, Major George Müller from the Dutch colonial army. In 1825 he crossed the mountains which are now named after him. He was the first European which endeavoured the journey, but he could not finish it. Once on the other side of the mountains he fell victim to an intrigue, made by the Sultan of Kutai. Müller was ambushed by the Dayak, which were not as friendly as they were nowadays, and he lost his life as well as his head.
The journey which I planned should take us to the River Kapuas, via the Müller Range and the River Mahakam . The expedition consisted of six Dayak guides/carriers and four white men. I told the others that I made the journey because of my profession, but I hoped to find certain things from the past of my life.
Because I don't like organising, I decided to make it easy. Tents were not needed, because the Dayak would built a pondok every night, a simple shelter. For what provisions concerned, only rice was important. We walked besides rivers, so we could catch fish easily, I thought>
My decision to bring hardly any food was a big mistake. Every single night we ate the same boring meaol, to talk about lots of food afterwards and where we dreamed about at night. Phil longed for a nice steak, Irma-Maria fresh seafood and a beer and Jean-Claude croissants, butter, cheeze and wine. I wanted all of that, but twice as much.
Another mistake was the piece of plastic I bought to protect our daily pondok with. When I showed it to the guides with pride, they lauged it out, way to thin and small. Luckily, one of them did have a big, strong orange cover. Pondok with leaf-roofs or a too small plastic have the strong intention to leak; we slept good during every thunderstorm and every night we thanked to the big orange sheet of plastic.

Paved path

We flew inland to Data Dawai, about 350 kilometers, past the rapids in the Mahakam River. From there we went to the last river village, where we rented carriers and guides. Everyone of them had already made the trip before several times, and patiently they explained we could put away the strange paper with the blue lines. They knew the way. The guides told that the route ran along a side river of the Mahakan, then crossed the mountauns and ended near the Bungan River, which flows in the Kapuas. It all sounded in the middle of nowhere, but the guides ensured that they travelled a common path. And indeed: the first day already we met a dozen Dayak, which were planning to settle on the other side of the Müller Range. One of them, a young man, carried his grandmother, which was too weak to make the journey on foot, in a basked on his back. Unless the heady weight, he was humourous. His reward for a trip of two weeks was ahundred dollars. Later we thought of his basket and strong back with melancholy.

Daily routine

Usually we walked for five hours a day, excluding resting. We stopped early to create enough time for the Dayak to prepare for the night. As soon as the location was picked, whey split into groups, just as fresh as they were in the early morning. While the pondok was created, two went out fishing, the fire was lit and two kilograms of rice was boiled. In the meanwhile we checked out boots for leeches. However we didn't carry any luggage, we were exhausted. When the coffee was ready, we had killed the leeches and had washed us in the river. Next we got our meal: a plate of rice with some vermicelli and a few chunks of fish, healthy but kind of boring after a few days.
Slowly the rainforest manifested as a patchwork green blanket. The red of a rare flower was seen from far away already. Any other colors are from mushrooms, which grow on decaying tree stems en masse.

Spirits of the river

After two days we crosses a low mountain range, part of the Müller Range, and we reached the most western water division of Borneo. We had a break in the middle of a bunch of clothes which hang on trees to dry up. Since the location was deserted, I could not imagine that any of the laundry actually still belonged to someone. That wasn't the case indeed. The guide told that this was one of the most important locations for sacrifice for the spirits of the Mahakam and Kapuas River, which meet eachother here. Travellers-by do good to sacrifice, to be sure that there will be no supernatural problems on their way. What suprised me is that the Dayak were talking in a funny was about this location and superstition, but when we left, there were some shirts more in the trees.
We followed the river which flowed down over steep and slippery rocks, and mouths in the Bungan River at the bottom of the mountain. The Müller Range seemed more steep over here than on the other side and the river was full of rapids and falls. Big rocks caused vortexes.

A little ahead we entered an area full of strange rock formations. The walls were steep and bald, even the very handy local rock flora could not grow there. The formations were in strong contrast with the usually gentle and green hills. One of them was a dark, eroded granite stone. The guides told that there were burial sites on the other side of the rock formations. It is not hard to imagine that there are spirits in the close neighborhood.
How impressive the vegetation, rivers and mountains were, the abcense of wild animals was a dissappointment. Besides two rhinoceros birds I sometimes saw a shadow of a wild pig, gibbon or unidenfied animal, which got away quickly. A thin snake and several lizards completed the poor harvest. Fortunately a meeting with a king cobra was not for us. The uncountable numbers of leeches and ants were causing enough troubles already.

Flirting with disaster

The journey through the green heart of Borneo seemed to be a never-ending balancing exercise. At the start I balanced over the mountain paths and through the rainforest, but with the days, my walk got smoother and self-conciousness increased. The straight paths uphill, where you only need to grab a root or tree when it gets too steep, I did those easily after some practice.Walking downhill was more of a problem and there, my stick helped me out.
Walking in the jungle you have to be aware of lianas and roots, which are hidden under a layer of leaves. Tired people often don't lift up their feet enough, and that will end up bad for sure. Another danger are the thin plants which attach to cloths and skin. At first they are not remarked, but after a few pases the thorns pierce the skin. The guides had a good name for it: tunggu sebentar - 'hold on'. About three quarters of the journey runs across shallow water along the rivers and shallow creeks. Dozens of times we crosses rivers, where the water reached as high ad the chest, especially at the end of the journey. There where rivers are too shallow and muddy, slippery tree trunks were used as bridge. Sometimes it's more safe to just go through the mudd as well. Crossing of fast-flowing rivers, with their slippery floors, always was flirting with disaster: a misstep could push you into the first rapids.


The first five days I enjoyed the rainforest as much as I could, after that it didn't bother me at all. At that moment I thought about the moment I discovered reports from the pioneers, which I had read before I left. If something is made clear in there, it's the boredom that struck the people while making the trip through the seemingly endless rainforest.
The morning of the sixth day. the guides told that we would reach the first village on this side of the mountains today. Inspired we left early. Around three o'clock, it became clear that something went wrong. We walked for another few hours; in the hope to find the right trail, but the falling night forced us to stop. We were lost.
The apologies of the guides were not received with thank, also because the camp was fuill of leeches and it started raining before a reasonable pondok was built. On top of that, the rice was almost finished by now. All of a sudden we became aware of the fact that our feet were very bad, because of walking on wet boots.
The following morning the weather and our temper cleared. Two of the guides had left the camp before dawn, and had found the right trail. Only a very steep mountain threathened the party. But once we were on the other side we could see the gardens; the viollage could not be too far away. Never before the houses were more welcome than Dayak houses, which appeared after a turn in the Bungan River.

Fullfillment of civilization

We stayed with family of one of the guides. The flat floor on which we sat and slept, the firm roof above us, it were no more meaningless things; this was luxury!
A family member brought in a big cettle, from which a brown mass is poured into a variety of cups and glasses. What could that be? When I took my first nip, I could not believe what I was drinking: it was undoubtly the best choclat mild I ever had. The benefits of a settled, quiet life were never as clear as this.
The hardest part of the trip was behind is, but still I had to fullfill a personal duty. I wanted ti visit the place where my namesake lost his head: the third rapids in the Bungan, above the Kapuas River. We rented a big kanoo with motor for the ten-hour trip.

The fatal rapid

Once we were on the location, we proceeded on foot, while the shipper guided the ship through the rapids. It was too dangerous to stay aboard, one wrong movement would topple the boat. The steep rock formations were the most slippery upto now. Under us, the water razed on, the waves splashed high against the rocks. This was indeed a very good place for an ambush. I was thinking what could be the last thoughts of Major Müller. Did he have children? Was he thinking about all the geographical knowlegde with was lots with him? Reports of his death are little detailed, they only reported the location of the gruseome killing and the weapon which eventually beheaded Müller: a Dayak-mandau or short fighting sword.
Once we were back in the canoo again I was thinking about how unimportant my journey was. I was thinking about the pioneers from the 19th century and about how they spend weeks, months in the inland of Borneo without any idea what would be next.

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