Up the Jungle by Val Vassay
It was 1988 and I was on holiday in Singapore with my husband and our two sons, Jamie aged eight and Luke aged five, when we saw an advert in a local newspaper for a trip to Sarawak, on Borneo island. In my youth, I’d been a secretary with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and one of my bosses had been a District Commissioner in Sarawak for 30 years. Apart from my boss, I’d never met anyone who’d been there, so we decided to go and see Sarawak for ourselves. A few mornings later we boarded the plane for Kuching, Sarawak’s capital.
After checking in at the Holiday Inn – one of the few modern hotels in Kuching at that time – we went site-seeing around the city. There wasn’t an awful lot to see in those days: the palace of the “White Rajahs”, an English family, the Brookes, who ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1941; the museum; and a shop that supplied raincoats, rubber “overboots” and umbrellas – which we were told would be vital for our trip up the jungle the next day. I had my doubts about the necessity of such things, after all it was hot, the sun was shining, the sky was blue – would we really need all this wet weather stuff?
Early next morning we set off on the eight-hour coach trip up-country. We were a cosmopolitan bunch: Germans; Viennese honeymooners; a young Dutch girl; an American couple who looked about the same age as us, and their three-year old son; and several middle-aged Americans who were “doing South-East Asia”. The coach stopped several times en route: to let us see the beautiful, flesh-eating Venus fly-trap plants in their natural habitat; at a pepper farm, where peppercorns were spread out for what seemed like miles, drying in the sun until ready to be packed for export all over the world. The smell was amazing.
We stopped somewhere for lunch, too, but I can’t remember anything about that as by then we were all so excited about going upriver by longboat, through the jungle, to the headhunters’ village where we’d be spending the night. We’d told our boys that the people we’d be staying with used to chop the heads off their enemies. They couldn’t wait to see these weird and wonderful people, although I think they were slightly worried that we might get our heads chopped off!
Thanks to the longboats’ outboard motors, it only took about two hours to get to a clearing in the trees where we got out of the boats and made our way up to the guest longhouse – basically a long, wooden hut with about fifteen beds, each with a mosquito net, down each side. Washing facilities consisted of one toilet and a washbasin outside the longhouse, and the river. I must admit splashing about in the clear, cold water was glorious after our long, humid journey, but we were warned not to venture too far as the current was very strong and we’d get swept away if we did. Not exactly what you want to hear when you have two young children in tow!
But all went well, and we were soon back at the guest longhouse, getting changed for dinner. While we were doing this, the heavens opened and the rain came crashing down. Having been born and brought-up in Scotland I thought I knew all about rain – I was wrong. This rain hammered down, in sheets, crashing into the jungle all around. The noise was deafening. As we began walking further up the hill to the bigger, older longhouse where the villagers, members of the Iban tribe, lived, we were extremely glad we’d bought all the raingear recommended by the shop in Kuching!
We were introduced to the village elders and invited to sit down on cushions on the floor around the buffet that had been laid out down the middle of the longhouse. The ladies of the village, in traditional dress, helped us to the food – mostly fish and all sorts of exotic fruit and vegetables, some of which we’d never seen before, all of which was delicious. The villagers, both women and men, seemed such gentle, placid people it was difficult to imagine them having been headhunters in the not-too-distant past, but the shrivelled heads still dangling from the support poles of the longhouse proved they had been.
After dinner, everything was cleared away and we were treated to an evening of music and dancing by the villagers. After a while, we all joined in. Our two boys and the little American boy loved it. Judging by the smiles on the faces of the villagers, they also enjoyed watching the children giving it their all!
None of us got much sleep that night, what with the rain lashing down relentlessly and trees crashing down all around us. Just to add to the racket, dogs were racing up and down inside and outside the guest longhouse, barking as if possessed. Finally, as I was climbing into my bed, a huge cockroach climbed in with me. I jumped out again, screaming. My husband and I lifted the mattress and looked underneath, took the sheet off and shook it, looked under the pillow, but we didn’t find the cockroach. I didn’t sleep at all for imagining the cockroach crawling all over me.
Next morning, after breakfast and an impromptu demonstration of how to use a blowpipe, we went back the way we’d come the day before – down the river and, by coach, back to the Holiday Inn, where we all leapt into the swimming pool – exhausted but happy after our weekend up the jungle.