AN EXPEDITION INTO THE JUNGLE - FIRST IMPRESSIONS - RAPID CHANGE IN THE DENSENESS OF VEGETATION - ANIMAL LIFE - A STUBBORN FIGHT
About the middle of January, I began an expedition into the utan, as the Malays call the great jungles of Borneo, first going up the river half a day and from there striking inland toward the north. If circumstances proved favourable, I intended to travel as far as Bengara, about twelve days' trip for a Dayak with a light burden to carry. In case of unfavourable weather and too much delay in getting fresh provisions, I felt that I should be satisfied in penetrating well into a region not before visited by whites, where I might succeed in coming into contact with the shy nomads, called Punans, known to roam there in limited numbers. To this end I had taken along one of the Sultan's petty officials, a so-called raja, who exercised more or less control over the Punans. This man, evidently half Malay and half Dayak, and as nude as the rest, demanded to be waited upon by the other natives, who even had to put up his hair. He was lazy; he would not be a raja if he were not. If he were on the move one day, he would sleep most of the next.
Among my twenty-two Kayans was an efficient and reliable man called Banglan, the sub-chief of Kaburau, who was alert and intelligent. He had only one hand, the result of a valorous fight with a crocodile, by which his prahu (native boat) had been attacked one day at dawn in a small tributary of the river. The animal actually upset the prahu and killed his two companions, in trying to save whom with no weapon but his bare hands, he lost one in the struggle. In their contact with the crocodiles the Dayaks show a fortitude almost beyond belief. A Dutch doctor once treated a man who had been dragged under water, but had the presence of mind to press a thumb into each eye of the reptile. He was badly mangled, but recovered.
As long as we remained at a low altitude camping out was not an unalloyed pleasure, because the tormenting gnats were exasperating, and at night the humidity was great, making the bed and everything else damp. The atmosphere was heavy and filled with the odor of decaying vegetable matter never before disturbed. In the morning at five o'clock, my hour for rising, there was considerable chill in the air. It was difficult to see a star here and there through the tall trees and dense undergrowth that surrounded us as closely as the walls of a cave.
The stagnant atmosphere and dark environment, which the sun's rays vainly attempted to penetrate, began to have a depressing effect on my spirits. After a couple of nights spent thus, a longing for sunshine came over me and I decided to stay one day, make a clearing, dry our belongings, and put up a shelter in which to leave some of our baggage; all of which could not be carried up the hills.
I told the raja and Banglan that I wanted the sun to shine into the camp, and the men immediately set to work with cheerful alacrity. The Dayaks have no rivals in their ability to make a tree fall in the desired direction. First, by carefully sighting the trunk, they ascertain the most feasible way for the tree to fall, then they chop at the base with native axes, sometimes four men working, two and two in unison. In a remarkably brief time it begins to weaken, the top making slight forward movements which are followed by a final sharp report announcing the end of their labour.
Quickly noting that they were masters in their craft, I permitted them to fell forest giants in close proximity to our tents, some of which landed but half a metre distant. Immense specimens in their fall brought down thickets of creepers and smaller growths which produced big openings, so we succeeded in making quite a sunny camp in the dark jungle.
Since that experience I have made it an invariable rule in my travels to cut a small clearing before putting up my tent in the jungle. Sometimes the felling of one or two trees will ameliorate the situation immeasurably, admitting fresh air and sunlight, and there is little difficulty about it when one is accompanied by such able and willing men as the Dayaks. For their own use when travelling they make simple shelters as night approaches, because they dislike to get wet. The material is always close at hand. Slender straight poles are quickly cut and brought in to make frame-work for a shed, the floor of which is about half a metre above ground. The roof is made of big leaves, and in less than an hour they are comfortably at home in one or more sheds, grouped around fires on the flimsy floor.
It is a curious fact that one can always manage to make a fire in these damp woods; a petroleum burner is not essential. The natives always know where to go to find something dry that will burn; as for the white man's cook, he usually improves upon the situation by soaking the wood in petroleum, which is one of the valuable articles of equipment. Often in the jungle, when slightly preparing the ground for erecting the tent, phosphorescent lights from decayed vegetable matter shone in innumerable spots, as if a powerful lamp were throwing its light through a grating.