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There is always a way

Where I leave the village of Wa’Yangun, get myself unstuck, and finally find a way to leave the highlands of the “Heart of Borneo” and continue easwards toward the coast. (End of January 2016)

Barking deer.

I spent four days in Wa’Yangun. They felt like four weeks. The blues was getting at me. I waited and talked and waited, and in the meantime I ate too much and slept too much. By the third day I could not stand the waiting and the empty talking anymore, and I found refuge in my books. At first I dove into Stevenson’s “Kidnapped”, and reading about someone else’s misadventures distracted me from my own. Then I began re-reading Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, and I saw Marlowe’s absurd situation reflected in mine. That did not help my morale at all, although it did make me feel surrounded by literary ambience.
I left the village almost secretively, like a runaway, barely saying good-bye. Luckily, being on the move swiftly improved my morale. Hornbills fluttered among the trees over my head as I walked by, and gibbons swung by to check me out as I walked at the base of their aerial territories. Beams of sunlight fell through the forest canopy, making the dust particles in the air shine in the green shade. In the numbness of the previous few days I forgot how lush and wild the hills around me were. They provided a stark contrast with the heavily cultivated (and populated) plains around Long Bawan, less than a day away. Such contrasts were common sights during all my trip: areas heavily affected by humans would suddenly leave the ground to virtually pristine forest enclaves. It would not cease to surprise me as well as give me hope. There were still places, in Borneo, too far and impervious to be reached by the destructive greed of men with chainsaws.
Back in Long Bawan I sat down to study my maps, and decided that there had to be another way eastwards. I would try to reach Semamu, a village big enough to deserve a slightly larger font on the map; from there I would follow an affluent of the Sesayap river into the Sesayap river itself and all the way to the coast. Suddenly, after the hiatus in Wa’Yangun, things started moving fast again. The same people who once told me that “tidak boleh” now seemed to remember that another way was indeed possible. The Indonesian government once built a dirt road, now abandoned for the most part. Cars could still go to the village of Binuang in a few hours, and from there it was a three-day walk (or perhaps two, or five, depending on the source) to Semamu. Binuang, Semamu: once again I was familiarising myself with new toponyms, wondering if I would get to see them with my own eyes or if they would remain, to me, only abstract concepts on a badly drawn map.

Binuang’s church

On the 30th of January I found a passage on a pickup truck that was venturing towards Binuang. As usual they invited me to stay for lunch, then for the night, but my restlessness made me leave the village on the very same day, without waiting for guides. The area in the immediate surroundings of Binuang was badly logged, similarly to what I saw around all other villages in Kalimantan. My consolation was that logging there seemed to be chiefly for locals by locals – as there was not a real road to connect these villages to the rest of Indonesia, commerce only happened with the Malaysian side and was limited to what pick-up trucks can carry. Soon the broken road became the only trace of human passage. The tracks of motorbikes and buffaloes became fainter and fainter, the rubbish left by travellers (an empty bag of chips, a can, a cigarette butt) less and less common. When navigating the thick forest along the traditional Penan ways, hard to see and marked only by earmarks on trees, one would see the trees more than the forest. Walking on this road gave me a different perspective. The eye could see farther away, and actually see the forest for the trees. Green hills of continuous dark green spanned to the horizon and made me feel small, making my stomach clasp.

Like a green sea

Towards the end of the day I started to walk past various remains of old bivouac spots: traces of fires, empty tins, plastic bags, cigarette packets. In one clearing, perhaps an old logging camp, somebody had left a wobbly wooden deck to sleep on. I was about to spend the night on the planks when I decided to use the hammock instead: sleeping in the open made me feel exposed, even if I was the only human within tens of kilometres. I found two good trees a few meters off the road, I checked that there were not any dead branches that could fall on me (a teaching from my Penan guides), I cleared the ground with my parang and set camp. After a silent dinner (rice and dried fish cooked on my stove, a staple of jungle treks in Borneo) I slid inside my hammock and listened to the sounds of the forest. A multitude of insect sounds and bird calls filled my ears and echoed in my head. A gentle wind came through the cut in the forest where the road was, something I never experienced in my previous stints in the deep forest – trees are too dense in the virgin forest for the wind to find a way. The breeze, unusual but pleasant, lulled me to bed.
Morning came and I woke up, alone. The forest hanged over me from all sides, giving me a sense of unease. I cooked my breakfast and packed my camp in silence, then started to walk. The weather turned cloudy, the breeze turned cold, dragging shreds of mist around. The road became steep and eroded, to the point that I started to fear of being lost. No-one could drive a motorbike or drag a water buffalo up here, I was telling to myself. The road seemed to improve before worsening again, eaten away by the rains. I remembered seeing a bifurcation earlier in the day. At the moment I ignored it, but now what I thought of being the main road did not seem a road at all anymore. Was I on the wrong path? I dug my GPS out of my backpack for the first time in weeks, hoping for some help, but the tropical humidity had had the best of it and it refused to work. Fair enough, I walked back to explore the damn bifurcation. It went down the side of a hill for about one kilometre before ending over a cliff. Beyond it, only forest. I could not see the purpose of this road besides making me waste a couple of hours. I turned back and retraced my original steps. In the meantime the sunshine had breached through the morning mist, the atmosphere lightened, and the road that had looked too broken to be the right one was now looking less dreadful. Around me, wildlife thrived: flocks of 4-6 hornbills, macaques, gibbons passed over my head; four babi hutan (wild boars) walked on the road eating the abundant dipterocarp seeds, hardly caring about me; a barking deer let me photograph it before jumping away, lifting its tail and showing me its white butt. Soon afterwards I heard it barking in a distance.

[Captivated yet? To be continued.]

The only map I could find on the Internet that shows Semamu and reports the name of Sungai Sesayap, the river that passes by Malinau and Tarakan. [Source]