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Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’ Hanlon
I bought this book to read prior to our trip to Borneo to see Orang-utans. I was struggling to find any books written about Borneo and found none that were novels set in Borneo so the pickings were pretty slim. I think I found two and this is the first I have read.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Redmond O'Hanlon was expelled from Marlborough In his last term after the exams for returning to school on a motorbike with some of beer. Apparently he rode the bike in a lap of honour around the lawn at the school as a farewell gesture.
He studied English at Oxford although biology and natural history was his first love. This book came about after O’Hanlon was invited by his friend, poet James Fenton to come on a jungle-walking holiday in Borneo. At this time, 1981 O'Hanlon was the natural history editor on the Times Literary Supplement and was suffering from depression after finishing his doctoral thesis on Conrad and Darwin. Fenton wanted someone with him who would be able to identify all the flora and fauna of the jungle. For fifteen years he was the Natural History editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He is married with two children (Puffin and Galen) and lives near Oxford and has for many years.
He was obviously so taken with this journey that he went on others to equally challenging destinations and has written four bestselling travel books, Into the Heart of Borneo, In Trouble Again, Congo Journey and Trawler
SO MANY TRAVEL BOOKS- TRYING TO BETTER EACH OTHER Now we see so many travel books each trying to out do the other by doing increasingly outlandish things, riding a bike across India, motorcycling around South America, taking a fridge around Ireland. They do the journey in order to write the book as opposed to exploring the country or area then writing the book as an afterthought.
THIS ONE IS DIFFERENT O’Hanlon did a lot of reading and research before going and I am surprised he still went when he tells the horror stories of what he was led to expect. Both men went to get some advice from experts
at the training area of 22 SAS near Hereford to get some tips on surviving in the jungle as neither of them had been into a jungle before. They were given Bergens or back packs, a hammock and a few tips on survival and that was their preparation for the journey.
Tips included: “You’ll find the high spot in your day is cleaning your teeth. The only bit of you that you can keep clean. Don’t shave in the jungle, because the slightest nick turns septic at once. And don’t take more than one change of clothes……keep one set of dry kit in a sealed bag in your pack. Get into it each night after you’ve eaten. Powder yourself all over, too, with zinc talc – don’t feel sissy about it – you’ll halve the rashes and the rot and the skin fungus.”
This is a journey which had no BBC sponsorship, no rescue boats or helicopters following with the camera crew with posh camping equipment flown on ahead. This was the two men with Iban guides that they found themselves and a local dugout canoe with an outboard motor heading into places unexplored for many years if not forever. If something went wrong they were reliant upon their guides to get them back the same way they came by canoe on the river.
I think I might have chickened out by this time before even reaching the jungle as this sort of advice continued. However they did go and they followed the advice to the letter including getting back into the wet kit again every morning and covering themselves in powder and insect repellent.
They stayed with Sea Dayaks in their longhouse complete with skulls hanging from the rattan rafters of the roof. The Sea Dayaks as well as all the other tribes fought with the British against the Japanese in WWII. I just loved the way the Iban guide described the war;
” Well one party of Japanese came to Borneo to take our padi. And one party stayed at home. And the Japanese were so cruel to the Iban that the English couldn’t bear it. So they came to help us. But there weren’t enough English to kill the Japanese in both places, so they asked the Americans to help. So the Americans bombed the longhouses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the English helped us to take all the heads of all the Japanese in Borneo and that was the end of the Second World War.”
They ate fish and rice daily for weeks and the fish was full of bones and tasteless. However some days they had other delicacies such as monitor lizard. Redmond realized that the yellow and black skinned monitor lizard tail was not going to disappear from his mess tin unless he ate it.
“ The flesh was yellow and softish and smelt bad, very like the stray chunks of solid matter in the effluvia one sees in England on an unwashed pavement outside a public house on a Saturday night.”
Even reading that I was heaving in sympathy. Another meal that were considered a treat was what Redmond thought was spaghetti but turned out to be worms from inside the fish they had caught over the past weeks that had been saved as a special delicacy. As they were only with the guides and not being entertained by a tribal group as guests the spaghetti went into the bush!
Some days when they walked for hours through the jungle they began to lose the will to continue. The SAS advice was to think of something nice and never think of how much further you had to go. Put your brain in neutral and just keep going. Redmond tried thinking of sex but struggled to focus while walking in the jungle so he hit upon chanting to himself;
“Oh, f..k it, It’s an Ukit. We’re going to kick the bucket.”
The Ukit being a tribe of headhunters in the area they were marching through. I felt the pain as he described the journey through the trees, the heat, the bugs and the challenge of getting through the undergrowth.
Some parts were quite funny as the author had a way of describing things with accuracy but also with a very wry sense of humour. They struggled pulling the canoe with supplies in rivers that were low, guiding the canoe through rapids and sleeping in the hammocks strung between two trees wrapped in mosquito nets, the food and then the way they were entertained by local tribes people and the things they had to do whilst staying in the longhouses to repay the hospitality. Besides this Redmond also educates the reader on the history, geography and the wildlife of the area with descriptions of the people, the houses, the traditions, the animals and so much more. I found it fascinating but also made me very aware that I was pleased that this was NOT the journey O would be experiencing in Borneo.
He writes well and has a sharp sense of humour. He is not afraid of making himself the butt of the joke and his descriptions are just so perfect.
In the middle of the book there are about a dozen black and white photos, one with the skulls in the longhouse and others with their guides. It does look pretty basic and I salute them for surviving the journey and taking part in the celebrations and meals with the local tribes as many, including me, would have given up when they arrived in the first basic hotel. This same hotel seemed like a palace when they returned to stay there at the end of their journey.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID
“ A marvelous book… a very funny, and expert witness” – The Tatler
“Consistently exciting, often funny, and erudite without ever being overwhelming.” - Punch
“Perseptive, hilarious and at the same time a serious natural-history journey into one of the last remaining unspoilt paradises.” – New Statesman
Even if you are not planning on visiting Borneo this is a very good old fashioned travel journey. They did this with no back up, no film crew following behind with ‘real’ food and clean clothes. They were like the 19th century explorers and indeed the area they were exploring had not changed much in that time either so it was a real ‘Boy’s Own’ type adventure.
I learned a lot from reading this book and found it educational, entertaining and at times very funny. I am just so very relieved that people can now visit places without going through those torments and discomforts. I certainly wouldn’t be visiting anywhere where I had to sleep in a hammock in one set of clothes and then change back into my wet ones again in the morning. Not my idea of a holiday and I admire those who can cope with those challenges.
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