‘Bejalai’ through Sarawak: Nomadic Lion finishes Borneo walk


The Nomadic Lion team (from left) Yusep Sukmana, the writer (David Atthowe) and Gilang Yaksapurusa are jubilant when they finish their long trek at Kuching.

By DAVID ATTHOWE

This is the final part in the story of Nomadic Lion's walk through Sarawak.

During our journey walking through Sarawak, we received so much help from the Iban community. There were many stretches of road where there were no shops or restaurants, only the occasional longhouse.

Thankfully almost every time we went to a longhouse, we were warmly received and offered water, food and accommodation; the kind of welcoming reception that Iban longhouses are famous for.

Our organisation is called Nomadic Lion and we are a three-man team: there's me, from Norwich, England, Yusep Sukmana from Ciamis, West Java, Indonesia and Gilang Yaksapurusa from Bandung, Indonesia, all 25 years old.

We had already walked from Tawau to Brunei via Semporna, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. And now, we were tackling the Miri–Sibu–Kuching stretch.

We learned a lot about Iban culture especially on their tattoos which have a much deeper significance than physical beauty.

The ancient Iban custom of “bejalai” is a sort of coming of age ritual where men leave the longhouse on long journeys through forests and rivers to prove their abilities to seek knowledge, riches or experience.

Ibans who venture out in this way will often get a “bunga terung” or aubergine flower tattoo on their shoulders. Since we were also on our own version of bejalai, I got two bunga terung tattoos too.

The writer (left) and team mate Gilang Yaksapurusa at a lovely blue lake near Serian, Sarawak.
The writer (left) and team mate Gilang Yaksapurusa at a lovely blue lake near Serian, Sarawak.

Walking from Miri to Sibu was particularly tough as we could only find plantations almost the whole way, not villages and shops.

We were also “lucky” enough to meet cobras four times on this stretch (the snakes hunt rats which feed on oil palm fruits). The first time I didn’t see the cobra until it was just one foot away – that got the heart racing!

Sleeping anywhere

One key aspect of being a nomad walking through an entire country is the ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere. During our 137-day journey we slept in abandoned houses, a graveyard, under trees, on the roadside, in the jungle and many more places. We would seek the most acceptable place we could find and make the best of our circumstances.

[pull_quote_right author=""]Our 'safety and defence measures' are very simple: everywhere we go, we smile; and everybody we meet, we say hello to them. [/pull_quote_right]

People would often ask us the next day, “Where did you sleep last night?” After we’d told them, we would then often hear stories of how we had just slept in a haunted place or hear a long ghost story. The truth is, we have walked all the way through Malaysia and still never seen a ghost.

Another common question along the way was: “Aren’t you scared?” Our response was always, “Scared of what?”. Most people then talk of criminals or somebody coming to give us a problem. For us, walking along the road is no different to taking a car, bus or motorbike into a town. We never know when we might meet a troublemaker.

Our “safety and defence measures” are very simple: everywhere we go, we smile; and everybody we meet, we say hello to them. Entering into a village or unknown area with a smile can make all the difference: positive and friendly first impressions make people much more receptive and help us to walk along peacefully and without any problems.

The biggest danger we did face were road vehicles. Buses and trucks often drove too fast or recklessly. Climbing up the mountains of Sabah, we faced many blind corners and really had to be careful.

We had a few near misses along the way but the most dangerous incident was in Limbang, Sarawak. In the early morning, a car driving very fast didn’t see me walking along the road and was headed straight for me. Luckily I spotted him from a distance, unstrapped my walking trolley (this device does away with the need to carry a backpack) and jumped to the side of the road.

He slammed on the brakes and drove straight into my trolley. If I hadn’t moved in time that would have been me, not my trolley that got hit.

Just before we reached Kuching, we stopped off at Annah Rais, a traditional Bidayuh longhouse. We were warmly welcomed by our hosts Valerie and David with a glass of traditional rice wine (tuak). We had the chance to hear a traditional bamboo instrument (piratkong) and watch a traditional Bidayuh dance.

The writer is as happy as a rainbow as he walks through heavy rain en route to Sri Aman, Sarawak.
The writer is as happy as a rainbow as he walks en route to Sri Aman, Sarawak.

The next day, we headed off into the hills for a beautiful day visiting traditional villages and crossing bamboo suspension bridges. The latter were amazing feats of engineering, but they really tend to sway a lot, so crossing them is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

We celebrated Christmas at an Iban longhouse with friends. It was such a joyous and celebratory atmosphere. Christmas lunch was one with a difference: we ate barbequed snake and durian along with a continuous supply of rice wine (tuak)!

We finished our journey in Kuching on Jan 4. Around 300 people, including some radio journalists and many friends we’d made during the trip came out to join us for the final 2km walk into Kuching city centre. It was an amazing feeling wrapping up our epic trek surrounded by friends!

Barbequed owl

Music has always been a big part of all our lives and our project. We were all very excited about the idea of coming to Borneo; an island with rich musical traditions. From Sabah to Sarawak, we were blessed to meet and record with a number of traditional and contemporary musicians.

Along the journey, we all fell in love with the melodious sound of the sape, the most famous traditional lute instrument of Borneo. Traditionally used as a healing tool and for ceremonies and festivals, the sape has a unique and distinct sound. Over the five month walk, we met a number of sape musicians from Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak.

After our walks through both Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, we have learned many lessons. We have discovered a good pace for walking (5km to 6km an hour and 30km a day) and how to manage our health.

We tried to eat a lot of fresh vegetables every day, little meat and lots of rice. We never carried much food with us (except for some snacks) and didn’t have a camping stove so we had to be flexible with our food and eat whatever we were blessed to receive from people. The two strangest foods we ate during our journey were: barbequed owl and barbequed snake, both of which were quite delicious.

in Borneo, we have also learned many things about each area we have walked through. We learned a lot about the indigenous people; their culture, their traditions, their lives today and the challenges they face.

Throughout our journey, we received help from all races and religions and this was one of the biggest lessons we took home: One-ness: The idea that we are all one regardless of race, religion, nationality etc. It was an amazing thing to see and to experience during our walk of Borneo.

MORE: Nomadic Lion meets the nomadic Penan


Nomadic Lion is planning its biggest project yet for 2016: Walking Asia. They want to do a five year walk through 19 countries, and make it the “biggest participatory walk” ever in Asia. They also plan to raise funds for one local charity each year.

They are currently searching for sponsors as well as help with social media, translation, networking etc. For more information on their project, see the Facebook page under Nomadic Lion. Check out their new documentary Bejalai: Walking Borneo and their videos of various traditional instruments at their webpage

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