Eric Hansen: Stranger in the Forest

Eric Hansen
Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo
(1988, Vintage Books, 286 pages)

Stranger in the Forest is Eric Hansen’s stirring account of his trek back and forth across Borneo, the first such trip by a Westerner without technological assistance, spanning ten months and about 2,400 miles.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, measures roughly 800 by 600 miles. Rich in biodiversity, with large natural resources of oil, wood, and minerals ranging from gold to uranium – much of which is found in the heart of the eighty percent of the island made up of tropical rain forest – Borneo is home to four nations: the sultanate of Brunei, the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the largest, Indonesian Kalimantan. The island’s rainforest is the world’s oldest, at 130 million years old some 70 million older than that of the Amazon.

Having traveled through much of southeast Asia, Hansen was attracted to the relative inaccessibility of Sarawak and Kalimantan to Western influence: “tourists, missionaries, the Peace Corps, Marine Corps, and U.S. AID.” He formulated a plan to cross the island along the range of mountains that runs from northeast to southwest, “following old trade routes, collecting jungle products and medicinal plants of value, and exchanging these and Western goods for what I needed.” For the bartering through which he would obtain a lot of his supplies, he had to inform himself on the rates of exchange for items like rice, ammunition, and the much-valued aromatic gaharu wood (all measured by the standard unit of the mok, the size of an empty tin of condensed milk).

Much of Hansen’s preparation was through books, although he eventually found that scholarship, not to mention maps, had not kept up with the times. Part of his route was derived from the writings of Tom Harrisson, who first saw Borneo as a British paratrooper during World War II and later lived there, serving as the curator of the Sarawak Museum. Harrisson warned of the dangers of the kind of adventure Hansen was embarking on: “Take two steps off the trail, get disoriented, and that’s the last anyone sees of you.”

Hansen hoped to rely for guidance on the Penan, traditional nomadic hunter-gatherers and the acknowledged experts on the rainforest. Initially setting out from the town of Long Seridan with two Penan guides, Hansen didn’t see the sun for the next four weeks. Walking was slow, difficult, and disorienting, “an obstacle course of steep razorback ridges, muddy ravines, fallen trees, slippery buttressed tree roots, impenetrable thickets of undergrowth, and a confusion of wildly twisting rivers running in every direction.” But the Penan proved to be infallible guides. They spent some of their time exchanging stories; one of Hansen’s was an updated version of Cinderella, who, “washing clothes in the river, cutting up tapioca for the pigs, and chopping firewood in the jungle,” attracted the attention of the headman’s son at a party, but had to return home before midnight, “otherwise her exquisitely carved and painted longboat would turn back into a banana.”

Hansen became fascinated by the Penan. They navigated not by the sky and sun, which they very seldom saw in the rainforest, but by means of the rivers and streams, of which they had an intimate knowledge. Penan groups migrate based on the availability of sago, one of their main foods. They usually have a base camp where the very young and very old live for months at a time, and another smaller camp which moves frequently and where the sago is processed by the adults. Hansen came to find that violence – murder, mugging, rape – were unheard of among the Penan. In fact, stinginess, not being willing to share what one has, was regarded as one of their most serious crimes.

Gradually Hansen gave himself up to the pace of the jungle, and found it “a relief to unburden myself from the problems of destination, time, and direction … By relinquishing this element of imaginary control over my surroundings, I suddenly found the immediacy of my experiences greatly intensified.” Through his Penan guides he became acutely aware of the wealth of life around him, and he shares some of that information in his book. It was pleasing, for instance, to find out that a bird has been dubbed the Beethoven Bird – the babbler, genus Malacoptera – because its call is the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

After four months and nearly 1,500 miles of travel, mostly on foot, Hansen had almost completed his crossing of the island. But within miles of the end of his journey and the east coast, he found he didn’t want to return to his old life just yet, and he had his escorts turn the boat around and head back toward the jungle. He plotted a trip back through the country via an even more dangerous route.

Heading back into the central highlands of Borneo, Hansen started receiving a notably cool if not fearful reception from the people he met. Eventually he realized he was being mistaken for a bali saleng, a half-man half-ghost that collects blood for sacrifices. One headman told Hansen that he should fear for his life if he continued to travel alone. After some apprehensive days he arrived in the village of Long Sungai Barang, where he was stunned to encounter a young, blond white woman. Cynthia was working with UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program, studying the interactions between people, their patterns of cultivation, and the tropical forest. Her research had found that the people of the highlands used an efficient form of long-fallow farming, reusing land after its fertility had regenerated, and weren’t doing long-term damage to the rainforest. That damage was being done by big logging companies that were felling large swaths of the rainforest for the Malaysian plywood industry (an ongoing problem even today).

When after more weeks of travel via both foot and boat Hansen finally arrived safely in Long Busang, Sarawak, he unfortunately lost the pair of Nike jogging shoes he had worn, and worn out, during his 2,400 miles of travel – a neighborhood dog had eaten them. But he was also able to take some time out to look at the stars and constellations he hadn’t seen in months. Finally he arrived in Belaga, one of his starting points months before. Hansen talks about the inevitable letdown that comes with the end of such a journey and the re-entry into city life. “How quickly I reverted to my conditioned concepts of comfort and privacy,” Hansen remarks as he sought out a comfortable hotel. A riverboat trip took him to Kuching, Sarawak (the island’s largest city) and the South China Sea, and a flight to Kuala Lumpur was followed by a brief stay in noisy Singapore, where Hansen, with the money he’d made from selling some gabaru wood, tellingly bought an electric toothbrush that played “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”

Hansen’s supposition as to why the trip described in Stranger in the Forest was successful when so many before him had failed is surprising – his vulnerability. He was treated differently by the people of Borneo, the Penan and others, because he didn’t pretend to knowledge that he didn’t have: “On my own I was in the minority, always off balance, always vulnerable … I felt comfortable making a fool of myself, and the people responded to my openness with hospitality and good humor.”

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