The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest Country in mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal where there have been troubled times, this beautiful Country is home to exotic birds and African crocodiles which are fascinating to see.

I went to The Gambia by mistake, well almost, I was hoping to get to The Dominican Republic but instead did a last minute detour to Gambia taking my best friend Hazel with me, we had never travelled together before, having been friends for years I knew it would be alright wherever we went, so when Hazel asked me that age old travel question: “Is it safe?” without any hesitation whatsoever I replied “Of Course”.

So we headed off to The Gambia and landed in a field to the welcome of the locals singing and dancing, it was an impressive greeting and we both felt honoured to walk through the procession as we collected our bags and then took a local yellow taxi to the hotel.

A Gambian welcome

A Gambian welcome

On arrival we threw our bags into each of our rooms then mutually decided to head straight to the beach to have a walk out, to get to the beach we were surprised to see barbed wire all the way along between the hotel and the beach itself, it looked inviting though so we climbed over and through the barbed wire and started to walk down the long stretch of sand.

Within about 2 minutes of walking a gang of very tall ‘hoodies’ appeared and began harassing us, there were five of them and they surrounded us and began asking for money, I said that clearly we had no money on us as we were wearing only bikini tops and shorts, however the situation suddenly turned rather sinister when the leader stated that he knew where we were staying and the room numbers, I argued that he could not possibly know that, but then he named the hotel and also, rather disturbingly as he had boasted, our room numbers.

This was very worrying, the only way they could know which rooms we were staying in was if the hotel people had given him that information, we did a sharp turn and started to walk back to the barbed wire into the hotel grounds, they followed us bating us but we walked on staunchly.

On the way we also saw a policeman, he had a gun on him and was clearly supposed to be ‘guarding’ the beach, however as we walked by him we witnessed a man offering him money, which was obviously a bribe, the policeman took the cash and then disappeared, this was not very reassuring and sadly from day one of our arrival we decided that the beach was not a safe place to be.

The barbed wire beach

The barbed wire beach

It was a real shame.

We did venture out onto the beach one more time, I really wanted my hair to be braided and so decided to brave it once more to the beach where the local women who had advertised in the hotel were said to be at 10am each day, sure enough they were there so we headed to them and I asked for them to braid my hair.

Hazel did not want hers done, so I sat down while the local women began to plat my hair into tiny strands,it was neither relaxing or comfortable though, instead it was painful as they had to plat the braids very tightly right to the scalp and as they platted we were once again joined by the gang of men who had harassed us on the beach the day before.

This time one of them came and sat beside me, he spoke in perfect English about how rich we were in comparison to the local people there and that we should gladly give our money to them, I attempted to have a conversation about how it was all relative, but it fell on death ears and he began to get angry with me, he took out a cigarette lighter from his pocket, held it to my hair and threatened to light it if I did not buy a necklace off the local women.

Needless to say I bought the necklace.

So far, I have painted a bleak picture of the Gambia, this is not the case, I can recall looking around me and seeing the most beautifully coloured exotic birds, I am not a birder, nor can I pretend to be, however I can fully appreciate the sheer number of species in the Gambia, according to local guide Dawda Barry basede at Kotu Creek Bridge there are around 500 species of birds and if you put the time in, can see up to 300 new species in a week, this seems incredible yet so exciting.

Following the experience of the beach gang and then the threatened hair burning, my friend and I had spent much of our time in the confines of the hotel gardens, not very adventurous, however these gardens were an absolute paradise full of beautiful birds, reptiles and amphibians, the plants were green and lush, the flowers exotic bright reds and pinks, just stunning, it was no hardship to stay there.

That very day another incident happened when a couple, who were on Honeymoon, came back to the hotel to say that they had been mugged, they were very shaken and would not leave the grounds after that.

However, I was determined not to be a prisoner of fear, so booked a ‘safe’ trip out to Janjanbureh Camp near Georgetown in the central river region of the Niamina East District, its Colonial name was Sir Charles MacCarthy and we set out very early in the morning 04:30am when it was still dark when we arrived at the river to sail down it and watch the wildlife. It was wonderful, we were in a small rowing boat with a man called ‘Moonlight’ he was a gentle soul with a lilting Caribbean accent and his knowledge on the wildlife, and indeed spotting it, was second to none.

As it got light the sky changed from inky black to indigo, to brown, to red to orange, it was quite remarkable to see and a dawn that I will never forget, the trip out was so relaxing and felt wonderful to sit in the rowing boat where all you hear are the sounds of the birds and Moonlight as he rowed as the water gently lapped over the oars.

It had been a day of bliss, however on the way back it was not quite so blissful as we taxied through a village where people were throwing fire bombs across the road, I was pretty anxious about this given that the car was full of potentially explosive petrol, however the driver seemed to think it was the ‘norm’ and continued on, saying calmly, duck here, duck here, which we duly did, all was well and we got back in one piece and celebrated back at the hotel where there was a buffet evening of the finest delicacies accompanied by Rum.

Oddly at night some strange things did happen which were slightly disconcerting, the phone in my room would ring and on answering it you could hear someone breathing but there was no answer to my questioning ‘hellos’ my friend Hazel had the same thing happen and we both found it a little sinister as though someone was calling to see if the rooms were occupied, potential robbers perhaps or just someone having a game with the tourists, either way I found it unsettling.

The next day we ventured out again, this time taking a taxi to Kachikally Crocodile Pool, in Gambia Crocodiles are seen as sacred as the people of Gambia believe that they hold the power to fertility in women, in this pit area there are 78 adult Nile Crocodiles which live in the larger water pool and bask in the hot sun on the bank, you can climb down to stroke one of the older, tamer ones if you dare, I was desperate to climb down and have a go, so down I went.

It is just a crumbly, muddy embankment which I climbed down and then walked towards a large crocodile who was sunbathing, he was very majestic and I started to stroke him, his scales were hard and spiky feeling, it felt such a privilege to be this close to one, I was the only person down there, but I was quite happy.

That is, until a large crocodile suddenly came out of the water and took an active interest in me, in fact it headed straight towards me, there was an Australian guy up on the bank who started shouting at me to move and come back up, but I was transfixed by this thing and seemed unable to move, luckily this man came down and literally grabbed me and led me back up out of the pit, I was very glad he had done that, as I honestly do not think I would have moved, crocodiles have always provided me with a strange, almost hypnotic, fascination.

I still have two legs.

The next day we stayed around the hotel and went to the Observatory to see the planets, well Hazel went, unfortunately I was suffering from a sickness bug and had been projectile vomiting for most of the evening, I eventually recovered but missed the stars and planets which was most disappointing. However the evening was not lost as we met a group of guys from NASA, they were interesting to talk to and had many stories to tell us and the evening was passed around a camp fire with rum and good stories.

We only saw them that evening for the next morning we were due to fly home, we packed and took a taxi back to the airfield where there were two wooden tables and guards checking luggage, we were called to a table each and told to empty out all the contents of our back packs.

The man who was checking mine was very grim faced, he spoke perfect English and made it very obvious that he thought we had drugs on us, we did not.

He went through everything, even squeezing out my toothpaste from its tube, I started to protest and say that we would miss the plane but he did not care, he seemed intent on ‘finding something one me’ it seemed, or certainly felt that way.

Then something really great happened, the guys from NASA showed up, they had come to see us off, I thought that was a great gesture since we had only shared some stories around the fire the night before, yet they had made the effort to come and see us off, when I walked over to Tom to thank him, he expressed that they knew we would face these problems upon leaving as we did not have men with us,so that had come to make sure we were ok.

I was extremely grateful to them for that and relieved also as the man who was strategically and pedantically checking through my things suddenly stopped and stuffed everything back into my back pack gesturing for me to go, upon seeing the guys he had totally changed tack and we were free to leave and board the waiting plane.

I would like to say that I enjoyed the Gambia, but I did not enjoy the feeling of threat that seemed to be with us all the way through the trip, if it had not been for the guys from NASA I believe that we would have missed our flight out and that those men were going to detain us just to be awkward, it is one of those things but nonetheless it stays in the memory.

However, Moonlight was a wonderful, gentle local man who I will remember fondly, the beauty of the area and the abundance of wildlife was very impressive, perhaps I will go back one day, I hope that the tourist areas become safer and that relations between the beach gangs and tourists softens and I believe that over time, they will.

Up and coming trips:

Up and coming trips:

2016 – BURMA: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MY FATHER – I am currently researching the Royal Berkshire Regiment as my father was stationed with them as a soldier back in the 1940’s, he told me many interesting stories which I would like to incorporate into the write up as well as tracking where they went and trekking those areas.

ALSO a possible follow up trip to MADAGASCAR with the team who I met out there formerly, this time instead of the North we will explore the South!

2017 – INDONESIA: THE LIFE OF KOMODO DRAGONS – I have been sketching out ideas for a possible trip to Indonesia to film and observe the behaviour of the Prehistoric looking Komodo Dragons, in 2017 there will also be an Eclipse, I initially thought that this would be a good time to go, however it may attract a large number of tourist, which would defeat the object for me as I prefer quiet times with wildlife and off the beaten track, so will be looking into this further.

EXPLORERS GUIDES (Part 1 How to Travel Safely in Rainforests)

Explorers Guide

Part 1 How to Travel Safely in Rain forests

When embarking on any adventure it is essential to have an awareness of the area you are travelling to and a backup plan in place in case things go wrong, which, more often than not, they can do.

Firstly, where are you going? What type of trip are you taking? What is the weather like there, the terrain, the wildlife to be aware of….. and the list goes on, however it is essential to have some of this knowledge before you embark on such a venture.

Lets look at Rain forests in this piece, the planet is a fascinating place to explore and Rain forests for me personally are the ultimate in looking for insects to photograph, which is one of my passions, however it is very wise to know where you are setting foot, so here are some notes that I hope will help.

Top Tips for visiting Rain forests
This advice is more for hiking through dense forest based on experience; however, I hope it will be valuable as a general guide also.

Monsoon Season – The word monsoon comes from the Arabic language “mausim”, meaning season, always research and find out when the rainy seasons are before you make any firm plans, here is a quick guide to some here:

South American Rain forests – The Amazon has two seasons consisting of the monsoon and the dry, the rainy season runs from December to June and it can rain for short bursts during April and May. The dry season runs from July through to November, there is less rain, although of course showers are still possible, which is why we refer to it as a rain forest.

Central American Rain forests – The Rainy season in Costa Rica runs from May through to November/December while the Dry season runs from December through to April. The hotter sunshiny months are from March to May and the cooler months of the year are from November through to January.

South East Asia – The Rain forests of Southeast Asian have four different seasons consisting of the winter northeast monsoon, the summer southwest monsoon and two inter monsoon seasons. The Northeast monsoon season runs from November to March with steady winds from the North and Northeast that blow from 10 to 30 knots. These winds originate all the way from Siberia creating severe weather such as Typhoons which are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of Hurricanes. The East coasts of the Southeast Asian islands get very heavy rainstorms during this time and the Southwest monsoon season is from late May to September where the winds do not blow as hard and the weather is a little drier. The seasons are continuously hot and humid with very little seasonal variation in temperature, it is really only the wind and the rains which are changeable.

Australias – There are four seasons in Australia with a main wet and dry season in the tropical north, the summer season runs from December to February, Autumn runs from March to May, Australia’s wintertime runs from June to August and Spring in Australia is from September to November.
In tropical Australia, the dry season is from May to October with clear blue skies daily and the wet season runs from December to March, which is hot and humid with daily rainstorms.

Vaccinations – Make sure that you see your GP and get updated on what inoculations you may need for the area you are going to be staying in, do not underestimate the wildlife and getting bitten either, I thought I would never get bitten until a Monkey jumped on me when I was in Cambodia and bit me 4 times, it happens, be prepared for any eventuality, better to be safe than sorry.

Dress  – Cover up as much as possible, long sleeves, long trousers, wellingtons or good walking boots with long socks (over the trousers, sunhat, good quality sunglasses)

Hat – This is common sense but wearing a hat is essential to prevent sunstroke

Good walking boots or Wellingtons – Highly important as trails can get very slippery

The Colour Blue – Avoid the colour blue as much as possible as mosquitoes are attracted to blue

Vitamin B12 – there is some suggestion that taking this supplement can act as a repellent to mosquitoes, though I have not found this to be make any difference in the forest/swamp areas

Malarone tablets – Please be sure to take Malarone as this is a Malaria area and if you go into the forests near water you will bet bitten regardless of long sleeves and deet

Deet – If you take Deet be very careful around any photographic equipment as it is known to melt plastics, etc. it will also damage clothes, other things can be used such as citronella, marmite, though covering up clothes wise is also a good idea, beware though as mosquitoes bite through clothing

Pain Killers – It is a good idea to take pain killers as headaches are common in some of the higher altitude areas (If you fly to Ecuador it is likely you may encounter some headaches so keep drinking plenty of water to keep hydrated – avoid alcohol in the daytime if hiking as it will dehydrate you)

Imodium melts – Essential for any stomach upsets, these are extremely fast working

Rehydration Sachets – I recommend adding a sachet daily to your water if you go trekking through the forests as you will lose a great deal of water through perspiration, drink as much water as you can.

Mosquito nets – These should be provided at any Jungle lodges, however it is a good idea to check with them and always take one if not, especially if you will be camping in the forests, your life will be hell without a net to protect you from Mosquitoes, nets are also a handy deterrent in forming a barrier to prevent other unwanted imposters creeping in with you, such as scorpions and spiders, getting too close to you.

Anti-sickness tablets – Take the best you can find, sickness bugs can occur often in this area, dry biscuits help and keep hydrated with plenty of bottled water

Antihistamine cream for insect bites – When we get bitten, more often than not we get an allergic reaction which makes our skin itch like mad, this is due to our antibodies rushing in to protect us against insect saliva that has been injected into us. Histamine triggers an immune response to attack the insect saliva also encouraging white blood cells which can cause swelling and itchiness, Antihistamine cream for bites is essential in calming it down.

It is also a good idea to apply ice to the area and make sure it is kept clean and free of infection, try not to scratch the bites, hard though this is, calamine lotion will help to keep itching at bay also.

Anti-Bacterial hand gel – This is mighty useful when you are out and about, you will use it much more than you ever imagined that you would, small and easy to store in your backpack.

Binoculars – It is essential to take Binoculars if you want to see anything close up, for example monkeys and birds are often quite a distance away up in the canopy – keep an eye out for Sloths hanging from the treetops high in the canopy too.

Camera Equipment – If you can take an SLR camera with a good all round lens (18-200mm) for general walkabout ‘on the go’ shots, long zoom lens (highly recommend 300mm or 500mm) for monkeys, sloths, etc. and a good quality macro lens (recommend 105mm) for any insects, frogs, flowers, etc.

Camping – If camping out in hammocks, please ensure you are fully covered in mosquito netting firstly for protection against mosquitoes and secondly to prevent Brazilian wandering spiders crawling in with you, these spiders are lethal capable of shutting down the nervous system in 4 hours only, so please always use netting if sleeping out.

Ants – These are not to be under-estimated, there are large armies of ants that can cover the ground (and your legs) very quickly, you can often hear a ‘hissing sound’ when they are on the move, if there is no other way around run through them quickly and then shake your legs! Always cover up as much as possible with long socks and at least ankle high boots, wellingtons are ideal or if you choose walking boots then try gators as well, though these are hot to wear, protection is good in these areas.

Bullet Ants – These large ants can often be found on branches and also on rope bridges, although it is tempting to grab hold of branches when hiking or the rope bridges when walking across, go careful as a sting from one of these ants is extremely painful and a similar pain level to being shot, hence the name

Stinging Plants – If trekking through forest try not to touch plants, there are stinging plants in the area and also be careful not to grab a branch as a bullet any may bite

 Scorpions – Always cover wellington boots/any footwear with socks at night to prevent a scorpion crawling in (I got very a nasty sting for not doing this one day, they love dark, warm places)

Spiders – Most spiders you come across are totally harmless, there are many huge Orb weaver webs about, but these spiders are fine. Tarantulas tend to live in burrows or you can sometimes find them in upturned pitcher plants where they make little homes, they are fascinating to watch, to tempt one out of its burrow just use a stick and touch the end of the burrow, the spider should soon react and come out.

Hiking – It is a good idea to walk slowly or at a steady pace and wear boots at all times in the forest for protection against ants and also snakes, most snakes if startled will slither away, however the Fer de Lance will attack and has no fear

Snake Bites - Know your snakes, learn as many as you can, buy guides on them or check on the internet for snakes in the particular area you are visiting, you will see them, many are harmless but it is good to know which are which. Should you be unlucky enough to get a snake bite, try to take a photograph of the snake so that it can be identified for the correct antidote, be careful of Fer de Lance snakes as these have no fear of humans and rather than slipping away, will confront you. These snakes have a fatal bite that without an antidote will shut down your immune system and kill a human in just 4 hours.

Swimming – Always check before swimming, I have swam with piranhas and electric eels before however there were large caiman crocodiles in the water too, be very careful around these, I would recommend staying out of the water if you can unless there is no other way to cross it

Monkeys – Go careful when walking near monkeys, some will throw large branches, mangoes and coconuts as you pass through their territory if on foot, warning signs are when they scream and bare their teeth, move away as quietly and quickly as you can if they show this behaviour, I have had some very narrow escapes from coconuts and large branches thrown at me when photographing Monkeys in the canopy, a blow to the skull with a coconut can kill.

Exploration – Try to use a local guide if you are walking through forest, if like me you prefer to go alone, always use the cross stick method (find sticks and leave them in little crosses on the trail – this has got me out of trouble many times, it is easy to get lost in the forests, even stepping two metres in thick forest can make you lose your way off an obscure trail.)

Insects – Metallic Beetles, Butterflies and Dragonflies are extraordinarily beautiful and you do not have to go far to see them, if you stop at one bush you will find an abundance of colourful insects, though many also use their camouflage to survive, as you walk through the forest hundreds of hidden eyes will be watching you

Tree Frogs – These brightly coloured little frogs can be found inside pitcher plants and also on damp bark, old logs on the forest floor and amongst leaf litter, if you use a long stick or branch you can gently disturb the leaf litter you will see them jump out

Canoes – Avoid putting your hands in the water when in a canoe, caiman crocs live in those waters! (I once stood up to take a photograph and a huge adult caiman leaped out of the water at me narrowly missing biting my elbow! This adult caiman had been following the canoe, I never stood up again after that)

ENJOY IT!!!– Despite all my words of warning the rain forest is a stunningly beautiful place, full of fauna and flora the like of which you will see nowhere else, do not be put off from all the warnings, if you can spend some quiet time in the forest you will see much more than you ever expected. Large touristy groups of people trudging through the forest will scare most of the wildlife away; whereas a quiet walk is always far more rewarding. As well as looking for things, ‘listen’ to all the sounds of the forest, birds, amphibians and insects…..at certain times especially dawn and dusk it is like being at a concert of natural sounds. Fireflies and glow worms can be seen at night in the forest and light it up like green fairies, you will also see ‘fluorescent fungi’ which lights up a darkened forest, in fact the fungi in general is all rather stunning so keep an eye out for that too. If you shine a torch over still water at night you should also see it light up with eye shine that looks like car headlights, these will be alligators and crocodiles in the water, if you get a large group of them it is very impressive to see. Good luck and enjoy your trip.

Forest Vines

The Headhunters of Borneo; a look at their traditions, religions and struggle for power

A brief look at the Headhunters of Borneo
By Amanda King


“There is only one sort of rule in jungle warfare, do not be smelt before you are heard, do not be heard before you are seen and below all, do not be seen”

Major Tom Harrison

Skull

Skull

I have read and heard stories about Head Hunters and have always had a rather macabre fascination with them, but it was not until I travelled to Borneo this year that I actually got to speak to someone from an old Head Hunting Tribe and consequently this rekindled my interest.

The man I met was called Mebo from the Dusun Tribe and he explained to me a little about the old traditions and how they used to hunt heads for many reasons but mainly, according to him, in order to win respect, show their strength and be deemed suitable for marriage.

The Tribe kept the last skull and to this day regularly sacrifice a chicken in a special ceremony to summon up the spirit, which they believe lives on inside the skull. By offering up the blood of the chicken, Mebo explained that this will keep the spirit happy and the skull ‘healthy’ in preventing it from going white and cracking, much like a fragile egg would.

The Tribe name ‘Dusun’ was made more popular by the British Colonials who latched on to the term from the Brunei Malaysian people, the word was used to describe farmers who had a piece of land with fruit and orchards. The Dusuns were split into many sub-tribes who lived in groups around many scattered areas, with names including the Tagahas and Bundu-liwan Tribes, both of which played a key role in the head hunting practice.

The Dusun people are sometimes also referred to as Ma’anyan or Dayak, in fact they have so many different names and sub-tribes that it can become quite confusing, for the most part of this piece I shall refer to them as Dayak.

The Tribes are said to follow Animism, which is a belief that spirits exist in certain animals and plants and even in objects such as rocks, in weather for example thunder and lightning and also geographical places, such as a mountain. In other words there is no distinction between the physical and the spiritual world.

It is an interesting outlook and one that I have come across before, while travelling in the Masai Mara in Kenya, there was a huge thunder storm and the Masai Tribe told me that they believed the Gods were angry with them, so they sacrificed some cattle to try and appease the Gods.

The Masai beliefs are very strong, as are the Dusuns, it is surely one of the things that helps to bond these Tribes together, in having a unity of beliefs and ancient traditions.

The Dayak people live up in the hills and upland valleys and trade their produce of rice and wood with the people of the coast for salted fish other goods and they are said to be peaceful people nowadays.

So where did the practice of Head Hunting for the Dayak people originate from?

From an early Dayak Tribe there was a warrior named Bungkar who came from the hills of Pahu and it is said that at the age of 13 he travelled to a place called Sayap to learn the art of sword fighting; he stayed there for three whole years to master the skill.

After he had finished his training he returned to Pahu and suggested the Tribe move to an area called Tambunan where there was plenty of rich land, always in search of better land they agreed and once they had all moved and settled Bungkar built them a fortress as a form of protection and inserted sharp, wooden stakes all around it to fend off any unwanted intruders.

The rich land of this sought after valley also attracted other Tribes and so next the Tagahas (meaning the strong) moved on to the land, but all thoughts of living peacefully side by side were soon to be disrupted as the Tagahas robbed Bungkars home for his valuable Buffalo.

It is said that the men were put into a deep sleep by “pinjodop” a pagan prayer that induces this sleep and the women were hypnotised by the pagan charm known as “pilubok” which allegedly made them willing to hand over the buffaloes and other livestock to the charmer.

Although non-violent, this was a very underhand way of taking the stock off the Dayaks and of course their actions infuriated the Tribe.

Where Bungkar was concerned, they messed with the wrong man.

Bungkar the newly trained sword fighter was incensed at the robbery so he gathered up a group of men and went after them discovering that they were hiding out waiting for nightfall to move the stolen cattle by moonlight. In using the same charms that the Tagahas had used on them the Dayaks managed to get the livestock back and were on their way back home, however the Tagahas then gave chase and Bungkar made good use of his sword fighting skills by killing five men.

This changed their old ways of fighting with the use of sleep charms as it was replaced with the brutal yet instantaneously effective head hunting in this lawless area.

What sealed this act of violence was when a neutral band of people called the Kososoluon tried to call the peace between the tribes by putting a new rule in place to protect women and children from being harmed, therefore all women and children of the Tagahas or Bundu-liwan Tribes were to carry a green branch wherever they went as a sign of neutrality.

However, the Tagahas opted to ignore this rule by waiting for some girls from the Bundu-liwan tribe to walk by on their way home and attacking them, during which a man named Sambatang beheaded Bungkars sister, Soria.

Bungkar was heartbroken by this and went straight out on a hunt to find Sambatang and beheaded him to avenge his sister, he also beheaded a virgin from the Tagahas tribe with a name similar to his sisters, called Toria.

Back with his people, Bungkar was celebrated for his bravery and defending the Tribe, Torias head was boiled and the brains were shared out for the men to eat to keep the spirit of Head Hunting alive, they believed this would bring great luck to their village and all who lived in it.

Allegedly some hours after this event there was a volcanic eruption which affected the sunlight in the area making it appear darker, the tribe believed it to be due to the Gods being angry and so peace came once more, but only for 15 years. The ritual of head hunting was also outlawed by British and Dutch Colonists at the turn of the century as they thought it barbaric, however it was to return in all its glory in WWII.

WWII held all sorts of challenges for all involved but of course depending on location there would be some additional foreign trials to contend with, such as for the airmen who parachuted into the jungles of Borneo where Tribes with poisoned blowpipes hunted.

These soldiers would have to endure unseen enemies including the heat of the dense jungle, fevers and diseases, insect, scorpion and snake bites and now also the Tribes who would be watching them before the soldiers even had any idea that they were there.

During the Japanese occupation of Borneo many horrific atrocities of war took place where the Japanese tortured, raped and killed their captives and even though the Dayaks had a violent past, they were appalled at all that was going on and naturally wanted to protect their own people.

Author Judith Heimann became interested in the story of some soldiers who survived a plane crash and on reading the diaries of these soldiers she wrote the book The Airmen and the Headhunters which also became a documentary, it is a fascinating account of how the head hunters sympathised with US soldiers against the Japanese and also how this event encouraged a Tribe to return to their old ways of Head Hunting.

On November 16th 1944 a B24 Aircraft with 11 US airmen on board crashed into the jungle and this incident had a surprising reaction from a Tribe of Dayaks who protected the airmen from the Japanese, risking their lives in the process but also at the same time returning to their old ways of headhunting.

Radio operator Dan Illerich wrote a diary detailing how the plane got into trouble and how he parachuted out of the craft and landed in the jungle with co-airman Bombardier Phil Corran landing right by him, the two of them were bewildered, not knowing where they were and it took them some time to figure out what to do.

The Jungle, Borneo

The Jungle, Borneo

Meanwhile, two young boys from the Dayak Tribe, Ganang Laban and Kapung Balang, saw thick black smoke in the sky and watched as the plane came down in to the jungle and some of the Tribe set out to try and find the plane, which took several days walking through dense jungle.

Dan and Phil were sitting on the side of a river on a muddy bank resting but had an overwhelming feeling that they were being watched and on looking up suddenly saw the native Tribe across the river with bows and arrows looking on.

One man from the Tribe began to cross the river and the others followed, the two airmen stood up feeling fearful for their lives and not knowing what would happen next, but then one of the Tribesmen spotted their badges and recognised that they were USA airmen and so the bewildered soldiers were suddenly and surprisingly welcomed.

There were two reasons for this.

The first was that back in the 1930s some American missionary’s had come to Borneo and had converted some of the Dayaks to Christianity, the Dayaks got used to them being around and grew fond of them. However, the happy arrangement was not to last when the Japanese came and had the USA missionary’s rounded up and killed, a man called John Wilfinger was their favourite and even though he willingly gave himself up the Japanese beheaded him anyway.

Not only this, the Japanese had been slaughtering women, children and babies which the Dayaks despised them for, the Japanese also stalked the women of the Tribes and this angered them even further.

So for this reason the USA airmen were taken in and welcomed as one of their own, the Dayaks took the two survivors to their longhouse and gave them food and water and then the next day took them to a shelter deep in the jungle where two more of their crew (one of which was blind from the crash) were hiding out in a lean to, flight engineer Jim Nock and Nose Gunner Eddie.

The Dayaks kept them successfully hidden for 6 weeks.

Japanese soldiers who were stationed near the area were relying on a man called William Mahkahona who ran the area for them, although he was forced by the Japanese to tell about the plane, his loyalties also lay with his own people and the US airmen, so he strove to protect them.

William helped to keep them hidden from the Japanese who were now making their way through the jungle in search of any survivors, however the Japanese knew that the were being lied to by William and the other Dyaks and so they confiscated food and killed the livestock as punishment.

An English eccentric and anthropologist who knew Borneo called Major Tom Harrisson was flown into the area with some men to help rescue the US soldiers and once there he re-endorsed head hunting, approving its return in order to kill as many Japanese as possible..He then whipped up an army of willing Dayaks and together they fought to clear the Japanese out of their area and make it safe for the native inhabitants.

The Dayaks did not need much encouragement, they were so angry about the constant harassment and attacks of the women that they hatched a plan to get rid of the Japanese soldiers in their area and used the women as bait to lure the Japanese in, the women stood bathing in the river near their area and beckoned to the soldiers. As the mesmerised and now somewhat distracted Japanese took to the water wading in to reach the women, the Dayaks descended using their blowpipes to poison the Japanese before returning to their old ways once again of beheading them.

According to Dan Illerich, the Dayaks invited their guest US soldiers to a Head Hunters ritual and so they had an evening of listening to brass gongs chiming out repetitive yet melodic tunes and watching the tribal dances as the heads of the dead Japanese were washed, dried and then smoked over a fire. This part of the ritual was essential as the Dayaks believed it would protect their villages and longhouses and bring good luck to their crops.

The Japanese also have the taking of heads in their culture stemming right back to the Samurai when they would take a head and present it as a trophy to their General who would often reward them by riches or status, which of course served only to encourage more of it and in Borneo the Japanese were cutting off the heads of their victims.

Three more of the airmen from the crash were found and they had also been protected by Dayaks, so they were extremely fortunate to have had these men on their side, the empathy from these head hunters showed a softer side, proving that they were not just heartless savages, but instead people who were often pushed to protect themselves.

Major Harrisson had proved to be a key figure in getting the end result and after the Dayaks had fought and killed the Japanese clearing the area, the Major arranged for a runway to be built out of bamboo and laid down to enable a plane to descend and take the USA surviving soldiers home.

In 2001 the be-headings began openly again during the Sampit conflict of violence between the Dayaks who were indigenous and the Madurese who had migrated there, it was a horrifying ethnic cleansing by the Dayaks and many Madurese were beheaded and the heads banded about for all to see.

It seems that this ancient ritual is not so far off in the past nowadays with the Tribes of Borneo and of course with other cultures around the World, such as the Iraqis. Sadly beheading is now something quite familiar to our society as we are seeing it regularly in the News and reading about it in newspapers, stretching out its grim, icy hand it has reached the far corners of the World, yet still it does not fail to shock the general public……and rightly so in my opinion.

Amanda King

Borneo: An Island, a Head Hunting Tribesman, Wildlife and Pirates!

Borneo: An Island, a Head Hunting Tribesman, Wildlife and Pirates!

After a long journey of 20 hours of a bus, coach, two aeroplanes (Malaysia airlines), a taxi and a boat, I finally reached my destination, an island just off the coast of Borneo.

Following the recent news stories of one Malaysian Airlines plane disappearing altogether and another being shot down by the Russians, it amused my dark sense of humour that they gave us a newspaper on the plane with the headlines saying ‘Terrorists threaten Plane’ and on a most turbulent flight having the man who was sat next to me praying the whole time.

MA is a great airline; I will fly with them again.

After the long haul flights it was a relief to climb into a speed boat and enjoy the 30 minute ride across the dark sea where flying fish gleamed silver under the bright moon, the fresh sea air felt refreshing and it was exciting to see the black shape of the island looming in the distance.

I was the only passenger in the boat and reaching the island I was greeted by two Malaysian members of staff who took me up the very steep hill to my dwelling, which was a beautiful treehouse high up amongst the forest.

I could hear the waves gently lapping onto the beach below and the breeze in the trees that surrounded me and with that I drifted off to a peaceful and blissful sleep.
This trip was to explore the area and search for wildlife to photograph and it lived very much up to my expectations, the island was alive with green vegetation, bejewelled with bright hibiscus flowers, butterflies, huge bees and dragonflies flying from plant to plant and tropical birds calling from the canopy.

Only accessible by boat, the island itself on Malohom Bay, Gaya Island (named after the Hibiscus flowers) is the largest of five on the Abdul Rahman Marine area off the coast of Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu with a steep hillside ancient forest and mangroves.

I woke up on my first day there feeling a little odd, in that if I stood still it felt as though the floor was moving; it must be my body catching up with the flights mixed in with general tiredness.
During the early hours I soon learnt that I would get visits from a group of Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys knocking on the roof of the treehouse

Long-tailed macaques sleep in trees with each group sleeping in its own tree all huddling together when they sleep to maintain body temperature. They sleep toward the edge of the branches near the top or crown of the tree and preferentially choose branches that overhang a river in case any predators approach. In order to escape they drop down into the water and swim away from any threat, these monkeys are very strong swimmers, so it is an effective escape.

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Apart from the staff that were warm and friendly there were only another two couples there, so it was exceptionally quiet and the staff from gardeners to caterers soon learnt of my passion for all creatures and would shout “Miss Amanda, come see snake….see dragonfly…….see bird” if they spotted anything.

It was like having lots of extra pairs of eyes, which when combing the area for wildlife was most useful.
I also got back one day to find that Nelly, who looked after the Hibiscus flowers on the island and had gardens of hybrids that she was growing, had left me three books to borrow in English on Amphibians & Reptiles, Birds and Plants of Borneo.

It was a lovely gesture and I used the books a lot to identify things.

There was a huge Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator) hunting fish in the lake, his markings were stunning and I managed to get some close up photos of him, his unblinking eye had a touch of the Jurassic, the adults can grow to a massive 3 meters in length.

Water monitors are superb swimmers by using the raised fin on their tails as rudders to steer through the water. They are carnivores and will eat most things including turtles, fish, snakes, rats, dogs and carrion; if threatened will defend themselves using their tails, claws, and jaws, unlike the Komodo they do not have the bacteria in their teeth that is fatal to humans, however it is still a good idea to give them a wide berth.

Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator)

Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator)

Later I swam in the sea, the water was warm and I could clearly see the striped tropical fish swimming around me, as I floated there it occurred to me that at that moment I felt no pain or discomfort, it was just pure blissful relaxation resting in the arms of the ocean.

There was a swing on the beach, just set there from a large palm tree and nightly I would enjoy flying through the air on that swing as I watched pale crabs scuttle across the sand, it was idyllic in every sense of the word for me.

One day here I saw three Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which are listed as critically endangered, interesting almost prehistoric looking birds.
The male will protect the female from predators when breeding by sealing the female inside a hole in a nesting tree with plaster of mud and fibres, he will gather up loose earth to take to her so that she can seal herself inside the hole, leaving only a narrow slit for her to feed herself and their chicks. The male is then solely in charge of getting food to them and he busies himself fetching fruits, berries, insects, figs, insects, lizards and frogs.
I managed to get very close to these birds and observe them as they searched for food and preened themselves in the branches high above.

Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)

Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)

I went across to another Island, called Gayana, it is not as large and also there was very little there except huts for holiday makers and MERC an eco-centre where researchers are trying to breed giant clams and have a program in place to replant stray corals.
I spent a couple of hours there then headed back to my island on a boat full of eggs.

Mount Kinabalu and the Head Hunters
I planned a day off the island to do a 7 hour round trip journey across Sabah to see the foot of Mount Kinabalu, where I continued my search for bugs and other wildlife.
I did a jungle walk at the base of Mount Kinabalu, some very steep climbs up the forest paths and found some strange looking insects on the way as well as a stunning crested lizard, which was very well camouflaged against some tree bark; it is only when it moved that I spotted it. I also found two praying mantises, a superb moth and watched butterflies colourfully waft across the canopy from a treetops walkway.

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)

Mount Kinabalu itself is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and its summit is 4,095 meters (13,435 ft.) above sea level, it is estimated that it has between 5000 and 6000 species of plants, 326 species of birds, and more than 100 mammalian species identified, including the Orangutan.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu

I met a man called ‘Mebo’ from an old Head Hunting Tribe called ‘Dusun’ he told me about how they used to head hunt to win the heart of a girl and prove their strength as men. It is said if you only had two skulls then you were deemed unworthy to get married, you must collect more and any head would do, it did not have to be from a warrior.

Mebo said that they no longer take people’s heads, however they do worship the skulls, one in particular, the last skull, they ‘keep the spirit alive’ as they believe it still lives in the skull.
To please the spirit the chief orders for a chicken to be sacrificed and then offers up its blood to summon the spirit, Mebo says that this ensures the spirit stays happy and the skull stays healthy, otherwise it would go white and crack.

It was fascinating talking to him and he is still very proud of his tribe and takes the sacrifices very seriously, he clearly believes that the spirit is in that skull.

Storms and Snakes
Most nights there would be a very heavy thunderstorm, being September Borneo is heading into the monsoon season; I soon came to know the rhythms of the weather, as in storms throughout the night and generally a very heavy rainstorm in the morning from 5am until about 8am. Then would follow the sunshine break through the clouds and I would watch as the mists rose from the forest, which was wonderful to photograph.

On one such very rainy morning, rather than catch the boat to the mainland, instead I opted to stay on the island as I did not want my camera equipment getting water damage from the rain.
I am so glad that I did as this was what I know refer to as ‘the day of the snakes’, I love snakes and finding any to photograph is always exciting, well today I got to see four snakes.
After breakfast I did the steep walk up three hills to the wooden steps up to the tree house and as I got there something caught my eye, an emerald green shape coiled up on the third step up, it was a Green Pit Viper.

I was so pleased to see it and took as many photographs as I could before getting a stick and gently moving it back down into the forest, this one was a juvenile snake, very bright green with a smattering of markings.
I later saw three more of these, two adults and a young snake, all green pit vipers so presume they were of the same family.

Green Pit Viper Snake (Trimeresurus)

Green Pit Viper Snake (Trimeresurus)

Then later on as I was wandering around the outer skirts of the forest, Syharin, my favourite person on the island came running to get saying that he had found a Python, I followed him and he led me to the snake, it had the most beautiful markings on and I took my photographs before it slithered away out of sight.

Syharin told me that a couple of months ago one of the boatmen went into the old boat house to get some equipment and almost tripped over a giant Python that was coiled up, the snake was as wide as his leg, he was terrified and came running out. It took several men to move the snake, none of them very keen to get too near as of course the Python can very quickly surround and suffocate its victims and it was this that they feared most.

It was moved to another area off this part of that island as they have a ‘no kill’ policy there which impressed me, they also had to remove two Wild Boars that were charging at people.
Though if they move anything to the other side of the island, the wildlife has to take its chances for it is not protected there and the villagers that live there (some rumoured to be pirates) will kill and eat virtually anything that they see.

I think I can hazard a guess as to where these Boars ended up.
Later Syharin came to find me and asked me to follow him as he headed to the wooden boardwalk with torch in hand, I grabbed my cave torch which had a strong beam and followed him.
When we got there he shone his beam into the darkened water below and I watched in fascination the mysterious creatures below including Squid, a Sting Ray and a Bat fish, it was very special to see them so close up.

A broken boat, Proboscis Monkeys and a thousand Fireflies
I had a restless night; sleep seems to be easily interrupted here for me from the noises of the forest at night and loud thunder storms, even without these sounds though I wake up at 3am on the dot, this is most likely from the time difference.
I was so tired that I opted for a morning looking around the island for more wildlife and found an abundance of butterflies, dragonflies and bees.

Red Dragonfly (Neurothemis fluctuans)

Red Dragonfly (Neurothemis fluctuans)

At 1pm I caught a boat across to Jesselton Point on the mainland and then a taxi (about 3hours) across country to the river Klein.

Although a beautiful river, the Klein has obviously become a tourist trap and was muddied for me by all the other boats going up and down it with extremely noisy people in.
Luckily the driver of the boat I was in was canny and he got ahead and away from the crowds and we sped off down the river to look for wildlife, this boat had just a handful of people in who were quiet and respectful which gave a fighting chance of seeing something.

We struck lucky and saw several groups of Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) , they were very hard to photograph as they are shy creatures and tend to stay high up in the canopy, however I did get a couple of shots of these strange looking creatures with their long noses.
The Malaysians often refer to these as Dutch Monkeys monyet belanda as they associate them with the Old Dutch colonisers who had large stomachs and noses also.
These gentle, shy monkeys eat berries and leaves and go together in small groups then these all congregate at night at a sleeping point in the trees.

Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus)

Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus)

It was such a privilege to watch these monkeys quietly playing and I have to say of all the wildlife I have seen over the years, these are up there as one of the most exciting species to see.
The boat went to start back up along the river but choked and spluttered before the engine stopped altogether, the engine was dead and we were stuck. I did not mind at all as it meant extra time watching the monkeys and eventually a rescue boat came down the river and we transferred in to that and watched as it was rigged up to toe our old boat back.

The rescue boat

The rescue boat

Later as darkness fell, I headed out once more down the river in a working boat to see the fireflies and was astounded to see so many, there must have been at least a thousand of them lighting up one of the trees, which twinkled as though it was covered in Christmas lights.
A beautiful sight and an enchanting night, leaving the river Klein to make the 3 hour taxi journey back to Jesselton Point and then get a boat back to my island, I call it my island as for the short time I was there it felt as though it was as I loved exploring every inch of the place.

Wild Boar and Pirates
I had a day looking for the Wild Boar on the Island, as fore mentioned I know that two had to be ‘removed’ for being too aggressive, but I knew that there were more of them and really wanted to see some.

It was almost 4:30pm in the afternoon when I finally got to see one, it was a female and she was pregnant, what a strange looking animal with that huge snout, I crept closer and approached to get some photographs. She sensed me immediately and started to put her head forward and stamp her right hoof on the ground, I thought she was gearing up to charge at me so I retreated quickly.
I have always loved Wild Boars, I remember seeing some in Africa with their young many years ago and having a fondness for them ever since then, as this one was clearly a little twitchy and needed to continue snuffling in the ground for food without me watching her so I left her alone.

Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)

Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)

As the light started to fade I watched Dragonflies surveying the area for insects, crabs on the beach started popping out of holes in the sand and scuttling about looking for sand-flies, the birds then started to swoop down on the crabs and so the dusk cycle began.

One of the things I really enjoyed was watching ships pass by the island, on this day though a black military looking speed boat sped to the island and a group of men all dressed in black with large guns jumped ashore and began running onto the island.
I was rooted to the spot for a moment, were they terrorists? I had photographed the boat and them, but then decided to quickly move off the exposed beach and further back into the forest area, cowardly though that seems, if a load of men with guns are running your way, I always think flight is best.

During my panic stricken run I bumped into a member of staff (who looked uncannily like the midget waiter in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun) and he explained that these were soldiers and police who were doing a sweep of the island for Pirates.

It is known that there is a hot spot for pirates on the other side of the island, I spoke to one of the other couples about it and they said that they were advised not to take any small boats in that area as there is high risk of kidnap.

So the men with guns were there to protect.

I wandered the island once more on my last night and enjoyed watching the reflection of the moon shine across the glittering ocean, I will miss this island and the staff, and I have made friends here and feel very at home.

When I went back to the treehouse to pack, I was pleasantly surprised to see a present beautifully wrapped on my bed, it had been signed by all of the staff, not just signatures, but personalised messages such as “stay away from wild boar”, etc.

What a wonderful gesture.

The Islanders gave me two sarongs and a mug decorated with the Hibiscus flowers that the island is named after.

I shall treasure them.

My Island

My Island