The Iban of Borneo (Sarawak)

A Life in the Longhouse

One of the journeys in my life which marked me considerably was to be a guest in an Iban longhouse in midst of the tropical rainforest of Borneo.

The following travelogue dates back to april-june 1988, based on a research trip to survey the impact of resettlement schemes due to hydropower projects on the local population in Sarawak. Meanwhile, the project did not take place as planned; I took advantage to get in touch with the Iban people, the largest ethnic group of Borneo to learn more about their lifelihood and culture in the tropical rainforest.

Bau Goldmining articial lake
Bau Goldmining articial lake

Borneo and Sarawak, some interesting facts

Covering an area of about 748.168 km2 (288,869 sq mi), Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. The island is divided into four political regions: the Indonesian part is named Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak are part of Malaysia and fourth part belongs to the sultanate of Brunei an independent state.

The climate in Borneo, due to its equatorial geographical situation can be described as tropically hot and very humid. The temperatures remain constant over the day and the year and stay between 27° and 32° C. Borneo has two monsoon seasons: the “dry” monsoon (May - October) and the “wet” monsoon (November - April), but with 250 rainy days (in Sarawak) there is rainfall at any time of the year which can exceed 4.000 mm annually. The humidity is above 80%

The state of Sarawak

The city of Kuching is the capital of the state of Sarawak. At the time of my trip in 1988, Kuching was the starting point of every trip into the interior of Borneo and as far as I know it has remained so until today.

The journey to the longhouse

Already the journey to the longhouse, to which I was invited was adventure.

From Kuching the capital of Sarawak, I took a speedboat to Sibu, a city shaped by Chinese dwellers, and then another postboat up the Rajang River towards Kapit, the capital of the Kapit District. From there, with the postboat to a small boat landing pier to change to the typical longboat with an outboard motor. My host drove me upriver a small tributary.

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Staying in an Iban  longhouse (Rumah)

My personal view about the trip

The trip to Borneo and staying in a longhouse with the Iban marked me considerably.

While I can easily transcript my written notes in detail, the slides had to be scanned and restored commpletely.  

Taking photos in the tropical rainforest with an analog Minolta X300 camera with a f3,5 35-70 mm lens in the conditions of the tropical rainforest with the high temperatures and humidity, rain and water in the boat and difficult lighting situations in the forest or longhouse was a great challenge. In many situations I left the camera aside. which is not always a bad thing, also for reasons of dicretion. 

Self Portrait in Baku National Park
Swimming in a source in sourrounded by monkeys and birds in Baku National Park, self-portrait
Sitting in the front right together with my hosts on the occasion of a festival where a lot of rice wine flowed
Sitting in the front right together with my hosts on the occasion of a festival where a lot of rice wine flowed