Recommended book – Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo

What a little beauty this is!

Nearly 20 years ago, a gangling, footloose American gets boozed with a bunch of Borneo river-dwellers, and finds himself bound in a gentle obsession.

Soon after, he takes off across the island of Borneo on foot armed with a quick schooling in tribal bartering systems and not much else. He has no visa, no valid passport, an unreliable map, and a few sentences of Bahasa Indonesian.

He can survive in the rainforest only as long as he maintains the trust of the people he meets, as guides, tutors, friends. He does far more than survive, and it is clear from the modesty, resilience and humor that comes through in his writing, that he was made for just this journey.

For months on end he immerses himself in a world of exquisite natural richness, among a people who are white-skinned in the permanent shade of the forest canopy, who have no tradition of stories of the moon or stars because they are almost never seen.

For weeks at a time he and his hunter guides are – in a Western sense – utterly “lost”, moving apparently aimlessly through trackless bush. When Hansen asks one of his companions how they will find their way to their destination, the Penan hunter says simply: “We will follow our feelings.” Without ever laboring it, Hansen has written a travel book that is deeply satisfying to the spirit, full of wonder and rich in humor. He also captures the moment at which an ancient, closed culture hears the first troubling thunder of global economics.

When finally he reaches the coast, Hansen is so depressed by “civilisation” that he does the sane thing – slipping back into the jungle to retrace his steps, all the way back to Sarawak.

So truly does he tell his story, I find myself missing him – wondering what he got up to when he finally returned to the US, what travels he might have done since. As I was finishing this book, I saw a travel brochure extolling Kuching, the Sarawak trading town that was Hansen’s first step-off point. The glossy explained how easy it was nowadays to travel inland, with the interior “opened up by good logging roads”.

Eric Hansen, lead the weeping.

A book review By Hugh Riminton (Sydney), courtesy of Amazon.com

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