Piling into roofed pickup trucks we drove gently upwards for about 40 minutes, stealing glimpses of beautiful rainforested hills in the mist. Roadsides were lined with every shade of green, huge banana leaves bouncing underneath heavy rainfall from stormy skies.
We were headed for a very special village right on the edge of primary rainforest: Setulang.
Setulang village is inhabited by a division of the Dayak tribe, the Oma’lung who, up until about 40 years ago, used to be semi-nomadic people - living deep in the forest and never staying in one place for more than ten years. However, as the outside world began to encroach, trading journeys by the Oma’lung (which could take up to a two month round trip) revealed the benefits of education and healthcare to the tribespeople. A democratic decision was made and, in three waves, the Oma’lung moved down from the forest and built the village on the banks of the Setulang river.
Other tribes did the same and the land around Setulang is dotted with little villages. Encouragingly for me and Ted, all centred around a full size football pitch. However, what makes Setulang unique is what they have done with their forest.
When the tribespeople moved out of the rainforest they were put under great pressure by logging companies to sell their land. Large amounts of money were offered and many villages decided to take this reward and hand over their trees for timber. Setulang had a great meeting and decided, democratically, to see what would happen to the other villages before making a decision.
For a while life in the villages that sold their land was good. They had large amounts of money for infrastructure and so many new houses and schools were built and people had enough money to live comfortably. However, this money would soon run out and the environmental effects of selling their forests began to show. Rivers silted up, animals became less plentiful and, perhaps most importantly, many negative psychological effects began to show. Forest people are intricately linked with the forest for things like food and water as well as deep spiritual beliefs. For example, the Oma’lung feel that if ever a tree is cut down within their forest it is like losing a friend. Losing this way of life by the other villages has meant that, according to the Setulang locals, their overall happiness is lower. Currently, the other villages look in a far worse state than the clean, vibrant and smiling Setulang.
Setulang’s people registered all of this and came to the decision that they would protect 50% of their land and leave it to nature. Despite huge pressure from logging companies and even cases where the Oma’lung had to physically defend their trees from illegal loggers (this ended badly for the loggers), their forest has thrived and the village is setting itself up for a profitable income based on ecotourism.
Despite now being settled in one place, the Oma’lung still get a lot of what they need to live from the forest but now farming is a big part of their lives with many former hunters turning to work the land… but more on that tomorrow.
Part of their land is called Tane'Olen in their wonderfully musical tongue which roughly translates as the Forbidden Forest, a place where no logging of any kind can take place.
The happy site of a full-sized football pitch
As we arrived in Setulang we were greeted by all the townsfolk outside their main building; beautifully decorated in painted carvings, stylised animals and people all intricately worked in. Dropping our bags in a large pile we were welcomed with traditional music and dance-stories. I especially loved the hornbill dance-story which depicted the life of the Rhinoceros Hornbill finding her nest, laying her eggs and raising her young. The dancers were adorned in traditional dress holding circlets of hornbill feathers in their hands. The majority of the music was played on an instrument that looked like a large xylophone known as a Jatung Utang, each end decorated with a carved rhinoceros hornbill head.
As it was a Sunday there was sadly no football to be played and so we all headed down to the river where I found one of the spiders I had especially wanted to see on this trip, a Hygropoda or Flexible-legged spider. These middle-sized but thin spiders have especially long first, second and fourth leg pairs with the first pair being the longest. They sit close to the water surface on branches or rocks, their front legs dangling over the water. The very end segment of the spider’s front legs is especially flexible and full of sensory organs. This allows it to detect any changes in the water’s surface, potentially caused by prey. Such is the sensitivity of their front legs, the spider can work out the size and the distance away of the potential prey before pouncing!
A brief wander around the village yielded much frustration trying to net huge beetles buzzing overhead, an amazing pink moth with great protruding pheromone clusters ('kupukupu malam' is moth in Indonesian which, interestingly, is the same as the word for prostitute) and a Wallace’s Hawk Eagle with a viper species in its talons!
After a very nice tea of rice, a pumpkin like vegetable, beans, bananas and little fish you could crunch up whole; Ted, Alex and I set off on a night walk around the village.
We saw the large, imposing Hermit of Malabar spider, a wasp spider species Agriope versicolor, but most exciting invertebrate wise was the molluscs! We saw first a decidedly flat slug, which was my first slug in Borneo which was very pleasing. Didn’t see any in Sungai Wain and I was getting a little worried that they didn’t occur here but we must be high enough up so that the temperature is cool enough for them. Then we saw a semi-slug! These amazing creatures are stuck half way between a slug and a snail with only a raised bump of hard shell about two thirds of the way along their bodies. They occur in the UK but have thus far eluded me so this was especially exciting. Exploring a house that was in the process of being built we found a very ill Bornean Striped Skink which is an endemic species. Sad to see it on its last legs but an amazing species nonetheless.
Thinking about calling it a night, we wandered along a road above the village scanning the greenery with our headtorches. Two luminous green eyes shone back, far too big to be anything but a mammal! We spent a long time staring at this creature with a longish dark tail, mottled brown body and a pointed dark face before coming to the conclusion* it was an Island Palm Civet. These animals like to live near the edge of human settlements so they can steal their favourite food, chickens!
Deciding that we should probably not push our luck much further (and the fact we were quite tired from travelling) and so headed back to our homestays to sleep until tomorrow.
*This is not entirely true, we just took lots of photos before consulting the book when we got back as none of us are very good at mammals!