Hantu hutan. Forest spirits.
Our lead guide is a boulder of a man called Ken, a self-proclaimed “Malaysian Pop-Eye”, complete with tattoos (scorpions, not anchors), an unhealthy penchant for tobacco (roll-ups, not pipes), and a laugh that can light up the forest. He can turn an empty clearing into an uncomfortably hot fire, with spit, in two minutes flat; slice a tree into kindling in one; and make the best cowboy coffee in the East. And when this jungle god tells you to respect the forest spirits, you listen.
Each camp has its own history. Four days in and half the camp are covering their ears as Ken recounts each tale. When total darkness descends, and the forest is screaming, creaking, cackling, you can hear the faceless figure of Bung Kawas Camp pacing outside your hammock. And you find yourself asking the forest’s permission for every midnight pee.
We have descended from the trees, we’ve cleared the trees, we see the sky, we think there are no ghosts, not really.
We return to the trees, with our smartphones and firelighters, and smile at the local superstitions. We let the experienced locals clear the path with their parangs. They smile at us slipping and tripping with bold ineptitude. They let us bundle up a hammock and tarpaulin, hack at wet wood and pick at cold beans in the rain. Let the experienced ones teach us how to truss the hammocks, whittle the logs into kindling, and glean the gifts of the forest.
For the guides aren’t all out to scare us with their jungle tales. On the third night, I ask one of the young guides, Kilon, for some proper coffee; a change from the instant coffee. And by day seven I am sitting with all the guides; swapping stories, cultural quirks, and words in Malay and English. Another day, Kunor presses a cicada into my hand on the trek; a loud shrieking insect.
One night, as I sit with Kilon and Host Country Volunteer, Rex, in the middle of the river by flaming torchlight, Ken passes by, crab-catching, and hands me a frog he’s caught.And before dinner, we all sat around the table and play cards. The guides’ victory laugh was infectious.
If nothing else, I believe it is this experience which has taught me the true spirit of the forest.
Words by Jono McDermott.
Edited by Communications Officer Rebecca Raab.
Photograph by volunteer Zhana Leeson from Expedition 13K.