Nature photography, political rants, and Martyman laughs from the ten-time award-winning author of "Cool Creatures, Hot Planet," "Endangered Edens," and the "Time Is Irreverent" series.

Defying death in Borneo

Marty’s photo of the day #3525: One of the chapters in my newly published sixth book, Hits, Heathens, and Hippos: Stories from an Agent, Activist, and Adventurer, follows Deb and me on a death-defying backpacking trip in Borneo with the Iban, a tribe once famous for headhunting. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter. Johnathan was the only Iban who spoke English:

Jonathan let me rest for a while before announcing we had to make a decision. If we wanted to reach the longhouse before dark, we needed to leave immediately. Otherwise, we could spend the night where we were and hike out in the morning.

“What’s the rest of the hike like?” I asked.

“All downhill,” he replied. “The worst is behind us.”

From a medical standpoint, I should have elected to stay at the shelter, but I was too stubborn to hold us up. “Let’s go for it,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Deb asked. “Don’t feel pressured. Staying here tonight isn’t a problem.”

“I’ll be okay. Besides, the rash on my thighs is getting worse. I’m gonna have a hard time walking tomorrow.”

Twenty minutes later, we were in the midst of our most dangerous portage yet. I was forty feet above a roaring waterfall, clinging to a muddy gorge wall, while trying to find just one solid root to hold on to. When I discovered every exposed root within my reach was rotten, I barked at Jonathan, “Damn it! You said the ‘worst was behind us’!”

“I forgot to mention this spot.”

“Is this the last portage?”

“Easy past here,” he said as he jammed his walking stick into the mud to make a handhold.

“Don’t look down.”

I looked down.

God, I hated heights!

I shimmied past the waterfall and cautiously descended to the river. I waited until Deb caught up and whispered to her, “This feels more like a rescue operation than a guided backpacking trip.”

“You’re right,” she whispered back. “And to think we paid good money to do this.”

“Honey, you can’t buy moments like this.”

The sky rumbled! Soon we could hear rain hitting the trees, getting louder by the second. We had been concentrating so hard on not falling that we had failed to notice the clouds. Moments later, we were drenched in sheets of rain. As the drops pummeled the river, they hissed like a radio tuned to static and turned all the way up.

“Great,” I yelled to Deb. “Just when I thought we’d get out of here alive, Mother Nature throws a thunder-and-lightning storm at us!”

My pessimism was premature. I hadn’t considered the effect the wonderfully cool rain would have on my body. My temperature began to drop, and I started to regain my energy. After several minutes, I felt better than I had since the beginning of the trip. The rain had saved me.

Of course, it only saved me so I could put up a good fight before it drowned me. Before long, the river resembled a giant centipede—each leg a newly formed tributary pouring into its body.

“We need to move quickly!” Jonathan yelled. “River get very deep.”

Though I hadn’t thought it possible, our hike had taken on more urgency.

Now that I was feeling better, it was Deb’s turn to suffer. She was so exhausted she was shaking. Because Jonathan’s new, rapid pace made it difficult for her to keep up, I yo-yoed between the two—reminding Jonathan to slow down and making sure Deb was okay.

“Do you want to rest?” I asked her. “I can tell him to stop.”

“No, no, let’s get this over with!” she shouted. “I just need to get myself pissed off, and I’ll be okay.”

The rising water frequently forced us out of the river to avoid rapids, pools, and other hazards, and the perilous gorge walls repeatedly forced us back in. Deb slipped and fell several times on the slick rocks near the water’s edge but each time returned to her feet and marched on.

I had just scrambled over some boulders when out of the corner of my eye I saw her go down again. This time she tripped on a submerged rock and fell face-first into the river. I raced back to her, but she was already pushing herself up, cursing in pain. Although for the most part her Teva sandals worked well for river hiking, they provided little protection for the tops of her feet.

“Are you okay?” I yelled.

“I caught my toe on a rock, and it hurts like hell! I think it’s broken.”

“This is stupid! I’m gonna tell Jonathan we need to stop. If we keep up this pace, someone’s going to get seriously hurt—or worse.”

“No, let’s just go! If we stop now, my foot will balloon up. The cool water will help keep the swelling down.”

I knew arguing would be fruitless. She was as stubborn as I was. We were either going to reach the longhouse by nightfall or die trying.

***You can read the rest of the story in Hits, Heathens, and Hippos, available here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08VHP6N2F

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