Saturday, January 02, 2016

Rafting a Borneo River

Shooting the Boh: A Woman's Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo was published in 1992 and is written by Tracy Johnston. Her storytelling is excellent. I can relate to a lot of what she writes about the forest and a desire for adventure.

Here are my favorite passages from the book.


(re: the jungle and getting lost)

The river that ran right in front of the village was not the Boh, it turned out, but a tributary. We went down it in a dugout canoe, watching in vain for birds and monkeys and wildlife. It was my first inking that a rain forest - the ecosystem with the most wildlife per square inch of any place on earth - could seem like a monotonous blanket of green vegetation.... The jungle was ten feet away, and I decided to check it out.

I made my way overland without much problem, sliding through the bushes, grabbing hold of vines, climbing over fallen trees. The big trees had been cut down here, but there were plenty of creepers and woody vines, called lianas. My first surprise was how much of what I touched was rotten. The vines cracked off the trees, logs crumbled in my hands, and the earth was more like compost than dirt, hot and oxidizing. The tree canopy wasn't closed up over my head, so I knew I wasn't walking in primary rain forest, but the world around me was nevertheless a maze of leafy tangles.

After I had gone inland about fifty yards, I realized that everything looked the same and I should probably turn back. I remembered the line from Tom Harrison, the British paratrooper who had parachuted into the jungle during World War II: "Take two steps off the trail, get disoriented, and no one will ever see you again." I wasn't worried since I had headed in only one direction, away from the river; nevertheless, I turned around and started back, threading my way through the forest litter. But when I came to the river, there were no people and no boat, only the sound of the water lapping at the riverbank. I could see up and down the river or about twenty yards, and there was no sandbar.

I called out but no one answered, so I started making my way upriver, moving as fast as I could. When another turn revealed more monotonous, jungle-covered riverbank, I realized I had no idea if I was above or below the boat. My instincts were obviously wrong; I could be heading further and further in the wrong direction. Suddenly the jungle was hot and it seemed as if the creepers and the leaves were stealing my air. My T-shirt got caught in a prickly creeper and I had to use two hands and my teeth to get it unstuck. I was lost.


"It's amazing in there," I said when I rejoined the group, sweating, breathless. But no one asked me what I had seen. It didn't matter; I was thrilled. Part of the urge to explore is a desire to become lost.

pp. 44-45


(re: the fun of adventuring)

Part of the fun of adventuring is going places and doing things people tell you not to. I even liked the idea that we didn't really know what we were getting into on the Boh. Partly out of confusion and partly out of laziness, I've always thrived in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Whenever I take the random chances that come my way, life suddenly gets interesting. Besides, it's hard to lead a deliberate life, I've discovered, harder to create a challenge than accept one. And I hadn't completely given up the sense of security that seems to come as a birthright to Westerners: we'd paid our money; we had out return tickets; surely no reputable company would send us anywhere truly dangerous.

p. 79


(re: remote places)

One of my travel fantasies has always been to go someplace so remote that I'd be transported to another reality, the one that flourished on earth before the evolution of human technocrats. The only person I know to have done that is Eric Hansen, who spent seven months in Borneo traveling in the rain forest as the natives do - setting up temporary shelters, hunting and gathering food, adapting to the rhythms of the jungle as well as the villages and longhouses.

When Hansen finally reached a logging camp near the east coast, he was ushered into the bathroom of a missionary pilot and confronted by "a brand-new bar of Dove soap, a white porcelain washbasin, and a blue terrycloth handtowel with matching washcloth." His response was an almost uncontrollable urge to leap out of the window.

"The ultimate trip," I wrote in my journal that night - our third on the Boh - "would be to get that far out; far enough out there to be scared by a bar of soap."

p. 115


(re: loyalty to your spouse)

[After the author, whose husband is not part of this trip, decides not to run one of the more dangerous rapids]

"That was a fantastic run," said Howard. "Really great."

"You missed the best rapid," Mimo said, shaking his head. But to my amazement I wasn't completely sorry I'd cast my lost with the wimps. It felt good to send a message to my husband, to keep a promise I didn't have to keep.

p. 213


(re: when adventures are finished)

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Linda said, "but I feel almost afraid to leave the river - afraid that...I don't know; that everything after this is going to be a letdown."

I knew what she meant. The moments of greatest intensity in life - whether they come from facing danger or falling love or being carried away with some kind of work - seem almost surreal when they are happening; they take place in slow motion and seem to crowd out ordinary reality. But then, when they're over, they seemed to have happened to someone else. Even on the Mahakam, when I thought back on the last ten days, I had only a dim sensual memory of what they'd felt like. Mostly I had a bunch of stories, a trace memory of dreamlike images, a feeling in my bones. What had seemed like another lifetime was about to become just another ten days in the discourse of ordinary life.

pp. 240-41