The traditional blowpipe is a highly accurate tool.
The traditional blowpipe is a highly accurate tool. Jim Eagles

Keeping your head in Borneo

I APPROACHED my prey with the stealth of a Bornean bay cat, silently aimed the 2m long blowpipe, ignored the strange taste on the mouthpiece and blew.

The tiny dart flew as straight as a bullet, too straight in fact because I had expected it to fade, skimmed the head of my target and thunked into the wall of the Murut longhouse.

"Very good," said Howard, whose family once used this deadly weapon to paralyse prey (and enemies), but whose job right now was to show us round the Mari Mari Cultural Village. In the bad old days he might well have added, "But not good enough," and taken my head as a souvenir. Instead he gave me another dart.

This time I pointed the pipe straight at the head and ... thunk ... that coconut was a few seconds away from paralysis.

The folk at Mari Mari, on the outskirts of the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu, might not fire poison darts at visitors these days but their use is not far back in time.

In fact Herman, the Murut tribesman who drove us out to Mari Mari, knew a worrying amount about poison darts.

"They paralyse the animal almost straight away," he said.

"You have to act very quickly and cut out the flesh around where the dart hit or the poison will spread and spoil the meat."

And what do they use as poison?

"Oh, it's the sap from the bark cloth tree," Herman explained.

"My grandfather told me. I was cutting down this tree and he said, 'Hey, you be careful cutting that, don't get any of the sap in your eyes or on your skin, it's what we use on the blowpipe darts'."

As that illustrates, Kota Kinabalu, which we were visiting, may be a bustling, modern city, with an impressive state mosque in recognition of the Islamic faith of most Malays, an 11-storey pagoda to signal the significant Chinese minority and even a few churches for the mainly Christian members of the Kadazan tribe, but its fierce tribal heritage is just under the surface.

Visit the Sabah State Museum and you can see the distinctive traditional costumes, rituals, ornaments, weapons and longhouses of many of the 200-odd Dyak tribes who live on the island of Borneo.

One longhouse, from the Kadazan people, even had a few human skulls hanging from the ceiling.

"It was given by a family who wanted it to be complete," said Herman, "so they gave the skulls as well."

Hmm. So was headhunting really all that common?

"Oh, yes," said Herman.

"If you wanted to get married you used to need at least one skull to prove you could protect your family.

"Luckily," he laughed, "you don't have to do that now or I wouldn't be able to marry. Now the bride price could be a buffalo, a gong, maybe R10,000 (NZ$4000), a jar and other things."

The significant role played by jars probably explains why the museum also has an impressive display of pottery containers from China, Thailand and Vietnam dating back well over a thousand years, including some from a shipwreck off the coast of Borneo thought to have occurred around the year 960.

It was very interesting - even though half the museum was closed for renovation - but the Mari Mari village offers a much livelier introduction to Dyak culture, not least with the welcome: a couple of half-naked warriors in feathered headresses leaping out from behind a tree with bloodcurdling yells that nearly finished off my dicky old ticker.

Happily they then became friendly, chatted about where I was from and brought over an old woman with a broom who gave me a blessing of welcome.

Then Howard emerged from one of the huts, neatly dressed in modern clothing, to show us round the village and its slice of Dyak life.

As well as getting to fire the deadly blowpipe - made, I was surprised to discover, by boring a hole carefully down the middle of a straight length of wood - we also:

* Made lunch in a traditional pressure cooker by packing chicken, lemongrass, chilli, onion and ginger into a length of bamboo, which was then stoppered and baked in a fire ... the result was delicious.

* Learned how to ferment rice and make rice wine then supped a tasty bamboo cupful.

* Took part in a tattooing session with the option of having the patterns pricked with a thorn or painted in henna ... I don't think anyone chose the thorn.

* Saw cloth and rope being made from strips of bark.

* Watched a young man demonstrate traditional firestarting, rubbing his firesticks together until sweat poured off his forehead, while Howard made jokes about how he'd be fired if he didn't succeed ... which he finally did.

* Witnessed women making different tribal delicacies - including pandanus juice and sago cookies - and then enjoyed a selection.

* Had a go on the unique wooden trampoline which is part of any Murut longhouse - basically involving a chunk of floor in the middle of the room which is not supported by the joists but by massive lengths of bamboo - on which warriors would bounce and spring into the air to show off their strength.

* Enjoyed a performance of traditional songs and dances by local young people.

It was a fascinating experience and afterwards, as we headed back into the city, I asked Herman if that's what life used to be like in his Murut village in the north of Borneo.

"Oh, yes," he said. "It still is like that. Except we don't go headhunting these days ... much."

And he grinned gleefully.

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