A highlight of our stay was being invited by the tribesmen to accompany them night fishing – an honour never before extended to western visitors. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance – in addition to making us feel very honoured, it sounded like a fascinating opportunity to experience part of ‘real’ longhouse life.
We set off around 10pm on the second evening of our stay with two longboats filled up with very cheery locals (the homemade Iban whiskey has quite a kick!) and the four of us. The spearguns and masks they carried were, unsurprisingly, quite old fashioned so we were looking forward to seeing how effective they were. Our eyebrows raised more than a little when an antique looking shotgun was added to the mix and, as we set off upriver, we speculated quietly between ourselves that there was a higher likelihood of them shooting or spearing each other than any prey.
We were therefore pretty sceptical when one of the boats thought they had spotted something on the river bank and several of the Iban went crashing off through the undergrowth. We could see their torchlight as they moved up the hillside and we could most definitely hear them – stealth was obviously not on the agenda. We were sure that whatever had been seen was long gone and, when we heard a shot after around 10 minutes, were just a little relived that we didn’t hear a scream from one of the party follow it. Despite the noise level and the improbable gun, they proudly came back with a large civet – enough meat, we were told, to share amongst all the families of the longhouse and feed them for 3 days.
We continued upriver and any misgivings we might have had about the equipment or skill and/or sobriety of the guys using it quickly dissipated as they caught fish after fish. They moved through the reeds on either side of the channel, spearing the fish as they slept. The dynamics of the hunting party was just as fascinating as the hunters – they were by far the noisiest, happiest fishermen I’ve ever seen! There was clearly a competition on to catch the biggest fish and plenty of commentary from those on board – encouragement, heckling, insults, banter – all done at the very highest of decibels. It was impossible not to smile at the exuberance of it all and the comradeship shown between the villagers.
The journey back was extremely impressive as a heavy mist had fallen, making it very difficult for the boat handlers – driver at the back and spotter at the front – to navigate around logs and other obstacles. I had tried my hand at steering earlier in the day so knew that the length and narrow width of the longboats alone were a challenge, making me really appreciate the level of skill these conditions required.
We eventually returned at 3am and stumbled up to the longhouse and straight to bed – feeling a little guilty as we knew the rest of the party would now have to deal with their catch but also feeling incredibly grateful that we had been given the opportunity to participate in such a special experience. Next time though, I would definitely take a cushion – 5 hours in a longboat is a real test on your backside!