Travel Features > Book Review

Into The Heart Of Borneo
Redmond O'Hanlon

Book Review by Mike Reed

At first reading, the perfect alternative title for this book would be The Incompetent Traveller. This is probably the finest example of how not to travel in Borneo and still survive pretty much in one piece. From the very first page it is clear that O'Hanlon, and his travelling companion, the poet James Fenton, have strong pre-conceptions about Sarawak and its people. They are convinced that they are about to descend into some kind of tropical living hell, peopled by some if the most primitive and degenerate societies on Earth. However, all is not what it appears to be.

The first culture shock is at Kuching Airport, where O'Hanlon's revolver is confiscated by a customs officer who reassures him that it will not be needed. Then comes the disappointment of discovering that this sleepy colonial relic of a town actually has a Holiday Inn. The stage is thus set for a post-colonial comedy of errors, where British amateurism triumphs over Bornean intransigence and stubbornness, or at least appears to.

The central theme of the book is a journey up the Rejang and Baleh rivers to the border with Indonesian Kalimantan, where O'Hanlon and Fenton hope to glimpse the almost extinct Sumatran Rhinoceros. Yet the author devotes most of his attention to his Iban guides, and to the Iban, Kenyah and Ukit communities that he passes through. Much of the descriptive prose is simply stunning. He describes a young Ukit girl as "big-eyed as a hare in short grass."

The book also evokes the flavour of Sarawak wonderfully well, not by means of the author's own prose, but by the generous use of quotations from other writers. Such authorities on Borneo as Alfred Russell Wallace, James Keppel, Charles Hose and Tom Harrisson are quoted frequently and at length, giving an uncannily accurate sense of place.

The two travellers' trials and tribulations along the journey, as well as their ultimate failure, are dealt with in a mixture of mock-horror and grudging respect, and the combined effect is a book that is both very funny and deeply moving.

It is only when one scratches below the surface that the substantial flaws in the story begin to reveal themselves. The reader is continuously reminded of the hardships of upriver travel, in the form of unfamiliar (albeit welcoming) cultures, strange food, uncomfortable accommodation and legions of hostile insects and other crawling creatures of the jungle. O'Hanlon revels in depicting his and Fenton's misery and the bafflement of their guides and hosts.

Remarkable facts used to substantiate their suffering include a mention of Sarawak's 250 plus species of ant, 1,700 species of parasitic worm, and how to remove wild boar ticks from the crotch using adhesive tape. Another danger constantly in the back of their minds is a narrow, thread-like leech that is supposedly able to detect the odour of urine hitting water and swim up the golden cascade to burrow itself in the urethra. As a leech swells to approximately 20 times its usual volume when gorged with blood, the prospect of the beast making a painless exit is remote in the extreme. But then so is the possibility of nature having evolved such a ridiculous creature.

For someone whose entire life has been spent in English suburbia, these factors may indeed be hardships, but our travellers have been briefed and trained by the British SAS for this "expedition." The author's companion, James Fenton, is a seasoned war correspondent, famous for riding on the first North Vietnamese tank to enter Saigon, and author of All The Wrong Places, one of the most fascinating accounts ever written of how to get high on danger. Surely such a man would not be seriously inconvenienced by a short break from "civilization." This leads me to suspect that the entire story has been somewhat romanticised.

The pistol incident does not ring at all true, for example. To the best of my knowledge, Singapore Airlines have never encouraged their passengers to carry hand guns. Travel on the upper Baleh is not as difficult or as dangerous as O'Hanlon makes it out to be; sure there are rapids, but the Iban are expert boatmen and know how to traverse them safely. And if our intrepid travellers are really in search of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, why are they heading to a point 200 miles from its last reported sighting. And why, oh why, must we put up with O'Hanlon's interminable references to Smythies' The Birds of Borneo.

Most reviewers describe Into the Heart of Borneo as a classic of modern travel writing. If the definition of travel writing is adventure fiction lightly sprinkled with a layer of fact, then I must surely agree with them. The book is funny, it evokes a wonderful sense of place, but modern Sarawak it is not.

Into The Heart of Borneo; O'Hanlon, Redmond; Salamander Press, Edinburgh, 1984; ISBN No. 0-330-33583-9

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