Batang Ai’s legends and tales of orang-utan ancestors and giant python encounters

The scenic Batang Ai Lake.

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By Lian Cheng

DUE to a miscommunication, the D’Drift Team’s visit Batang Ai National Park did not go as planned on July 12, 2022. Initially we had set aside only one morning for the visit only to realise that we had to stay overnight at the park if we wanted to take the trail hike we had initially planned for.

Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) staff at the park did well with the short notice to arrange for an alternative, shorter hike for us along the fringes of the park.

While we did not manage to hike deep into the jungle as we originally planned, this ‘lighter’ experience was enough to leave a deep impression on us as to the park’s immense and unique natural beauty as well as its social, historical and cultural value to the local community and Sarawak as a whole. during this excursion on the the fridges of the park, we were mesmerised as we learnt of the many legends, folklore and stories of real life experience birthed and inspired by the land and features around us.

Batang Ai National Park

The Rumah Ipang Trail

It takes only a one-hour walk uphill to traverse the Rumah Ipang Trail which is at the fringes of the park, from SFC’s Batang Ai headquarters to the end of the trail. It was a trail of rudimentary difficulty and we ended up at a spot where there was an abandoned orang-utan nest, high up in a tree.

According to park warden Addrin Anding, 34, who is a local boy and started working at the park nine years ago, there is an estimated orang-utan population of 200 in the vicinity.

Orang-utan, said Addrin, are drifters. Each day, they will build a nest for their families and move on the next day to another tree to build a new nest.

“Their nests are always at the tree top. I once saw orang-utans up on a tree top which had branches which seemed so small. When the orang-utan were up in the nest, they were swayed here and there at the mercy of the wind but they didn’t fall. They stayed intact, swinging in the wind.

“It was just amazing considering their size. You know, I have seen monkeys fall to death when they swing from one tree to another, but I have never seen an orang-utan falling from tree tops despite the branches holding them being so thin and fragile,” Addrin told the D’Drift team during our stop at the small hill top at the end of the trail.

An abandoned orang-utan nest.

Graves of the brave and patriarchs

As we hiked along the trail which cut across a secondary forest, we came across a traditional Iban graveyard containing four old burial jars, estimated to be about half-a-century old.

The graveyard also housed the tombs of exceptional warriors and prominent leaders.

There are two types of burials for these individuals, according to Addrin. One was to bury them with the other longhouse folk while the second, was to bury them separately, requiring an elaborate ceremony for the deceased.

When they were buried as a hero or prominent leader, food and tuak (Dayak rice wine) must be offered. Needless to say, a miring must also be held.

Cockfighting would also be held. After the cock fights, according to the Iban tradition, the winning cockerel was not allowed to be brought back. Instead, it must be left on top of the grave.

“No one knew what happened to the cockerel. They usually went missing. Only occasionally they were found dead,” said Addrin.

The cemetery for brave warriors and prominent leaders of the Batang Ai Iban along the Rumah Ipang Trail.

The tales of wise orang-utan

We had set off on our hike at about 9.30am and by 11.45am, we were back at the Batang Ai headquarters set on a hill overlooking the manmade Batang Ai Lake for a nice meal of pulut (glutinous rice) cooked in ‘atap’ leaves, turmeric chicken, coffee and cordial drinks, courtesy of Addrin and his family.

The delightful meal was followed by a lively story-telling session. It started with legends related to the Batang Ai Lake, before moving on to real life experiences, especially personal encounters with giant snakes with diameters measuring as big a gas barrel.

Ranger Gadang Gajah who is a local who joined SFC in 2001 said prior to the migration of the Iban from Indonesia, there was already another Dayak tribe known as the Seru who had moved and settled here near the present Batang Ai Lake.

According to him, a long time ago, similar to the forefathers of the Iban community here, the Seru community had no knowledge of how to deliver babies and take care of their wives after giving birth.

One day, an ancestor of the Iban community here chanced upon an orang-utan giving birth in the jungle. After the successful delivery, the orang-utan fed the mother orang-utan ginger and took good care of her.

After witnessing the whole episode, the Iban man returned to his longhouse. That night, he saw the orang-utan in a dream and it showed him how to deliver a baby and how to take care of the new mother.

“So until now, we are not allowed to hunt and consume orang-utan because it was the orang-utan who taught us how to deliver babies and how to use ginger for new mothers during the confinement period.

“Before the Iban here learnt how to do that, they used to just cut open the pregnant women. The women would be left to die while the babies survived,” said Gadang, adding that this knowledge had enabled the Iban to thrive in the area, instead of becoming a tribe on verge of extinction, like the Seru.

“They (the Seru) were here about 300 years ago but their numbers kept on decreasing. This was because they had no knowledge of baby delivery and they just cut open their women and took out the babies.”

With the knowledge and thus the upper hand, the Iban who came later managed to chase the Seru back to Indonesia.

“Even until this day, we don’t simply burn ginger in the jungle because the orang-utan need it for confinement,” Gadang added.

Turning into orang-utan

Both Addrin and Gadang appreciated these types of legends about orang-utans as they can help in the cause of orang-utan conservation in the area and foster goodwill within the Iban community here towards orang-utans.

It is thus not surprising that there is also a local belief that when Iban patriarchs pass on, their spirits may turn into orang-utans and for some, even snakes.

“Even as late as the 1900s to 1950s, our ancestors here still believed that when they died, their bodies would be buried in the ground and turn into dust but their spirits would transform into orang-utans, or some, pythons,” said Addrin, recounting the same legend told by Gadang.

This belief among the Batang Ai Ibans about their spirits transforming into orang-utans is reinforced by the earlier mentioned legend detailing how their ancestor was taught in a dream by an orang-utan how to deliver babies and take care of new mothers.

“Due to the special connection with the orang-utan, the Iban community here do not hunt nor consume orang-utan. They are seen as our ancestors,” said Addrin.

Encountering giant serpents

Apart from the orang-utan, another animal which is closely linked to the Iban community of Batang Ai is the giant python.

This perhaps had been due to the fact that, after the first wave of timber harvesting decades ago, the jungles in the area were left undisturbed, enabling them to recover. Now that the area has been gazetted as a national park, the natural state of the jungles have been preserved, allowing certain species of animals to attain gigantic sizes.

Gadang said he had seen with his own eyes a python that had the girth of an oil drum in 2009, at Nanga Mujang which is about three hours away from the Batang Ai National Park headquarters.

“The python was then waiting for a wild boar by a small stream. It was coiling itself into three circles with its head awaiting in a striking position.

“I was not sure of its length as I couldn’t see its tail. It must be a century old, with a size like that (holding out this hands to showing the side of an oil barrel).

Gadang decided not to linger to see what happened next but moved on from the scene to ensure that he was not in the way of the giant snake which was in the midst of hunting its prey.

To get to Batang Ai National Park, one has to take a boat ride across the Batang Ai Lake.

The accidental death of a “dragon”

Sirai Dayong who has been with SFC for 12 years, also had an interesting story to share about his encounter with a giant python. It happened in 2019 at Nanga Telaus which is along the upper reaches of Batang Ai.

One morning, one of his best friends decided to hunt along Sungai Telaus and set off with 10 dogs. The dogs went ahead of the hunter. Suddenly, the hunter heard his dogs loudly barking and growling.

He ran towards the commotion and found a giant python coiled in three circles around a wild boar. The diameter of the snake’s body was as large as a man’s thigh.

The hunter decided against staying put and simply fired some shots before running off.

Upon his return to the longhouse, the hunter informed Sirai about the incident. Together with another person, the three of them returned to check the site at about 6.30am. When they reached the location, they found the python dead, apparently shot to death by the hunter.

“I saw the corpse of the snake, it was as big as this (stretching out his hands to show the diameter of about a foot).

“I saw it was no longer a snake as its colour had turned grey,” said Sirai who deeply believed that the snake had turned into a dragon as he saw something which looked like spurs on its body.

Double check arrangements

DayakDaily has been working closely with SFC in featuring national parks in Sarawak.

One thing which we have learnt is that, as Internet or even telephone connectivity is not guaranteed especially in national parks, most of the time it is hard to get hold of the park wardens or rangers on site.

For anyone wishing to visit these places, it is advisable to contact them through email to make proper arrangements for visits. If arrangements are done through mobile phone applications, give them time to respond as they may be deep in the jungle where there is no mobile phone reception.

For national parks which provide guided tours, it would be advisable to pay a bit more for a guide who can share with visitors more about local legends and folklore. This certainly will make the trip more memorable and interesting. — DayakDaily

The D’Drift team having a good time hiking the Rumah Ipang Trail on July 12, 2022.