Michael with trophy skulls in Borneo 1977

Adventures into the Heart of Borneo with Michael Palmieri

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, which is politically shared by three countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The island has over 250 indigenous tribes, which are commonly referred to as Dayaks. Since 1974 Michael has made over 150 expeditions into the heart of Borneo.

Michael with trophy skulls in Borneo 1977

Michael with trophy skulls in Borneo, 1977

What made you choose Borneo?
When I was a child I read about the Wild Man of Borneo, which captured my imagination. Then in 1974 we met a couple in Legian that had just returned from Borneo, John and Marie DeConey. I asked how we could get there and within a few days we were off to Borneo for true adventure.

What about the headhunters?
One hears stories about the famous headhunters in Borneo, which are very true. Walking through the interior veranda of a longhouse one can see hundreds of trophy skulls suspended in clear view, proudly on display, taken by war and by daring challenges. When a warrior cuts off a head, he is awarded with a ring tattoo on his finger. I have met several elder men who proudly showed me their tattooed hands, completely full of trophy rings. One old warrior explained to me that he had no more room on his hands and began tattooing the rings on his feet. Pretty impressive stuff!

What were the dangers inherent in the river area of Borneo in that era?
Travelling in the jungles of the third largest island in the world comes with many dangers; malaria, dengue, poisonous snakes, insects and being injured without any medical support could be fatal. The rivers of Borneo are some of the most challenging and dangerous in the world.

Grand Bahau Chief and wife

Grand Bahau Chief and wife

Tell me about a dangerous event on the river.
On one occasion on the Mahakam river in East Borneo (Kalimantan), myself and three Dayak Bahaus were heading downstream in an eight metre dugout canoe when suddenly up ahead I saw that we were rapidly approaching a huge set of life threatening rapids. I suggested to my Dayak driver to pull over to the side of the river. Then I and two Dayaks could walk the cargo through by foot and the driver could dash through the rapids alone. But the driver assured me not to worry (the infamous last words). Just like that we entered the mouth of the dragon. Halfway through the rapids the canoe capsized, throwing the cargo and the four of us into the raging river. We lost all the cargo plus one of my Dayak crew. His body popped up two days later way downstream. It was a truly scary experience!

I heard that you were the first person to introduce the Borneo baskets (anjat) to the outside world. Tell me about this.
Yes, we were the first people to introduce this incredibly beautiful woven rattan backpack to the outside world. The Borneo bag called anjat is indigenous to most Dayak tribes. We see it all over Bali today and it has become a symbol to travellers of having been to Bali. My ultimate goal was to get the people to begin a cottage industry for this beautiful backpack, and today this goal has been achieved.

Tell me an intimate story, which occurred during your travels in Borneo.
After making many expeditions into the jungles of Borneo, I had heard about the liberal sexual traditions of the tribes in Sarawak. I was curious as hell to discover more about the Iban tribe and their liberal culture of promiscuity. Now that door of opportunity had finally presented itself. I was young and my testosterones were bubbling over. Soon I was to discover if this was a true story or just a fable. I just had to find out!

Michael on Katibas River, West Borneo

Michael on Katibas River, West Borneo

One night while visiting a village on the upper Katibas River in Sarawak, I would find out if the stories I had heard were true. When the evening’s entertainment was over, all the elders and children retired to their baliks (apartments). I remained there with a small group of teenage boys, chatting about cultural differences, when suddenly one of the young boys asked me if I liked the girl with the red blouse, the one that had been flirting with me. Suddenly her exotic Gauguin-esque face smiled in my mind’s eye. Wow! Yes, I do remember! So the boys told me that she was waiting for me in her family’s balik. By now all the elders and children were fast asleep. They showed me the door to the balik, explaining to me that the room would be lit by a very dim palm oil lamp and inside there would be many beds with mosquito nets covering each of them.

They told me, “The girl will be waiting inside for you. It’s the first mosquito net on the right-hand side of the balik. Just open the net and quietly slip inside. Go! She is waiting for you!”

Nervously I entered the balik. I found the first mosquito net on the right side and silently opened the curtains. A fear began racing through my head. What if I get caught? These people are headhunters! I laid down next to her, wrapped my arms around her and cuddled up gently to her warm body. Then BAM! I was struck in the head! All I could see was whirling stars! Then she let out a scream that woke up the whole longhouse. I had just been struck heavily in the face by the elbow of her old grandma. A wave of chatter rippled throughout the longhouse, which then turned into shrieks of laughter. That’s when I realized that I had just been punked by a bunch of teenage Iban boys! I awoke the next morning with a swollen black eye and lots of laughs from my Iban friends. So much for adventures in paradise!

Any suggestions for anyone wishing to visit Borneo and where to go?
The jungles of Borneo are only for the hardcore happy camper. The equatorial temperatures are sweltering hot and wet with lots of mosquitoes and other weird crawling creatures. No villas here, no Internet, no mobile phones, and comfort and privacy are rare commodities. Local village food is very exotic indeed. And if you really wish to see genuine authentic Dayak culture and people, you must travel deep into the interior, which can mean days by boat. There is one place that I do recommend that you visit and that is the Apo Kayan in the central highland mountains of Indonesian Borneo. There you will find the real deal. To get there you must charter, in advance, a plane (it’s costly) operated by the missionary airlines. Good luck and happy trails!

Thank you, Michael!

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LL. Wing is a NYC artist and writer.