In the Heart of Borneo opens up in a Chinese hotel in a river town, a jump off point to the heart of Borneo. Redmond firsts wrestles with a giant cockroach. He takes a neat nip of malt whiskey before an afternoon siesta. And dreams of his old schoolmaster. He thinks he’s under some kind of Borneo spell. When he questions his travel companion who reports negative on a similar dream, thus starts the book. It’s a trippy start to a very trippy book that’s fuelled with local rice whiskey and a keen observation for the absurd.
Redmond is a throwback from the 19th century. And his prose is a joy to read. He doesn’t mind taking the piss out of himself. He plays the intrepid traveler Alfred Russel Wallace throughout the trip who spent many years traveling around the Indonesia archipelago. It’s what travel writing should be like. But who has time to trek in the jungle in Borneo for two months. Unless of course it’s Redmond O’Hanlon.
He’s an eccentric for sure. At the Redmond lodge, literary luminaries drink at O’Hanlon’s table and wonder when they will be asked to accompany him on his next adventure. A poet isn’t spared. Ian McEwan is.
Two months traveling in primary rainforest in Borneo, Redmond dishes up a unique perspective, peppered with 19th century writers from Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin. James Fenton the poet has his head in Les Miserable, and Redmond plays interlocutor between the guides, the poet and the reader.
Redmond won’t travel without his bergan – a travel bag on wheels – that’s packed with his guidebooks. Birds of Borneo by Smythies is dog eared and a point of reference throughout the book. This book should appeal to anyone with a bird watching bent.
Their real quest is the search for the Borneo Rhinoceros. They risk their lives down Borneo rapids. The description of James falling out of the boat and nearly drowning is both farcical an indication of the perils of their trip. “James’s bald head, white and fragile as an owl’s egg, was sweeping round in the whirlpool below, spinning, bobbing up and down in the foaming water, each orbit of the current carrying him with inches of the black rocks at its edge.” He’s eventually rescued by Leon the heroic guide who is always dishing up cultural gems.
In between being eaten alive by leeches, served a bowl of spaghetti made from worms by his guide, to fending off ants and mosquitos, James wonders why his cigarettes and arak (rice whiskey) stash is getting low. He raids Leon’s bag and finds his supplies. James needs his creative comforts and cigarettes are his only solace in the jungle.
Heading back from the jungle, James bolts when the boat reaches a timber base.He needs cigarette and booze. Civilisation at last, they make the most of the Chinese store in the timber camp.
Redmond climbs the highest mountain in Borneo and James rests at the base. He’s tired of hiking and getting fed up with Redmond. His excuse is he doesn’t want to trespass on the spirits of the mountain. Redmond has crossed over into Indonesia’s Kalimantan side. His guides cut away some foliage, which gives him a grand view of the river he has been boating up for the past few weeks. When Redmond returns he and the guides sneak up behind James. James has been thinking of headhunters all day and now he thinks its his number when they spring him by surprise.
The usual passive James gets his revenge. He has spotted a rare bird. Redmond is sceptical. James describes it. It’s a very rare bird indeed. But James gets him good later, when they are out of the forest. In the hotel he steals his towel while Redmond is taking a shower. He then invites a handful of Dyak women into his room. They giggle and the score is settled, for now.
When Redmond isn’t being poetic -‘At dawn the jungle was half-obscured in a heavy morning mist; and through the cloudy layers of rising moisture came the whooping call, the owl-like, clear, ringing hoot of the female Borneo Gibbon.’ – he sometimes plays medic. But all he can offer one lady with advance stage of gangrene is penicillin:
“As my eyes adjusted,” writes Redmond, ” I looked where everyone was looking: at her foot. My stomach turned again. The top surface was an open pool of fluid with a clearly defined, raised shoreline of indented flesh. She moved slightly as she fanned herself and, as she did so, yellow and black and red islets of infection slithered gently to new positions on the watery surface of the wound. It was a terrible moment… she needed massive doses of penicillin, far more than we possessed. I gave her two tubes of Savlon, two packets of multivitamins and a roll of bandages. In return, the old man gave me three sweet potatoes, which I took. It was the nastiest transaction of my life.”
Eventually Redmond and James locate the Ukit who were living in a government built long house. Redmond writes they weren’t really settled in a semi nomadic lifestyle. The younger generation wanted to learn the seven step disco and considered their elders out of date and old fashioned. Redmond has documented a race of people who are nearing extinction. The Ukit now number about 120 and are facing extinction from past wars and intermarriage with other Borneo groups.
James the poet teaches the Ukit the seven step disco. And later in the evening James plays strip poker. Redmond is drunk and vomits outside. He wakes up with a dog sleeping beside him. He takes a few codeine tablets to cure his hangover before enquiring about the Borneo Rhinoceros to one of the elders. Redmond shows him a picture of it. Yes, he had killed eight of them when he was very young. But he hasn’t seen one since.
They never actually did see the Borneo Rhinoceros. But that was beside the point. They did find the Heart of Borneo and created a few myths along the way. But the book is quite a serious tomb on anthropology. Redmond knows he’s a bright spark, but never loses your attention too long with his high brow rambles. Interesting is the debate going on between Darwin and Wallace. Even Redmond knows that Darwin patronised Wallace. Redmond sets the record straight. Into the Heart of Borneo is a tribute to Alfred Russel Wallace,who equally discovered the origin of species.