Running Through the Jungle in Search of a Wedding
A Special Jungle Trekking Experience

by Herman (2003) - corresponding tour: Crocker Range Trekking - The Real Thing

Getting Invited to a Wedding

When a friend of mine, of whom until shortly I knew nothing but that he was selling ginger on the weekly tamu in Donggongon, invited me to a wedding in a remote village I accepted immediately. In Sabah, weddings are never to be missed! And nearly always they allow visitors a glimpse of local traditions, and an ancient and proud lifestyle. I was told that the village where the wedding was to be held was not accessible by road: “can you walk for two hours through the jungle?” That sounded so much more promising to me, and it never occurred to me once that I should decline! However, when the day arrived, and we were sitting in a van driving us up the winding road from Donggongon to Gunung Emas, I was not so sure any more had I made the right decision. If you have ever taken the Kota Kinabalu – Tambunan road, you will have enjoyed the fresh air, and the fantastic views over the untouched jungle of the Crocker Range National Park. From Gunung Emas one can see over valleys and hills, and as far as Kota Kinabalu and its islands. During good weather conditions, that is. On our way up the air was more than just fresh – chilly was rather like it – and only now and then a tear in the mists and clouds allowed us a dramatic glimpse of the ridges and valleys below. And one of these ridges would take us down into a shrouded valley, to some really, really remote village.

The Crocker Range

I have always known that there were villages down there, and I told myself that one day, I needed to go and see for myself. Well, then, I resigned myself to my decision, to-day would be as good as any day. The four of us were dropped at one of those new, Roman-pillared bus-stops just below Gunung Emas, at mile 28. My two friends, Gus and Jas, both selling ginger and other local vegetables on the weekly tamu in Donggogon changed into short trousers, as did our ‘tourist’, James from Sarawak. I was all set to go, with my minimal luggage already packed in my usual berait, a local rucksack made from rattan and, as I found, anyway the most appropriate gear for this trip. Two nights, three days, no big deal, one spare t-shirt and an all-purpose sarong. Only too late I realised that I had forgotten my soap, but that would not matter. I had been on too many trips into the far interior (admittedly, usually to places that were somehow accessible by means of cars, or boats) as that I had any further concerns. But really nothing had ever prepared me for the experience that should follow. My two ginger traders were travelling equally light, but James had an impressive back-pack that contained, amongst others his pyjama and mosquito net, two cameras, several lenses and a tripod. He was of the very thorough kind, and provided each of us with an additional 1.5l bottle of drinking water. The load was split between Gus and Jas, who good-naturedly offered their help. We were ready to go. One enters the path through a hardly visible opening in the jungle right next to the road, climbs up a few feet, passes an abandoned house and then comes to a view-point – for us, it would be the last on the entire journey. But I was unaware of that, and maybe luckily so. We managed to get a few shots of the dramatic, densely jungle covered chasm at our feet, only revealed when the mists were torn apart by a sudden gust of wind. Rain threatened constantly, and we got back onto the trail. I was astonished at how wide and clean the trek we entered was, and Gus told me that this was the ‘normal’ route for the village people who lived here. “It is just some two hours, then we should reach the river in the valley below. We follow it for another half an hour or so, and there we are!” he explained beaming brightly, and strode ahead through the tunnel-like jungle path. Soon, the sound of lorries passing on the mainroad was but a distant rumble, and we delved deeper and deeper into the untouched jungle of the Crocker Range National Park. The ground was soft and our feet – Gus, Jas and me all went barefoot – bounced lightly over the moist litter, absorbing any noise. Signboards reminded us wordily in legal jargon what can be summoned up in a nice slogan used in other Sabahan National Parks: “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” As we continued our journey down, the jungle around us changed rapidly from the montane type to the ‘real’ rainforest, with enormous belian, tombidaton, and seraya trees, amongst others. A complete concert of Borneo’s cicadas, accompanied by many birds escorted us along the path, together with quite a few hungry leeches. The Crocker Range is a naturalist’s paradise, but you need to have time and patience, in view of the many leeches not often easy. Besides, we were heading for a wedding, we should not forget, and it was almost one in he afternoon when we had left the mainroad. Nevertheless, we spotted some nice flycatchers, a what I believe was a Spangled Drongo, warblers, and an “ayam hutan,” a pheasant that was too fast to identify. Many more birds we only heard, and my friends filled my head with Dusun names, all of which I have forgotten, naturally. We also caught glimpses of squirrels, and once we nearly crushed a tiny little snake. And leeches! As we got closer to the bottom of the valley, the surrounding jungle got markedly warmer. Massive trees, denizens of the jungle and now only found in national parks had us marvel at their girth. We trotted on, following the still wide and very clean path leading steep down to the river. Long before we reached the cool water we could hear the stream, and long before we could soak our limbs we started feeling quite wobbly in our knees. The descent is very steady, and in some places even extremely steep. A tangle of knotted roots always provides good foothold, but for the city slickers that most of us had become it was unaccustomed terrain. Especially James suffered of badly trembling knees and had to go very slowly. A wrong step, a strained ankle, we would not want to think of the further consequences.

Finally we arrived at the river, a crystal clear stream with comparatively ice-cold water. We spoiled ourselves with a short dip, and took some photographs. It was only now that we became aware that the sky had opened up a bit, and blue was shining through the lighter foliage that shaded the river here. Under the thick canopy of the jungle, we had no much realised the change! But it was not long before Jas and Gus urged on again. Jas, the only of our party who had ever been here and still had family in these remote parts of Sabah ensured us that it would not be much further any more, and we should arrive at the wedding soon. By now, it was well past two o’clock, and generally that would mean the highlight of the wedding would be over. Refreshed, we trotted along a now even path, but not as wide as the steep descent, and in parts, as it was following an old riverbed, not at all obvious. There were also times when we had to cross the river, once over a makeshift bridge that was actually a tree that had fallen across the stream, and another time over a rickety bamboo bridge right out of a Discovery Adventure series. But most times it was just fording the fast flowing current, and we had to be careful not to slip on the mossy rocks. Once, it looked as if we were lost. The path ended, and did not seem to continue on either bank of the river, until we spotted an arrow painted in chalk on one of the boulders in the river. We scrambled up the opposite bank, and indeed, behind a half-rotten fallen tree the trail continued. Was the arrow a marker pointing to the wedding? Were many expected who might not know the directions? We seemed close, and it was indeed not long before we spotted a house. What a relief! Jas was sure that was it: “there are not so many houses here, and only one village in this area,” he ensured us. That was certainly true, but we were to find out that the houses of the village in question were spread over a distance of nearly two hours’ steady trekking along the river! There was no-one at the present house, only two fierce dogs barking menacingly at us. “Strange,” Jas reasoned and added: “but anyway, the house where the wedding party is supposed to be is high in the hills, not on the river…” We listened carefully and expected to hear gongs that would take us to the wedding, but we only heard the sound of the jungle. We continued around the house, and found the track again. Heading in the same direction as the river, we ignored the many junctions that would lead either to other habitations, or to tobacco and rice fields. This is an area where one can get lost easily without an experienced guide! However, the path we were trotting now was well used, and soon again we came across a small stream, and solunsug, the traditional bamboo water conducts. This is always a sure indication of another house, maybe the village itself! Our hearts took a bound, and our legs forgot for a moment the strain as we clambered up some steep bank to see – another single house, guarded by some dogs. Not a sign of a human soul! Our spirits sank, and Jas tried to comfort us: “it can’t be that far any more, I remember now. We are on the right track, soon there will be a couple of houses, and then we arrive at the school.” School, I was wondering? Again, Jas’s memory had shortened the journey considerably. We arrived at another settlement on the river, high above the flood level so that we had to clamber again over steep banks to face some more fiery dogs, but no sign of the inhabitants! By now, James looked aghast. I am quite used to such caprioles, and I am quite ready to accept that two hours might mean four, but nevertheless even I had hoped that we had arrived. My legs were telling me that it was just about time… but we had to find the people. “Everybody must be at the wedding by now, enjoying themselves,” Gus mused, and that uplifted my spirit. We came across another village, which in fact was just another part of the long-stretched kampung. Here, too, not a single human being, but lots of dogs to remind us that this place was anything but abandoned. Washing was drying on the verandas, and there were other clear signs of human inhabitation, else I would have believed we had stumbled upon a ghost village. Here Jas clearly remembered the house of his uncle, and told us that in the next part of the village we would find the school. OK, off to the school, but not further! This time it was really only another five minutes through tuhau – wild ginger – groves and over a very rickety suspension bridge with rotten planks. And there was a school, really! A signboard, in dire need of a new coat of paint, told us that we had arrived, finally, in Kampung Longkogungan.

We met a man on the bridge, and he let us pass. It was eerily quiet in this part of the village too, and the only human being we had seen in nearly five hours turned out to be a teacher at the local school. He explained why we had found all the houses empty along the way: “they have all gone to church!” Now, that solved a mystery! “And the wedding,” Jas enquired? “Well, that was to be held to-morrow,” was the teacher’s answer, and, “yes, very far from here!” And when a local says very far, that means very far! He estimated that we had overshot our destination by about 1½ hours, upon which James’ eyes nearly popped out of his head! “But,” as the teacher added laconically, “since the wedding is only to-morrow, it is not so bad, kan…!” For our guide, Jas, this should have been an embarrassing situation, but he took it easy. We had been running through the jungle in search of a wedding. It was tough going and arduous jungle trekking for nearly five hours (instead of the promised two hours); and we had walked much too far, a day too early… but then again, not all information that filters out of the jungle can always be accurate, and in these areas, where time has virtually stood still, a day more or less does really not matter. And hopefully our tourist, James, was not a real tourist either. Being a native from Sarawak himself he knew that this could happen. Anyway, right now he was more concerned with his aching legs, and the three of us with the pangs of hunger. We suddenly realised that we all had not eaten except for a meagre breakfast, and now it was getting dark! However, respecting the local’s belief, none of us wanted to disturb any of them at church. And the church building was at the other side of the village, another five minutes’ walk, definitively too far! Instead, we installed ourselves on the porch of the school, and James fell quickly asleep. We had to wait until past seven o’clock before the first churchgoers appeared, and finally some of Jas’s distant relatives. We shook James awake, and after a lengthy discussion on food and how far the wedding would be to-morrow we finally agreed to stay over at Jas’ uncle’s house. Since it was only five minutes away, James approved. “Any further,” he threatened, “and I am going to sleep right here on the porch. I am not going anywhere any more tonight!” We took off, again over the rickety bridge – this time made even more adventurous by the fact that we only had one torchlight, and one of Jas’s relatives had one carbide lamp flickering on his forehead – back to the house of Jas’s uncle. We were lead into the simple abode, a typical Dusun house with a cooling floor made from split bamboo. A roaring fire was prepared, and a huge pot of rice was put over the fire. Jas’s uncle prepared some locally grown vegetables, and the simple meal – with hill rice that has a particularly nice taste anyway – was just about the best I have had in a long time! After dinner we rested for a while. Some of the villagers came over to greet us and to enquire where we came from, and where we wanted to go. There was a lot of talks of ‘sompogunan’, which designs strangers and I thought most of the talk was directed at our friend from Sarawak, and at me. But an upset Gus, whose grandmother originated from this very village, explained that they were calling him a ‘sompogunan’! Anyway, he managed to put things right, and he meet some very distant relatives, now busy slaughtering a heavy pig outside the house for the upcoming wedding on the next day. We moved over the next house, which belonged to the brother of the Village Chief. Here, we were invited to stay the night. The landlady, Jas’s aunt, produced a thin mattress just large enough to fit all four of us, and before I knew what had happened I was in deep, healthy sleep. I remember though that James took a shower and put on his pyjama. The rest of us were just too lazy and could not be bothered less. Amazing James!

On to the Wedding

The next morning rose, and bright sunlight poured into the narrow valley. The roosters in the village announce the day, and sleep after sunrise was impossible. Groggily we stepped onto the verandah to see where we were. The steep slopes of the hills that rose close to either side of the river and its village were either rice or tobacco plantations, or fallow fields to be cultivated in a couple of years again. The Crocker Range National Park boundaries are in such a way that the villages along the river, from the point where we had crossed it first, are excluded, allowing the villagers to live their normal, time-less life far away from the hectic of modern life. Most villagers here plant, next to their staple crop rice, tobacco, and other vegetables. While tobacco is sold on the market, the rice and vegetables are for their own use. They also rear pigs, go fishing and set the occasional trap in their patches of land, but all the rest, from sugar over salt to soap has to be carried over the hills down into the valley. And if you think the villagers of Longkogungan live in simple huts traditional style, take this: zinc roofing sheets are also carried down the steep slopes of the Crocker Range, together with piping (replacing the traditional bamboo solunsug), and other commodities. However, I have not seen any TV so far, not because the village has no electricity, but just imagine if your TV set needs maintenance…! Each house in the village has a solar panel, and the electricity generated is stored in batteries. Thus, each house has electric light – a considerable convenience – and the villagers can charge their cellular phones. Yes, cellular phones! I hadn’t brought mine along, and none of us expected to get any signal in these remote parts of Sabah. However, it turned out that the village got perfect access due to the many Telekom relays at regular intervals high in the hills of the Crocker Range!  In the fresh light of the day, this area seemed and unlikely place for a village in our times. But the people here have been inhabiting these areas for times immemorial, and their life, if not a simple one, is certainly a healthy one. They even got a school, a church (though service is irregular, the padre only comes by about twice a month, understandably), and now the area has been freshly discovered for tourists. Not for the usual tourists, though, rather for the hard-core jungle trekkers who are able and willing to rough it out for a few days, and meet the locals and their time-less life. There is no rest house, not to speak of a hotel, and if you need a coke once in a while, you need to take it along yourself! What is offered is homestay, which comes quite naturally to the hospitable Dusun here, but again, you must not expect your private room with attached bath and water heater. At best, you are given a mattress, like us last night, and you sleep in the large communal hall of the house of your host. The bathrooms are basic at best, but there is lots of fresh water. And the loos are, well, natural. However, the stay with these people is very rewarding, and it allows visitors a true insight into the typical, hard but fulfilled life of those local people who still adhere to the life-style of their forefathers. We were served sweet coffee and biscuits, and I was painfully aware that someone had carried those commodities the same way we had come through yesterday. And the pain was right there in my thighs, but it seemed tolerable. James was looking more worried, and seemed not so happy at the prospect of trekking for another hour or again, up steep hills, to the house of the bride, where we originally had been heading for! But he was good sports, and at eight o’clock, after some small talk with the uncle and aunt of Jas we were off again. But that was not after the first two bottles of rice alcohol the uncle produced, and made us drink. At six thirty in the morning, that made quite a breakfast, and the three of us – James declined the generously offered drink – were quite spirited and strode off at a pace making the village people proud. We had to back-track a considerable bit along the river and again over the rickety bamboo bridge, until we came to the one major fording where we had seen the arrow the previous day. We decided to have a bath, and the clear water was wonderful. Only James collapsed on a massive boulder, and he was quickly again asleep. What a comfortable mattress a river stone can make! We still had no real idea where the wedding was, and Jas suggested that we wait here at this junction, if you could call this such. Indeed, we had not spotted any other way, but it was good that we heeded Jas’s advise. Some half an hour later we heard voices in the jungle, coming from the slopes above the banks of the ‘junction’, from a path we had completely overlooked. The ‘mainroad’ may be visible easily, but the lesser frequented paths are easily ignored and again we were made aware how easily one could get lost in this area! We called the passers-bys, who turned out to be some of our hosts of last night. We followed them up the hill, a steep, slippery path. It could as well have been a wildlife trail, or at least I found nothing much of a ‘real’ path. But our new local guides obviously knew the route very well and set up a pace that was hard to follow. We were soon left far behind, but then hopefully the path widened, and we heard gongs, a sure sign of some party going on! As the sound of the gongs grew louder, the more exalted our spirits grew. Gus and Jas hardly could hide their anticipation, and soon sprinted up the hill, me hard panting on their heels, and James far back. We were now clearly walking through ‘gardens’: random useful jungle growth under light trees. This probably had been, a long time back, a rice field. Then the owners of the patch planted tuhau, wild ginger, edible bamboos, and bamboos useful in construction and for a myriad of other implements. Closer to the house grew langsat, rambutan, durian, and tarap trees, but the house was only just visible as we stepped out of the thick growth just below it. It was an impressive house, with an even more impressive rice-field clearance right behind it. Smoke was billowing out of its kitchen. Despite the early hours quite a number of people had arrived already, and the gongs were being sound at the arrival of more guests. Everybody had a bag-pack – some traditional rattan carriers, others badly mangled, but fashionable rucksacks – and by the sign of it I guessed that everybody was prepared to stay for a few days. We had to shake countless strong, calloused hands, and explain from where we had come. That we had managed to travel over such long distances was just another reason to welcome us so much more heartily, and offer us another huge cup filled to the brim with white lihing: nothing less than fresh, potent rice wine with lots of rice in it, rather like porridge. The lady who asked me to down a third glass wanted to know with a rather naughty smile if I liked her ‘susu kampung’ – the village milk! I probably should have said ‘yes’, but instead I made a grimace as I poured down this one, and just managed to avert a fourth glass, for the moment. James and me went around and took some photographs. There were lots of jars, and buckets, all full of rice wine and obviously for a serious wedding with lots of invitees, who kept on arriving steadily.

We were wondering from where all these people came, and some had actually taken the same way as us: family members who work in town, or in plantations far away from their native kampung. With over thirty houses, Kg Longkogungan made certainly for a nice little village, especially if you consider that a family with ten children is rather the norm! Soon the house was packed, but it stood on firm stilts and would not budge. I have been to other parties, where the house swayed dangerously to the rhythm of the gongs that were now going incessantly. I spotted Gus happily beating one of the ancient instruments, tucked between two other players. With a certain relief I realised that there was no keyboard in the house, or any other sign of a ‘modern’ band that could spoil the traditional entertainment, and it was certainly not necessary! Young and old happily danced the Sumazau, and of course I was called upon repeatedly, to be rewarded each time with another cup of rice wine. Just when I felt I could no more (not drink, but my legs were aching!), it was announced that the groom had arrived, and finally the bride emerged from her room. The wedding was a simple affair, with groom and bride clad in traditional outfit. Weddings are settled in the village, and this one was no exception. The bride price had been agreed on previously during a meeting with the parents of both parties and in presence of some village elders. Then the date of the party was set, for which the groom was further to provide the pig, and generally ‘blanja dapur’, come up for the food for the congregation. The couple exchanged rings, which is rather ‘modern’ but not out of place, someone said a prayer, and then food was served, bride and groom helping themselves first and spoon feeding each other. This is reminiscent of much older traditions, and signifies that from now on the two belong together and are one new family. In some areas that can even signify that brothers and sisters of the groom and bride cannot intermarry, as they belong now all to one family! The food provided was wholesome and accompanied by lots of aromatic hill rice. There was plenty, and all present guests helped themselves generously. But by far not all had arrived. There were still the latecomers, amongst others the father of the groom, and the village headman… They produced some forms that were filled in for the subsequent official registration of the marriage with the district office. This is a formality that is becoming increasingly important for the future of the couple, and especially of their children, and generally it is adhered to nowadays. However, these papers are of little value to the village people themselves, for whom a word and a promise holds more than what is written on the paper. Thus the wedding ceremony is paramount, the promise of this new bond! To escape more dramatic consequences I disappeared in one of the two rooms (not the bride’s room…!), where I found James already snoring. The sound of the party continued unabashed, and the gongs were still playing when I woke up with the first light of the day. I got up and realised that the aches in my legs had developed into real pain, and I could hardly walk. It was so bad that I had to hold onto anything I could, and when I emerged from the room everybody was roaring, presuming a was leg-less drunk. Incidentally that spared me a drink of hefty rice wine on my empty stomach! In a corner I saw the same group of hardened, elderly men, still sitting in the same position as I had left them the previous night, and still calmly drinking from the same jar. I had no doubt that they had been on it non-stop. Others, and the children were sleeping, some on mats, some on their blankets, on the floor, little perturbed by the droning sound of the gongs. But soon everybody was up, and breakfast was served: ever tasted fried noodles with deer? Quite a speciality, and not readily available in town! Since Gus, Jas and me suddenly had rather unexplained cramps in our legs we decided to stay another night, which was loudly welcomed by the congregation. Gus, firstly mistaken as a sompogunan turned out to be a steady and expert gong player (and a steady drinker, too), and James and me took some more photos, always trying to avoid that ever circling glass of rice wine. James, by the way, felt no more pain in his legs and could have hiked back with little problems, but he had not much choice with us three crippled trekkers…! The wedding was far from being over, though it did not continue at the same raucous pace as the night before. There were still a lot of newcomers, duly greeted with rice wine, but the whole had the aspect of a restaurant, albeit a strange restaurant: groups of mainly men sitting in circles on the floor, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and chatting. Each group had a Chinese jar in its middle from which a designated man would scoop rice wine and pass the cup around, making sure nobody skipped a round! The day passed with more dances, and new acquaintances and friendships, and more food. Our legs seemed to get better as the day wore on, but it started raining heavily and continued so throughout the night.

Back to Kota Kinabalu

The next morning we had to leave, and we set nine o’clock as the cut off time: rain or no rain, we had to leave! The trail would be extremely slippery, and we were afraid that we might not be able to pass the river. After two breakfasts, first fried noodles and then a huge portion of rice with local vegetables, downed with another couple of coups of rice-wine we actually managed to leave punctually. The rain had subsided a bit, but not much, and the trekking was on the slippery side. Again, Gus, Jas and me went barefoot, clutching to the soil with our toes. James took out his freshly bought twelve-Ringgit sandals, which actually managed to hold right to Gunung Emas – but not further! Gus and me rushed ahead, with Jas and James far behind, taking it slowly. Half way up we still could hear the gongs, and we knew that the wedding was anything but over! We arrived at our starting point at Mile 28 around midday, a good time even by ‘kampung standards’! It took James two more hours of steady trekking, and the going was tough, but he made it, happy over his achievement. Well, there was no choice…! We were resting some time at the abandoned house a few feet above the main-road. We met some of the village people that had not been to the wedding yet. They had been shopping, and stopped over at the abandoned house for a quick lunch, which they had packed, and to re-arrange their packs. In fact, the ‘abandoned house’ turned out to be some kind of village relays, where they would store excess luggage, or sometimes even stay overnight. A number of young people who had come up with us and were now heading back to their work places had also left their good clothes and heavy shoes at the house. Arriving there they changed into their dry, clean outfits, put on socks and shoes, and transformed from simple village youths in torn t-shirts into elegant young men and ladies… But to store luggage, especially some dry clothes, at the house is something I will remember. I envied those who could put on a dry shirt. The only cloth that was still dry in my pack was my sarong! The villagers would not tarry long. They shouldered their massive gozong, rattan backpacks, each laden with not less than thirty kilograms of purchases. Then they shouldered loops of PVC piping, leaving us agape! Bidding their farewells, they strode off, not wanting to be late for the wedding! We headed for Gunung Emas. It was still raining, but the prospect of some hot tea was heartening after the long journey, and James invited us all for a late lunch. In the afternoon, we met some of James’ friends, and we were given a ride back to Donggongon. Only back at home I realised that I was reeking of smoke, food, rice-wine and sweat. I hadn’t really changed in four days, and only bathed twice in the river, but I also have hardly ever been so satisfied with trekking. It was an absolutely perfect experience, and a great adventure, too! I am looking forward to visiting the people of Longkogungan soon again, and then continue walking for another four days right back to Donggongon, visiting on the way some more villages that are even remoter than Longkogungan. Gus and Jas are ready, too, and many other friends who have listened to our tales want to join us. Maybe there will be another wedding. And it really does not matter if we can’t find the party on the first day! In the distance, I can already hear the gongs calling!

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