Death by Spearing a.k.a. River Fishing Punan Style

RiverPunan02

WE WERE told recently by villagers that Kg Sukang was experiencing minor drought-like conditions. Rain had not visited for weeks; Belait River was shrinking; and there is barely enough water to properly bathe or cook with.

However, it has been raining every night since we arrived. Long, sustained spells of rain lightly descend on the village by late afternoon, and continue long into the night, prodding frogs to launch into a croaking crescendo.

“This is perfect weather for menyuluh (to shine a light on)!” exclaims Helmi, Imut’s husband. The Dusun man is Kg Sukang’s sole policeman, who I had imagined to be a grizzled man, keeping the law with a hard hand and harsh tongue in the ulu country.

But he debunks my myths, saying the most he ever gets to handle are illegal collectors of the forest’s rare gaharu plant, turned over to the police. These exotic plants fetch a handsome price for their distinctive fragrance.

“I came to Sukang in 2007, and there’s not been a single crime since that time. Just those illegals from Baram. They’re sent to my police station for processing,” he says.

Helmi is otherwise very warm and, from what I can see of his interactions with the Punan, very well received by both sides of the river. He is also somewhat an expert of spearing fish in the dark, which they call menyuluh. He explains that a certain type of large freshwater fish, called Tapah, will venture up to the colder surface when it rains.

And so, after coming in from the jungle and the rain, I take a late afternoon nap to prepare for a long night. Ujang’s prodding comes as expected; he asks to come down for an early dinner. I doubt Mark has slept, but he’s still looking sharp, reminding me of how old I seem to be getting.

By 7.15pm, the sun’s completely doused and we come down to the river where the boats are being readied.

We divide the party into three per boat, a navigator at the motor, the hunter at the bow, and the “useless tourist” in the middle.

I travel with Yanto, an Indonesian who admits to being a novice at spear fishing, showing off his trident-like weapon. Angat, a Punan takes charge of our motor. Mark, with his camera, takes his place in the middle. Helmi stands at the front with the traditional Punan speared blowpipe, with Mungil, also a Punan, navigating their boat.

We all wear miner-style headlamps, but the hunters carry powered torches to scan the river’s surface. Firing up the motors, we head downstream for several kilometres, yellow floodlights powered by the boats’ motors illuminating the stretch ahead. Cat’s eyes are visible on both sides of the rivers, painted on poles so the river looks exactly like a highway at night.

We then switch off the motors, drifting with the slow currents and paddling with small oars to hug opposite banks of Belait River. Yanto struggles to find anything; Angat and I can only spot small fish with our own weaker lights so the first two hours pass by for us uneventfully.

From the other side, however, we hear frantic splashing, and Helmi calls out every now and then, taunting Yanto’s silent vigil.

Angat didn’t bathe, his smell is chasing the fish away,” Yanto grumbles. Angat grins away, lying down on his back.

Around 10pm, a steady drizzle of rain pays us a visit, and Yanto steadies himself in expectation. But he only catches a catfish, rocking the boat as he leans out to spear it. We decide to meet briefly, and paddle to the other side to examine Helmi’s catch.

Our boats sidle up, and Mark slings his long legs over into our boat, keeping us firmly together.

“We’ve got half the river in here,” says Mark, smiling. I peer in and see three different fish, one is the elusive tapah, and it’s really among the largest riverfish I’ve ever personally seen being caught.

The others continue to poke fun at Yanto’s meagre catch, but he’s busy fixing up a new lamp to a car battery, mumbling about his light not being bright enough.

“Baju saja komando, tapi kumudu aja,” they laugh, referring to his army fatigues not helping his cause, but Yanto ignores them. The rain stops and Helmi sighs: “I was really hoping it would get heavier, because we caught our big one just as the rain started.”

We set out again, this time Yanto spears furiously at the slightest shadow, catching two more small fish — but the tapah continues to evade him. Finally, he sits down cross-legged, singing (badly) a sad Indonesian song.

Along the way, we notice a baby crocodile, and Yanto puts three light smacks on its head, clearly having given up. An owl hoots overhead, telling me that the wildlife in these parts are reasonably in good health. Angat laughs all the way. It is now 1am and we effectively end our hunt.

We moor our boats on a high sandbank and the men start up a small fire, while Yanto cleans his small catch. The others have caught a few more sizeable fishes, and leave them in a basket to take home. We gather round the fire, putting two of the smaller fish over it to cook. Helmi says we are cooking a baung (the catfish) and a badus.

The stars are only just coming out, and we sit and talk, mostly in Punan and Iban, so I have trouble catching up. Mungil makes up all sorts of jokes about Yanto and what seems to be one of the village girls, but even he is laughing at himself now.

“This is what the people here do. They fish, they hunt, whenever they need to eat. And we bring along someone like Mungil, because he’s the clown. You always need a fun guy around or these long nights get boring,” says Helmi, as Mungil nods and smiles, symbolising his acceptance of his lot in life.

The fish cook well, their fats spluttering over the fire and we pass the fish around. I cannot tell if I am cold or just hungry, but they taste so good, and we pick them to the bone.

Packing up, we turn our boats around, going all the way with the motors. It is a quick ride, and I regret wearing shorts, the cold wind robbing all the warmth from the fire. When we arrive, my fingers and face are numb, and I join them for another round of dinner and coffee, thinking to get some feeling back in them.

I do not even bother to bathe, crawling under my covers, vaguely remembering seeing the others head to their own beds. I think I hear Yanto talking about another trip, but sleep takes hold.

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