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Gone Fishing | A Batek foraging trip

Around mid-morning a group of young Batek invited me into the forest by way of Lee, the others still too shy to speak to me directly. A couple of the older girls and a few of the younger children came too, while far behind the elderly sisters, Chenkling and Empeng, trailed us as we walked along the plantation tracks to the jungle.


This is part of a larger series of articles on the Batek expedition




Soon to be lunch

The sun beat down on the dry yellow earth, and many of the children cut banana leaves to shade their necks and faces. Those who wore flip-flops soon removed them, tying them about their waists with improvised belts of jungle vine. Dark, bare soles pattered in rhythm, the young Batek seeming to take joy from the hot earth and thick mud underfoot. Flowers were collected as we moved and the girls’ heads gradually took on the form of ornate hanging baskets as they added flower after flower, white and yellow, interspersed with the pale shredded hearts of lowbeck. Both children and adolescents walked hand in hand—male and female—a finger or thumb gently linked in another’s palm, or hooked at the elbow around a nearby arm. Lee took my hand firmly, and we walk in step all the way to the entrance of the jungle.

On entering the forest proper we soon came across a giant palm—the same as those used in hayak thatch. Each young woman cut a frond and swiftly stripped it of leaf and thorn in a flurry of machete blows. Within seconds they had fishing rods, tied and ready, complete with twine and small metal hooks. Worms were dug from earthy banks and lines cast into the clear waters of a slow-moving jungle stream. Moments later they began to pull up fish and we moved upstream, fishing as we went, feeling for bites on skewered worms. It’s harder than it looks, and I had little luck, usually jerking up the rod too late. The Batek had better success, and fish were strung one after the other on a knotted vine.

On the hunt for fish

We walked for a few miles in the jungle, through tangled vines and thick bamboo thickets, up steep slopes of slick mud and along the pebble beds of the trickling stream. Unseen gibbons called out in the canopy high above, and it felt as if in a different world, alone at the bottom of an ocean of green foliage and humid air. Snacking on wild ginger bulbs, the Batek walked rapidly, weaving around and up and down through the thickest jungle and steepest of slopes, hopping over branches and leaping over little rivers. Bare feet moved soundlessly through the water and over muddy banks as we passed in and out of the forest and stream, following the latter’s winding flow.

It was all I could do to try and keep up, desperately avoiding the thorns of rattan as my bare feet slipped and sunk in the thick jungle mud. I’ve always considered myself pretty capable on technical terrain, but the casual confidence of these children was something else—they seemed almost to float, striding barefoot as if walking along a sandy beach.

Every so often one of them would stoop to pluck a small sapling from the ground, or slice a sliver of bark from a passing tree. After it had been sniffed and examined it would pass down the line, each child analysing the object in turn. They’d share their thoughts on its identification, and if in disagreement, the eldest of the young women, Amem, would be consulted for clarification. It seemed almost to be a game.

The fish are gutted and de-scaled in the river before cooking

A couple of the older married women had now joined us, appearing out of the jungle to our left. How they’d found us I had no idea. They continued to fish, pulling a few fish from each pool as they went, barely giving me time to catch up. I quickly acquired the job of fish-carrier—on one occasion receiving a fish hurled from the far side of the river by one of the older women, much to the amusement of everyone there. Then, just when I thought I had seen it all, the other of the pair reached her hands down under the muddy bank, felt around for a few seconds, and pulled out a handful of fish bare-handed.

When we did finally stop, up atop a raised bank amidst a thicket of giant trees overlooking the river, the children set to work, dispersing with purpose into the surrounding vegetation. They moved with practiced skill, each attending to a job of their own. The young boys gathered firewood, hacking through dead trunks a foot or more in diameter. Others squatted in the stream, scaling and gutting the small fish with fingernails and sharp pebbles. Within a few minutes a fire had been built, and our catch sat cooking in tubes of freshly cut bamboo. Beneath us was a carpet of soft leaves, stripped and laid out by the youngest girls. The speed and efficiency of these children was incredible, and I can remember watching astounded as individuals as young as eight made themselves a home and lunch in the space of a few minutes. They wielded machetes with ease and grace, despite their adult proportions, and it was clear that already they saw the forest around them with impressive degree of understanding.

Onto the fire and then finally time to eat

As the fish cooked, one of the girls produced a chilli from a fold in her sarong, and it was mashed and added to the boiling water. The children babbled excitedly in Batek while older members of the party sat back in contended ease, soaking in the lazy buzz of insects and humid heat of the surrounding jungle. The elder Bidan looked on fondly from their seats some distance away. It was a familiar scene—one you might expect to observe in a city park on a summer’s day. This was their place—a haven and sanctuary; a place of pure peace and solitude for their community—protected from the changes of the world outside. I felt it too: a creeping contentment and timeless bliss; simple community in its ancestral home.

Once we had eaten, the bamboo cups and cooking pots were quickly destroyed, and left to burn on the fire. In time, the signs of our presence would fade, and the ever-changing passage of the jungle would remove all evidence of our ever having been there.


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