Life Lessons in Borneo

GP contributor Will McGough goes fishing in Borneo and reels in a dose of humility.

Editor’s Note: GP contributor Will McGough ventures into the thick jungles of Malaysia for a lesson in fishing, but reels in an unexpected lesson in humility as well. His essay below.

Deep in the jungle of Malaysian Borneo outside of Batang Ai National Park, about two hours from civilization, our guide uncoiled a weighted fishing net — which he had made by hand — and tossed it into the river. He put on a pair of old-school, glass-lens diver’s goggles and waded in, then dove down to retrieve the fish he had trapped and snapped their necks before tossing them to the shore. I collected the dead fish and put them into a bag. I was a complete bystander at this point, fully dependent on this man for my food. I decided that was all about to change.

It had been a long time coming. From the onset of the trip, my hand had been held. Our guides, Belansai and Udan, had led us an hour downstream in a boat, then carried all the food the hour hike to our camp, which they hand-built using a machete and trees from the rainforest. They guided us on hikes through the thick jungle to waterfalls, successfully tracked wild orangutans, fished, picked jungle herbs for seasoning, cooked, and showed us how to track boar and watch for pythons. Basically, up to this point, the only thing my friends and I had done was hand out nicknames. We called Belansai “the bamboozler” for his affinity for cooking in bamboo tubes over the fire. Udan earned the title of “Tuak” for his love of the Malaysian rice wine that goes by the same name.

In 30 seconds and one breath, I had broken the goggles — which Belansai used on a daily basis to provide for his family — and lost three fish.

On one hand, some pampering is expected on a guided trip. But as a self-proclaimed outdoorsman from Colorado, I wanted to be a part of it all, not perceived as some dipshit, worthless American. I saw the fishing as a reasonable opportunity to pitch in, so after Belansai had caught enough for dinner, I asked him via our translator if I could give it a go. He nodded and handed over his goggles. I stripped down to my underwear and, once in the water, put on the goggles. I went under, but water immediately poured into the mask.



I traveled on a customized trip with Planet Borneo Tours, which also offers a variety of other adventures and travel packages.

Bako National Park Day Trip: Just outside of Kuching sits Bako National Park, home of crab-eating long tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, potbellied proboscis monkeys, flying lemurs, and bearded pigs. For those without a lot of time, this is a great introduction to the wildlife of Sarawak, as the 16-square-mile park is home to seven distinct ecosystems, including beach vegetation, cliff vegetation, mangrove, peat swamp forests, mixed dipterocarp forests, heath forests, and grasslands. Cost is $80 per person and includes all land and river transfers, park fees and lunch.

Mulu Show Caves: This three day, two night trip takes you on a guided journey through four caves in Mulu National Park, including longboat river cruise and a stopover at a Penan longhouse. The trip departs from Mulu airport and costs $122 per person, including all transfers, picnic lunch and park fees.

Customized Trips: Want to do your own thing? Planet Borneo offers single and multi-day customized trips that leave from cities within both Sarawak and Sabah.

I surfaced, and my friend, seeing what was happening, called out that I needed to better secure them. Accustomed to the plastic pairs back home, I pressed firmly with both hands on the top of the goggles, trying to force them onto my face. Crack. Before I even registered what happened I saw the look on Belansai’s face, an evolving train of emotions from confusion (Really? You can’t even put on goggles?), to disappointment (Seriously? You just broke my fucking goggles?), to anger (Dude! You just broke my fucking goggles!).

Embarrassed but still trying to salvage the effort, I sucked the air from the goggles through my nose and went under. The crack ran from top to bottom yet, miraculously, didn’t leak. I kicked my way down to the net and saw three fish trapped. My strategy was to grab them one at a time from the outside using the net to get a grip. I locked both hands on the first with plans to crack it like a stick, but in doing so, lifted the net from the bottom of the river. The other two fish quickly fled the scene. Frustrated, I went after the first again, one hand on the outside of the net, the other reaching under. When I tried to make the transfer between hands, it kicked, slipped away, and swam off. In 30 seconds and one breath, I had broken the goggles — which Belansai used on a daily basis to provide for his family — and lost three fish.

Back on the shore, Belansai took back the goggles, looked them over and turned his attention to me. “Fish?” he said. I shook my head. “No fish.” The translator, who just seemed happy I hadn’t punctured my eyes with broken glass, helped me laugh it off. Belansai stayed quiet, until he came over and handed me the bag of dead fish to carry. “Your job,” he said slowly, flashing a friendly, forgiving grin that I’ll never forget, and we set off back for camp.

For just under a minute in the jungles of Southeast Asia, I pretended that my athleticism and backpacking experience in America qualified me to be a jungle boy, someone who could provide for himself and others. Later that night we sat around the fire and watched Belansai empty the cooked fish from the bamboo tube. I smiled as my friend pointed out how glad he was that we rented a real man.

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