A Borneo Readathon : Stranger in the Forest

eric hansen stranger in the forest

Time flies – when you fly with a good book. For years now, I’ve been using the downtime of longhaul flights to read a good book, or two. I usually pack a few books about my destination (fiction or otherwise) or written by authors from the country I’m visiting.

Readathons such as the Founding of Hong Kong – Tai Pan, or South Africa seen differently through Coovadia’s  Tales of the Metric System are my humble way of scratching the cultural, economic or historic surface of my destination – in a quest to hopefully become a better informed, mindful traveler.

So, when we finally booked the trip to Borneo, my readathon books were already ordered and I was almost masochistically looking forward to that 14-hour long flight to Singapore

Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo

Stranger in the Forest was the perfect book for my nature-themed Malaysia trip:

A thrilling, first person account of the seven-month long adventures of Eric Hansen, the first westerner to ever walk across the island of Borneo.

If the sentence above is not reason enough to make you read further, here’s another one: published in 1988, Stranger in the Forest was ranked #50 in National Geographic Adventure’s “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time”

In a Nutshell

American Eric Hansen decides to cross the entire lenght of Borneo by foot. This is a 7 month long, 1500-mile journey. Through some of the thickest and least mapped rainforest jungles in the world. Attempted by a westerner.

Admittedly, in his journey Hansen did get a good helping hand from the locals – nomadic hunters known as Penan – who guided him through the jungle and taught him the ways of the forest.

Borneo – a Paradise of Diversity

Borneo is a paradise of biodiversity: snakes and frogs fly, pigs climb trees, giant carnivorous plants eat mice, and mushrooms glow at night. I myself can account for the Bornean glow in the dark mushrooms: that’s a sight to behold!

From one chapter to the other, you read about the incredible variety of life in the jungle, nature’s constant improvements, innovations as well as destructive powers – and the natives’ veneration and respect. However, what I liked best about Stranger in the Forest is that the book provides an intimate look at the way of life of one of the last surviving groups of rain forest dwellers, as they fight, or adapt to the changing environment.

Another reason this book stands out is that the author’s account of his otherwise daring feat isn’t smug, nor arrogant – he constantly talks about the help he got from the Penan. Hanson studies Borneo’s history, flora and fauna, he learns the language and he opens up to a different way of thinking about time and the world. Then, he does us all a big favor and writes about it

Forty Years Ago, a Lifetime Away

We all had dreams of explorations when we were kids. Some of us may still have such daydreams, even if we’re stuck at home in times of a global coronavirus pandemic.

What’s truly incredible is how Hansen’s book sounds like a tale from a thousands years prior, yet it reflects the reality from only four decades ago.

Passing through many Bornean villages, he was surprised to find out that prostitution, homosexuality and rape did not exist in these communities.

When he described to the villagers life in the city, it was difficult for them to understand notions such as “private property” and “hoarding things for oneself only”.

For the people in the rain forest, stinginess was the worst possible crime.

Jungles, headhunters, longhouses, semi-nomadic tribes living an almost stone-aged existence. And yet, stark changes in lifestyle were showing already differences to only six years prior: deforestation and industrial logging rose in the 1970s as Malaysia depleted its peninsular forests.

In only ten years, 1973 to 1983, the area of undisturbed forest was halved..

Favorite Quotes

From accounts of drunken parties with the descendants of headhunters, to conversations with a man who carried a sewing machine on his back through hundreds of miles of jungle, the book is full of surprises and draws you into an amazing lost world.

I’ve pulled out a few of my favorite parts, to give you a taste. Do read Stranger in the Forest – it’ll take you on a wonderful, unforgettable adventure through Borneo!


We might laugh at the notion of plastic tea sets in the jungle, but it is a time-honored ritual for Western travelers to collect preindustrial artifacts to use as home decorations…Possession of primitive artifacts suggests worldly knowledge, just as in the highland communities of Borneo an electronic wristwatch that plays “Happy Birthday” is the mark of a great traveler. Funny thing how travel can narrow the mind.”
― Eric Hansen, Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo

Corruption, Politics

“Government observers, keen on getting the Penan out of the valuable hardwood forests, have claimed that Penan health is poor and that they are malnourished. This is a ploy to get them settled so they can be controlled. Also, it is a source of embarrassment to the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia that in the 1980s, nomadic hunters are still roaming the jungles. This doesn’t help the national image of a modern, developing country.”
― Eric Hansen, Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo

stranger in the forest penan people

Social, Religion

“Eyes glazed over as the great rice-wine parties in the highlands were recalled, parties that are no longer held since the arrival of the mission. Bario has become a good, clean, upstanding, sober, hard-working Christian community. What a loss for these fun-loving and generous people.”
― Eric Hansen, Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo

Customs, Sex

“The Bahau river villagers are given credit for initiating the practice of creating raised scars on the uppermost surface of the head of the “male reproductive organ”. Technique performed by the individual on his own organ. The cuts were rubbed with ash to create as much scar tissue as possible. It is more common now to visit a dispensary so that incisions are made by a doctor using an anestethic”


The people have a very keen sense of forest management. “Agriculture known as slash and burn was responsible for clearing of primary forest, but the villagers were no longer cutting down primary forest. .. The people make their farms in what are called “old fields” , which are previously farmed areas that have remained fallow long enough for the forest to regenerate. .. A kind of cherry tree that grows in old fields and appears in the fourth year. When this tree is in its 12 to 15th year, farmers know that the soil can once again support crops ... People would never go to the tremendous effort of cutting the forest unles they knew the soil was ready.

stranger in the forest jungle borneo

Space, Science

“One woman had listened to a radio report on the Apollo moon mission, and she wanted me to clarify a few points… The big rocket ship question was difficult, but this is how I described the force of gravity: Inside the center of the earth is a very large batu besi berani. It is so big that it not only pulls metal objects towards it, but people, coconuts, tree branches, and water. I demonstrated by dropping my plastic pen to the floor. Inside the moon there is only a very small piece of batu besi berani, it is weak and therefore it pulls things more slowly. I showed them how my pen would fall on the moon.

To leave earth, you need a big rocket ship with big engines and a lot of gasoline to escape the magnetic rock. Leaving the moon yo uneed only a small engine and much less gasoline. — Traveling from Earth is similar to traveling upriver through rapids. Leaving the moon is the same as traveling downriver

On Virtual Foot Across Borneo

My comfortable, first-world touristy Borneo experiences are nothing compared to Eric Hansen’s ambitious adventures, of course. However, I did manage to catch a litle glimpse of the island and I’ll tell you this:

Borneo is love at first sight. Once you’ve seen it, you’re bound to come back for more.

If you can’t visit Borneo, read Stranger in the Forest. It’s the obvious next best thing.

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