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How Dayak climbers helped in foreign expeditions

We have often heard of Sherpas and Nepalese mountain climbers, but did you know that Dayak climbers from Borneo were often recruited by westerners during scientific expeditions?

These adventures took these Dayak climbers out of Borneo way back in the early part of the 20th century.

Hendrikus Albertus Lorents and his Dayak climbers/porters

Hendrikus Albertus Lorentz (1871-1944) was the first recorded explorer to hire Dayak climbers to accompany him in his expedition.

The Dutch explorer participated in three expeditions to New Guinea; the first was the North New Guinea Expedition in 1903, led by Arthur Wichmann. Lorentz himself led expeditions in 1907 and 1909-1910.

According to Tom Harrisson in an article “Kenyah above the Snow Line” published on The Sarawak Gazette (April 30, 1965), Lorentz recruited Dayak climbers to climb Puncak Jaya in 1909.

Known as Carstensz Peak back then, it is the highest mountain in Indonesia standing tall at 4,884 metres.

“The 1909 expedition was a Dutch race against a British group, sponsored by the British Ornithologists Union. Dutch leader Lorentz recruited 61 Dutch-Indonesian troops and 82 Bornean Dayaks, who were allowed to bring blowpipes and poison darts but not beheading swords,” Harrisson wrote.

More than a month after leaving their base, Lorentz and his party reached the snowfield of Puncak Jaya at 14,786 feet on Nov 8, 1909.

The first Kayan and Kenyah climbers to reach a snow capped mountain

Most records stated that Kenyah porters from Apo Kayan who helped Lorentz in his conquests.

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According to Tom Harrisson, the six Dayak porters were actually Kenyahs and Kayans from the Batang Kayan and Mahakam, Indonesia.

Lorentz once wrote, “It is still incredible, as it was then, to think of us and our five Dayaks standing on that high white island.”

Though it is impossible to find out their identities today, it is right to say they might be the first Kayan and Kenyah climbers to reach a snow peaked mountain.

There is a photo of them on top of the mountain. It was published in “New Guinea: The Last Unknown” by Gavin Souter with one of the Dayak climbers covering his face with snow.

On the way down, Lorentz fell and got himself seriously injured. Thankfully, his Dayak climbers saved the day by bringing him down safely.

How Dayak climbers helped in other expeditions

Meanwhile, the British expedition got into serious difficulties and failed to reach to the top. Their expedition had 96 servants from Maluku, Indonesia and ten Gurkhas.

In 1912, the British Ornithologists Union tried again. Learning from the Dutch, the British also hired Dayak climbers to aid in their expedition.

Along with 74 Iban climbers partly from Sarawak, they reached the then record height of 14,866 feet of Puncak Jaya.

Later in 1938, American zoologist Richard Archbold dispatched two exploration teams into the Baliem Valley of New Guinea. Each team consisted of Dutch soldiers, convicts and Dayak porters from Kalimantan.

According to Harrisson, a large number of them were Kenyahs and Kayans from Apo Kayan “who among other things planted garden of beans and lettuce above 10,000 feet” during the expedition.

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With their jungle survival skills and high-enduring stamina, it is understandable why foreign adventurers recruited Dayak climbers during such expeditions.

Dayak warriors. Credit: Creative commons
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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