Adventurer and film maker Bruce Parry first met the Penan tribe in the rainforests of Borneo during the making of his BBC TV series Tribe, broadcast from 2005 Ė 2007. For his new film ĎTawai: A Voice from the Forestí he revisits the Penan and finds out whether their connection with nature, and with each other, can help us all take collective responsibility for making the world a better place. Join us as we find out more about Bruce Parryís new film and discover his travel inspirations, biggest challenges and what keeps him going if he ever feels like giving up.
Find out more about Borneo in our Borneo travel guide
Find out more about Borneo in our Borneo travel guide
Bruce Parry interviewWhat made you decide to revisit the Penan people?
After travelling in the Amazon and witnessing, firsthand, the effects of globalisation and climate change, I felt compelled to talk about it. Revisiting the Penan felt like the obvious next step because out of all the tribes that Iíd come into contact with, they struck me as having left the lightest footprint thanks to their incredibly interesting relationship with nature. The first time around I knew Iíd found something different about the Penan but couldnít put my finger on what was it. I needed to go away and read, learn, listen to the findings of anthropologists, and try to ascertain what that integral difference was. When I went back I found myself looking from a completely different prism.
How have things changed?
The Penan are struggling. Theyíre losing their land to logging companies, palm oil plantations, dammed rivers and pipelines draining Borneoís natural reserves. Foreign NGOs have tried to help by providing longhouses for the Penan to live in, for which the tribe are incredibly grateful despite their traditional lifestyle being one of nomadic hunter gatherers. Theyíre a community in transition with fruit trees and agriculture taking the place of what Iíd witnessed on my previous visit. The first time I visited there were no domesticated animals or sown plants. Like I said, theyíre in transition, and physical changes were subtle but evident although the collective ideology was still the same.
The Penan have no social hierarchy. Thereís no competition to be better than another member of the tribe; they share everything and consider themselves to be completely equal with one another. This collective sense of being is evident in the way they communicate and behave towards each other. Any gentle banter or poking fun, which is so ingrained within me, had little or no purchase with the Penan. It was meaningless to them. But donít get me wrong; the Penan are individuals, they have egos, they can be competitive and theyíre more than happy to acknowledge each othersí differences. Itís just that over time theyíve created a society that has accentuated the traits which naturally lead to equality. Although Iíve visited other tribes who also work towards maintaining equality and balance within their society, this ideology is already instilled within the Penan. Itís simply too deep-rooted to change without a considerable degree of effort on their part.
How do you hope ĎTawai: a Voice from the Forestí will make a difference?
The film is like a meditation. The hope is for people to watch and reflect upon their own existence, especially their relationship with nature. We need to look at ourselves as a society and try to behave towards each other in a different way. This is not a self indulgent film. Iím well aware that I need to change too. I set out my own intentions to change. I want to admit to the world that Iím a consumer and I still plan to travel in the future. But Iím also aware that itís a privilege to be able to travel, and itís the stuff that comes afterwards that counts. If anyone watching the film begins to take personal responsibility for their own impact on the planet, both socially and environmentally, and pass this on to people who havenít watched the film, then that would be my one great hope, going forwards.
How can responsible travellers to Borneo have a positive impact?
Borneo is incredibly interesting; itís one of the most fascinating places on the planet. Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak are all so different. I believe that travellers need to wake up to what impacts theyíre making, back home and abroad. We all need to be responsible consumers. Check the back of food packets to avoid palm oil. Visit a palm oil plantation whilst travelling in Borneo and remember that this was once a pristine rainforest. Take photos. Share the evidence. Tell friends back home. Let people know that humans are responsible for destroying the lungs of the world: the rainforests. Companies are laying pipes for oil, the oil that we use to fly around the world. Be honest Ė we all need to look at ourselves. Study before, during and after you travel. Travel is one of the greatest educations we can have and passing on what we discover is one way that we can have a positive impact for generations to come.
Iíve just come back from Spain and donít have a real pinpoint at the moment but the UK is where I call home. Iím interested in finding woodland to buy and start up a community. I plan to really find home. You can taste my yearning for home, for family, in the film Ė thatís what Iím looking for now.
Whatís your first ever travel memory?
I was young Ė early teens. I took my dog Holly to the Lake District. I jumped trains and slept rough. I had a rucksack full of tins Iíd taken from home. I could barely make it up the hillsides as my pack was just too heavy. I cooked on open fires and made traps for rabbits. I was a real outdoors sort of kid.
The Lake District. Photo by john mcsporran.
Describe yourself in three words?
Curious, intense, happy.
What inspired you to start travelling?
Iíd like to say just getting out of the house, although this sounds way too unfair on my family! The stories of explorers really inspired me the most. Explorers like Shackleton, real explorers.
What do you dream of for our world in the future?
An egalitarian society of high tech, low impact; people living in the natural world with no borders. Iíd like there to be a strong local connection but under a global umbrella.
Whatís been the biggest challenge youíve faced on a journey?
I was on an expedition through the Ethiopian desert on camels with two friends when we met a local guy. Most people had guns out there but this guy liked to point his at us every time we drew a camera. After a three day Mexican stand-off we ended up getting kidnapped for a few days. He just wanted to take our stuff and I donít think heíd have actually shot us, but...
The Ethiopian desert. Photo by Achilli Family | Journeys.
Whereís the best place youíve woken up?
I once woke up in a hammock at the top of an incredibly tall tree in the Amazon rainforest. The views over the rest of the Amazon were amazing.
Is there one person youíve met who you feel you were so lucky to connect with?
I met Michael Palin, who I really admire, also Robin Hanbury-Tenison from Survival International and John Hemming the Canadian explorer. However, in all honesty, the luckiest connection I made was with a 90-year-old tribal chief in West Papua on New Guinea Island. He told me all his stories and tales of headhunting raids and tribal ceremonies. He talked about a life that was so hard to imagine and made crossing that divide and making that connection really unique and insightful.
Has anyone ever told you that you wonít make it?
Loads of people! Especially when my friend Mark and I were trying to cross New Guinea from south to north. Many people said we wouldnít make it. They were right. We ran out of food half way up a mountain.
Tell us about a time when you felt like walking away from an adventure?
Constantly! No, never. It was bloody hard crossing the desert on one occasion but Iíve never really wanted to walk away from an adventure.
What keeps you going if you ever feel like giving up?
Every journey is different. I feel compelled to keep going. I feel like more of an adventurer now; Iíve got more of a vision. More of a collective drive or desire to complete an adventure. Previously my travels were purely based around me trying to achieve something. Be first up a mountain or whatever; much more of an individual experience. These days my films and travels are more wholesome and healthy. More of a collective purpose, collecting information for everyone. Thatís what drives me now. Itís a drive I much prefer.
What are you most proud of?
Iíve met a few people that have been named after me. Thereís also a mountain bearing my name too. I suppose this makes me proud, although perhaps these sorts of things are more humbling. I was proud to get my green beret as a marine although if I could help to save the land for the Penan this would probably make me the most proud of all.
Whatís your happiest travel memory?
Some of my expeditions to various parts of the world Ė pre-TV work Ė were some of my happiest. Also taking groups of young people on their first adventures into a forest gave me immense joy. Iíve always felt more enjoyment taking other people on an adventure and living it through their eyes.
Whatís always in your bag Ė no matter what adventure youíre on?
I always pack my Bornean parang machete.
What do you still dream of doing that you havenít yet done?
What Iíd really love to be able to do is learn about the flora and fauna of the UK. Iíve recently been learning to forage but would love to learn more and gain a really in-depth knowledge and form strong ties with nature.
Where would you like to be right now?
Iím happy where I am for the moment.
What does responsible tourism mean to you?
Responsible tourism means, to me, listening and paying attention to local customs and desires. Itís about being aware of the imprint that we make when we travel and the effect of you being in a location. Itís about only going somewhere if invited, not just because you want to. Itís about being prepared to stop, if necessary, and turn back if it feels wrong. Itís not only about being aware of humans but also about being culturally and ecologically responsible, not going into a pristine environment just because you want to. Itís about travelling whilst having a full awareness of impact.
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