The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Tale of Death and Treasure
Where: The Explorers Club
46 E. 70th St.
212-628-8383 Price: $25
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To understand Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in 1961 for his book Savage Harvest, Carl Hoffman went deeper than he’d ever gone before, making two journeys of several months, each to one of the remotest places on earth – the swamps of southwest New Guinea, home to the Asmat people. The experience culminated in his living with former headhunters in a two room wooden house without electricity or plumbing, in a village without a single store, and only reachable by boat.
For Hoffman, these trips evoked the story of Bruno Manser, a Swiss shepherd who’d traveled to meet the Penan, the indigenous nomads of the great forests of Borneo, in 1984. Bruno crossed a line and became known to even the Penan themselves as Lakei Penan—Penan Man. He spoke their language, hunted with a blowpipe, walked over the jungle thorns barefoot, and eventually led the Penan like a T.E. Lawrence of the rainforest, in a revolt against the powerful Malaysian logging industry.
What fascinated Hoffman about his story wasn’t just what he did, but how the developed world reacted to him, how he was venerated, lionized—how he fulfilled every Western trope about indigenous people. But so, too, had something gone terribly wrong, and he had vanished in the forest in 2000. There were rumors: Murdered? Driven mad? No one could say for sure.
Serendipitously, while pondering Bruno during a visit to Bali, Hoffman met an American named Michael Palmieri. He had lived on the island for more than 40 years and, though a little older than Bruno, was of the same generation. They’d both been called to serve in their national militaries and both had refused. They’d both left their cultures and ended up traveling deep into the rivers and rainforests Borneo. But Michael, seeking the exquisite and powerful carvings of the indigenous tribes, had gone in and come out, in and out, over 150 times since 1974, and the fruits of his labor were displayed in many of the world’s greatest museums—another tangible proof of us coveting their worlds.
Michael and Bruno were completely different kinds of men. Bruno was an idealist, a do-gooder, a refugee from the modern world who despised the cult of Western consumerism and devoted his life to the Penan. Michael was a buccaneer, a man who spent his life buying and selling the Dayak’s art, the physical manifestations of their sacred universe, pieces that fed our hungry souls and rose in price even as the cultures that produced them were dying, and in doing so had carved out a comfortable life for himself.
But hearing Michael’s story, it struck Hoffman that he and Bruno were two pieces of a whole, two men who spent their lives in pursuit of the sacred fire of “exotic” indigenous people. They’d both become obsessed with Borneo’s people, were fascinated with sacred cultures and our romantic notions of their power. The two were hungry to touch a perceived Eden of our past, desperate to hold it in their hands and in their hearts, both trying to fill some piece of their souls with it, from it, in very different ways.
And then Michael told Hoffman that he’d met Bruno – their paths had crossed one day in Borneo in 1999.
He decided then to follow the stories of Michael and Bruno, two narratives that were really one. It was the story of the fate of Borneo: the place itself and an idea that we coveted, the last Eden of our imagination, a wild garden filled with spirits and magic and unconquered people. He would find out what happened to Bruno Manser and how well either of these wild men of Borneo had succeeded in fulfilling their dreams. Dreams of being adventurers in a strange land. Dreams of escaping western culture and wrapping themselves in the powers of Borneo’s indigenous people. And the most difficult dream of all – of saving its inextricably linked wildness and culture.
Carl Hoffman is an Explorers Club Fellow and the author of the New York Times bestselling Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest, which was a New York Times editor’s choice and one of the Washington Post’s 50 notable books of 2014. The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, was named one of the ten best books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal. He is a former contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and Wired magazines and has reported from some eighty countries, including the high Arctic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Mali, Egypt and both Russia and the former Soviet Union.Buy tickets/get more info now