The Current

Why a Swiss adventurer left the Western world to join a nomadic Indigenous community

Journalist Carl Hoffman follows two Western adventurers in his new book The Last Wild Men of Borneo, and reveals much about the forces shaping the island today.

'He really gave his life to the Penan and that's everything that he wanted,' says author

A Penan makes blowpipes in his hut in the cultural village in Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia located on the southwest of Borneo in 2006. Penans live in the dense jungles of Central Borneo, among some of the State's most valuable timber resources. (Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images)

Originally published on March 19, 2018.

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It's a stranger-than-fiction true-life adventure story set in the wild and remote place of Borneo, an island in southeast Asia where people live isolated from modernity.

This wild tale told by National Geographic Traveler's Carl Hoffman in his book, The Last Wild Men of Borneo, shares the story of two men obsessed with the Penan, a nomadic Indigenous people living in the very deepest part of the forest in Sarawak, and set out to find them. 

One of these men, Bruno Manser, lived in the Alps in Switzerland. In 1984, after being intrigued by a picture he saw in the library, Manser decided he wanted to live with the Penan to escape the world he knew — to "live in the belly of the mother, as he put it," says Hoffman.

"[The Penan] were pure hunter-gatherers, nomads, lived in small bands, shared everything communally, hunted with blowpipes, avoided the sun, were completely non-violent and that was all attractive to Bruno," Hoffman tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

After months of immersing himself in the culture and learning to speak the language, the Penan eventually accepted him into their community.

Traditional Penan houses are seen in Long Main village, located in the eastern Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak in 2007. (AFP/Getty Images)

A year after Manser's arrival, loggers became a powerful threat to Bornero and the Penan.

"Bruno organized them into blockading logging roads and in doing so he brought this billion dollar industry to a halt and threw a huge wrench into the system, and became famous overnight, both in the West and in Malaysia," Hoffman says.

Manser also became the most wanted man in Malaysia. The government considers him to be a subversive element and puts up a bounty for his arrest. But leaving to go back to living in Western culture "wasn't a place he held in his heart," says Hoffman.

"He really gave his life to the Penan and that's everything that he wanted."

Manser did leave to go back to Switzerland and set up a fund designed to help conserve the rainforests and the Penan. He snuck in and out of Boreo throughout the '90s, but disappeared entirely after making a final trip in 2000.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.