And What It Means To Me:
Top picture: Bob’s parang Bottom picture: Bob teaching students in the jungle, parang always to hand.
When I went onto the jungle phase of SAS selection in Borneo back in the mid 1970s I learnt so much.
Most of my instructors had been to Borneo on operations. I though, was there to learn…from them. However, in the background and rarely seen were a small group of men, without whom there would be no real jungle training at all.
Those amazing individuals were Iban Dayaks, some of the elders like their ancestors had been head hunters. A north western tribe of the Dayaks of Borneo. People of the interior, the real jungle men and their families. People who live and breath the jungle. People who’s skills are so vitally important to our way of living and working under the canopies of Borneo, whether on training or on operations.
Years later when it was my turn to be the SAS instructor in the jungle, I’d come to realize just how lucky I was to have both the Borneo veteran SAS instructors and the Iban Dayak old school masters at my disposal.
To watch and listen to my instructor converse in Malay with the Iban elder…speaking in low tones as we were all respecting the environment we were working from, was just enlightening.
To explain everything I’d have to write a book…so here is the key elements of what was important for me at the time, and what is so important today, as an old retired soldier.
The jungle is a very special place for me. If you have the skills and knowledge, you can live under the canopy, quite comfortably…for ever.
During my SAS career, I spent more time in the jungle than any other theatre. Between my selection phase, later as an instructor on training wing, and several squadron deployments in between. Then as the senior military instructor (SMI) at the British jungle school in Brunei. Not including the training of foreign SF units in their own jungles around the world.
The key though, is to be at one with the jungle. I’ve heard and seen so many soldiers and civilians fight the jungle, instead of embracing it. Respect the flora and fauna, It’ll all respect you in return. From the time we enter, to the time we leave…we move slowly and speak with low tones…”slowly slowly catchee monkey shhhhh!”
One day after a patrol navex with our instructor, we were approaching our jungle base camp along a shallow ridge line. All of a sudden I could see 2 of the Ibans standing still like statues off to one side. I was shocked, they broke my concentration, they looked fierce. It was raining heavily, we were all ankle deep in mud. Motionless, expressionless, they were standing staring as we passed by. They were about 5ft 2ins in height, stocky, in their 40s. Bare feet, loin cloth, a bag of severed heads tied around their waist (some passed down by their elders), along with their parang in a wooden scabbard, and their body covered in tattoos. One had a large rattan basket on his back. Basically a couple of seriously tough fellas who had already lived life!
I asked our instructor (who had served on operations in the Borneo campaign) why they were so unfriendly? He said that they weren’t, it was just the way they were…just like the orangutan, they too are man of the jungle. This is how they behave.
Over the 8 weeks under the canopy, I’d see these people only a handful of times. Each time I’d show my respect by just passing by as slowly and quietly as possible, to try to show them that I’m not just learning, but I’m at one with the jungle too. As soon as I was far enough away, they probably laughed their heads off (pardon the pun).
One of the things I learnt from the trip was to get an Iban parang as soon as possible. Our British army tree beaters (issued machete) were useless, especially against young hard wood trees that needed cutting down or clearing away. We had been given a lesson on the parang by one of our instructors. He showed us that it wasn’t a weapon, but an extremely vital piece of equipment, indeed a tool for living, operating and surviving in the jungle.
We already knew the importance of our issued machete. It was to be worn under our belt kit, and NEVER to be placed under the side pocket of our bergen back pack. The idea being that if we were whacked by a larger force and sent on the run…we can dump our back pack, as a last resort, we’d still have our weapon, belt kit and machete. If we were caught say in an LUP with our belt kit off, we can still run with our weapon and our machete. Absolute worst case scenario…we run with our machete and our life!
Well this got me really thinking. What’s the point of wandering around on jungle ops with a tree beater hanging from my waist? The parang blade is made from a tempered lorry spring…it’s heavy, large…but incredibly useful. The blade’s edge has three uses. The rear edge is for whittling. The main curved edge for cutting, and the front edge for skinning…the whole being a blend of all three running the length of the blade. The shape and weight of the blade ensures that it’s the blade that does the work and not the user. The handle and scabbard are made of a light balsa type wood.
I managed to get hold of an awesome parang. It took me a while to get used to carrying it initially. But once I got comfortable, it was part of me…I carried it everywhere.
Today, there are a million parang makers…even some barefaced Westerners daring to put their names to them. I’ve even watched these same Westerners pull the parang from it’s sheath with their fingers wrapped around the blade end of the sheath…and their name’s on it!
But there’s really only one parang…made by the Iban Dayaks in their traditional ways. Because to these people, the parang is the tool to their wealth…shelter, food, fire and medicine.
Today, I no longer operate under the jungle canopy. The experience over the years has kept me humble. Sharing the rain forest with the Ibans, my fellow soldiers, and all that lives in there has been the most amazing journey.
I now use my parang to prune my plants and trees in the garden. Periodically, I sit in the garden and sharpen it. With the same wet stone that I used in the Regiment for nearly two decades under the various canopies of the world’s rain forests. With the rhythm of the wet stone running along the blade, I reminisce, thinking of all who helped me along the way …what a privilege.