Macintyre: Edge of Existence - Tuesday June 4

macintyre: edge of existence
borneo (2/4)

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the absolute limits of human habitation in The Edge of Existence, a new four-part series for Five. Tonight’s episode sees Donal travel to Borneo in southeast Asia to experience life with the sea gypsies.

After a gruelling three-day journey through the shark and pirate-infested waters of the Celebes Sea, Donal arrives at the port of Semporna on the southeast coast of Borneo. Here, he hopes to learn of the Bajau-Laut –a nomadic tribe of people who were born, live and will die at sea. But since the Bajau-Laut –or sea gypsies –are rarely on land and do not keep to a conventional calendar, they are very hard to find. As Donal sets off into 100,000 square miles of water, he is apprehensive: “I’d love to tell you what’s going to happen over the next while,” he says, “but I’ve no idea.”

His initial fears are allayed when he approaches Omadal island and receives a warm, traditional welcome from the inhabitants of a small settlement. These villagers were once sea gypsies themselves, but have since transferred their lives to the land. Their existence is still centred around the sea, however, as Donal soon discovers.

Following a breakfast of barbecued fish, Donal meets two of the village’s best fishermen and realises that in order to be accepted, he must join them on a dive for fish. Once out on the water, Axan, renowned as an excellent free-diver, shows Donal how it is done. Holding his breath for over two minutes, he deftly plunges to depths of 30 feet and collects giant clams from the ocean floor using nothing other than a homemade spear. When it comes to Donal’s turn, he quickly realises that this is not for amateurs and returns to the surface after just a few seconds. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to do half of what’s expected of me,” he says.

Donal enjoys the villagers’ hospitality and training for a couple of days, before the news for which he has been waiting arrives –some real sea gypsies are moored nearby. The village imam has negotiated with the gypsies so that Donal can join them onboard, but he has some wisdom to offer: “I don’t think you will be able to adapt,” he warns.

Pilar and Sabung live with their respective families on one small wooden boat. Despite having 20 people onboard, they welcome their new guest as one of their own, and it is not long before the boat leaves and Donal’s journey into the unknown begins. Their first port of call is Kapalai reef, where they hope to catch a good haul of fish. The family, who have lived at sea all their lives, store no food and must constantly search for their next meal. “If we don’t catch fish,” explains Donal, “we don’t eat.” Fish is also key to the sea gypsies’ nomadic lifestyle –since they have no other currency, they must trade any extra fish they catch for fuel.

As the boat approaches its destination, Donal is amazed at the air of serenity, despite the cramped conditions. There is little chatter among the people, with much of the communication being conducted using body language. “There is a gentle simplicity about life here on the boat,” Donal reflects.

The next day, Donal once again tries his hand at spear fishing. Though he is slowly adjusting to the technique, he still finds it hard work and, after five tiring hours, he, Pilar and Sabung return to the boat with just five fish. They have caught enough for tonight’s dinner, but will need to do much better if they are to replenish their fuel reserves. Donal, however, has yet to experience the true extent of the sea gypsies’ fishing skills. Having met up with another family, Donal’s hosts allow him to partake in an amazing spectacle they call ‘mass fishing’. Swimming underwater in a long line, the gypsies drive a school of fish towards a net they have laid on the reef bed. Donal is thrilled to have witnessed this “underwater ballet” and begins to feel at home in this once alien way of life. “I’m feeling like a part of this boat,” he says, “and a part of this family.”

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