He may have died of natural causes, or perhaps by accident, drowning in a river, or falling out of a tree, or dropping off a cliff face. His fate remains unknown.– Wade Davis, Colombian-Canadian anthropologist
It was 3.50pm on Friday March 26, 1999 – almost 21 years to the day – when I bumped into a strange and unusual man.
Strolling along the waterfront next to the Hilton Kuching was Bruno Manser, a Swiss environmentalist with a reputation of a Scarlet Pimpernel.
Sporting a crew cut, long pants and batik shirt and Ghandi-type rimless glasses with a briefcase, he looked every bit a businessman.
As I walked towards him I smiled and said: “James Ritchie! I knew you would be coming.”
We first met when I was a newspaper correspondent in a November 14, 1986 interview at Long Seridan in Baram jungle.
When we met again in March 21 years ago I was the Sarawak government’s public relations officer.
As it transpired, Manser had “sneaked” into Sarawak earlier that day using a fictitious name.
A man on a “mission impossible”, he planned to surprise Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abdul Taib Mahmud by attending the annual Hari Raya Haji at the State Mosque the following morning.
Manser planned a dramatic meeting as he was going to fly a motorised paraglide into the mosque compound.
But the plan failed; four days later on March 29, he was arrested by immigration officers.
Manser’s first brush with the law was in 1985 after he made a daring escape following his arrest by the police at an Easter gathering deep in the jungle.
For the next five years he led the life of a Sarawak “Robin Hood” co-ordinating well-publicised protests and disrupting logging.
With the timber barons losing hundreds of millions, they privately offered a US$50,000 reward on his head.
In April of 1990, and with his life apparently in jeopardy, arrangements were made with the Swiss government for him to covertly return to Switzerland.
In April 1994, Manser teamed up with Swiss compatriot Jacques Christinet and swam across the Sungei Tujuh Brunei-Sarawak border to meet Manser’s ‘godfather’ Penan chief Along Sega.
For the next two weeks Manser, Christinet and Along drove 25-cm-long steel nails into some of the giant trees which the Penan felt should not be felled.
Bruno had bought some time because many chainsaws were ruined once it hit the steel nails.
In 1998 he made arrangements to parachute from an aircraft in Kuching and land in the compound of Taib’s residence and offer him a white lamb as a peace offering.
But his attempt was nipped in the bud when he was refused permission to enter the state.
On that fateful day of March 26 we met in Kuching; Manser had used a false passport to enter Sarawak undetected.
Assigned to escort Manser to Kuala Lumpur to be interrogated by the federal immigration authorities, we were given First Class seats.
During the 7pm Malaysia Airlines flight, Manser confessed that he had met the spiritual guardian of Sarawak’s Batu Lawi “Twin Peaks” who taught him a song which he hummed to me.
After he failed to meet the chief minister, Manser was more determined to return to Sarawak.
True to his pledge, he was back in Sarawak on May 21, 2000 after spending a month in the Kalimantan forests with a European film company.
Arriving at the border village of Bario upbeat but tired and with a broken rib, he secured a Penan guide to lead him to Long Semirang – the junction leading to Batu Lawi.
Manser had promised his Swiss beau that this was to be his last ascent of the mountain before tying the knot.
Manser, known as “Lakei Penan”, had planned to meet his protector and friend Along at the foot of Batu Lawi to tell the chieftain that this was going to be his last hurrah.
After Manser and his Penan guide went separate ways, there was no news about the Swiss. It seemed he had vanished into thin air.
What did happen on that portentous day?
Some say said that Manser had scaled the higher of the two 6,000ft twin peak with his 30kg backpack, but weak and tired, could have fallen on his way down.
If anyone knew the truth, it had to be Along who could not have been able to get his stubborn godson to call off the climb.
Along remained tight-lipped for many years and his “secret” were buried with him several years ago when he died.
Maybe the call of Penakoh (spirit) was too inviting that Manser did finally chose to join the spirit in immortality.
Note: On March 10, 2005, a Swiss court officially declared Manser legally dead.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.