The Golok

                                                  On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


The Golok


Shortly after his arrival on the tiny island of Pulau Peucang in 1975, one of his Indonesian counterparts mentioned that if the Footloose Forester intended to go into the forest, he needed to have a golok.  A golok is a handheld cutting instrument that resembles a short machete, and is an Indonesian-style tool that no one who enters the forest should be without.  Indeed, the golok is an ideal cutting tool to cut your way in and cut your way out of the dense tropical vegetation most people think of as jungle.

The Footloose Forester had anticipated the need to hack his way into and through uncleared paths and trails and came to Indonesia with his own machete. It was a shorter version of the long-bladed machetes that Campesinos in Central America use to cut standing sugar cane.  But because there was a length restriction on fitting a machete into his small Samsonite suitcase when he was leaving Costa Rica, the Footloose Forester went to a well-stocked ferretería (hardware store) in San Jose, to select one from among the dozens of machetes that were piled in a large display bin in the center of the store.

Even the Costa Ricans had preferences regarding the length of machete blades; thus there were very long ones and some shorter ones from which to choose. The Footloose Forester needed one that fits diagonally within his 24 inch Samsonite suitcase, so he took along a tape measure to assist him in making his choice from within the pile.  So it was that very same 22-inch machete purchased in San Jose, Costa Rica that he later took with him to Indonesia to begin his fieldwork.  

As it turned out, the counterpart who escorted the Footloose Forester to Pulau Peucang and recommended that he use a golok instead of the machete, was also the supervisor of the 25,000 hectare Ujung Kulon game reserve (later renamed as Ujung Kulon National Park).  He offered to shop for a good golok when he returned to headquarters at Bogor on mainland Java and bring it back when he next returned to Pulau Peucang.  He kept his word, and returned within two weeks.

In the meantime, the Footloose Forester used his machete.  It was fine for cutting through heavier stems and small tree trunks, but not so good for fine branches and low shrubbery that we most often encountered in our paths. The goloks that the local game wardens used were better suited for most of the tasks. Also during the waiting time until his golok arrived, the Footloose Forester took his turn at sharpening his machete on the same stones that the locals used to keep their goloks sharp.

Those sharpening stones were not commercially produced items; they were picked up from the ground where we walked, or were sticking up from the ground.  When one stone exceeded its practical usefulness, the game wardens would look around for another one to replace it. Although the shape or surface features of each sharpening stone were different, each of them was selected with a practiced eye that knew what it was looking for. 

After we took turns sharpening our long knives, the test of the sharpness of the blade was to shave a bit of hair off our arms.  Perhaps that idea is a bit of an exaggeration because most Indonesian men don’t have hair on their arms.  But the Footloose Forester had plenty of hair on his arms and after he shaved some off, he was convinced that even with his machete, the sharpening stones and local techniques were up to the task.

When the supervisor returned to Pulau Peucang with a new Indonesian golok, he offered a small apology for not getting one resembling the shape and length of the ones that all the other game wardens had.  Just as the locally crafted machetes in Costa Rica were all handmade and varied in length, so too did the golok presented to the Footloose Forester.

It was longer and thinner than theirs, and was of a kind that they all said was used for fighting.  The local wardens also showed their mild disappointment at the choice.   


A golok closely resembling the one owned by the Footloose Forester


They need not have worried. The fighting golok of the Footloose Forester was the most valuable cutting tool he ever owned.  He used it daily when he went into the jungles in Indonesia, but also in other jungles and forests in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Cape Verde, and Haiti.  He knew a quality cutting tool when he saw it, largely because it was crafted from steel that took and held an edge, had a good balance point, was long enough to cut a wide swath but short enough to strap onto his belt in a scabbard crafted from local wood.  You might say that obtaining that fighting style of golok was a serendipitous delight.

If it seems that this rambling chronicle is a gushing tribute to a mundane long knife, it attests to the power of recalling people, places, and events in the “stream of consciousness mode” of writing his own legacy in such a way that long-forgotten details are recalled one at a time.  But that golok was very special…and he used it for 14 more years until someone stole if from the back of his car in Haiti.

Being hand-made items, both the golok and its scabbard were not without faults.  The scabbard was crafted from a local wood, probably from a single stem of a small Rauvolfia serpentina or snakeroot tree that was split down the middle, cut to length, gouged out to make space for the blade, and then fitted and joined together.  It was held together with thin strips of shaved cattle horn, probably cut with a precise cutting tool, and attached with bone dowels on both top and bottom.  The scabbard itself was an objet d’art to behold.

The steel blade was crafted from a source that the Footloose Forester could never positively identify. Its shaft at the top was not over 2 mm in thickness and it tapered down to the sharp edge that got lots of action over the years.  Inasmuch as Ujung Kulon is the known last refuge for the one-horned Javan rhino, the Footloose Forester etched notches at 2 mm intervals along the top by filing the shaft to use it as a ruler.  The approximate size and ages of rhinos are determined in the field by measuring the width of their footprints in the mud.  And knowing the width of footprints also helps to track the movement of rhino offspring.               

One of the problems that in-service goloks had was having the sharpened tang of the blade separate from the wooden handle.  It was easy enough to pound the tang back into the hole of the handle, but when the wood of the handle dried out, the blades of most inexpensive goloks fell out. The Footloose Forester had the same problem with his fighting style golok. He solved the problem by securing the tang into the handle by pounding in two shims. The shims were warthog ribs, taken from the fresh carcass of a warthog.  By the way, there were dozens of warthogs running around on tiny Palau Peucang, so finding a carcass was no problem at all.  Finally, the Footloose Forester sealed the shims into the handle with some Swiss epoxy glue, compliments of a Swiss researcher who knew all about goloks with loose tangs.  

One feels a bit naked in the jungle when you don’t have a golok to cut a path, as needed. On one occasion when the Footloose Forester was following a straight compass line to reach a designated research plot, it took two days of cutting before he reached the center of the plot. He also learned that he could cut only about half a kilometer of jungle vegetation per day.  His sharp golok made the work manageable.

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