“Try to set the night on fire…” (the Doors)

Damar is the Malay name for the resin produced by certain trees in the jungle: it is very useful stuff and can be a great help in fire lighting or for making glue (e.g. for caulking boats).  But one use that had always intrigued me was how to use it for lighting a camp at night.

I had heard that it could be used for this purpose, but damar on its own doesn’t hold a flame well and there was some ingredient that was missing from the mix.  I asked around amongst the locals but no-one could remember exactly how to make a ‘damar torch’ (although all of them remembered getting burnt by dripping, molten damar as children!).  Some suggested adding charcoal or ash, but neither of these helped (this would be the way to make pitch rather than a torch).

Then, a few weeks ago I went on a trip to Bera with my friend Keong who introduced me to an Orang Asli called Stem.  Stem is a real craftsman and I’ll show you some of his work in later videos.   He is also a font of knowledge when it comes to junglecraft and, finally, I had met someone who not only knew how to make these torches but could also show me the traditional way of extracting oil from the Keruing tree.  I was delighted.

The missing ingredient I had been looking for was punky wood from a soft wood tree (like a Mahang tree) – when this is mixed with the resin it gives a foundation for the flame to hold onto.

The Orang Asli use oil (from the Keruing Tree) to make a torch fashioned from a palas leaf.  The process of extracting the oil is fascinating but, perhaps, beyond the scope of someone in a survival situation looking for a quick and easy method of lighting up the night.  I tried experimenting with punky wood mixed with crushed rosin (the fossilized form of resin) and the results were better than I had hoped….with bamboo acting as a container it was possible to make a long-lasting (about an hour) torch in a matter of minutes.

I brought back some keruing oil from Bera and tried experimenting with that as well – this time to see if I could make an oil lamp using only materials collected from the jungle: using the inner bark of a terap tree for the wick and bamboo to make the lamp.   It worked like a charm.

This was the first time I had messed about with making oil lamps and I found it quite amusing that this was knowledge I had to ‘learn’ when, just a few hundred years ago I imagine every one would have known the in-and-outs of making oil lamps as a matter of course.  Similarly the carbide lamp (still, I believe, used by some cavers today) is a technology that has been almost completely sidelined by the advent of electricity and LED torches.

Even in the village nearby where I live, the locals couldn’t remember exactly how to make the jungle torches that were common place when they were children…a skill unused becomes a skill forgotten.

I am very grateful that there are still people like Stem who have kept these skills alive as, in our modern, convenience driven world, there is a real danger that some of these skills will be lost.

But, you may ask, would they really be lost?

Maybe not in totality, but that essential ‘missing ingredient’ can be very elusive until someone tells you what it is.

For anyone interested in visiting Stem and finding out more about Orang Asli traditional techniques and craftwork, the best thing is to contact Keong at Sepuh Crafts and see if he can arrange a trip there.  For anyone interested in junglecraft skills it is a great opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.