The Kelabit Highlands

Trip Start Mar 04, 2004
Trip End Jul 02, 2005

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Sunday, June 13, 2004

Into the Kelabit Highlands

Endless green underneath me as I winged my way over Borneo in a Twin Otter. At first the green is very regular in rows and columns, clearly gigantic oil-palm plantations. Soon though this manufactured green gave way to the many hues of the jungle. Sadly, much of this was marked by twisting logging roads. The roads disappeared as we approached the village of Bario, which can only be reached by plane or by a minimum 3-day hike.
Once on the ground I was immediately swept into the orbit of Capt. David, who was our Malaysia airlines pilot and is connected by his marriage to about half of the village. He introduced me to some key contacts who were hanging out at the airport as well as to other travelers. One of them, Jacob the crazy Dane, ended up being my hiking partner. The other was Dr. Peter Brosius, an expert on the nomadic Penan and in Bario to assess its suitability as a centre for a new national park. Dr. Brosius had just arrived from 9 days in the vertical jungle world of the Penan and had some nasty foot wounds from a fall onto bamboo support stilts.
I was taken by pickup to the town centre. This is a small marvel in itself, since every single vehicle in the town (about 6 of them) has to be flown in, as does the fuel and spare parts. Bario is currently in a serious fuel shortage as well. I found the most pleasant little spot: A small row of 8 or so shops, with a few crafts for sale, and coffee shops where the whole town hangs out. In front of the shops was a wide green space and a playground for the neighbourhood children. I ate with Mark, a Chinese owner of a coffee house, whose wife makes a superb lashka (made with vermicelli-like rice noodles and tofu), and talked the politics of ethnicity. Mark has sent two of his daughters abroad, one to Canada, one to NZ, to avoid the prejudice against Chinese that he thinks still exists, despite the end of official discrimination a few years ago.
Soon enough I met Jaman, who runs Gem's Lodge and arranged a place to stay and a two-day trek. . I rented a mountain-bike, rather in need of some servicing, and explored the village and little dirt roads that led into the jungle. Bario is such a friendly and laid-back place. Everyone was helpful and I think I knew about 1/3 of the village by the time I left. I spent the first night trading stories with a Swiss guy who had walked into Bario and was staying with Jaman. I fully recommend staying here for Jaman's knowledge of the area, his connections, his wife Sumi's excellent ethnic Kelabit cooking, and the family's overall friendliness.
The centerpiece of this trip was a two-day trek to a longhouse 19km away called Long Dano. After reading Redmon O'Hanlon's knockabout farce "Into the Heart of Borneo" I was ready for some crazy things to happen but alas it was not to be. That is not to say it wasn't interesting. My guide Rady was very informative and my trekking partner Jacob the Dane was rather bizarre. Of course, this coming from the guy that soaked his socks and shoes in Nescafe coffee in an effort to keep away leeches. On the other hand, Jacob actually wore one sandal and one shoe with no socks through the leech-infested jungle.
The flora of the jungle was the highlight of this trek. I saw 3 different varieties of pitchers plants and a few different wild orchids, along with a number of other jungle flowers. I also ate jungle mangoes which are very sour, have inner flesh like a leechie and have a big pit in each quarter. We ran into wild boar hunters from Kalimantan and crossed some decidedly dicey bamboo bridges. I was amazed at how loud a single cicada could be hear, like a buzzsaw. The trek is slightly rolling and can be undertaken by anyone with moderate fitness. Don't expect to see much wildlife as the encroaching logging roads have scared it all away or the local hunters, who don't seem to believe in limits, have killed it all off.
We stayed the night in a traditional Kelabit longhouse and ate food cooked on a hearth that hasn't changed much for, well, likely about 1000 years. The nearest telephone was 2.5 hours walk away. No roads. However, some of the people spoke excellent English and one couple had daughters living abroad. They are also devout Christians, getting up for Church everyday at 6am. The ear weights that stretch their ears weigh 250 grams each, nearly the weight of a can of coke. Few of the longhouse members have them anymore though. Apparently the practice of driving various impediments through the man's penis as a way to increase the pleasure of his woman has ceased completely.
Jacob and Rady continued on the next day but I had to head back with a different guide. He spoke little English though. Also I had doubled up my socks and didn't have to stop very often to pull the things out of my shoes and off my bleeding body. This meant we covered 19km in the Borneo jungle in only 5 hours and 45 minutes. I was pretty stoked after I found out that anything under 6 hours from Long Dano is considered 'local time' and the Bario villagers seemed impressed. However, my feet were shattered from the pace. The last kilometers to Jaman's, from Bario proper, were a wee bit of agony for me on an otherwise very pleasant trek.
I spent my last night in Bario with Jaman talking politics and what Bario needs to develop and sustain itself as a village. The key things seemed to be infrastructure, such as intra-village phone lines and more initiatives to bring the youth back to the village from Miri and Kuching. Jaman also showed me his growing collection of jungle orchids. I will certainly take the chance to go hunting for jungle orchids in Borneo if the chance ever comes up again.
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Marga on

You really took some amazing pictures there! I can see that you do enjoy the traveling.

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