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Team travel journal: Martin in Borneo's Kelabit Highlands

by Martin on 29th November 2017

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'I joined the Selective Asia team at the back end of January 2017 and was delighted to hear, within a week of coming on board, that I was going to visit Vietnam & Cambodia for a two week familiarisation trip!

You can imagine my excitement, having visited both of these countries back in 2002, at getting the opportunity to see them both once again. Now, fast forward only eight months, and I receive the news that I'm on my way to Borneo! I could barely contain myself. I was lucky enough to spend a month in Borneo in 2009 as part of a wider five month SE Asia trip, and immensely enjoyed the delights of climbing the awe-inspiring Mount Kinabalu, and spending time in the beautifully stunning Gunung Mulu National Park.

My excitement grew when I read our itinerary, not only because were we going to have great wildlife-spotting opportunities along the Kinabatangan River, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the incredible Danum Valley - we were also being given the chance to visit some rarely visited ‘off the beaten track’ places, notably the Kelabit Highlands.

I was in my element – a trekker's dream! I am known in the office for my weekend walks exploring the beautiful Sussex countryside and South Downs. The thought of getting amongst it all in the great outdoors in areas of natural outstanding beauty in the more remote regions of Borneo made me very happy indeed – I literally could not wait! So today's blog will detail my adventures in the Kelabit Highlands, and you will soon find out that they did not disappoint.

The Kelabit Highlands (Bario) - on our Sarawak Adventure itinerary

Miri Airport – awaiting our 50 minute flight to Bario, the collective name for a string of villages in the heart of The Kelabit Highlands. You know you're about to embark on an adventure when the aeroplane you are in has a maximum number of 12 passengers, you are weighed at the check-in counter along with your luggage, and you are less than three feet away from the pilot and his co, with all the instruments clearly visible!

Before long the palm oil plantations fade from view, replaced by deep green rainforest. The journey gives you a sense of how undeveloped Borneo still is – no roads or villages for miles and miles. You can begin to feel the elevation (approximately 1500 metres above sea level) and on arrival the distinct coolness of the highland air.

We are greeted VIP style by ladies in traditional Kelabit dress, with their unique elongated earlobes, stretched over time by wearing very heavy traditional gold bauble earrings. They welcome us with pineapple juice directly from the fruit itself, handshakes, and introductions to the elders of the village, who have turned out in force in their (faux) leopard skin crowns to meet us – what a lovely Bario welcome!

Actually, it so happened that the Minister for the Department of Pineapples (yes – there is one!) was on our flight, and the red carpet had been rolled out for him and not us! Even so, we were immediately made to feel welcome, and the hospitality we were about to receive over the coming days is testament to that.

We were met by Lawrence – the village leader’s nephew, dumped our belongings in a well-used pick-up truck, and made the short 10 minute drive to our village homestay - no hotels in these parts, and a world away from the Miri Marriot Resort we had stayed in the previous night.

Village homestay

The homestay is situated on the edge of the village and built in a traditional longhouse style, but developed for use by tourists rather than local families. There's lots of wood and a lovely open seating / lounging area that has uninterrupted views across the green paddy fields and the rising forest-clad Kelabit Hills in the distance.

The first thing you really notice is how peaceful and quiet it is. We are introduced to Apoi (aka Scott), the village leader. He is also the owner of our homestay. He introduces us to our guide for the next couple of days – Johnson. Johnson is famous for being the guide in the Discovery Channel documentary ‘Surviving Borneo’ – we know that we are in safe hands!

Introductions and pleasantries exchanged, Johnson takes us on a gentle stroll around the village. We pass the local school and church (the Kelabit people follow a Christian faith), other homestays and longhouses dotted amongst fields of rice paddies and rolling hills, while we get to know Johnson, who will be escorting us the next couple of days.

The circular walk brings us back to the homestay, where we are able to relax and settle in to our new surroundings before meeting Apoi in the village later, when we'll get the chance to be introduced to other village members and enjoy a delicious home cooked meal.

We take a stroll into the village and meet ‘the gang’ at the K-mart / local Bar. We are escorted through the shop, then through the bar, and into a covered open-air room in the back of the property! This is where the older men of the village meet to discuss village matters, enjoy a drink or 10, and share hunting stories. Our cook for the evening is none other than Johnson our guide! On the menu tonight is monitor lizard, and wild boar. Reluctantly we try the BBQd lizard but WOW – absolutely delicious. A very distinct flavour, and perfectly cooked.

The wild boar is served in a delicious garlic broth after it's BBQd in front of us, served up with rice and vegetables. The wild boar crackling is the best I have ever had, and my whole bowl full is devoured in minutes! All washed down with cans of ice cold Skol...

Our hosts could not be more hospitable, and make us feel like old friends visiting. Apoi tells us about the history of the Kelabit people, the effects of colonialism, WWII and how the British divided up land and how he now, as the village leader, has to settle century old land disputes with the locals. Usually amicably, it has to be said.

Our other hosts include: Johnson – the best guide and cook in the village; Robert – the jungle runner and best hunter in the village; Gilbert – the fisherman and wild boar huntsmen – also the best hunter in the village; Malik – the best hunter, cook, fisherman, footballer and pool player in the village.... Lawrence, Apoi’s nephew was also with us, modestly professed at not being the best at anything! Conversations of premiership football (you cannot escape this in Asia – they have a real passion for it), who has eaten the weirdest things (gibbons and bats taking the first prize), and tales of successful hunting expeditions filled the very fun and humorous evening. It was like we had known these guys all our lives. A truly memorable night.

Following a simple but tasty breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, coffee and papaya, we meet Johnson our guide bang on at 9am. We are excited to begin our jungle trek to the village of Pa’Lungan. We make the short drive to the small village of Pa’Ukat where, after a short walk through the village, we join the jungle trail.

There a was a lot of rain during the night and the ground beneath out feet is heavy-going. We are greeted by thick forest and the coolness in the air is replaced by instant humidity. Occasionally we find clearings in the forest, which offer us great views. What is clear is how remote we are, and you get the feeling of just how few people come to this region and use these trails – it’s quite exciting!

Johnson shows us a few survival techniques, the most impressive being how to get access to drinking water in the event that you find yourself stranded or running out. He picks a particular small tree and cuts the trunk and using his machete cut the end of the trunk to a point like a pencil. I stand underneath as he holds the trunk up above my head. After a few seconds a stream of water begins to release itself from the trunk – clean safe drinking water.

The trek takes us three hours and we are pleased with how quick we have done it, as it's supposed to take over four hours. Due to a family bereavement at the homestay we were due to stay, at we are now being kindly hosted by Walter. Hot sweet coffee is waiting for us on our arrival. The village is very small and Walter explains to us that the pattern for young people now is to move to the towns and cities in order to find work, rather than stay in the village and work the land. We’ll find out whether or not this trend continues, but the effect on the village is that as there are literally fewer hands to rely on than there used to be, so a lot of land is going untended, and many of the properties lie empty.

We drink coffee and exchange stories, enjoying our hosts' hospitality. Walter has built every single part of his own house with his own hands - including installing the electrics! There is no end to his talents, as he is a great cook too. You guessed it – freshly caught wild boar cooked in a rich soy sauce, with an accompaniment wild boar soup, served with Borneo style green beans with garlic, curried bamboo shoots, and the famous flavoursome Bario rice. The heavens have now opened and the rain is coming down, so our afternoon's exploration has been postponed. We continue to enjoy the hospitality of our hosts, and tuck into some very tasty food whilst listening to the beat of the Borneo rains above our heads on the corrugated iron roof. It’s been a busy few days, so the opportunity for an early night is very welcome. It’s an early start in the morning, too...

After a hearty breakfast we are back on the trail for our trek back to Bario - 7.30am sharp! We thank our host Walter for his kind ‘last minute’ hospitality, and say our farewells. Thankfully, the rain has now subsided, and our trek begins in fresh cool morning mountain air. Our first stop is in the village – Pa’Lungan’s two ancient megaliths: Batu Perupun and Batu Ritang, built in remembrance of a local warrior. We read about the local history and grab a photo opportunity! Our disappointment of not being able to explore the previous afternoon soon wears off, as we again greet the beautiful scenery along the trail back to our homestay in Bario.

Johnson explains to us that he is in the process of cutting new looped trails in the jungle to and from Bario and Pa’Lungan. People coming to visit now will benefit from all the hard work he is doing to create as many options for walking and trekking as possible, as well as a picturesque trek down to the riverside so that people can enjoy a scenic traditional fishing boat ride back to Bario, with the opportunity to test your fishing skills along the way!

We love our walk back, and on return to the village treat ourselves to a well-earned beer. Just the one, mind, as our trekking is not done for the day yet. We are picked up by our driver and make our way to Prayer Mountain, a short distance away at the other end of the village. This is clearly identifiable due to its large metal cross adorning the peak. The sun is shining and our ascent begins. It’s a steep climb of a few hundred metres, helped in places by ropes to pull you up. It takes it out of us, but we were on the top in 40 minutes, and every step was worth the effort as the views across the landscape are quite spectacular.

We are very lucky with the weather and at the summit we are greeted by blue sky and bright sunshine. The view of the valley and the small village of Bario at ground level below us seems like a long way down and the sweeping vistas across this beautiful jungle landscape are breath-taking. We take our time and enjoy the moment. You don’t get views as impressive as this every day!

We take our time going down and enjoy our last walk back through the village. It’s great getting back to the homestay to freshen up and relax before our evening BBQ. The pleasant outdoor seating area at the homestay is great to enjoy the views, watch the sun go down and enjoy a drink, discussing with my colleague Steve what a great day it had been. A hot shower was most welcome to wash away some of the small aches and pains from a hard day's trekking!

In the evening we were treated to another fantastic Bario welcome by the village locals. They put on a BBQ for us at the bar and again we enjoy a great evening’s entertainment in such wonderful company, sharing stories and jokes, drinking a few beers and playing pool. It’s a lovely end to a great few days. The Kelabit people are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met and they have done everything possible to make our time here memorable.

We enjoy their company until the early hours, but after a long day it’s really time for bed. It will be a shame to be heading off in the morning, but of course more adventures await! Apoi (aka Scott) takes us back to the airport for our flight back to Miri. We sit and have a coffee in the outside airport ‘lounge’. The pilot and his co sit next to us, and say hello. They recognise us from the flight here a couple of days ago! It’s not often you get to meet the pilot of the plane either. A truly memorable few days!

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