Team travel journal: Steve visits Orou Sapulot in Borneo

1st February 2018 | by Steve

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"My Selective Asia colleague Martin and I were sitting with expectancy on the steps of the Hotel Promenade in the port town of Tawau, waiting for our guide Virgil to appear. Our trip to Borneo had been incredible so far, and we were now both excited and intrigued as to what the next three days would hold.

Our excitement only increased as a large bright yellow Toyota Land Cruiser lumbered onto the hotel forecourt and stopped in front of us. The driver’s door flung open and Virgil leapt out to shake both our hands furiously, apologising that he was slightly late (only by around 10 minutes) due to the fact he'd had to spend quite some time power-washing the brightly coloured 4x4 to remove several layers of caked Bornean mud that had accumulated over the past few days, driving off-road in the rainforest. This could turn out to be some adventure!

We left the town of Tawau and settled in for the long drive to the Sapulot region, and in particular the community-based eco tourism project of Orou Sapulot (Orou meaning 'Sun' in local Murut dialect). This area is one of Sabah's best kept secrets. It's populated by the Murut tribe, who were the last of the ethnic groups in Sabah to renounce headhunting - we hoped this was still the case!

Orou Sapulot Project

Our guide and host Virgil is the son of the project's founder and inspiration, Richard Gunting. As explained by Virgil, his father was the first person of tribal descent in the whole of Borneo to attain a PhD, obtained at Tennessee University in the US during the 1990s. The project he has created is aimed at protecting the environment and the preservation of Murut tribal culture through a responsible and sustainable approach. Its main areas of concern are the depletion of the rainforests due to illegal logging activities, the loss of the local Murut culture, and the migration of young people to the city to seek employment.

The project attempts to provide an income and jobs at its Pungiton camp (where we were due to stay that night), an eco farming project, and a newly finished guesthouse in the grounds of the village’s traditional Romol Longhouse.

We learned that Virgil had turned down a career in the palm oil industry to go and work at the project; he has an incredible knowledge of agriculture, the environment, and many other varied Borneo-related topics. During the long drive, our articulate host explained that in Malaysian Borneo the palm oil industry has vastly cleaned up its act in terms of sustainability and its responsibility to the natural environment, in contrast to its Indonesian neighbour Kelimantan.

The drive itself was very picturesque, and having left the palm oil plantations of the plains behind, the landscape changed into one of verdant, lush forests and rolling hills. The beauty of our surroundings was only marred by the increasing number of large trucks passing us carrying their payloads of logged trees on the opposite side of the road. Virgil explained that the majority of Borneo's forests are now largely protected by the government, but there are a small number of unscrupulous logging companies still prepared to bribe the local tribal communities to gain access to their land and trees. This is one of the most important areas that the project is trying improve and change by providing an income to these communities, so local people hopefully won't need to sell their land or their precious trees.

We finally arrived at Labang village where we transferred from our car to a small wooden boat via a rather precipitous climb down via rope to the river’s edge (the river level was unseasonably low). Our clumsy efforts on the rope were cheered on with amusement by some children from the village, and met with general bemusement from our boat crew. Once settled into the boat, we made a 15 minute journey upstream to the Pungiton Camp.

The camp is set up above the river next to some beautiful rainforest, which contains several caves just ripe for exploration. The accommodation, although basic, is comfortable and consists of a main sleeping area, where you can get a night’s rest on hammocks with mosquito nets provided, a separate dining area, a kitchen and toilets/showers. This is all run by the local villagers as part of the Oru Sapulot project.

Once we had dropped our bags, we went to explore the caves. Before entering we met with our three young guides, Patrick, Adam & Aishah, who fitted us with our conspicuous but necessary safety equipment - a bright yellow hard-hat each. Feeling suitably self-conscious, Martin and I headed off for an hour and a half of subterranean exploration. Neither of us are experienced cavers, but despite Martin trying his best to knock himself out by misjudging the height of the cave on more than one occasion (I told you those helmets were necessary!) this level of caving could be attempted by pretty much anyone. It was great fun splashing around and through some underground streams, admiring the impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations and feeling rather uneasy when tiptoeing past some large huntsman spiders and scary looking foot-long centipedes that hung around some of the darker corners.

Having emerged triumphantly back into the sunlight and made our way back to camp, we were treated to a delicious traditional dinner of deer in garlic sauce, and rice with beans, all cooked in camp. We were joined later by Virgil who for the next two hours shared more intelligent and interesting insight into a wide range of topics related to Borneo - washed down by a bottle of vodka that we'd bought in Tawau the day before.

Climbing Batu Punggul

Towards the end of our enjoyable evening, Virgil briefed us on the activities of the next day - mainly the ascent of Batu Punggul. Its name means 'Rock tree trunk' due to the way this 800 foot pinnacle of limestone rises almost vertically out of the jungle. We had watched the relevant Youtube clips online before leaving, so we were aware of the challenge ahead. Virgil explained that the ascent was not a rock climb, but more of an 'energetic scramble'; the challenge he explained was roughly '30% physical and 70% mental' and recently an 8 year old and a 65 year old had climbed it without incident. Reassured by his words and some quite considerable Dutch courage, we settled in to our individual stretcher hammocks for the night. At some point during the early hours I awoke and listened to the beautiful cacophony of insects, nocturnal birds and the occasional sound of crashing undergrowth caused by a deer, (or who knows what!) off in the near distance. I really loved how peaceful it was here surrounded by the sounds of the forest.

After breakfast we packed our kit, and with some nervous anticipation boarded the same small boat that we had arrived on the day before for a picturesque 15-20 minute boat up the jungle lined river. After around ten minutes our young guide Patrick gesticulated excitedly and pointed straight ahead. From out of a brief clearing in the trees, Batu Punggul suddenly burst into view, like a vast grey sentinel towering over the surrounding countryside. It was a pretty formidable sight. The jungle-topped limestone pinnacle is one of several sites sacred to the Murut people, and is traditionally believed to be made of longhouses that gradually transformed into stone. For brief seconds we had a clear view of the sides, which looked almost vertical. Our apprehension grew - we were going to climb that? This morning? Really??

Five minutes later, our boat slid to a halt with a gentle bump onto a beautifully secluded beach, which was almost completely enclosed by over-hanging forest, and that familiar sound of the jungle buzzing in the background. It was a strenuous 30 minute walk with Patrick, Adam & Aishah up through the jungle to the shelter at the base of the rock. Even though we knew the rock towered above us, the thick jungle canopy still obscured it from view. Having rested at the shelter for five minutes, we were told that the very first section of the climb represented an 'acid test' for one's resolve to climb it. If we managed this part, the rest of the climb would be 'plain sailing' - Patrick's words, not mine!

As Batu Punggul is a Murut sacred site, we were also given some rules to abide by or be aware of:

1) Not to laugh at or make fun of any wild animals that we might see

2) Not to express the desire for food on the summit, i.e. 'I really wish I could order a pizza up here, I'm starving!' (once again these were Patrick's words!)

3) If there is a sudden change in weather and a brief rainstorm should suddenly appear, we should sit it out as it is most likely the spirit of an ancestor passing by

Happy to abide by these rules (well, fairly happy - Martin is always hungry and thinking about food!), we set off, and a minute or two later were inching our way along a six inch wide ledge, clinging onto the rope attached to the rock before scrambling up some large and quite slippery tree roots to a safe area beyond. The 'acid test' had well and truly been passed! Scrambling around the next corner, we were met with what looked like a near vertical wall towering above us with two pieces of rubber piping hanging limply from a protruding tree branch far above. 

Both Martin and I exchanged nervous glances, took deep breaths - and started to climb. I soon realised that my heavy hiking boots were definitely not massively practical for this type of 'scramble', or what at times felt like full on rock climbing. I looked enviously at our young guide's light rubber-soled shoes, which had a lot more sticky grip on the rock. Despite this, the well weathered limestone did provide some really good foot and hand holds for even the heaviest of boots.

With a lot of puffing and panting, and very little grace, we gradually gained height, with our three agile guides spurring us on, telling jokes, laughing and even singing, seemingly without a care in the world.

At some point, the sun, which had been hiding behind a thick blanket of cloud, suddenly burst through, and the temperature began to climb rapidly - so much so that I had to stop more and more frequently to take long swigs from my water bottle. After what seemed like an age (we had in fact only been climbing for 30 minutes) we stopped for a rest in an area sheltered from the hot sun. Patrick explained that we were only another 10-15 minutes from the top.

Suitably keen to get there as soon as possible, we left the cool shade behind and stepped back out out into sunshine, where we were rewarded with a stunningly beautiful view of the surrounding countryside, which was really breathtaking.

I then made the mistake of looking down - from my foot wide ledge, the 70-80 feet tall trees that we'd so recently been standing beneath were now looking tiny, far below. It was a sheer drop, which I reckoned to be 500-600 feet. Frozen temporarily to the spot, my state of shock was broken only by the sound of Patrick sitting on the same ledge nearby - legs dangling into the void, nonchalantly chatting away to someone on his mobile phone. He skipped to his feet, shimmied on out of sight, seemingly without fear or a care in the world - and all that without a single pause in his animated phone conversation.

After another 15 minutes of scrambling and climbing, with some more slightly terrifying exposed open areas to cross, we finally made it to the top! We thumped each other on the back in congratulation, took the relevant selfies with our guides, and once again admired the beautiful views across jungle canopy, which stretched out into the far distance. And yes, I made a conscious effort not to think about pizza!

Time for lunch...

Before long it was time to head on back. With the constant attention of our three amazing guides, Martin and I scrambled our way back down the rock. Without the help and example of Patrick, Adam & Aishah, sometimes actually placing our feet in the best footholds, the descent would have been much trickier. Roughly half way down, we a group of teenage boys going in the opposite direction - these 13 or 14 year olds watched with some bemusement as Martin and I staggered past. Glancing down, I realised they were climbing the rock in bare feet!

Soon we were back under the cool canopy of the trees, and out of the hot sun. We were very relieved to be back on terra firma... what an experience! It was exhilarating and slightly terrifying, and without a doubt a real challenge - most definitely not something I'd recommend for everyone. However, as with most difficult challenges, the sense of achievement was that much greater.

Back at the boat, a delicious lunch had been prepared for us. The setting by the side of the river was stunning... so peaceful, and the food tasted that much better after our exertions.

After lunch, we were taken back onto the river to meet back up with Virgil for the drive to the project’s guesthouse, which is located opposite the village's longhouse. The four room guesthouse has been recently completed, and provides basic but clean and comfortable accommodation.

Sundowners, Orou Sapulot style

Having had some time to relax, dinner was served - and what a feast! It consisted of Sagol, a Bajau fish speciality, which is first blanched and minced, sauteed with turmeric, garlic, ginger, onions and crushed lemongrass; wild boar in a black bean sauce (delicious); Piaren Ah Manuk, which is a chicken curry made with grated coconut and braised in coconut milk, amongst many other dishes that our kind hosts cooked for us.

Once dinner was finished, Virgil announced that we would be going up to the Romol Longhouse to have a look around, sample the local rice wine, and be entertained by a cultural dance performance performed by some of the village’s youngsters. At the house we were also greeted by Virgil's father, Richard Gunting, the founder of the Orou Sapulot Project - having heard so much about Richard, it was a real privilege to meet him.

The Longhouse, which has been completely rebuilt over the last ten years, is home to several families from the Murut tribe, and is a hub for village social activities, too. The entertainment was going to take place in the house’s large central hall, which is used to bring the whole community together.

While Virgil prepared the Lihing ('rice wine'), Richard kept us enthralled with his stories of being a student in US, his inspiration behind the creation of the project, and his plans and hopes for the future. It was fascinating stuff. Before being served the rice wine, Virgil told us about the wine-making process, and its very important drinking etiquette.

The wine is made from the fermentation of rice (usually glutinous rice) using yeast and enzyme. It is then stored in large clay pots for several weeks or even months before consumption.

As for the etiquette for the person drinking it, you sit facing the wall (with his back to their hosts or guests) and take a drink from the straw, which everyone uses rather have their own. Next to this straw is a wooden measuring device with notches etched into it. The person drinking the wine must keep drinking until one or two of the notches have been cleared. The jars are of a considerable size, so this is no easy feat! Having drunk the correct amount, the drinker must wash the straw with water from a jug, then fill the jar back to its original level. These fairly complex rules took a while to sink in, but we soon found our drinking 'mojo', and began to enjoy the wine more and more. After 3... or was it 4? goes, we could certainly begin to feel its effects!

Martin and I were then treated to a cultural dance by a couple of dozen village youngsters. It was amazing that such a performance was put on just for the two of us - we felt privileged and a little humbled. We also spotted that within the dance group were Patrick, Adam & Aishah, so not only were they cavers and rock climbers, but excellent dancers too! We were then invited to join in, which caused much hilarity at our clumsy attempts to keep up.

Back at the guesthouse, I had one of the best nights sleep of our trip (thanks to all the exercise, I'm sure, although the rice wine probably helped!). The following morning we said sad farewells to our hosts, and set off with Virgil on our long drive back to Kota Kinabalu.

The past three days had really been a heady mix of activities. Sapolut is a stunningly beautiful, undiscovered (by mass tourism) part of Borneo, with so much to offer. The project itself is a really positive and successful story, and one that can hopefully be repeated in other parts of Borneo. Above all else, however, it was the kindness and generosity of our hosts that made out time there so memorable."