Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Kelabit Highlands Again

The sunset in the Kelabit Highlands
I just got back a few days ago from Sarawak. This trip was in a way a little bit of my effort at CSR to try to see if i could contribute a little bit to the lives of villagers in the Kalabit highlands.

My apologies for the graininess of some of the pictures. I was only travelling with a wide angle lense to keep my pack's weight down and had to crop some of the pictures to get the shot that i had wanted. I guess it pays to always pack that extra zoom...

The group that went along this time was led by the ever dependable Langkau, the Mud Princess and the Harajuku Queen. The plan was to fly into Miri, take the MasWings Twin Otter into Bario, and then immediately start the 5 hour hike into the village of Pa Lungan. We would spend about a day speaking to locals to see if we could help provide solar powered faciliteis that the Mud Princess would help me to get my hands on technical expertise and i would find sponsors for the equipment.

Langkau had agreed to take me in and act as my guide and i'm really greatful to him for taking the time off his schedule to follow us all the way in. The Harajuku Queen tagged along as a last minute addition out of curiosity to check out one of the furthest points on the map of Malaysia.

The cramped MasWings Twin Ottern 19 seater planes
We land in Bario about noon to a drizzle but the worry about a muddy trail slowing us down before the sunset was abated somewhat when we found out that the government has finally built a cement road running to the village to Pa Ukat. This would shave off about 45 minutes to an hour from our hike as Stephen Baya, whom i stayed with the last time picked us up in his truck and drove us till the end of the paved road.

We stumble a little in the mud but quickly hit the trail that will take us to Pa Lungan. We are moving at a good pace and the two ladies man up as we eat on the move. The leeches make an appearance because of the wet grounds but we push on without taking too much damage. The Mud Princess seem to attract all the leeches leaving most of us unscathed. 

Langkau and I are pleasantly surprised when we actually hit Pa Lungan 3 and half hours later. At least 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The rain has long since eased up and the sun is peeking out of the some dark grey clouds.

The idylic pasture that greats all that arrive at Pa Lungan along the buffalo trail from Bario
One of the great things walking into Pa Lungan is the lovely pasture dotted by small pools that will greet you as you approach via Bario or the ferry from Pa Umor. With the grazing buffalos, its one of the best post card moments you'll ever find. Unless you're one of those doe eyed Twilight loving mother lovers of course. Then you can stay where you are and suck chicken sweat in Starbucks or Antipodean or wherever it is you frolic in humanity's chaos.

Batu Ritong Lodge
Mr Chew and Supang
On this trip we're staying at the Batu Ritong Lodge run by Supang and her husband Mr Chew. These home stay lodges in the highlands are great. This is the third i've stayed in and i have to say that the warm treatment and great food we're served is better than most hotels in the city.

The rainbow greets us as just after we had tea

The chill air signals we're far away from the shit frak that is the city. A rainbow arches over the mountains welcoming us to Pa Lungan. The hot coffee is in our bellies as we just take it easy and chill in the late afternoon sun.

We speak to Supang who used to be head woman of the village until some local politics decided that a woman chief was not kosher. She still wields considerable influence and is a player also in the political landscape in one of the political parties in Sarawak.

We find out that that someone else has already initiated a solar program in Pa Lungan although no one really seems to know who they are. We explore options on providing water purification but when you live in the middle of tropical mountains, clean water is not really an issue.

So we resign ourselves to enjoying the rest of our stay at leisure. That, and trying to see if we can finish that bottle of Glennfiddich before dinner.

The large dining area and hall at Batu Ritong Lodge. The hall thats strewn with rattan mats is ideal to snooze in the cool afternoons. Snoring like a hog is compulsory!
Bouganvillas at Batu Ritong Lodge
The Pa Lungan 'horse'
A large spider weaves its web at the walkway of Batu Ritong Lodge
The freshest dinner one can ever have - vegetables from the jungle, pork stew and sweet pineapples
Dinner is served soon after we all shower in cold refreshing rainwater piped in from huge plastic tanks outside. This is the time for quiet talk, exchanging of stories and experiences. We hear stories about the spirits in the jungle, the local politics and how that the proposed road to Ba Kalalan will help connect the villages even better, though many seem resigned to the fact that this promise might only bear fruition in 10 years time.

Meals in the kelabit highlands seperates needs from wants. Rice is grown in abundance. Vegetables are picked literally from the jungle a short walk away and if anyone seeks meat, its either the home grown chickens or meats hunted themselves or bought from local guides and hunters who got lucky in the forest. Which would mean anything from wild boar, deer, fish and the odd musang (depending on an individuals palatte).

Drinks by candle light and a glow stick
We tell Mr Chew to turn off the generator to save diesel and the candles come out. I have an old glow stick that i brought along for fun and the blue light adds to the festivities as the whisky bottle comes out and is methodotically polished off.

Best way to kill those mosquitoes mother lovers. Step 1 - Turn all lights off. Step 2 - light single candle . Step 3 - wait for those blood suckers to commit accidental hara-kiri as they dive bomb the flames.

Morning breakfast and 'sembang' sessions
We wake to the next morning to Langkau chatting to locals Petrus and Stephen who also act as guides to tourists. More stories are exchanged in quiet tones as the smell of fresh brewed coffee, pancakes and honey waft through the cold morning air. Some more stories of jungle spirits crop up. The encounter with a family that did not listen to their guides advice left some of us a little creeped out even in the morning but more amused at the guide's efforts to deflect the blame of disturbance to himself and his faithful accomplice, his hunting dog.

We plan to just explore Pa Lungan a little, visiting Supang's farm and rice fields about half an hour's walk from the main village. We'll have packed lunch there before heading back to the lodge to chill before dinner.

The Batu Ritong Monument built by a local aristocrat about a hundred years ago.
Ducks on a muddy pond
Supang crossing one of the bridges on the way to her farm
Workers work the field through rain and shine

Langkau taking a breather and munching on jungle mangosteens
The Harajuku Queen with her borrowed wellingtons
The homes in Pa Lungan are built around a large football field.
Similar to many towns and villages

The Mud Princess crossing the Pa Lungan river

A Pa Lungan mutt chilling in the afternoon sunshine
Langkau snoozes after lunch
The swimming cockerel of Pa Lungan
Supang patiently at her work station
I'm up the next day and catch up with Supang who's hard at work making bead souvenirs for guests who will be coming in a week's time. Its a quiet moment as she chats quietly to Langkau who had already woken up much earlier in the morning.

The room acts a the family musuem and its filled with relics from generations. Chinese urns, old gongs, plates from old England and carefully arranged around the room. An old Indonesian bible and a journal by Supang's grand father are also kept safely here. Its a room that keeps the history and tradition of the Kelabit highlands alive. I doubt there are many like these (please correct me if i'm wrong you Kelabit folks)
Supang explaining some of the historical points to Langkau
Supang's work in progress and the tools craft
A quick breakfast and we're off back to Bario. The rains have eased and we're hoping to get to Bario early before the noon. Supang calls ahead to Stephen to pick us at Pa Ukat to save us time.

This time around I'm taking point and set a slightly faster pace as i want to look for the Aussie war memorial in Bario which i had missed the last time around. I am also quite confident by then that the two ladies are no spoilt soft city slickers and are able to take in a quicker pace.

We stop for one quick rest, stumble along on the swampy crossings and before you know it we're on the fringes of Pa Ukat in slightly over 3 hours. Not bad i tells ya. No wonder some locals are able to make the supposed 5 hour from Ba Kalalan to Bario in 90 minutes. At our pace we could have hit Bario proper within 4 hours which is not too bad for a bunch whose weekly workout is downing copious amounts of alcohol.
Pa Ukat rice fields
The Pa Ukat trail that takes you to Bario
Jungle Blues Dream's cosy kitchen
Stephen and Tine own the Jungle Blues Dream Art Gallery and Homestay in Bario. I stayed here the last time and its' the only place i'll stay in Bario. While Stephen prepares dinner i take a walk around Bario to look for the war memorial with the ladies. We're caught in the drizzle but no one seems to mind too much. Its a nice walk and it sets us up perfectly for the hot meal that we'll be eating later in the evening.
Stephen cooks by headlamp before he turns on the generator later in the night
Little Noah Baya and mom Tine
Langkau strums away as Stephen takes a break from cooking
Langkau picks up Tine's old guitar and strums away as Stephen quietly chops at the vegetables as he stews the deer that they had just bought off a Penan hunter in town. Its quiet outside as the mists drift in from the mountains. Its warm here in the kitchen and again I'm reminded that sometimes all we need is a roof over our heads and a hot meal in our belly.  The rest of the world can suck it.

Bario wake up call.

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