Got back from the Kelabit Highlands a few days ago having had an awesome five days there. The bad news for you guys is the internet here is free and I have nothing to do all afternoon so I can tell you all about it!
The trip got off to the perfect start when I got on the plane to Bario, in the Kelabit Highlands, and it was a 12 seater plane, you could see into the cockpit and everything! It was an amazing 30 minute ride over stunning rainforest and the turbulence only added to the fun! The only sad sight was the number of logging roads, a major problem in Sarawak right now.
On arrival at the airport I was met by a local lady called Nancy whose house I would be staying at for the next few days. Before heading off I needed to go to baggage reclaim so I just walked over to the plane and grabbed my bag!
My next job was to find myself a guide and I was introduced to a local man named Phillip, apparently an excellent guide who was a bit of a drinker, but he promised to clean up his act for our trip!
I wasn't going to be setting off on my trek until the 3rd day so on the 2nd day Nancy took myself and a Polish guy named Michael to visit a longhouse. It was a 1 hour walk to the village but the rain meant it ended up considerably longer! The mud turned into clay and it soon became impossible to walk in my flip-flops so it was bare feet the rest of the way, great!
When we arrived we met a guy in the longhouse who was the son of the village elder and he was an extremely friendly and gracious man. He showed us around and the best way I can describe it is a really long house! He also told us that each evening the tribes people and children would gather around the fire for stories, their saying was 'education begins at the fireplace', I really liked that. Sadly, though, he told us that this was beginning to die out as a tradition.
On the way back we stopped off to pick some of Nancy's pineapples. Michael and I then went ahead as Nancy had a few other jobs to do and we were soon invited to a game of volleyball with the locals. Michael politely declined but the opportunity proved too tempting for me to resist! A few good early touches proved a false dawn and I went steadily downhill from there although we did manage to win and it was great fun. I had to decline the post-match drinks as it was time for tea at Nancy's.
At this point a number of interesting dishes were laid out on the table and myself and an Australian girl were left to enjoy the feast. As Ali turned out to be a vegetarian, it meant more barking deer and python for me! I'm no food critic but I can safely say the deer was ever so slightly overdone (my aching jaw paid testament to that!) and the skin of the python was actually pretty flavoursome, like most other foods you've never tried before, it tasted a little like chicken!
The next morning Phillip and I set off on the first leg of our trek and, after a few stops to pick up supplies, he had managed to acquire himself a 24 litre can of petrol! He laboured manfully for a while with it on his back refusing my offers of assistance but eventually gave in and I carried his backpack to lighten his load. I was constantly checking he was alright and had enough water, and pointed out flora and fauna, I really started to wonder who was guiding who?!
We arrived at his house in a local village which was to be our base for the first night. His wife cooked some lovely food including wild boar and the rice produced locally is absolutely delicious. That evening the entertainment began and I couldn't have been less prepared for it! Phillip had a DVD player and stuck on country hits, karaoke style! Now I am not a country fan per se but I was certainly tapping my foot and singing along to a few of the hits......... 'are you going to san fran-cisco? Be sure to wear, a ribbon in your hair'........ Pure genius!
Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, in streamed many locals (Phillip owned the only TV in the village) for the main attraction....... Indonesian soaps! There was a lively atmosphere in readyness for the latest installment of high quality drama! I too was able to enjoy the fun as the body language and facial expressions were so exaggerated that it hardly mattered that my Indonesian is far from fluent! By far my favourite part was that the actors very often had tears in their eyes at the start of a scene, before they had even had chance to hear bad news, convenient don't you think! You can have too much of a good thing though and I decide to take my leave and get an early night, it turned out to be a pretty good idea!
Our second day was spent in the jungle trekking for 8 hours. I don't think I have ever done a tougher walk and actually found myself singing 'Always look on the bright side of life' in my head after about half an hour! It was very humid and it was constantly up and down. The worst thing though was the mud, it brought 100s of leeches and made staying up right quite a challenge! I managed to do this with only 6 exceptions! 4 times I found myself on my arse, once I went knee deep in mud (about 10 minutes in!) and once I stood on a rotten log by a river and went straight through it!
Additionally, Phillip turned out to be rather adept in the jungle (probably the lack of a petrol can on his back this time!) and set a frightening pace throughout! This was due mainly to the fact that I had impressed on the much easier trek on the 1st day, big mistake, and because he wanted to beat the rain!
We crossed over into Indonesia in the jungle and if you look at the photo you can see a rock at my feet which signifies the border. Once we got out of the jungle we had half an hour to walk to the village where Phillips nephew lived. This is when the rain came, and in the Kelabit Highlands there is no such thing as drizzle, it is either wet or dry, no grey areas!
Walking through the village I knew I had entered Indonesia because everyone was smiling and friendly but no one could speak English, unlike in Malaysia. We got to Martin's house and met his wife and children. They were the most amazingly friendly and sweet family, and Martin was incredible nice to me. He was an English teacher who had moved over from the Malaysian side of the highlands to be with his wife. They served me up delicious coffee, I've never liked coffee before, and I got a look at their pet, a deer! You can't make this stuff up!
At this point no-one in authority knew I was in Indonesia so Martin, his youngest daughter and myself headed up to the military post. They gave my passport a thorough looking over and checked my bags before eventually giving me the all clear. Apparently they can be pretty corrupt but Martin was on friendly terms with them so we didn't have any problems. They were all just young lads with nothing to do so leafing through my passport for ages was probably a highlight of their day!
On my final day I said farewell to Martin and his family, and Phillip and I headed for a place called Bekelellan in Malaysia where I was hoping to catch a flight. The weather was fine but for some reason there weren't going to be any flights that day so I had to find alternative transportation.
I managed to secure myself a spot in a 4x4 which was headed to Lawas from where I could get a flight to Miri. (At this point I would like to point out flights are dirt cheap in Borneo and I'm not being an extravagent traveller!) The ride was awesome, the roads were so muddy we were slipping and sliding everywhere but our driver was unbelievably good and got us through with almost no problems. I say almost because at one point we had to get through thick mud near the edge of a 30 foot drop, there was a high bank so we wouldn't have gone over the edge but we got stuck and were pretty close to the edge! We kept sliding sideways trying to get out of the mud and my heart was beating so fast that I was glad when he asked us to get out and try and push! Once again the flip flops couldn't stand up to the mud so I was ankle deep trying to push a 4x4! Luckily for us a bull dozer arrived and hauled us out, obviously!
We finally arrived in Lawas 8 hours after setting out. It is worth mentioning that it is a 10 minute plane journey! We went to the airport to find the flight full and my name was put down as the 6th reserve. The driver offered to put me up for the night if I couldn't get on the flight and we headed into Lawas where one of the guys bought me a beer. I tried to pay for it knowing that I was probably the wealthier of the 2 of us but he said that he was honoured to have the opportunity to share a beer with me and wanted to pay.
I then lucked in when we went back to airport and managed to get the last seat back to Miri. When I took my seat no one seemed to want to sit anywhere near me due to the smell, stubble and mud and to be honest I don't blame them!
I think my few days in the Highlands were definitely the highlight of my trip so far and most of all I was bowled over by the amazing humility, gentleness and hospitality of the people I met during my time there. People were inviting me to go back any time I wanted and giving me contact details and I would love to go back if I get the chance.
What is really sad though, especially on the Malaysian side of the border, is that these places will cease to exist as they have been for many centuries if logging continues the way it does. Peoples land and livelihood will be destroyed to line the pockets of a wealthy few. Worst of all though is the fact that the Minister for the Environment and Forestry, a possible source of salvation, is a billionaire who made his money from logging and still owns one of the biggest logging companies in Sarawak!
As you can imagine this situation is pretty desperate and having met a few of the people that will suffer from the logging makes it all the more difficult to stomach.
Right now I am in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and I will be meeting my uni friend Sam tomorrow from where we will be planning a couple of excursions, possibly climbing Mt Kinabalu, 4100m! I found my dream destination, a place called Maliau Basin (referred to as the Lost World) which is virtually untouched by tourism or logging but unsurprisingly the costs of a trip their falls a little way outside my budget!
Anyway, for anyone who has made it this far, take care of yourselves, it is lovely to hear from you all,