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Sarawak’s Shangri-La

Sarawak’s Shangri-La

Where you cannot wisely carry a dragon jar, you cannot fairly call it a Kelabit way of going.

Tom Harrisson, World Within

The worst possible fate that can befall a Kelabit is petrification – being turned to stone. According to tradition, this can happen to individuals and even entire longhouse communities. The cause of such a terrifying catastrophe? Believe it or not, laughing at animals, the strictest taboo in all Kelabit culture. However, when you spend a few days in the Kelabit Highlands, it’s easy to understand why the Kelabits had to dream up such terrible disasters – it’s unimaginable that anything bad could really happen in a place like this.

As we approach Bario in the MASWings Twin Otter, the seemingly endless expanse of rainforest gives way to a patchwork of rice fields. This landscape is interspersed with clumps of secondary forest and the occasional small village, and surrounded on all sides by high, tree-covered mountains, the perfect setting for a hidden Shangri-La. And John Tarawe is the perfect host to introduce us to Bario’s unique charms.

Aerial View of Bario

For many years John was Bario’s one-man tourist industry, guiding trekkers far and wide around this undiscovered corner of Sarawak. Nowadays he concentrates on running his cosy homestay, Tarawe’s Lodge, and researching the area’s unique variety of pitcher plants. We climb into John’s ancient Suzuki jeep, the only private car in Bario, and head off to the lodge for lunch. Grilled wild boar with a salad of coriander shoots and banana flowers, accompanied by the renowned Bario rice, is a great introduction to Kelabit cuisine.

After lunch we stroll over to the longhouse at Bario Asal, past rice fields and grazing buffaloes, and get introduced to the community. On the covered verandah outside each apartment a fire burns in a stone grate, testimony to the cool nights at Bario’s 3,000 ft altitude. We enquire about the Kelabit passion for beads, and an elderly lady fetches her priceless heirlooms, superb beadwork skullcaps and necklaces made from antique beads from as far afield as Bohemia and Venice. A dog lazily observes the proceedings, unnoticed by us until we realise that its eyes, like the beads, are deep blue.

It’s mid afternoon, and John drives us down a bumpy trail to a patch of barren heath land. At least it looks barren until he reveals an enormous variety of huge pitcher plants amongst the scrub. As we will discover again and again, the beauty of the Kelabit Highlands is often found where you least expect it.

Around sunset we arrive at a lovely wooden house surrounded by trees, overlooking a small river. Here at Gem’s Lodge we meet Jaman Riboh, our guide for our Kelabit Highland trek. Jaman makes us comfortable, and as his wife prepares dinner he tells us old Kelabit folk tales and legends. Dinner is superb; duck with wild ginger, fresh jungle vegetables and the ubiquitous Bario rice. After dinner, Jaman answers some of our questions about the trek, but is careful not to give too much away.

The next morning we set off with Jaman, our porter Petrus, and John’s brother Lian Tarawe. All three are laden like pack mules, but stride effortlessly along the narrow trails. We trek all morning through primary and secondary forest, along narrow tree-lined buffalo trails, and across swaying bamboo suspension bridges. The pace is perfect; slow enough for comfort yet brisk enough to give us a sense of achievement. Every so often we pause to look at a unique plant, a strange geographical feature or an ancient Kelabit megalith.

We stop beside a small stream for a lunch of buffalo jerky, rice wrapped in banana leaves and a cold beer. The Kelabit as a rule don’t drink, but they are quite happy to bring along a few cans for their thirsty guests. After another half hour trekking through picturesque forest Jaman puts down his huge pack and starts to burrow amongst the tree roots, revealing a large crevice containing an ancient Chinese dragon jar. Inside the jar is a human skeleton, apparently as old as the jar itself. This is how the Kelabits of old buried their aristocrats, in remote hidden locations where the dead could commune with the spirits of the forest and the river.

By late afternoon we have arrived at the bank of a small river, swathed in mist and surrounded by trees and boulders on either side. This perfect spot is where we will sleep tonight, but first we have to prepare dinner. Jaman puts us to work gathering midin (crispy jungle fern shoots) and wild ginger. While I’m plucking the evening’s vegetable course I notice we are not alone in this remote spot. On the other bank are two men carrying fishing rods. I call over to them, asking what they have caught. “Three fish,” one replies, “Here, catch.” A silver shape arcs through the air, and lands at my feet. Ikan semah, Sarawak’s most prized freshwater fish, which sells for RM 200 per kg in Kuching. This one’s about RM 700 worth. The fishermen claim there’s plenty more where that one came from.

Jaman agrees. While Lian and Petrus build a sturdy jungle shelter from branches and leaves, he shows us how to set a gill-net in the river, which is by now freezing cold. “We should have three fish by morning,” he says. “No, make that two. The labi-labi must have his tribute.” Emerging from the river, we towel off and warm ourselves by the camp fire. Our fish supper is also being warmed, on a bamboo spit over the fire. Served with fresh jungle ferns and barrio rice it is simply exquisite. We chat around the campfire for another hour or so and retire to our sleeping bags, exhausted. Our sleep is interrupted in the middle of the night by Jaman, Petrus and Lian, who wake us and lead us creeping on tiptoe to observe a group of wild deer feeding in a jungle clearing.

Morning proves Jaman’s gift of prophecy. In the gill-net are two large semah and one head, the rest of the fish having been eaten by the labi-labi (soft-shelled river turtle). We barbecue one fish for breakfast and bring the other, a 5-kg monster, along for lunch. Around mid morning we take a break. Jaman forbids us to open our water bottles and leads us into a large clump of tall bamboo. He cuts some small hollow shoots, and then makes some deft cuts into the mature bamboo. Inserting our freshly cut drinking straws, we gulp the sweet fresh water from inside the bamboo. It beats anything that comes in a plastic bottle.

We trek onwards through rolling countryside that shows increasing signs of human habitation. Around midday we arrive at a village comprising three large longhouses arranged around a well kept lawn. This is Pa Tik, a typical Kelabit community. The family quarters where we are staying are huge and extremely comfortable, and we are greeted with typical Kelabit hospitality. The sight of our huge semah fish means only one thing – we must stay for dinner. As we are showering and changing our filthy clothes I notice I am sharing my blood supply with a fat leech clamped happily to my ankle. A firm tug removes the offender but leaves a small stream of blood that refuses to stop flowing.

Lian’s feet are also bloodstained, and I ask if he has been bitten. I am shocked at the state of his feet, blistered and bleeding. He explains that he has just arrived back in Bario after a long stint in Miri, where he runs a petrochemical engineering firm. The guiding is a part time hobby, and when he gets back to Bario his feet are soft from the city. The only way to toughen them up fast is to go out trekking in hard rubber sandals. Some hobby.

We sleep for a while after lunch, and in the afternoon one of our hosts takes us to see an ancient megalith, a stone monument made Stonehenge-style of huge boulders mounted atop one another. How the ancient Kelabits created such impressive monuments is still a mystery, as the nearest source of such large stones is more than 50 km away.

Dinner is a huge success. The fish has been cooked Chinese-style, and accompanied by wild boar, free-range chicken, fresh pineapples and local vegetables. There are more than 20 people seated around the kitchen table, all of whom speak fluent English, even the young children, and tales of life in the Kelabit Highlands are told long into the night.

The morning promises to be an anti-climax, as we are walking directly back to Bario along a well-worn buffalo trail, but the scenery is lovely and dainty pastel-coloured flowers grow amongst the hedgerow, like an English country lane. After an hour or so we meet up with another group of travellers, a nomadic Penan family who are walking to Bario to visit the clinic, stock up on supplies, and visit their children who are at boarding school there.

They stroll along with us, obviously slowing their natural pace. Jaman and Lian interpret, and we are given some fascinating insights into Penan life. The children, for example, walk five days through dense jungle at the start and end of every school term. The Penan chief says it’s no problem though, as the children are accustomed to walking, and there’s always a responsible older child to take care of any problems. How old, I ask. “Oh, about 10 or 11 – we consider that quite grown up.”

Back in Bario we say farewell to Jaman and Petrus, and spend the evening at Tarawe’s Lodge. Lian tells us tales of growing up in Bario, and describes how the Kelabits cope so well with the apparent contradictions of modern life. The next morning, at Bario’s tiny airport, there is a group of new friends there to see us off, and hold a brief service to pray for our safe journey. We all promise we’ll be back, the sooner the better.

Original text © Mike Reed, 2003 – 2012. All rights reserved.

On a very sad note, Jaman passed away in 2013 after a sudden illness.  He was the finest trekking guide in all of Borneo, as well as a gifted educator and a dedicated conservationist. He will be missed by all who love the Borneo rainforest.

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