By Garry Anderson
Two friends, Rick Cole and Ken Watt, and I recently realised a 10-year-old ambition of ours - to reach Bario in the farthest depths of the Sarawak jungle.
We regularly make back-country trips to far-flung villages, longhouses and places of interest by motorbike. The more remote the better, but Bario, a Kelabit village nestling on a highland plateau behind the Tama Abu Ranges and Gunung Murud (7,950ft - the highest point in Sarawak) near the Kalimantan border, remained unknown to us, despite our previous attempts to reach it from several different directions.
At the beginning of July, armed with new information on a possible route tracking the Baram River to its source, the three of us set out from Miri. After a 100-km ride inland the public road ended and we entered the logging areas where the roads are built and maintained by timber companies.
A unique right-of-way system is used on timber roads, which helps the fully laden logging trucks stay on the strongest part of the road. The side which you have to drive on is indicated by arrow markers and it changes from side to side with the topography. It can be a hair-raising experience to round a corner on the wrong side and come face to face with an empty logging truck thundering straight at you.
One and a half days and 420km later we reached the end of the road, literally. At Pa Bareng on Sg Dapur, everything bound for Bario must be unloaded and taken by boat one to two hours upriver. That is, anything that has managed to get that far!
Even though Bario is only accessible by air, boat and on foot, they have 4WD vehicles, bulldozers, excavators and tractors; all bought up by boat in pieces and reassembled.
We were lucky to find three small long boats at Pa Bareng loading bags of cement to ferry up to Bario (for a new water treatment plant) and they were able to give us a ride on top of the cement - the bikes were left under a hut on the river bank.
The Kelabit people of the Sarawak high country are into long ears. Shoulder-length ear lobes are achieved by wearing heavy earrings. The Kenyah people who live lower down river boast long lobes and 'bowl' haircuts, plus unique hats.
The last truly nomadic people in Borneo are the Penans, who wander from hunting area to wild sago plantation and carry what they need with them. Fixed abodes are not for them. We were humbled to meet one Penan man who had walked for two days from his jungle district near Pa Tik over the ranges to Bario to register his kids for school; people from Kalimantan walk a similar distance to Bario for basic supplies like salt and sugar.
Staple planted food in Bario is highland rice and 'ubi kayu', or tapioca, supplemented with jungle fare. We dined that night on rice, pakis, a ferny-type vegetable and heavily peppered barking deer. At 3,500ft elevation there is no need for air conditioning in Bario, indeed the locals don jackets and hats at night when the cool air sets in.
The next morning, our boatmen showed us around the village and the local market before ferrying us back downriver to our bikes. We rode for five hours to our overnight stop at Long San, visiting the Kenyah village of Lio Matoh on the way for fuel.
A swim in the muddy Baram served as our shower that night and the Williams sisters were on television, playing the Wimbledon Finals after dinner.
Early the next morning, we began the long haul to Miri and then back to Brunei Darussalam, thus completing a round trip of some 1200+km. Job done!
Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin Weekend