By Aziz Idris In Miri, Sarawak
It was an invitation hard to resist. I was invited by the Sarawak Tourism Board to cover the 2012 Borneo Jazz Festival and to experience a three-day stay at Everland Eco-Farm in Miri, Sarawak.
As a nature lover myself, I opted for the jungle adventure together with Ian Patterson of allaboutjazz.com, Catharine Tipang, a representative from Sarawak Tourism, as well as two Japanese jazz enthusiasts - Ryuta Suzuki (a freelance writer) and Takao Fujioka (a jazz graphic designer).
It was a bright Sunday morning when all of us met at the lobby of Park City Everly Hotel, Miri (the venue of this year's Borneo Jazz Festival). For Ian, Borneo was like a second home; it was his third consecutive year covering the jazz festival in Miri, as well as the internationally-acclaimed Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching.
At about 9.30am at the hotel lobby, we were introduced to Madam Jean Lain, the wife of Dr Francis Lian, the owner of the Everland Eco-Farm, and a local tour guide, Larry Siga.
We started the journey without any delay as Madam Jean said we needed to arrive at the Everland Eco-Farm before lunch.
"It's approximately 120 kilometres from here and the journey will take about three hours," she told us.
This brought some comforting news to my ears, as this would give me some time to sleep ... or so I thought!
As I was about to doze off, the road suddenly got really bumpy. (We had not even completed half the journey yet.) Even Takao was awoken by the rough ride that sent him bouncing off his seat. Ryuta, on the other hand, was really enjoying it. As a city slicker residing in Tokyo, all his life he had not seen so much greenery before. I asked the driver if the roads would get any better as I really needed to catch up on my sleep. He just smiled and said, "It will be all gravel roads from now on."
After nearly three hours of driving along the bumpy roads, we finally reached the Everland's farmhouse, where we were warmly welcomed by Dr Francis and other local residents.
It was a two-storey farmhouse - cement on the ground floor while the first floor was made entirely out of wood. Every window and balcony was covered with mosquito netting. There were three bedrooms; Ryuta and Takao shared one room with bunk-beds on the ground floor, while Ian and I shared a room upstairs with a shared bathroom with Dr Francis and his wife. Catharine had a room to herself.
Shortly after lunch, all of us went straight to Loagan Bunut National Park, which was conveniently located less than 10 kilometres away from the farmhouse. The park is a protected area. People are not allowed to reside or build houses. Furthermore, it is also illegal to fish, hunt or cut trees. This, however, was not the case for the Berawan in Loagan Bunut.
According to Larry, fishing and hunting are among the special rights that the Berawans still enjoy as a result of an agreement between the tribe and the state government before the Loagan Bunut covering an area of 10,736 hectares was turned into a national park in 1990. Besides the Berawans, there are two other ethnic groups here - the Ibans and Penans. However, only the Berawans have been given the privilege to fish, hunt and utilise the forest resources at Sungai Teru, Sungai Bunut, Loagan Bunut and the park itself.
The lakeside scenery at the park is perfect for photography. Photographers would never miss the opportunity to shoot spectacular sunsets - and that's exactly what most of us did, especially Ryuta and Takao. It was truly a sight to behold as I watched the Berawans use a unique method of catching fish during the low tide.
Environmentalists say that the 650-hectare lake is a must-see in Sarawak. Visitors who want to take a closer look at wildlife at Loagan Bunut are advised to stay at nearby Iban, Berawan or Penan longhouses.
As the first day came to an end, we were extremely exhausted and headed straight to the farmhouse. We had a quick dinner and immediately went to bed without even realising that Dr Francis had switched the generator off at the stroke of midnight.
The next day, we went for a jungle trek through the lush peat swamp forest and enjoyed a tour around the eco-farm.
According to Dr Francis, his company - Borneo Rainforest Vanilla Sdn Bhd - is the pioneer of commercial cultivation in niche crops in Sarawak. Since the company's venture into vanilla in 2007, it has been investing in the cultivation of two other very high value niche agricultural and forestry plants namely, Stevia and Aquilaria (Agarwood) tree.
Besides the commercial cultivation of these three main crops, Dr Francis also has supporting facilities such as nurseries for seedlings production and field research centres for conducting research on these three and other crops.
One of the fruits that caught my attention was the 'Mahkota Dewa', which is said to have many health benefits including treating cancer, arthritis, eczema and cleansing the body system.
"Everland Farm is an eco-farm that aims to integrate a sustainable balance between eco-tourism and agriculture as well as wildlife conservation. Our farm's home stay programme is suitable for anyone who wishes to get away from the hectic city life and relax in a more natural environment," explained Dr Francis, who used to be a geography lecturer at Universiti Brunei Darussalam in the early 1990s.
While at the farm, we participated in a variety of activities such as horseback riding, jungle trekking and bird watching.
Like a horse whisperer, Ian effortlessly was able to 'tame' the horses. Ryuta enjoyed his time bird watching, while I trekked through the jungles.
The peat swap forests around the area were similar to those in Kuala Balai, Belait District. We even spotted a hornbill as we climbed a nearby hill. Ian ecstatically told me that he had been in Borneo three times and that this was his first sighting. Ryuta and Takao were more amazed than him because they had never seen anything like it before.
On top of the farm's foray into agriculture and tourism, half of the land is allocated for forest conservation and rehabilitation. By doing so, Dr Francis hoped that the land would develop and turn into a safe sanctuary for local birds and wildlife.
On the final day, all of us sat at the dining table and exchanged stories. The calm atmosphere at the farmhouse at night was so different from city life and it was hard to experience the simple life there.
The next day, at the crack of dawn, I climbed up a nearby hill and just sat there watching the sun rise over the valley. It was a picture-perfect moment. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me at the time. But I have no regrets, as I was fortunate enough to experience this first-hand. I highly recommend anyone looking for a retreat to nature to come here.
For more information, visit www.borneorainforestvanilla.com or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin Weekend