After another gastronomic departure in pork and chopped noodles for brekkie, we retraced Fort Hose and its museum at my behest where I had wanted time to take more indepth notes, but alas it was inexplicably shut. It was fortunate at least that we had managed to catch it the day previous then, and after a few practicalities one of which was to confirm the continuing operation of the upriver boat service for future reference, a quick snap of the town's centrepiece in a longboat statue was all we had time for before our imminent departure. This was a reference to the still regularly held longboat races which had been inspired under the Brooke dynasty to channel inter-tribal rivalry.
It was no distance at all to what must be the world's most central airport, simply a waiting room with a single check in desk next to a squat control tower, our baggage was weighed using archaic balance scales and our body weights were similarly noted. Pretty soon after farewells we found ourselves a seat onboard our smart looking DHC-6 Twin Otter of FAX Airlines, my first time aboard this type and a rare chance to fly such a small aircraft, there were only 19 seats. No such formalities as the usual air hostess safety briefing bullshit, the door was closed from outside and out we taxied with the cockpit and crew clearly viewable. I was quite exciting as we powered up on the brakes until their release had us accelerating hard down the short runway, soon Marudi was behind us and the only feature of the terrain was the meander of the Baram River through seemingly untouched rainforest. Later a spider's web of logging tracks would appear though, snake trails used to effect selective felling, though odd patches had cleary been largely decimated. In such a small plane it got a little bumpy as we wandered to weed our way through intermittent cloud, a stategy explained a we came much closer to the terrain with the rise of the Kelabit Highlands, until finally scraping over the top of the highest prominencies just a couple of hundred feet above the treetops. Through the open cockpit I could clearly see diminutive Bario and the runway ahead as we descended, a haven of buildings and rice paddies surrounded by wooded hills.
It was all very freindly and relaxed as we took our own bags straight from the forward hold in the nose of the aircraft and entered the similarly tiny airport building, and having opted for the only perceptibly conventional hostel in the village we pretty soon hooked up with the attendant owner. Immediately apparent as a very small quiet scattered rural settlement, the arrival of the air link was an important focal point for the community, the only other way of getting here from say Miri was an extremely pricey and I dare sa uncomfortable 10 hour 4 wheel drive trip along logging tracks. Its precarious link with the outside world was illustrated first by the sighting of a memorial to the 12 souls lost in an air crash at nearby Long Seridan in 1991, and then conversation with a retired Danish couple whose flight had been cancelled due to bad weaher, they promptly managed to leave after being stuck there for 3 extra days. Theirs was another voyage to wonder at. They had set off from Copenhagen in their 48 foot yacht and having crossed first the Atlantic and then the Pacific it had taken them a leisurely 9 years to reach Sarawak.
Having come here with the intention of pursuing an as yet undecided jungle trek of perhaps 4 or 5 days, meeting up with Reddi the resident guide immediately delivered some bad news, worse news and yet more bad news. Our probable anticipated course had been to pursue the Bario Loop, an established 5 day circuit around a series of longhouses and conventional villages, holding the allure of ethnic communities, wildlife and the odd ancient megalith. Reddi explained however to our incredulity that half of the area had recently been devastated by logging and so it was now only possible in its highly compromised form with the partial usage of a boat and a 4 wheel drive at great expense. Since it was his livelihood that was worse news for him than us, but we couldnt understand why we hadnt ben forewarned of this by anyone in Miri. The alternative Kalimantan Loop which led you briefly across the Indonesian border was similarly scuppered by the unforeseen need of a permit only available in Miri, and other possibilities were one way treks requiring the costly return hire of both a guide and porter. The northerly 3 to 5 day yomp up to Ba Kelalan was an option we considered, spending 2 or more nights at longhouses and 1 out in the wilds under a jungle shelter, but the guide, porter and sleeping bag hire fee was outrageous, compounded by the fact that the only flight out of equally remote Ba Kelalan was to Lawas, an interesting consideration due to its novelty factor but plainly in the wrong direction beyond as yet undiscovered Brunei. Straight from arrival, the whole scene was a palpable washout.