A Travellerspoint blog

Day Trek to Pa'Ukat

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After the now celebrated daily indulgence of a coconut bun brekkie, we had after all got into the habit of securing Bario's single daily packet flown in from Marudi presumably at the expense of some bamboozled local, we decided to redeem our presence with another day trek. The prospect was a seemingly easily managable contrived triangular circuit first out along the rough vehicle track to neighbouring village Pa'Ukat.

To Roberto's delight we encountered quite a lot of birdlife in this endeavour, and though the originators of a myriad of contrasting calls proved elusive in the main as ever, we made a good team with Roberto's binoculars, bird book and evident expertise complimented by my 24X camera zoom. I also spied a cutesy inquisitive Tree Shrew before he darted off, a green tinted beastie which I had hitherto mistaken for a Squirrel species, certainly they looked for all the world like one. Then a large buffalo cowpat was an unlikely blessing in proving an irresistible draw for various insect species. Tiny vibrantly coloured crickets were contrasted by a lone black and green specimen a full 4 inches long, and butterflies and wasps added to the mix. Pa'Ukat proved to be an even sleepier haven than Bario, with the odd job of timber construction and paddy field tending being the only signs of life bar the sweet as you like kite towing kids. From there it was a contrastingly narrow forest encroached jungle trail in order to make the cross connection to neighbouring village Pa'Umor, though the poor mud and puddle troubled slog compounded by a full on downpour lasted much longer than anticipated. Having learned the hard way that my retro ski jacket gifted by old timer Steve in Bangkok was far from water proof whatever the promises, Roberto's quality gear proved similarly useless in defending us from a full on deluge. That eventually provoked refuge upon reaching a second telltale vehicle track mysteriously still short of the anticipated village.

A sign promptly promised Gem's Lodge however, a well known yet isolated country retreat where we ventured in search of tea and shelter. Devoid of further custom, James the owner proved a warm, engaging and soulfull host and it was our only disappointment in opting to eventually have dinner there under pressure of the persistent storm that he and his wife failed to join us. Though it was only a later realisation, I could only guess that having arrived unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, they served us what should have been their own dinner. The conversation was good though as we hopelessly tried to dry out our boots and atire by the open fire, descending into flame defying darkness as the storm endured thunderously outside. Pa'Umor was relegated to the land of unfulfilled dreams then, and it was only under pressure from Roberto that I let the daylight slip and an ominous sodden trek home in the dark loom. Though surely unintentionally troubling, James' parting insight into our locale revealed his indepth knowledge of the forest by telling of the 8 Tarantula species pervading these parts.

We escaped into the jungle night to be enveloped by a world of intimidating sounds and mystery, redeemed mercifully by the vague glow of the talcum white track along which my faithful "Almond" torch proved itself more valuable than its weight in gold in allowing us to dodge the worst of the puddles. When you come across a herd of buffalo ahead of you in the pitch black it does tend to concentrate the mind, it has to be said. Miniscule Bario eventually rematerialised every bit as important an outpost of civilisation as it must seem to the locals.

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Bario

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In an environment entirely conducive to relaxation it was only after a chill out morning that we stole ourselves to reach out in another exploratory foray, this time electing to take in the lie of the land around the scattered surrounds of Bario. A first point of note was the discovery of a new longhouse under construction and it was interesting to see how it was being slapped together piecemeal according to as and when the families could afford to fit their particular section out. The basic foundation and exterior framework was pocked with periodic boxes individually completed, a very unusual strategy not exactly in line with the underlying ethos of communal living. Climbing a small hill we then came across the "Bario Motivational Centre" much to Roberto's delight, merely a kiddies park of assault course style challenges. A couple of waterholes here added to the mix with a large population of frisky frogs, and evetrywhere we wandered any locals encountered were uniformally inquisitive and friendly.

Descent down through the local school which lined both sides of the track was in the process of being blessed with Bario's first paved road, and you had to wonder just how rural it could get to learn of the presence of boarders here in tiny Bario. Our main priority lay now in tracing the couple of Ks out to a local development gone wrong, whereby the fantastically disastrous Hydro Dam project intended to harness a local rivulette for power generation had been officially declared a flop after only one day of operation. Costing 14.2 million Ringgit, over 2 million Pounds, I had to suspect that it had had more to do with greasing sticky palms in Kuching than in helping the locals do their dishes.

It was in this direction that we chanced upon an amazingly fluent English speaking woman tending a paddy field, looking for all the world like stereotypical peasantry, it reminded us of the fact that some international survey had declared the Bario region as considered to be one of the most intelligent communities in the world. Hidden in the rural interior of Borneo of all places. I actually stopped short of an assured soaking in discovering the dam itself but Roberto confirmed that I wasnt missing much, it was nice just to sit by the evidently much too humble river in any case. Finalisation of a loop back to our den of rest allowed more bird spotting across the paddy fields, and it was at this point that we met up with a newly arrived Italo-Spanish couple. Under pressure of time they ended up plumping for Reddi's super pricey compromised Bario Loop trek, and we later learned that he had not only predictably proved to be a lacklustre guide, but he even shortchanged them by a day. The Italian guy was so firey as to appear manic however and so we didnt quite know which to feel sorrow for, frankly neither. Conversely it was around this time that we met Alex and Melanie, a Swiss German couple who proved to be good company and on a par in the crazy stakes. Unbeknown to us at this point we were destined to share many adventures together.

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The Bario Gap

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Electing to play it by ear, we plumped for a taster session today in a day trek out of Bario to a spot known simply as The Gap, a small clearing which had been cut out of the forest to leave a distinct square shaped notch on the treeline. The local Kelabit retained a tradition of marking their environment to note special occasions, and this cleft in the forest had been recently created to mark the millennium. It was simply a case of following Bario's main "road" in that direction, a rough sometimes muddy track which eventualy ended at a sweet prairie setting where we discovered some bush strawberries growing by a stream. A pipeline descending the approaching hills betrayed our further progress, as the incline commenced the forest closed in and pretty soon we were enveloped by a curtain of green. This soon established itself as being perhaps my hardest trekking to date, with the track deteriorating into a narrow slippy trail encroached upon by fallen trees, undergrowth and sometimes a precarious drop to one side. Rivers and gorges had to be negotiated via slippery rocks and bamboo poles and then the crescendo of the assault was an extremely steep and slippery scamble up eroded faces to finally realise our goal.

A surprisingly small clearing atop a summit conveyed a view back down across Bario and its entire valley, we had begun to wonder if we were still on the right trail, but clearly this was it. The wildlife along the way had proved typically elusive, redeemed only by my double sighting of a bird of prey which we later guessed to be a Crested Goshawk. More concerted attention was paid though by an army of leeches, with my 100% DEET proving highly effective in keeping them off my bare legs, but meaning that they just went for my feet instead. It was a palaver trying to extricate the suckers from inside my boots as swarms of wasps were attracted by their sweaty hue, I finally managed to free myself of their persistence but only after 3 leeches had hit their target with a telltale nip. Perversely it was something I had aspired to, I couldnt very well profess to have done any serious jungle trekking if I hadnt endured all of its vagiaries. The slithery return descent was tricky and inevitably there was the odd mud splattering stumble and feet drenching dip, but we made good progress back into Bario happy that we had redeemed our lack of an established itinerary with at least a good initial venture. Upon arrival back my feet still ran red as the leech's anticoagulant persisted, and a supercold shower was a bit of a shock after all that heat. Not much to do in sleepy Bario at the best of times and so chill out mode over reading, writing, coconut buns and the odd beer filled in the gaps.

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Marudi to Bario

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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.

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Miri to Marudi

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The direct flights from Miri to Bario in the Kelabit Highlands had similarly been booked out and so Roberto and I had elected to make a foray inland for an earlier connection out of a small upriver town called Marudi. It made for a more convoluted itinerary yet could be considered a bonus in allowing further distractions. In order to get there it was just an hours bus ride up to Kuala Baram tantalisingly just short of the Brunei border, from where an express boat would do the rest. Further frustration compounded my sorry parting from Sine in discovering that there wasnt a bus within hours up to the mouth of the Baram River though, seemingly making the boat connection impossible that day. My luck seemed to turn though when the bus drivers put us onto a car driver who would take us the 26Ks for a surprisingly humble fee, and it was an amazing quirk in that after failing to stock up with fruit for the trip as Roberto had wished, we arrived at the ferry pier to discover a bag of Rambutans, Roberto's favourite, plunked in the boot alongside our bags. The driver gave them away for only 1 Ringgit which was another steal, and then favour amazed us all over again in immediately boarding a boat just as it powered up to move away from the pier. The superfast trip up the relentlessly winding Baram betrayed more logging barges and longhouses, and a sense of real adventure pervaded us sat upon the roof of the nigh on empty Komet streaking into the unknown, until Marudi materialised remarkably reminiscent of Kapit.

It was in this venture that habitually up front Roberto had struck up conversation with Jessinta, a local indiginous girl who was coming to holiday at her parents home, and the invitation to tag along was quick in coming. Ethnically of the Kenyah people, she looked remarkably Chinese like so many in Sarawak, as did Nelson her brother who came to pick us up. Thrust along on another superconvenient procession, we headed straight for the local museum which was housed in another Brooke dynasty fort, this one named Fort Hose after the long term Resident here who was a naturalist. Though limited to a local history of the peoples of the Baram River area, it was an unexpectedly superb presentation highlighted by many fascinating old black and white photos of the different tribes in their traditional dress. Established in 1901, Fort Hose had typically been constructed in order to oversee policing of the troublesome Baram, and a peace treaty was finally signed between the local warring groups in 1909.

It was from there that Roberto and I unexpectedly found ourselves guests for the night with a local family then, well educated English speakers with a modern conventional terraced house. A hundred years before they would have taken our heads as trophies. Munchies proffered included produce which father Richard a powerplant worker had grown from his plot, a rare indulgence in sweetcorn and finally a chance to sample that most infamous of Asian "delicacies", the Durian. Resembling a spiky green coconut similar to the Jackfruit, the fleshy slimy tubers within resembled perhaps very short bananas but had a very different texture. Comprised mainly of large inedible seeds, they notoriously smelled very strongly of sweaty feet, a trait which often saw them banned from hotels and public transport. The pong was supposedly redeemed by their flavour, but the slithery skin failed both in taste and texture to find any favour in me, it would be one local wonder to avoid in future I decided.

Joined by younger brother Christopher, we kids were then given further tourist treatment in searching out a local longhouse, a Catholic community where they had gone as kids to sing Christmas carols. A passing pagan community was tellingly ignored. Typically stilt elevated with a covered verandah modernised with lino and window curtains, it measured hundreds of feet long with its many periodic doors belying the number of families co-habiting. An invitation to enter one was duly forthcoming and so a lamplit gloomy 2 room dwelling devoid of furniture was revealed, the walls still adorned with the functional paraphenalia of life in rural Sarawak, such as fishing gear, machetes, paddy hats et al. It just so happened that the "Tuan Kampung" (village headman) then arrived from a provisioning trip in Miri, and so we helped him uplift jerry cans of kerosene and rattan to be used for weaving before sitting round a lamp on the floor to share tea and a very small local fruit Lansat, like a small segmented lychee with a smooth mottled green skin. Their rustic lifestyle had been further illustrated in catching the denuded wifey next door Mandi-ing herself on the back porch and a similarly long block of doors opposite the track out back was a procession of outdoor toilets. These people were Iban, downriver people, with their own language and traditions and so it was a little tricky trying to make conversation even with the aid of our Kenyah friends.

We headed back to Marudi for an unusual dinner of a whole baked Sultan Fish, tasty but with needle like bones, rice of course, pork, and a brown Durian gelatinous looking jelly which tellingly no-one touched. Grace was said in a house replete with idols and pictures of Popes past and present, the service modified to include thanks for our frequention and good wishes for our onward journey. Part of my adoption into Kenyah culture blessed me with a local appellation after a renowned ancestral warrior, I was now officialy to be referred to as Balan of the Kenyah! Jessinta later related through photos on her laptop her interesting work as a fieldwork assistant, helping visiting naturalists to research local wildlife. It was an irony noted by Roberto that every specimen they caught, perhaps as yet unknown species, would be killed for "preservation". She now wanted a more settled and secure future though and so had just commenced teacher training.

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