Ever dreamt of trekking the deep rainforests of Borneo? This is a trip report from a hike in the Kelabit Highlands – a place no roads lead to and where the leeches vastly outnumber humans. Read on for a very special hiking experience.
Destination: Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
When: August 2008
How long: 7 days
Bario and the Kelabit Highlands
Long had it been on my wish list: to trek deep into the rain forests and mountains of Borneo. Just thinking about it made me feel very National Geographic. In Malaysian Borneo (the island of Borneo is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia) there are multiple choices, but after having spent a lot of research on the topic, I finally settled for the Kelabit Highlands which seemed to offer the most remote and authentic experience.
The entry point for the Kelabit Highlands is the village of Bario with flight connections from the coastal, and pretty uncharming, oil town Miri. In 2008 there were no roads to Bario so the only way to reach it was by air. The forest industry was getting closer and closer though and I don’t know if this is true anymore. Once the forest industry reaches Bario it will be connected by road to the rest of Borneo, but let’s hope that never happens…
Upon arrival to the tiny airstrip I met Desmond who operates a bed and breakfast just outside the village. It was clean, simple and the food was very good. The pineapple… The Kelabits are rightfully proud of their pineapple which they claim to be the best in the world. I won’t make any comparisons but it was damn good!
Desmond asked me what I wanted to do and right away set me up with a guide called John. One of the things that amazed me was that everyone spoke English very well in the Kelabit Highlands. John explained that all education is conducted in English in the villages (except for Bahasa Malaysia). John and I decided to do a five day trek starting the morning after.
The first day was an easy walk from Bario to the village of Pa’Lungan where we were going to pick up a hunter called Marwan who was coming along on the trek.
We stayed at the only (and small) hostel in Pa’Lungan which was basic (no running water) but very clean, nice and so relaxing. What a wonderful contrast to city living. I remember the bliss I felt sitting on the porch and watching the clouds move over the soft shaped and green mountains and the mist play over the rice paddies.
The Kelabits live in longhouses, but there is a move towards one house per family rather than sharing a bigger longhouse between several families. In the evening we were greeted by the village elder and invited to dinner at Marwan’s brother’s house. Extremely nice and friendly people and a great memory.
The following morning we set out on our trek. John had never done this particular route so Marwan led the way. After passing by the village’s rice paddies, we entered the forest. Steve led the way with his machete. One word of advice: if you decide on a rainforest trek in Sarawak, do bring a pair of leech socks. I bought a pair from Nomad Travel Store in the UK and they worked like a charm. Leech socks are basically an extra pair of cotton legs that cover your foot and go up to your knee. The leeches cannot bite through fine cotton fabric. The rainforest is filled of leeches, but with my leech socks I avoided bites 100%. Every evening when I took off my boots, they were filled with 20-30 leeches, but none of them managed to bite me thanks to the leech socks.
Our goal for the day was a small wooden shelter on the brink of a creek. We got there early afternoon and the it was hunting time. Marwan was set to hunt deer, but the first day yielded nothing.
The second day we encountered a family of gibbons passing by us up in the trees. It was a pretty strenuous trek through dense bush and climbing several hills. Mid afternoon it started raining hard and we had to build a shelter. Now, the rainforest isn’t like the pine forests of Sweden when it comes to finding campsites – everything is overgrown. I was amazed to see Marwan clearing a seemingly uninhabitable area with his machete. We then built a small wooden shelter and strapped a tarp over it for cover and pitched the tents close by. Marwan set out hunting in the rain and after half an hour we heard two shots. Shortly thereafter, a very proud Marwan returned with his prey which also became that evenings dinner.
The following morning we headed back towards Pa’Lungan where we once again dined on the deer meat. There were new guests at the hostel – a group of Japanese scientists studying mosquitoes. I can tell you, they were in heaven and couldn’t stop speaking about all the new mosquito species they had discovered. What a topic to have as your life’s passion!
To summarize, I had a great time in the Kelabit Highlands and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a moderately demanding (physically) trek in the deep places of Borneo. The people are extremely friendly and it was very easy to get the trek set up with Johan in Bario. One word of caution though: the rainforest is crawling with leeches and it took a day or so for me to relax and not think about them all the time. Also, the trek I did was very basic (I like it that way) so if you are looking for a trek that offers more creature comforts, this may not be for you.