Tag Archives: Sarawak

Kelabit Highlands

A 45 minute flight in Twin Otter plane south from Miri (on the Sarawak coast, just to the west of Brunei) to Bario passes over some awesome terrain – and some that is pretty awful. Miri is an oil town, but the offshore rigs that dot the sea around Miri soon give way to a different kind of oil production, with an almost endless series of oil palm plantations stretching off to the horizon.

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Millions of hectares of the bio-diverse Bornean forest have been converted to oil palm monoculture. This has lots of short and long-term consequences – almost all of them bad. Deforestation, appropriation of traditional lands, soil poisoning, disrupted economies, and declining biodiversity. For example, I’ve just read in the excellent Birds of Borneo book that primary (pristine) forest supports over 220 species of birds (along with 1200 tree species). In the oil palm plantations a maximum of 12-14 species of birds can be found.

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Further inland it’s forestry that prevails. Mostly it’s ‘selective’ logging as above.

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But there are other areas that for some reason are just clear-felled (there are thousands of fallen trees in that middle area above). Mostly they get terraced and converted to oil palm plantation.

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Gradually you see (with some relief) the country below become more rugged, wild, and heavily forested, and soon the plane touches down in Bario, the main village in the Kelabit Highlands. This remote area along the border with Indonesia (East Kalimantan) is really interesting, both for the landscape and the remarkable Kelabit people who inhabit it.

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There’s only 6500 Kelabit people, but their dynamic nature and their strategic location has meant that they have received a lot of attention of the years. During the 2nd World War, Australian and British troops parachuted in and recruited, armed and trained the Kelabit to mount a guerrilla campaign against the occupying Japanese forces. (With considerable success – a plaque erected by the grateful Australians at the end of the war proudly notes that they “soon controlled 25,000 square miles, and bagged 1900 Japs”.) Tom Harrisson, who led the troops, was for many years after the war the curator of the Sarawak Museum.

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The boat in the picture above was being prepared for us to board for a 90 minute journey downstream. The guy at the back of the boat steers and controls the motor. The guy at the front gives advice about imminent collisions with submerged logs and rocks (we had maybe 100 such collisions en route) and the guy in the middle just sat still holding a rifle. We believe he was looking out for wild pigs – not recalcitrant Imperial Japanese soldiers. And as usual there was a sudden downpour in the middle of the journey. It was fun.

Kelabit_20150416_245From the 1940’s, missionaries were very active in the area, and the entire population has abandoned traditional Kaharingan animism in favour of Protestant Christianity. At the same time they embraced education with gusto, and the Kelabit people are now found in senior positions in academia, government and business across Malaysia. The area was at the front line of the Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1960’s, and several villages were evacuated and later re-settled. An extraordinary dose of cultural change in just one or two generations.

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The longhouse of the Kelabit Highlands have a long common hall area which is where family photos are proudly displayed. There are some wonderful juxtapositions of photos; parents and grandparents in traditional attire (hairstyles, extended earlobes, heavy tattoos etc) alongside their children at university graduations, in offices and aeroplanes.

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About half the Kelabit population has left the area to live in the cities for study or work. Of those who remain, most now live in separate free-standing houses, but some (a declining number) still choose to live in longhouses. Their longhouses have each family’s kitchen area out in the open communal part of the building, each with its neat little stack of firewood keeping dry above the fireplace.

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Rattan and bamboo are still used to make a range of baskets, carriers and mats. Some – like these ones above – are quite beautifully made.

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From Pa’Dallih village a guide took us along tracks up and across the River to a site in the forest which was an ancient burial site (Benatuh Pa’Diit). Urns carved from stone were used to store the bodies (or maybe just the bones) of the deceased. This site pre-dates the arrival of Chinese pottery jars in the area, which became pretty much ubiquitous across Borneo, and which were used for the same purpose in later years.

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We stayed in three villages (Bario, Pa’Lungan and Pa’Dallih), but he highlight was probably a jungle trek into some wild country along the Indonesian border. There are several trails, and continuing strong cultural ties, between the villages on either side of the porous border.

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Our guide Petrus (from Pa’Lungan village) was fabulous. He showed us how to get fresh drinking water from inside vines and bamboo, how to cook babi hutan inside bamboo with fruit, herbs and leaf vegetables collected from the forest. He showed us where the sun bears had torn off bark to get at the bees and honeycomb underneath. He showed us which tree produces a highly flammable sap for use in candles or as fire-starters (better than Little Lucifers!), and how to make your own darts for your blowpipe. He was patient when we repeatedly misplaced the walking poles that he cut for us, and he was greatly amused by how obviously we hated the abundant leeches (between us we got around 100, mostly on our legs and feet).

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We spent the night under a shelter in a little clearing by a creek in the jungle. It was the only ‘building’ we saw in the forest. We bathed in the creek, and could hear the sound of its waters, the insects, birds and monkeys through the night, and a hornbill landed in a nearby tree in the morning.

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We still haven’y got used to the extraordinary number, variety, size and splendour of the Kalimantan butterflies. They swarm in some locations, each one as gaudy as the next.

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There are about 100 (highly valuable) buffalo at Pa’Lungan village. There’s currently no road to the village, and the buffalo are used to transport all manner of stuff into and out of the village, on wooden sleds that they drag behind them. 200kg is their load limit. Many of them are currently being deployed to cart loads of river stone for construction of the new solar power plant for the village. The contrast of technologies is wonderful! A new road is under construction, but it currently stops two kilometres from the village as the project ran out of money. When complete it will fundamentally change life in Pa’Lungan – not least for the buffaloes!

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As we were about to fly out of Bario after our week in the Kelabit Highlands we noticed a hornbill sitting on the railing at the top of the air traffic control tower. The flight controller invited us up the ladder and introduced us to ‘Turuh’, a female Wreathed Hornbill who comes in from the forest and hangs around the airport on most days. After weeks of trying and failing to get close to any hornbills to photograph, it was a nice end to our visit to meet the very friendly and compliant Turuh.

Bako National Park

Let’s jump back a few weeks, and over to the northwest corner of Borneo. Out of Indonesia and into Sarawak, which (along with the neighbouring state of Sabah) forms ‘East Malaysia’. And there in Sarawak we find the Bako National Park.

At just over 20 sq km, Bako is one of Malaysia’s smallest. It’s also one of the most accessible, being only an hour by bus and boat from Kuching, the biggest city in Sarawak.

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In spite of its small size and accessibility, Bako incorporates a wide range of eco-systems, and it is one of the best places in Borneo to see some wildlife.

Bako_NP_20150411_267The landscape types range from peat swamp forest in the low areas through to dry sandy scrub country up in the high plateau at the centre of the park. This latter landscape is known as kerangas, which means something like: “heathy land that is too poor to grow rice on”. If you squint your eyes a bit, a lot of it looks like the Australian bush.

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But our favourite parts were the wet jungly bits in the swamps and the lower hillsides, which are so full of life.

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The park is pretty well set up for the visitor who wants to explore a little. There’s accommodation in a number of lodge style buildings, and a dining hall that offers a surprisingly good buffet. Then there is a network of paths giving access to most areas of the park. The paths are generally well maintained, signposted, with wooden walkways where the ground is boggy or the landscape sensitive. There are several loop tracks that can be followed so that you don’t have to retrace your steps.

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The Proboscis monkeys are listed as endangered, but we have now encountered them in four different locations around the island. In Bako the resident band seem to be fairly accustomed to human company, and so they are less shy about being photographed. However the one above seemed embarrassed about letting us see his big nose.

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As the saying goes: “It never rains but it pours”. I got too close to the one above. I was stalking him underneath the tree that he was sitting in, when I noticed a sudden shower of liquid onto me from the leaves and branches above. Yes, he was urinating, and I’m pretty sure that it was deliberate, just his way of saying: “that’s close enough”. It happened to me again the next evening…

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They are immensely entertaining to watch, and are more expressive, and seem more human, than many humans. I think the one in the photo above may have been experiencing some kind of religious ecstasy.

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Proboscis monkeys aren’t the only primates in the park. The Silver Leaf Langur has a luxuriant black coat with silver streaks, and fine-boned delicate features. They are shy.

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The macaques are not shy. In fact they are so not-shy that there are warning signs about keeping your door closed so they won’t come in and make off with your valuables. They are only after food of course, but they can be very cheeky-naughty as they pursue it.

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Wild pigs (babi hutan) are common in the forests throughout Borneo. The Dayak people particularly like to eat babi, and in many villages Dayak men spend much of their time hunting, with traps, rifles, dogs, bush knives and even spears. There are a few varieties, with the bearded pig being perhaps the most interesting, largest – and possibly the ‘cutest’.

Being a predominantly Muslim country it’s uncommon to find any restaurant that serves pork. There are however some restaurants which specialise in pork (and/or dog) meat. These are identified by a sign out front saying “BB” (which is code for ‘babi’).

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The bearded pigs at Bako wander freely around the visitor centre and adjacent beach, unperturbed by any people they encounter. No hunting is allowed in the park! They are strong enough to tear open coconuts, and it’s entertaining to watch them kick them around like footballs as they break them open. Less entertaining is their other great love – garbage bins – which they like to tip over so they can snuffle through the contents.

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These tough little crabs are in training for an arm wrestling competition.

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Asian Glossy Starlings – noisy, and very common from India through to the Philippines.

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We went out walking one night for a couple of hours with the park rangers to see the nocturnal wildlife, which was a real highlight, especially for the variety of bizarre insects we met along the way. Every ten metres or so there was some new weird creature to see. From flying lemurs to sleeping proboscis monkeys, from cave-nesting swiftlets to mouse-deer, the rangers were remarkably good at pointing out things we would have otherwise missed. (So good in fact that we started to wonder whether some of the static creatures were actually plastic props that they’d put there earlier!)

When he pulled in his legs, this stick insect (above) bore a remarkable resemblance to… a stick.

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I forget the name of this one. He (or she?) was about 20cm long, and looked fearsome and truly alien.

 

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Lots of spiders, in all sizes and colours. This water spider wasn’t colourful, but he was quite beautiful, particularly the way he kept his (her?) legs at exactly 45 degrees apart.

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This little lizard is about 30cm long, and is nicely camouflaged

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