The Kelabit Highlands of Borneo


In July 2010 I traveled to Bario, the capital of the Kelabit Highlands, pretty much by accident, or at least unplanned. I had originally intended to go to Mulu National Park for the caves and jungle walks but flight and accommodation was proving difficult to book so I decided instead to go to the highlands. In any case I had been doing quite a bit of jungle and just seen some caves at Niah. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

Bario is the nominal capital of the Kelabit people, who are one of the smallest minorities in Borneo at approximately 5500 people. Up to 800 people live in Bario which is situated on a plateau some 1000m or so above sea level in the north east of Sarawak close to the Indonesian border. There are Christian churches everywhere, and several were under construction while I was there - not that any more seemed needed. While you may expect Christianity to have been brought in by the British or Dutch during their tenancies of the island, it was in fact only brought to the Kelabit in the 1950s by Australian missionaries. The relative recent arrival of the religion may explain some of this church building zeal.

As your geography teacher probably told you - and you’ve since forgotten - temperature goes down by 1C roughly for every 90m of elevation. So being some 1km up then it is about 11C cooler than it was down at Miri. So about 24C instead of 35C. This provided most welcome respite.

Bario is only pleasantly accessed by a short 45 minute hop in a plane from Miri. The alternative is by road (largely logging roads), which if you are lucky may take as little as 12 hours of nail biting, bone crunching, brain numbing, drudgery mixed with terror. Just why would you?

The flight is great, in a little 18 seater Twin Otter. The view of the Borneo forests are breathtaking (and unfortunately the views of the logging and palm oil plantations near Miri) if the clouds aren't too low. The skiddy bouncy landing at the tiny airfield seems very old school, and getting of the plane and picking up your baggage 3 minutes later is a joy. While I waited for those strenuous 3 minutes I was approached by Stephen Baya, a Kelabit artist who runs a gallery come homestay in Bario, who asked me if I had anywhere to stay and if not to consider his place. After all of a minute I said "Why not?", another fortuitous call. I had to sign in an arrivals book at the airport (really) and re-confirm my flight back on the spot. It's very much paper and pen here rather than ethernet and WLAN.

I was taken by Stephen and his Danish wife, Tine, to their longhouse home/gallery/homestay - the Jungle Blues Dream - and made to feel welcome straight away with a lunch served within 20 minutes of getting there. The longhouse was quite beautiful with Stephen's bright painting adorning the rooms of the gallery and around the seating area for food. The four guest rooms also had painted murals, and I awoke each day to a green tree of life replete with local fauna.

Over the next few days I went on several walks around the area, the longest of which was 10 miles to the salt spring, passed Pa Umar to the south east of Bario. Unfortunately the clay road has been somewhat widened taking swathes out of the jungle. This made viewing the pitcher plants and orchids known to be along here problematic, requiring much clambering about over the makeshift drainage channels and piled up sands, clays and vegetation before even getting to the forest. That said I did persevere and was rewarded with finding some pitcher plants and some amazing insects. There weren’t many people on the road although a couple of people passed me on motorbikes wearing wellies! How they didn’t fall over every few yards on the atrocious surface is anyone’s guess. On route I saw one of my favourite road signs ever: straight on - ‘Salt Spring 5km’, left ‘Indonesia’.

The salt spring was a well outside of a small shed at the bottom of a steep, dangerously slippery trail. It was akin to hell on earth (even more so than the Trafford Centre or Runcorn), with the poor family working the salt by burning wood fires constantly beneath vats of bubbling salty water. The salty steam and heat was too much for a mere mortal as I to endure for long - especially after the last tortuous kilometre up and down the slopes and across streams and mud and through thick vegetation (when I went ‘off-piste’ looking at the flora) - so I took leave by the well for a well earned drink. Judging by the place and the path too it, it was not a commonly visited site, despite being mentioned in guide books and in advertising on Bario. The butterflies in the open area around here were varied and I saw a couple of what I think were Rajah Brook Birdwing butterflies. I hadn’t walked ten miles for a long time, let alone in these conditions, and I returned back to the Jungle Blues Dream heavy legged.

The walk up to a Penan settlement was quite easy in comparison and a lot shorter, starting from the paddy fields behind the Bario Asal longhouse, taking you through a buffalo field and up in to the forest along side a large stream. The Penan settlement unfortunately was deserted bar a couple of chickens when I got there, so presumably they were out hunting and gathering. The Penan are a nomadic people who live off the jungle and use such homesteads at certain times of the year, including when some of their children go to the local schools (to varying degrees of success - a little like the Romany, they have problems fitting in with their very different way and outlook on life). The buildings were constructed of wood, rattan, palms and anything else they could lay their hands on, including zinc roofing and plastic. The two chickens were disinterested in me, though the flies were a little persistent with me.

While in Bario I had to take the opportunity to visit a longhouse. The Bario Asal longhouse, which houses some 33 families, is within the town. It is the traditional way of living for most of the tribes of Borneo though it is dying out as money and status comes in to the people and people move to the more modern towns. It comprises a single long building (ummm, hence the name) with a communal area running the full length of one side, the living quarters in the centre and the cooking and other communal 'break out' areas at the other side. Walking along the main communal area the right hand side wall was covered in both recent and old photographs, which it turned out related to the people behind the nearest doors. Alongside photographs of young degree graduates were faded black and whites of couples or family groups. Many of the photographs showed the elongated ear lobes, which draped down well passed the shoulder blades of the individuals. As I then walked through the kitchen areas I saw several of the older generation sat around or cooking, and both male and female had the same traditional elongated ears.

While in the longhouse I came across an Indian guy known as Slim. I thought his English was very good, which turned out not to be too surprising as he was an ornithologist from Merthy Tydfil. He had been working in Borneo many years ago and was eventually adopted by one of the families who lived in the longhouse some 25 years ago. He was pleasantly surprised to meet a scouser (okay, sandgrounder) off the beaten track.

All around the village are the rice fields and outside the longhouse were large fabrics laid out and covered in the rice for drying. Everywhere buzzing past were flashes of yellow, red, green and brown dragonflies. I’ll call them that, though I dare say they were something else - I’m not the greatest entomologist - whatever they were they were bright, pretty and everywhere.

The food at the JBD was never less than lovely and was all locally sourced, from the ‘famous’ Bario rice to the wild boar, barking deer, and fish, all served with bamboo shoots, jungle ferns, banana etc. Stephen and Tine took time to explain the food and the history of the area and ways of the Kelabit. Even better Stephen entertained with a guitar on a couple of nights too (I did my best on it to show I had forgotten most the songs I ever knew).

It was the dry season, though these things are relative here - it is the rain forest after all - but it was being unseasonably wet, making the roads a muddy nightmare to negotiate by foot. While the transport of choice may be a 4x4 most people travel by scooter with wellington boots, a good sense of balance and hopefully good fortune to get round and through the ponds, sticky mess, holes and general unknowns in the 'road'. Last year was the other end of the spectrum with 5 months without rain, indeed at one point there were plans in hand to import water to the area. Yes, bringing water to the rain forest. It wasn't needed in the end, but badly affected the harvests in the area.

Stephen encourages visitors to use any artistic streak they may have by writing or drawing something on a wooden board, which he then puts on display in the s/eating area. I was invited to do so, and not being a great artist, I awayed to my room and I went for the writing option; attempting a little poem. While not being a great poem, it does encapsulate my thoughts on my stay in the home of Stephen and Tine, and of the Kelabits:


A Twin Otter brought me, with no preconception,
I left four days later, with a great affection,
For a town called Bario, the Kelabit home;
Surrounded by hills, me with a license to roam.

The food was incredible, the welcome sublime,
At my Jungle Blues Dream home, I wished for more time.
Walks, mud, music, friendship; I'll remember it all,
And the colourful sight of the art on the wall.