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Tuesday 16 January 2018

Trekalogue: The Highlands Eco-Challenge II 2017

Long Tanid in Long Semadoh, Sarawak

Last July, Forum Masyarakat Adat Dataran Tinggi Borneo (Formadat) organised once more the highlands eco-challenge right at the highlands of Borneo spanning Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan. This is the second in the series whose inaugural event was conducted in 2015. The event is supported by World Wide Fund (WWF) Sarawak since inception. Alicia Ng of WWF Sarawak, who was on the field to coordinate the event, quoted a few challenges in organising such events, especially being new, is how to create and heighten the awareness of ecotourism in the Borneo Highlands, as well as how to generate more publicity for more participation by enthusiasts, forest lovers and trekkers alike. In supporting Formadat in their long term objectives, she hopes WWF will achieve more mileage in the coming years by helping Formadat to guide the local communities to manage a bulk part of the ecotourism and to promote cultural diversity.

Overall programme of Highlands Eco-Challenge II

This round, two eco-challenge trails were featured, the short 5 days 4 nights ‘Jungle Exploration’ trail and the highlight of all trekking packages, the 10d9n ‘Heart of Borneo Experience’ whose journey combines four-wheel drive and traverse trekking from Sipitang in Sabah through into Sarawak with a couple of days spent in Kalimantan villages. The entire journey was enveloped within the highlands of an average of 1,000 metres above sea level, which guaranteed an overall chilling experience for all. I took the short trip which covered locations Kota Kinabalu-Sipitang-Long Pa’ Sia’-Long Semadoh-Lawas. The extended trip has Ba’ Kelalan-Long Bawan-Long Layu-Ba Siuk-Pa Dalih-Bario added. In addition, the latter bears the transboundary triangle that covers the key village for each of the states. Participants for this trail gets to experience a different culture and get additional stamp on their passports!

Transboundary Triangle for the extended 10d9n trail (my own rendition!)

Eco-challenge merges the ideals of ecotourism and physical challenges. Physical challenges come in many forms - the ability to withstand the bumpy rides on 4WD journeys, enduring the energy-draining hiking, crossing strong undercurrent rivers, and staying overnight in the deep forest. Ultimately, the idea is to have the visitors to capture a long-lastingness of the overall experience. Yet, after an exhaustive day, the participants are rewarded with delicious local food and performances at the villages.

To allow for full enjoyment of the trips, the crowd is controlled within a suitable carrying capacity. Carrying capacity refers to the number of persons that the site can accommodate at any one time without disrupting the environment, and to sustain the wilderness experience. To this end, only a maximum of 50 people were allowed to participate in the various trails in the programme. The director of forest for Sarawak, Tuan Haji Sapuan Ahmad, in the programme book for Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge II, hopes participants to take special care not to cause unnecessary damage to vegetation and fauna. The concept of “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprint” is therefore crucial for the organisers and joiners.

Yes, leave no trace, that is.

Day 1

All joiners congregated at Kota Kinabalu’s Warisan Square for briefing by WWF Sarawak Alicia Ng before we were “shipped off” in chartered taxis towards Sipitang, the closest town to Sabah-Sarawak border. After lunch, our belongings are transferred to 4WDs whereafter the journey continued on tarmac road for another half an hour before we turned into off-road for a long, arduous ride towards Long Pa’ Sia’.

Sipitang jetty

Taking a break at the river (HDR-processed)

En route to Long Pa' Sia'

The 4WD adventure took exactly 4 hours - stopped underneath the entrance arch of Long Pa’ Sia’ a small village of about 800, most of whom are of the Lundayeh tribe.

It was still early evening by the time our stuff were unloaded and whilst still energetic despite the bumpy ride, we took the opportunity to walk around to know the residents and take photos.

What followed after was a regroup, a short welcome speech and ended with rooms allocation at Long Pa’ Sia’ homestay before our packs are moved to destination. All returned after a cool shower for dinner. The night was filled with activities to the brim. Some residents as well as the crew for next day hike joined in the fun. A round of ice break was timely to get to know everybody including the crew. Speeches by the organisers were next including one by the chairman of FORMADAT Sarawak Penghulu George Sigar Sultan. 

Local dishes served by the village community

Short speech by Penghulu George Sigar Sultan

Another highlight of the night’s event was the performance in traditional costumes by the Lundayeh residents. A safety prayer by the village pastor ended the night.

Performance by Lundayeh residents

Day 2

This is the day everyone was looking forward to. Touted as the main thing to do, all were more than ready, geared and bright-eyed for the hike to the mountain range and cross border to enter into Sarawak.

As busy as the fish market inside the community museum, the sumptuous breakfast was followed by repacking and transfer to porters who will be doing the hard work - the hauling of not less than 30 kg of participants’ stuff, accommodation and food. I had a group photo arranged and that was followed with a warm-up exercise before the flag off, by lead guide Lait Joseph. Trekking begins immediately upon flag off by Penghulu George Sigar Sultan. 

Repacking by the assigned porters - each carries above 30 kg

Group photo of participants and crew (organisers and porters)

The flag off (photo credit: Tan Yeow Joo)

After several stream dry-cross and passing rubber plantation, we entered forest proper, at which stage I offered to assist with any clearings needed along the way to which first guide Welson Matius okayed me to borrow his well-seasoned parang from Long Semadoh. We then began to meet with the forest residents - the leeches. Apparently, some had missed the list of things to bring which included leech socks and long hiking pants. This translates to more “pit stops” to check up on our crawling friends. No slow-downs notwithstanding the plentiful brown hermaphrodites; however, the real slowdown was attributable to messy, muddy soil terrain on the uphill slopes whereupon many parts along the now-regrown logging trail would draw you back half a step for each forward step you make. For non-seasoned hikers, this proved to be a struggle, adding that the route towards the border is nothing but uneven, uphill terrain. Freelancer journalist Evangeline Thian, commented, “for better pace of movement, it is better to split the hikers into fast and slow groups.”

At about 5.30 pm, we came to a standstill right at the Sabah-Sarawak border that is without any topographical structure like the trigonometrical station or kiosk, or border stones - most of the porters who were ahead do not how far more to go before reaching Kayu Buda, the campsite destination. The participants were asked what are their preferences - to backtrack for another half an hour to settle down by the stream but which the surrounding is still in the raw or take the risk of expending possibly another two hours or so to trek downhill in the dark. The decision making did not take long, as participant Tan Yeow Joo quickly suggested to take that risk quoting it is better to have a proper place to put up the night than a new place that needs set up. It was then chief guide Lait Joseph caught up with his group right behind and took the lead to bring everyone down. Daylight vanished quickly, as usual, in any deep forest and soon twilight set in and everyone switched on their headlamp and continued to hike through the nite over gradual terrain for another one and a half hours downhill.

Punishing hike but yet all made it, with a disparity of about half an hour between the first and last hiker who reached Kayu Buda. Chan Kam Leong, my fellow hiker during my early trekking days, said that one must be mentally prepared and physical strength will stay intact. Six to seven trekking hours were originally planned but up to eleven hours were actually spent. 

The shelter at Kayu Buda campsite for the participants

About midnight, when all of us were not expecting any bad weather, the rain came abruptly when almost everyone had slipped into their sleeping bags, at their open shelter, hammocks and tents. Strong wind was not present, which was a good thing, otherwise I would have to slip out of my hammock and point my headlamp to the top, to monitor and keep a close watch for falling trees and branches. Pockets of still air were displaced and replaced successively with a new set throughout the bouts of moderate-heavy rain. Although there was neither wind nor breeze, due to each passing rain at the many intervals, the hasty drop in temperature was easily felt within a short duration. At about 4 am, temperature touched 16°C. Tan mentioned about the crew during the rain, “they put the participants before themselves when the rain came” - the crew ensured the shelters are completely insulated from the rain and all food stuff were relocated to dry areas.

Day 3

Trekking resume downhill. Along the way, we stopped to see a couple of Buaya Tana builds and Batuh Inarit with old carvings. The downhill was gradual, and some of us really felt it was a walk in the park. After Batuh Inarit, we finally entered civilisation and checked out to Puneng Trusan, the larger Long Semadoh cluster of 10 villages, where padi is grown.

Puneng Trusan padi field

All in all, we had trekked a total of 30 km from Long Pa’ Sia’. Ngu Lock Nei, a marathoner from Kuching, commented that the route from Long Pa’ Sia’ till Puneng Trusan is also suitable for trail run in small groups at any one time without bringing any significant destruction to the trails. We were greeted by the residents at the finishing banner.

GPS tracklog for the hiking trail

Finishing line at the first leg of the eco-challenge at Puneng Trusan

After tea session, kuih-muih deserts, mingling with the community of Puneng Trusan and arrival of all participants, we were finally transferred via 4WD to Long Tanid, still within the larger Long Semadoh, for the night. The night was leisure - after dinner was yet another traditional performance by the residents of the Lun Bawang tribe. In the midst of the performance, one of them joked, “this is not what I signed up for”, and was seen massaging his sore legs!

Performance by the residents of Long Tanid

Day 4

Church at Long Tanid (HDR-processed)

Day 4 was the “recovery day” before the next leg towards Ba’ Kelalan by the 10d9n participants - we had simpler challenges like tree and bamboo replanting by the Trusan river. We then visited the ancestors’ burial site at Lengutan Anak Adi' - skull remains in the cave with some scattered around the area undisturbed. We were told by Balan Berauk, coordinator for Formadat, that the earlier generation of ancestors practised animism. The night before, during the performance, I managed to catch up with Balan - he commented it was high time for Formadat to promote and put Long Semadoh and the 10 villages within it on the map and to the outside world - with the aim to upgrade the economic well-being of the community through ecotourism at the same time emphasising the attractiveness, to nature lovers, of the massive and untouched, virgin forests in the area.

Bamboo replanting at a spot besides the river

Skull remains of early ancestors at Lengutan Anak Adi' burial site

After descending back to the padi fields, we crossed a tall suspension bridge to visit the decommissioned airfield for some photography shots of the picturesque, landscape view. At noon, we settled down right by the river. Lunch dishes were cooked on the spot over a campfire. We have packed rice with dishes and soup served in the bamboo. With enough time to spent in the sunny afternoon, some took to the water to dip and swim whilst some others tried out fishing with nets.

Crossing the suspension bridge over Trusan River

A participant casting the small fishing net


We spent another night at Long Tanid and had our usual dinner at the open hall in the field and enjoyed the various performances - some participants came out to talk on personal experiences from that few days. When the itinerary for the day was over, the darker night came calling; some went back early to pack up for the next day and retired early, I and a few adjourned to the field for some night photography. Deep in the interior forests, the absence of light pollution in a well-behaved weather allowed for some great starscape photography, and “ventured” into space looking at planets and stars on our smartphone apps whilst chatting away.


Night photography at Long Tanid


Day 5

For me and two others who did the 5d4n trip, we checked out Long Semadoh to Lawas on 4wd which also took 4 hours to exit. 

A banner awaits our arrival at Miri airport

With this year’s success having tripled the number of participants as compared to 2015, it is expected more to join the third Highlands Eco-Challenge. WWF has been very instrumental and supportive towards Formadat’s initiative, we will see continuing assistance by them in the event communication and running. Dr Henry Chan, head of conservation for WWF Sarawak, who was with some of us doing the 5d4n trail, listed a couple of key success factors - that WWF needs to continue to work hard and hand-in-hand with governmental agencies to support Heart of Borneo ecotourism at the same time with private sector and corporations to provide funding support to drive further the mission; the other significant part of the works involves working with the logging concessionaires to have sections and stretches of the forests permanently reserved for ecotourism purposes.