by Guy Shirra (Superintendent Royal Hong Kong Police Force)
In August, 1988, Guy Shirra, former VSO teacher at St.
Columba's Secondary School in Miri, Sarawak in 1965/66, hatched
a plot with Ambrose Chung, then in Miri, to walk from Bario to
Lio Matoh, using SRMP Border Scouts ( on long distance patrol )
as guides and then to come down the more navigable section of the
Baram River from Lio Matoh to Marudi town by police longboat (on
routine logistic patrol ). The plot was finally agreed, and the
expedition eventually took place between 17th July and 28th July,
The nine-day walk section from Bario in the Kelabit
Highlands near the border with Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo,
and Lio Matoh on the Baram River was in a primary jungle area of
Sarawak denied to pimply-faced civvy teachers during the 1960s
Confrontation between Malaysia arid Indonesia, the former resolutely
supported by British and other Commonwealth troops.
The jungle trail is now little used and is in fact the
old land route from Bario to the Baram, connecting Kelabit longhouses
en route before the first airstrip at Bario was built in the 1950s.
The Confrontation in fact benefited the 'Orang Ulu' (people of
the jungle) in Sarawak quite substantially in the form of medical
treatment and helicopter 'casevacs', airstrips, proper 'jambans'
(toilets), and a more practical and colourful knowledge of the
English language as spoken in Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff,
Clapham, Sydney and Auckland.
But the major part played by the Anglican and Catholic
missionaries in the area from the 1930s to the present day in
converting the Murut, Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah, Barawan and Penan
peoples of the upper Baram and Trusan rivers from their pagan,
drunken and disease-ridden ways back to being a proud, healthy,
happy, friendly, prosperous and wonderfully hospitable group of
peoples should not be forgotten.
When the Brooke Rajahs stamped out piracy and inter-tribal warfare, many of the men-folk, left without their traditional role of
protector, turned to drink, in the form of copious quantities of
'tuak' or 'borak' ( rice beer or wine ). The missionaries and
enlightened government officers, local and expatriate, gave them
a new creed and the way ahead looks bright, particularly if the
Malaysian Government can see the wisdom of setting aside separate
areas of unspoilt, virgin, primary jungle as forest reserves, firstly
for 'Orang Ulu' hunting only, using blow pipe or single shot shotgun,
and secondly as genuine wildlife sanctuaries where hunting is totally
banned, as in the existing National Parks. The wonderful Mulu National
Park of the Melinau River being a good example. All other sport
hunting should be restricted to official logging areas and secondary
jungle areas only.
It remains to be seen how the needs of the country's
vital logging industry and the needs of the 'Orang Ulu' and the
global environment can be sensibly balanced.
What follows is a day-by-day account of the expedition
taken from the diary of the author, who flew on ahead from Hong
Kong via Kota Kinabalu to Miri (by MAS of course) to obtain upriver
permits from the police and local government, purchase food
and other supplies and make contact with the expedition co-leader,
Ambrose Chung. Special mention should be made at this point of
Superintendent Louis Chin and Chief Inspector Vincent Ajang of
Miri police and Serge Manciet and Ray Moore of Foramer for their
invaluable assistance and tremendous hospitality.
Day One: 17th July - Miri to Bario
Flying to Bario depends entirely on the weather; if it's
cloudy at Bario, you don't take off from Miri. So we were very
lucky to pick a good day and, after the weigh-in, which involved
each of us standing on the scales in turn with our rucksacks, we
took off on schedule in the MAS Twin Otter shared with some returning
Kelabits and a few live chickens.
The low level flight afforded us splendid views of the
lower Baram, winding like a giant snake from the sea to Marudi and
beyond, - a trip which would have taken us several hours by Chinese
express boat featuring the dubious advantages of air-conditioning
and American wrestling on closed circuit TV.
We arrived above Bario in cloud after 45 minutes in the
air, and after circling once or twice, sighted the grass strip
on the plateau and came in for a quick landing, scaring the grazing
cattle away in the process. Quite a reception committee greeted
our arrival, including the Kelabit Chief, or Penghulu, Tony Ngiman.
But we soon discovered that everyone turns out for every plane; it's the big event of the week!
Yours truly arrived with a raging sore throat and a bad
cough, so while the others had tea with the locals in the 'airport
restaurant' and admired the large stocks of renowned Bario rice,
I took myself off to the local Government clinic. Here I was
courteously examined by a cheerful dresser and given a week's supply
of penicillin and aspirin.
I then rejoined the group and we set off on foot to
Tony's longhouse, Ubong Palang, on a hill two miles away. Here
our hopes of a lazy evening were dashed when Ambrose happily announced
that he had agreed to accept a challenge from the local football
Having two left feet myself, my bronchitis became a blessing
in disguise, and while the rest exhausted themselves charging about
in the rain and mud, I contented myself with taking the official
photographs and chatting with the local children who took great
delight in the energetic but hopelessly inadequate skills of the
lumbering 'Orang Puteh' (white men) and Ambrose who were easily
defeated by the fit and agile barefoot Kelabits.
However, the sumptuous meal and luxurious accommodation
later provided by Tony and his family quickly restored our energy
and spirits and before bed, we made the first of our RHKP plaque
and T-shirt presentations.
Day Two: 18th July - Bario to Long Danau
I suppose we were up about six after a sound night's
sleep disturbed only by a heavy rainstorm. After breakfast we said
our good-byes to Tony and his family, but not before getting his
advice on Kelabit leech-prevention techniques. We had all come
prepared to burn them off with cigarettes or lighters or sprinkle
them with salt. 'No use, no need; stuff your shoes and socks with
local tobacco.' says Tony.
So our first stop was the local store next to the air
strip. Here we bought several packets of cheap tobacco and I bought
two bottles of what I recall was called 'Dr. Wood's Peppermint
Cure' made in Singapore. This tasty concoction certainly did the
trick for me, and I really perked up, only later discovering that
it was about 10% alcohol! No wonder I later fell into a thorn bush
and no wonder the store kept such a large stock!
We then moved on to the Bario police post where we were
introduced to our three guides, Kebing, Brahim and Maran, and their
families and colleagues who had gathered to see them off. Kebing,
the L/Cpl in charge of the post, was a 45 year old Kayan from the
Baram, whereas Brahim and Maran were both near retirement age as
54 year old local Kelabit Border Scouts.
Although they had all traveled the proposed route before,
they had not done so for many years. All three carried large wicker
back packs which we discovered weighed a ton. They also carried
a Stirling SMG and two loaded magazines and spare shotgun cartridges
for Ambrose's very fine fully automatic shotgun. This in addition
to a parang (long bladed slashing knife) each, rice, pots and
pans and fishing tackle.
So, after another RHKP plaque presentation to Border Scout Sergeant Kabing Balong and fond farewells, we finally set
out on the beginning of our nine-day trek at 09.45hrs. Our route
took us south across the airstrip parallel to the Kalimantan border
towards some hills in the far distance. The first section was easy,
going across flat ground along a well-trodden path paved over boggy
sections with timber. Pitcher plants were to be seen along the
way, indicative of our height above sea level, and we were lucky
to run into a Penan Tua Kampong, Apek Bala, and his sons on a hunting
expedition; we would be passing through his community at Long Baruang
on Day Seven.
We then struck off into the jungle proper where the
going quickly became far more difficult; the path was slippery
and undulating, churned up by both human and buffalo feet, it being
fairly well used in this section. After a couple of hours, we crossed
our first bridge over a substantial stream which my map told me
was the Dapur, rising in the mountains north of Bario, which later
becomes the Baram.
We broke for lunch at mid-day at one of the many other
streams we crossed and ate well on cold boiled rice wrapped in
green leaf and flavoured with spicy shrimp sambal. I was already
drinking copious quantities of water taken from the crystal-clear
streams but sterilized with pleasant-tasting effervescent tablets.
I had no stomach upsets throughout the trip.
After an hour's rest, we plodded on and on and up and
down and after several falls and much cursing, we finally arrived
in a true state of exhaustion at our destination at Long Danau
at 18.30hrs, or nearly nine hours' walking. It was already nearly
dark when we staggered into the cold Kelapang River, a Baram
tributary, to clean and revive ourselves.
After our ablutions, we shuffled into the longhouse
where we were warmly greeted and given spare rooms to sleep in
with mattresses and blankets to boot. After another good meal,
we sat down to repair ourselves. Ambrose forked out hard cash for
a massage from an old lady while we all had a good laugh. I was
not only drained from the bronchitis and the walk, but skewered by several longthorns from my fall into the bushes.
I accordingly lightened my pack by giving away a set
of clothing, several large torch batteries, some packets of salt
and sugar and some MSG, all highly prized commodities. This only
left me with a rucksack containing waterproof camera, film, knife,
torch, first-aid kit, washing kit, water-bottle, tent, inflatable
mattress, fly-sheet, numerous packets of instant noodles, (our
staple), tins of meat, my share of the RHKP wooden plaques, T-shirts , caps , badges, pen-knives, lighters shotgun-cartridges and other souvenirs to give away and changes of clothing. About
40 pounds weight, I think. I was thus reluctantly persuaded to
make use of a porter for the next day's walk to recover my strength,
so, with this ignominy on my mind, I had a fitful night's sleep
amidst the snoring of my fellow travellers before waking to the
morning chorus of the jungle outside.
Day Three: 19th July - Long Danau to Ramudu
The day started with another good breakfast of small
bananas, boiled rice in leaves and coffee, but as I still felt
sick and very tired, I was accordingly introduced to the porter
who was to carry my rucksack for me. The porter turned out to be
an elderly matron, which greatly amused my more healthy and
unsympathetic colleagues. However, I swallowed my pride and carried
the shotgun and a small pack instead.
We said our farewells to Tua Kampong Laba Aran and his
people after presenting an RHKP badge and T-shirts and set off
at about 09.00hrs across lush pastures close-cropped by the longhouse
cattle. The path turned out to be in very good condition and the
going was easy. The map indicated a walk of about a quarter of
the previous day's distance of about fifteen kilometers, and we
duly arrived at our destination at the longhouse of Ramudu at
Here we were given a warm welcome by Tua Kampong Maran
Lugun and the twenty odd adults and children of this small, remote
longhouse, the last on our route for about sixty kilometers. We
then made straight for the river, the same Kelapang which we had
crossed and recrossed by suspension foot-bridge on our morning's
walk. We all had a wonderful swim in the cold, swift-flowing, crystal clear
water and washed all our muddy clothes as best we could.
Only now did Dave discover that long trousers were not
the answer to leech prevention! He discovered two or three fully
engorged brutes on his legs, and I found one ambitious one just
outside my 'Y' fronts! Dave persevered with his 'Longs' for one
more day before chopping the 'Bottoms' off, no doubt getting the
idea from his surname. I started putting tobacco inside my 'Y'
fronts the next day!
The leech (not Steve) is an interesting creature;
it lies dormant in damp leaf mould or on low level foliage waiting
for something warm-blooded to come along and feed it. It hops on
delicately, and heads for somewhere it can't be seen, gorges itself
to thirty times it's normal size and drops off, if not first
discovered and scraped off with a sharp knife. The wound is clean
but bleeds profusely for quite some time; I was at one stage tempted
to transfer a leech to a boil on my posterior which I thought would
not only cure the infliction but would exact some not-so-sweet revenge
in the process! Sadly, the opportunity did not present itself in
time, as I burst the offending item sitting down heavily en route.
But I digress!
After a tasty lunch, which included shredded wild boar
meat and mouse deer, we all had a good siesta! Expecting mosquitoes,
I cunningly erected my small tent/mosie-net in the front verandah
of the longhouse, poking the tent pegs between the floor boards.
Siesta over, I had an interesting walk near the longhouse followed
by a very good dinner, more of the same. We then retired to the
verandah, and were all surprised by the cold; none of us had brought
sleeping bags, or even pullovers, and when a fierce thunderstorm
broke out all around us, bombarding the longhouse in a torrential
downpour, I was still cold even after putting on my spare shirt and Gortex tracksuit and wrapping myself in the fly-sheet. But
there were no mosies, and we were in fact never troubled by flying
insects, other than wasps after our lunch, until we reached the
cultivated areas surrounding the Baram longhouses. Our Japanese
Encephelitis inoculations, against a deadly form of Malaria which
we had all received in Hong Kong, were thus not, in the event, a
total necessity as expected. On the advice of Dr. Robert Woodside
of Hong Kong, we had also had Cholera, Typhoid, Tetanus and Polio
boosters and been plentifully supplied with Paludrin and Chloroquine
tablets, also for Malaria prophylaxis.
Day Four: 20th July - Ramudu to Camp I
We took our leave of Ramudu just after 08.00hrs after
an excellent breakfast, and I for one found the experience very
saddening, as this small, isolated community had made us all feel
so much at home. I suppose I was also not a little worried about
the next four days' walk in the jungle proper, with no human
habitation until we reached Long Baruang approximately fifty
kilometers south of Ramudu.
We set off over the suspension bridge, and after a couple
of false starts, found the very rarely used path. Naturally, one
of the guides took the lead, helpfully clearing the path of any
intruding thorns, followed by the rest of us, ostensibly slowest
at the front, with another guide as Tail-end-Charlie to round up
I soon discovered that the best way to avoid most of
the ubiquitous leeches was to either follow the leader, passing
through the undergrowth before they could react, or to stay at
the back, by which time one hoped most of them had hopped onto
someone in front! Either way, we kept an eye on each other, stopping
frequently to scrape them off our limbs with a knife or parang.
It was also necessary to keep each other in sight, in front and
behind, in case of falls; we all took a tumble at one time or another
with varying degrees of indignity and minor injury incurred.
The jungle was not hot and steamy as so often described.
At least, not in this part of Borneo; it was gloomy, dank, humid
and cool. The tall trees cut out the sunlight except in the very
occasional clearing or on the hill tops. The undergrowth is relatively
sparse in primary jungle, perhaps accounting for the dearth of
obvious wildlife; no chattering monkeys, no birds to-speak of and,
thankfully, nothing menacing. I emphasize obvious!
We soon discovered that our route, which basically led
us southwards, close to and parallel with the Kelapang, entailed
climbing hills and ridges dividing minor river and stream tributaries
to the main river. The only advantage of this was that it gave
us the occasional hill top view of the surrounding hills and forest
and gave us frequent opportunities to re-fill our water bottles.
By mid-day, we had negotiated at least one big hill and
seen several abandoned over-night Penan shelters made of sticks
and leaves. We had lunch in a purpose-built wooden shelter by the
river and rested in the sunlight for an hour. We then crossed the
main river to the east bank by a very large suspension bridge and
set off down river once more, often in sight of the roaring waters and usually within earshot.
After considering a possible camp site near the river
located at about 15.00hrs, we eventually settled on a very small
clearing on a small hill with the remains of an old Penan shelter
near to a tiny stream at 16.00hrs. Thus ended our quite tiring
seven-hour walk. We immediately started setting up camp; the guides
collected and chopped firewood and started a fire. They then built
Ambrose's bivouac for him, which we all, initially, regarded with
some envy, while the rest of us erected our individual tents. Most
of us had small nylon tents suitable for two, giving us plenty
of room for kit etc. Not so Steve; he had come equipped with something
more akin to an Egyptian mummy's sarcophagus. He eventually abandoned
it after two nights of claustrophobia and cramp, and much unkind
comment, in favour of a berth in Dick's more spacious but snore ridden
Some consternation was caused when, on sweeping the clearing
free of leaf mould and stones, we disturbed a rather vicious black
and yellow banded krait, which had been hiding in a hole. It was
quickly dispatched by a blow from Maran's parang, and we were all
glad it did not get stuck in the pot, as I am sure it would have
been had there been any Cantonese in the party! Since my own tent
was pitched of necessity on top of several similar holes, I had
visions of being bitten on my glutius by vengeful members of the
deceased's family as I slept. Dinner comprised a breathtakingly
delicious mixture of instant noodles, rice and luncheon meat with
soup and cocoa. After sitting chatting around the fire for a while,
we all retired for the night.
That is, all except our guides. They amazed us throughout
the trip with their extraordinary resilience by apparently sitting
around the fire all night chatting quietly while the rest of us
slept the sleep of the dead, or at least the seriously exhausted.
This after making breakfast, walking all day with hand made packs
twice as heavy as our own and making camp in the evening.
I myself slept badly that first night in the jungle;
I was cold again despite wearing all my clothes and I was even
more worried about being able to complete the trip in my bronchitic
condition. Ambrose, it transpired, had an even worse night. His
much admired bivvy, raising him majestically several feet above
the cold, damp ground, unfortunately allowed the cold, damp night
air to freely circulate all around him, cooling him to the consistency
of a quivering jelly, and forcing him to move closer to the fire
on subsequent nights.
Day Five: 21st July - Camp I to Camp II
I was up at 06.00hrs and helped Kebing, Brahim and Maran
prepare' our breakfast of rice, spam and hot tea which we ate an
hour later. Ambrose and Kebing then took the shotgun and their
gear and went on ahead to hunt, hopefully before we came stumbling
along to disturb the game.
When we set off 45 minutes after them, we found quite
a firm track and made good progress, although I felt very tired
and wobbly at first. We soon caught up with our intrepid hunting
party, but, alas, no succulent mouse or barking deer as promised! Not even one shot fired! We all pushed on again together, and my
spirits were greatly enlivened by my choice of a very pleasant
spot by the river for lunch. I actually quite enjoyed my repast
of cold boiled rice spiced with MAS pepper! I for one enjoyed an
invigorating swim while the guides tried their luck at fishing;
again, no luck! Dick insisted on trying to preserve his smooth
Welsh looks by shaving, whereas the rest of us had agreed to go
However, when the wasps started showing an interest in
our food, we resumed our march at mid-day and again made good progress
despite all the ups and downs. Two and a half hours later we arrived
at the confluence of the Kelapang and a major tributary, the Merei.
Here we forded the Merei and, climbing up the bank, found a promising
piece of flat ground beneath what we decided there and then would
be next morning's hill!
It only being 14.30hrs, we had plenty of time after our
six-hour walk, and set about clearing the ground and building a
comfortable camp with camp-fire, seats and separate cooking fire.
We then had a long, cool swim in the deep pools of the Merei and
washed all our dirty clothing. Thus refreshed, we prepared and
ate a very good meal ( more of the same ) and then sat around the
It was a mixed evening, culturally speaking, with Peter
giving us a few tunes on his piccolo and Dave telling several of
his seemingly 'Bottomless' supply of dirty jokes. I slept very
well that night, far more confident of my ability to get through
it all, and feeling much better physically, but it was still damn
Day Six: 22nd July - Camp II to Camp III
The day began at 06.00hrs, but we decided to forego cold
rice and had coffee only. Ambrose took Brahim this time on his
hunting advance party while we broke camp and set off in their
tracks, as quietly as humanly possible, at 07.45hrs. We climbed
the hill, which was not as steep as first thought, and which became
increasingly drier, leech-free and attractive the higher we climbed.
We negotiated a series of 'summits', one of which provided
a stunning view of the high mountains to the east in which the
Kelapang rises. These 'summits' were linked by a path which clung
precariously to the hillside with steep drops through the trees
which we took great care not to fall down. We arrived at the true
summit at 11.OOhrs where we had an hour's break for something to
0ur descent was quite rapid, the path being so dry, and
we arrived at another major tributary of the Kelapang under two
hours later. At this time, I was at the tail end of the group,
and I was annoyed to find that our group had ignored an earlier
agreement not ..to do what the guides had been doing all their lives
- cross streams on slippery tree trunks - and instead ford them,
In this case the stream was a semi-raging river and the
tree trunk at least sixty feet long, ten feet in girth and a good
forty feet above the white waters and looming boulders of the torrent below. I knew my own legs were in no condition to take me across
safely, so I climbed down and fought my way across the river instead;
I prefer swimming to flying any day. When I re-joined the others,
who were thankfully all across safely, I had words.
It is one thing to slip, fall and break a limb or two or worse somewhere within civilisation. It is quite another to do so three or four days march to the nearest radio transmitter with which to call in a helicopter casevac. Nowadays, such an expedition would have had the use of a sat-phone with hand-held walky-talkies for short distance comms.
On the far side of the river Okan was a wooden shelter,
open on all sides, with a rough, uneven plank floor. I decided
that I preferred soft ground, so, while the others made themselves
comfortable in the shelter, I set up my tent outside. We were then
surprised by the arrival from the opposite direction of a lone
West German by the name of Marco Scholze with two young Penan guides.
We made them all welcome, and after a good swim, ate an equally
good dinner and then sat around discussing our mutual experiences.
In the meantime, the two Penan boys went hunting with their
blow-pipes and Ambrose's shotgun.
Marco told us that he had come from Long Lellang to the
west and was heading for Bario. We then discovered that he had
no food and had intended to live off the land! After we had set
him straight on this, he was happy to accept a food supply from
us to see him through to Ramudu.
We had another big joke session that evening, which was
further enlivened when the firewood, drying above the fire, was set
ablaze. Our guides adopted the same system as that used in all
the longhouses, and it is domestic fires such as this which result
in their not infrequent destruction. It is accordingly very difficult
these days to find a longhouse with its original atap roof; corrugated
iron is now the preferred standard.
Afterwards I retired to my tent and slept quite well
while the others fought for space on the planks with the cockroaches
and each other.
Day Seven: 23rd July - Camp III to L. Baruang / L. Paluan
I awoke early to find that the Penan boys had had some
success hunting, and had bagged an unfortunate civet cat with their
blow-pipes. I wished Marco bon appetit and bon marche as he was
setting off early. Ambrose and I then decided to press on early
with Maran and get in some hunting ourselves. So we had some coffee,
grabbed our gear and set off at 07.20hrs and it was indeed a tough
After about an hour of slow and silent progress, Maran
caught sight of a wild boar and got a quick shot in. We dumped
our gear and set off in hot pursuit through the undergrowth, but
gave up after half an hour; the solid round had obviously missed
its target. We then rested while the main group caught us up and
we resumed our march together.
It was tough going, with steep climbs and descents, and
both my knees became very sore and I was also very tired. However,
we eventually started a long descent, and broke out into secondary
jungle with thick undergrowth and the hot sun visible above the lower tree canopy. After a while, we emerged into the mid-day sun,
crossed yet another major tributary of the Kelapang, the Baleh,
by suspension bridge and arrived exhausted but truly happy at the
Penan settlement of Long Baruang, whose chief we had met out hunting
The whole community of a hundred or so Penans turned
out to greet us, and a lot of chattering and photography resulted.
Ambrose then had a brain wave, and persuaded the Penans to sell
us five of their best chickens, poor scrawny, withered looking
fowl, for $50 Malaysian, and we of course parted company with several T-shirts, salt, MSG, shotgun cartridges etc in return for handmade
bangles, necklaces and baskets.
We were then ushered into the absent Tua Kampong's house,
there being no longhouse, only separate family houses on stilts.
The guides then set about preparing lunch which turned out to be
the most delicious ginger chicken with vegetable side dishes and
small, sweet bananas to follow. We scoffed the lot, and then took
on the children at Four-in-a-Row, a travel game I had brought with
me while the men admired Ambrose's shotgun. Our brief but memorable
visit was then marked by fixing an RHKP badge to the wall.
We were all sad to eventually leave this happy community
which was very like a similar one I had visited the year before
at Mulu. The Penan are the nomads of the Borneo forests and
traditionally roam great distances in small family groups. However,
they are now being encouraged by the Government to settle which
gives their children an opportunity for education and everyone
access to medical treatment. The men and boys still go off on extended hunting trips, and the system seems to be a sensible compromise.
The afternoon's walk to our destination took us another
hour and a half making a day's total of seven hours' walking. It
was mostly flat and open, which made it very hot for a change,
so when we arrived at the beautiful community of Kelabits at Long
Paluan in the mid afternoon, we headed straight for the river and
a fantastic swim.
Afterwards, we found ourselves accommodated in the hall cum-schoolhouse where we were provided with mats, mosquito nets
and bedding in a room set aside for visitors. We were then spoiled
silly with bowls of fresh coconut, pineapple and bananas, the latter
freshly cut by a Kelabit who swam across the river both ways to
get them! Once again, of course, there was no borak or alcohol,
it being Christian country, and once again we were reminded by
Ambrose not to give offence by swimming naked. Very different to
accepted standards in Iban country, particularly the upper Rajang,
or so Ambrose would have us believe. However, what was to follow
that evening and the following morning was, I think, to leave an
indelible impression on all of us.
First Steve; our designated first aid man, set up clinic
and found himself treating all manner of aches and pains, infected
cuts and colds with a variety of such wonders of modern medicine that we carried with us, including 'Deep Heat', aspirin and
antibiotics. Next, we had a very tasty meal of shredded wild boar,
mouse deer, fresh vegetables and more fruit, and then we all sat
down to endure another Peter Pan piccolo concert, which was politely
applauded by our assembled hosts, comprising about thirty young children and ladies and a few older men. This then encouraged one
very pretty young girl to bring out her guitar, and the dancing
The Kelabit, Kayan and Kenyah dancing of the Baram is
very different to the aggressive war dancing of the Ibans. It is
graceful and mystical and a joy to watch. It is also extraordinarily
difficult to perform, particularly so for lumbering 'Orang Puteh'.
Having watched some beautiful individual and group performances
by all our hosts, we were then dragged individually onto the floor
to return the complement. The results had our hosts and ourselves
in hysterics. Peter later described our performances; Dick appeared
to be experiencing an epileptic fit, Alex was apparently possessed
by demons. Dave appeared to be trying to remove leeches from inside
his underwear and Steve to be trying to fix his rucksack again,
and again. I apparently gave a poor imitation of Salome's last
dance. Peter was just plain awful but Ambrose and our guides did
us all proud and saved the evening. Thus feasted and feted, we retired
for the night.
Day Eight: 24th July - L. Paluan to L. Banga/Le Po Ke
I did not awake until well before dawn to the sound of
the hollow beating of an enormous bamboo gong which called the
faithful to their daily morning service. I lay there, half asleep,
not knowing what it was, until the most beautiful psalm and hymn
singing I have ever heard commenced in the hall to the accompaniment
of the same guitar. I presume that the language was Kelabit, which
only made it more haunting and mysterious, and I lay there feeling
truly rested and content.
So it was with some reluctance and sadness that we said
our good-byes to Tua Kampong Ngaan Tului and his delightful Kelabits
after breakfast and photographs and set off south across country.
We had an exhausting but dry and leech-free walk through hot, sun-drenched secondary jungle but my knees seamed to have recovered
from the previous day's exertions. We had to negotiate a couple
of wide logging areas, where we wobbled uncertainly from felled
tree to felled tree. Other than this, it was an uneventful three
hour walk to our next destination at Long Banga, on the river Puak.
which lower down joins the Kelapang/Baleh to become the mighty
As we entered Long Banga, we passed a group of four families
of Penans encamped in temporary shelters. We discovered that they
had been there for several days waiting for the arrival of the
'Flying Doctor' service. We gave-them all our remaining cooked
rice, which they shyly accepted, and we carried on through a
sophisticated granary area before entering the village.
Here, I was surprised to find that there was no longhouse,
but neat rows of individual, stilted houses, many surrounded by
colourful gardens and free-range poultry. We learned that this
was in fact a Saban community which had emigrated from Indonesian
Borneo (Kalimantan) and settled in Sarawak fifty years before.
They had long become integrated, adopting the Kelabit language
as their own, but retaining their own life style, culture and costume.
We were warmly welcomed by the Tua Kampong, Tama Lala,
and accommodated above his shop in a comfortable hall. After a
swim in the river and a good lunch, I bought some sticky tinned
milk and biscuits in the shop, and exchanged my last Chinese bone
bracelet for a very colourful Saban sun hat. Alex and I then wandered
off to the clinic where he chatted up the nurse while I took
photographs of the villagers waiting for the arrival of the 'Flying
Doctor'. The helicopter arrived bang on time, dropped off the doctor
and then took off again with a Saban lady in full costume with
her child; I did not discover why, but I found the whole spectacle
quite incongruous. We then returned to our accommodation to relax
while Maran enjoyed playing with one of his children, left in the
care of an aunt. It seems that this is quite a common practice
amongst large families, and Maran had three children being raised
separately in this way; we were to meet all three on the trip and
Maran was obviously delighted to be able to see them again, even
if only for such a short time.
After dinner Ambrose, somewhat conspiratorially, suggested
a walk. We set off down river in the growing dusk, not knowing
what to expect. After about fifteen minutes, we arrived at a village
with a couple of what can best be described as miniature longhouses.
We were greeted by hordes of young children and a lot of animated
chatter. We then noticed a couple of men who were sticking there
heads out of the longhouse roof, of a design I had never seen before,
and they were both very obviously the worse for wear. It was then
revealed that this was the village of Le Po Ke, a community of
unconverted Kenyahs who had emigrated from Kalimantan about three
This presumably accounted for their uninhibited and
unrestrained welcome, for we were virtually dragged into the longhouse
section occupied by the two inebriates, sat down in the small but
cosy room and inquisitively observed through the roof, windows
and doors by all the village children while we awaited our fate.
We did not have long to wait, for in no time at all, a sinewy arm
emerged over the wall from the next 'flat' holding a large jug
of amber liquid. A dozen grimy glasses were then proudly produced
and wiped reverently with a dirty rag. We gazed on in wrapped
fascination as our drunken but cheerful hosts poured out generous
measures of the village brew for each of us. We all sipped hesitantly,
not sure whether our hosts had been on a binge all day or had been
reduced to their near incapable state by just one glass each. But
most of us were pleasantly surprised by the flavour, and several
of us had more, than one refill! This borak was to be our only
alcoholic beverage during the walk, so we-made the most of it!
We eventually left the longhouse, negotiating the log
steps with some difficulty, bade our farewells and staggered off
back up the path towards Long Banga in the dark. I was surprised
we did not get lost, but the path was in fact well-trodden, perhaps
by the feet of some less well-disciplined Long Banga men folk tempted
by the tasty Kenyah brew, taboo in their own community.
We returned to the hall and spent the rest of the evening
chatting to Tama Lala about the old days including the Confrontation
when Long Banga was another battalion H.Q.. Evidence of this period
was displayed on the wall in the form of the regimental badges
of the Gordon Highlanders and 2nd/7th Gurkha Rifles. We then presented
him with our own RHKP badge to add to these and retired for the
Day Nine: 25th July - Long Banga to Camp IV
Not surprisingly, I had a deep night's sleep, and awoke
feeling very rested at 06.00hrs. We had a breakfast of biscuits
and coffee, packed up, bade our farewells and departed at 08.00hrs.
After a short walk, we briefly visited the smaller Saban community
of Long Puak where we were plied with bananas, and water in exchange
for cigarette lighters and penlight torches and other small gifts
brought for just such occasions.
To get back on the main track, now heading west and parallel
with the Baram, we next had to ford three rivers and then commenced
a very tough climb which we did not complete until 11.45hrs. After
a well-earned rest, we made our descent, which was even worse than
the climb, and very hard on my already painful knees. But by 13.30hrs
it was over, and we arrived at another substantial wooden shelter
beside the Baram, a 'half-way house' between Long Banga and the
next community at Lio Matoh where we would conclude our 'walk'.
A feature of this shelter was the presence of several sealed metal
boxes stored in the rafters which we surmised contained cooking
and gating utensils and other gear belonging to regular travellers.
The river was over 100 yards wide and fast-flowing at
this point, and approached via a large sandy beach strewn with
large boulders and driftwood. After we had all had a good swim,
washed all our filthy clothing and hung it out in the hot sunshine,
we built a cooking fire in the shelter and an enormous camp fire
on the beach.
We then sat down and had a lunch of biscuits and tea,
after which I had a siesta in the shade, watching a troop of rarely
seen-monkeys swinging through the trees on the far side of the
river, thankfully out of-shotgun range, or Ambrose would have tried
to get one for the pot.
Others were more energetic, if you can call fishing
energetic. Maran caught two, Steve caught one and Kebing caught
nothing, except cramp from sitting on a rock in mid-stream for
too long. As I recall, the fish were barbecued and scoffed by their
captors, while the rest of us shared the usual camp fare of noodles,
rice and spam. We spent the rest of the evening sitting around
the camp fire chatting before retiring to the shelter at about 22.00hrs. I quickly fell asleep, worn out by the day's exertions.
Day Ten: 26th July - Camp IV to Lio Matoh/Long Moh
I awoke early, and found myself raring to go on this,
our final day's march. I had a quick breakfast of coffee and biscuits
with the scouts, packed up my gear and told the rest that I would
set off ahead slowly with Brahim. There would later prove to be some misunderstanding around my early departure. I left at 07.30hrs
and made my way down-river until I came to a very rickety bamboo
bridge crossing the fast-flowing and turbulent Merapa tributary.
I did not have long to wait before Brahim joined me, and rather
than wait any longer, we decided to push on slowly.
We crossed the bridge, which threatened to collapse under
the weight of ourselves and our gear, and found the path. However,
after only a few yards, we discovered that the old route, as
remembered by Brahim, had been abandoned in favour of a steeper
but more direct route away from the river. We took this, and were
careful to blaze the trail with our parangs. We proceeded on our
way, at a steady pace, and arrived at the summit of a steep and
long climb at 11.30hrs, surprised that we had neither seen nor
heard any sign of the rest following in our steps. Long shouts
and whistles into the surrounding jungle likewise elicited no
Brahim and I agreed that they must somehow have missed
the new trail, and be using the old one. It was by then too late
and too far to retrace our own steps to locate them, so we agreed
to press on, continuing to mark our way, and get to Lio Matoh in
good time to buy some beer and arrange a longboat to take us all
down to Long Moh. It never occurred to us that they might think
I had got lost; if Brahim had not found me, he would certainly
have gone back to report and not gone off on his own to search.
So after a lunch break, (more cold boiled rice flavoured
this time with raw sugar, of all things, from Long Banga), we set
off on a very hard descent to the Tudan tributary. This was a very
fast-flowing river about fifty yards wide and strewn with boulders
and uprooted tree trunks. There was no bridge of any description,
so we had to ford. This proved to be a hair-raising and exhausting
task, with the roaring waters up to chest level in places, threatening
to tear the packs off our backs or sweep us away altogether. However,
we eventually made it across safely, and with still no sign of
the rest, re-located the path and started climbing up the far side
This took another hour, and once again, the descent was
steep and hard on the knees. But the reward was worth it, for at
the base of the hill, we came to an enchanting stream with a deep,
clear pool into which we gratefully plunged. We then lay on the
rocks sunning ourselves for a while after removing what were to
prove to be the last of the ubiquitous leeches. We took a couple
of photographs, and then set off through the flat, secondary jungle
path to find the Baram at Lio Matoh. After passing one or two
apparently abandoned rubber plantations, we finally arrived at
the Baram once again. The river here was a good 200 yards across,
but too deep and rapid to ford. On the far bank we could see the
kubu (fort) and old government buildings of the Lio Matoh trading post, high up on the bank, fifty feet or so above the relatively
There was nobody on our side of the river, but seeing
a government longboat tied up on the far side and thinking that
it might be ours, we tried attracting attention by hollering and
whistling, all to no avail. We accordingly had a look around and
found a tiny dug-out canoe with a couple of paddles. We loaded
our gear, waded in, jumped aboard and started paddling upstream
close to our own bank, knowing that once we entered mid-stream,
we would be swept rapidly downstream and beyond our destination.
Our tactics worked, and we made it to the far bank without capsizing
but with half the river in our canoe.
By this time, some children had emerged from hiding to
observe the drama. The longboat turned out to belong to Ag. Fish.
and not the Police and the Up River Agent or URA, Balawan Apai,
was not around and his store closed. So, tired though we were,
we shouldered our packs once more and set off on a wide, cobbled
track for the longhouse more than a mile away. Here we found a
small shop and a big welcome and purchased two cases of Coke and
several bags of chocolate biscuits; they were clean out of the
beer we had all been anticipating with the relish of incarcerated
We then arranged for a longboat to go back to Lio Matoh
to collect all of us, but, as it was at that time, elsewhere, Brahim
and I had to slog back up the road with our packs and a case of
Coke each. We did not have too long to wait; the rest of the group
arrived on the far bank forty minutes later, and one of the Ag. Fish. men very obligingly used his longboat to return the borrowed
canoe to the far bank and collect our party.
There was something of a 1960s Confrontasi about our reunion in respect of our early departure as the rest of the party had apparently seen no sign of our trail blazing and spent two hours searching and calling for us. Despite the lack of the thirstily expected cold beer, the spirits of the whole group were at least partially restored when we produced the Coke and biscuits. For my part, I am sorry that I inadvertently caused this disruption.
After a quick snack, we walked together to the longhouse
while the boat took our gear round by river. This time, we were
able to look around properly, and found the longhouse to be a splendid
example of its kind. It was at least a hundred yards long, built
of ancient hardwood and comprised about thirty doors. The old people
and children on the front verandah were charming and we thoroughly
enjoyed our brief visit. After some more shopping, we all piled
into two longboats negotiated for by Ambrose, and set off at 16.30hrs, down-river for Long Moh.
I remember little of this trip; I think that we just
lay back and enjoyed the ride! After all that walking, it was a
a real pleasure to just watch the trees go by. My map shows that
we should have passed two or three longhouses, but we had no rapids
to negotiate. We arrived at Long Moh at 18.10hrs. It was tucked away safely not far from the mouth of the river Moh and proved
to be a prosperous and happy community of Kenyahs who gave us a
warm welcome; especially one overjoyed little girl, Pauline, who
flew delightedly into the arms of her father, Maran.
Pauline was being looked after by the Penghulu, Bilong
Kuleh, who was unfortunately away on a hunting expedition.
Nevertheless, after a tremendous dinner, we presented the RHKP
plaque which we had intended for Lio Matoh to Bilong's deputy instead.
We then set up our tents on the verandah just before the heavens
opened and another tremendous downpour ensued.
We had been incredibly lucky with the weather; every
time there had been a thunderstorm, we had been in a longhousel
I am quite sure that our flimsy tents would have quickly been awash
if the storms had hit our camps instead. This was, of course, the
so called 'dry season' which we had chosen for our expedition to
avoid being swamped in the jungle and also to ensure that all the
rapids would be exposed by the low water level in the river. The
water-level markers at Lio Matoh had certainly indicated that the
river was a good thirty feet below maximum, but this storm could
quickly change that. I fell soundly asleep with the roaring of
the rain slowly receding in my ears.
Day Eleven: 27th July - L.Moh to L.Laput via L.Akah/L.San
We were up at 06.30hrs and had breakfast of coffee and
biscuits. Then we packed our gear and negotiated the price of two
longboats to take us down-river. We had originally hoped that the
Police longboat would have been able to make it up to Lio Matoh,
but it had obviously been unable to negotiate the rapids and, we
assumed, must now be waiting for us at Long Akah, a trading post
at the mouth of the Akah river about fifty kilometers down-river.
The two boats, powered by outboard engines, cost us $600 Malaysian,
which included the cost of petrol for the return journey.
We left at 08.20hrs, Pauline and our hosts waving farewell
from the bank, and set off down the Baram. We had originally intended
to take it in easy stages, spending a night each in Long San and
Long Laput, but as our walk had taken longer than expected, and
because Ambrose had a court case in Miri to prosecute, we decided
to split the river trip into two instead of three sections.
Between Long Moh and Long Akah, we negotiated thirteen
sets of rapids, but we were all disappointed to find that the river
had indeed risen overnight, and they were not the raging variety
which we had been hoping for. Nevertheless we were all obliged
to get out and walk with our gear at one very turbulent location
which the boatmen insisted must be negotiated by them alone. I
don't for one minute think that they were worried about us, only
their boats, and I can't say I blame them. The only other stops
were to relieve ourselves on convenient sand banks and we arrived
at Long Akah four hours later.
Here we found the Police longboat with its crew of four;
Sgt Marcus Bilong, L/Cpl Lukas and EPC Mohamed Zain of Marudi and
UPC Taggo of Long Lama. I was surprised that there were more than
two of them, but they had apparently needed the strength of all
four to drag the boat above the rapids below Long Akah and had realized that they had no hope of getting any further up river
with all the fuel needed for the return trip.
After introductions all round, Ambrose led us all off
to see his old friend Lan Jau, the Penghulu of Long San, in his
shop in the bazaar, where we were treated to our first beer
for eleven days. Then we all piled into a longboat for a quick
trip to the nearby Kenyah longhouse of Long San. Here Ambrose took
us to see another old friend at the long-established Catholic Mission,
A 2012 journey Down the Baram River
We were warmly welcomed and bade to sit down in the shade
of the bougainvillaea on his splendid patio overlooking the Baram.
The surroundings were truly idyllic and the cold Heineken was nectar
from Heaven; I think we all politely declined Father Jacob's 'roll
your own' cigarettes, but enjoyed chatting about his twenty odd
years in Sarawak. He then took us to the church overlooking the
padang or football pitch, and we were all impressed with the beauty
of the Kenyah murals and the peaceful simplicity of the interior.
I find it very difficult to believe that the good Father Jacob
will ever in future be able to drag himself away from his beloved
Long San and return to his native Holland.
We returned to Long Akah to find that Lan Jau had laid
on lunch with his family in the store. It was truly excellent,
and at the conclusion, he delighted us all with the gift of a parang
and woven basket each. We in turn presented an RHKP plaque and
I also managed to barter for a beautiful woven baby-carrier before
we eventually took our leave.
Because of the rapids, we had arranged for one of the
Long Moh longboats to take all our gear until we were safely through
them. We left at 14.30hrs and had quite an exciting trip through
a further six sets of rapids. It was remarkable how the river sloped
away ahead of us and how skilfully the boatmen avoided the half-submerged
boulders and shallows. In the meantime, the sun blazed
down while we sheltered under the atap roof of the Police longboat;
the other one had no shade. Once past the rapids, we transferred
all our gear to the Police longboat and said our farewells and
thanks to the men from Long Moh, not envying their long trip home.
There then followed a tiring and monotonous trip past
the odd small longhouse and timber camp. There was little sign
of timber on the river, except where it was being expertly marshalled
into rafts by workers in speed-boats at the timber camps. Dark -
swiftly descended, after an awe-inspiring sunset, at 18.30hrs and
we -then discovered that the our longboat was not equipped with
spotlights. So, for the first time, our torches finally proved
useful; in fact, without them we would have been, quite literally,
sunk. We took it in turns, to sit in the bow searching ahead for
all the floating and submerged obstacles in the river, which in
daylight we had taken for granted, and to keep the river bank in
sight and at a safe distance. But our speed had to be drastically
reduced, and it was not until 20.30hrs, after several false alarms,
that the lights of the Kayan longhouse of Long Laput finally hove
into view. We were all truly glad to have finally arrived!
This was the traditional home of the paramount chief
of the Kayans, who should have the title 'Temmonggong'. However,
the incumbent, Deng Wan, held the 'acting' title of 'Pemanca' instead. This did not, however, prevent this truly larger than life character
from rolling out the red carpet for us. While his wife and lovely
daughter Elizabeth prepared dinner, Deng Wan showed us to our
The longhouse here was probably about fifty doors long
and of modern construction; really a long row of terraced, two
storey houses with a covered ground floor communal front verandah.
We were shown to the 'guest' house where the softies amongst us
grabbed beds in the upstairs rooms. I found it cooler downstairs
on the tiled floor and after a long shower in the back, we returned
to Deng Wan's spacious two storey detached house next to his
agricultural and general provisions store. The meal and company
was wonderful and Deng Wan was pleased to accept our plaque which
was hung on the wall beside numerous other mementos of a bygone
I fell asleep quickly after all this, assisted by the
effects of too much good borak, but was awoken in the middle of
the night by the screaming of a child in pain. As it continued
unabated, I decided to intervene and offer the services of our
'medical team' and medicines. I soon located the source of the
screaming two doors down, and knocked on the locked door. There
was no response, and none to my offers of assistance. I returned
rather pensively to bed, reflecting that this would not have happened
in a traditional longhouse up river where the communities depend
so much on each other, and where they had all queued up to receive
the amateur ministrations of 'Doctor' Steve with complete faith.
Long Laput is a prosperous community of farmers who also
own some nearby caves from which they collect an abundant harvest
of swiftlet nests which are bought for considerable sums of money
by the eager Chinese merchants of Marudi and further afield for
marketing as the main ingredient of the gourmet 'birds nest soup'.
The result has been the new methods, piped water and
electricity and TV sets. It has also brought a modern longhouse
which has no communal cooking verandah at the rear and a front
verandah in name only. Whereas in the traditional longhouse the
front verandah is raised off the ground with the whole house and
can only be accessed by the occasional set of log steps, the modern
version can be accessed along its entire length.
Like living in a block of modern flats or a row of terraced
houses, the inhabitants no longer have to encounter each other
and seem to have lost their communal identity. Gone is the 'one
big happy family' atmosphere of the old longhouses where the children
charge around happily together on the verandahs in complete safety
and shelter and their elders sit and chat in groups and welcome
complete strangers without a second thought.
Day Twelve: 28th July - L.Laput to Marudi via L.Lama
I arose early and went out for a walk. Long Laput was
the farthest I had managed to get up the Baram in 1965. In those
days, the longhouse was traditional wood and atap and very basic.
As I walked, I recognized nothing, and although the people of Long
Laput now have a more modern and comfortable way of life, I am
glad that I had the opportunity to experience longhouse life as it used to be back in 1965 and this time, in the remote Kelabit
and Kenyah longhouses of the Ulu Baram.
After packing and breakfast of homemade bread and coffee,
we took our leave of Deng Wan and his delightful family and set
off down-river at 08.45hrs. Our first port of call was twenty minutes
or about five kilometers down-river at the trading post of Long
Lama, a busy Chinese bazaar with an old kubu in which I had camped
in 1965. Here we were introduced to another of Ambrose's friends,
the only Chinese Penghulu on the Baram, Lee Kee-yan. He kindly
treated us all to coffee and mangoes in his tea house, but we
regrettably had run out of plaques to present in return.
After this pleasant interlude, we boarded the longboat
for the last time and set off on our last eighty-kilometer trip
to Marudi. It was a long, hot and uncomfortable trip with little
to see as we meandered monotonously between the ever-widening river
banks through the flat lowlands, leaving the hills behind us in
After about two and a half hours, we passed the mouth
of the River Tutoh, another major tributary which leads past the
Barawan communities of Long Panai and Long Terawan and up the Melinau
to the Mulu National Park, famous for its caves; among them, the
Sarawak Chamber, the largest cave in the World.
We had originally hoped that the Police longboat would
be able to take us all there direct, but the change of plan meant
that we pressed on down the Baram for another two and a half hours
to the district town of Marudi. We arrived at 15.30hrs and walked
up the hill past the old kubu, once the Police station and now
the District Office, to the Government Rest House, formerly the
home of the District Officer. It was still a splendid place, but
somewhat run-down with an unkempt garden and outdated portraits
of the Malaysian Royal Family on the wall. We reveled in the luxury
of a hot shower, and dressed in our best 'clean' clothing, repaired
to a Chinese restaurant owned by another hunting friend of Ambrose's
and had a splendid meal and far too much to drink. We were surprised
when Marco walked in and joined us; he had made it safely to Bario
and flown in in the afternoon.
Day Thirteen: 29th July - Marudi to Miri
We all slept late and staggered out of bed at 08.30hrs
and down the hill to Ah Jock's coffee shop for breakfast. By then,
I had decided not to return to Mulu with the others, not relishing
the trip back up river by express boat and then longboat and
preferring to retain my very fond memories of my trip up there
with my elder daughter in 1988. So, while the others packed, I
changed my flight ticket to the evening and said good-bye to Ambrose.
I then saw Alex, Steve, Dick, Peter and Dave off on the mid-day
express to Long Panai and then took all the scouts for lunch. They
then helped me do some shopping, and I was able to buy some Kayan
carvings and Penan parangs, and Zain's wife, a Kayan from Long
Laput, gave me a most beautiful handmade bead basket.
Maran was in the meantime enjoying the company of yet
another daughter, this one at Marudi Secondary School. It was
eventually with a heavy heart that, after some crafty packing, I said farewell to Zain, Kebing, Brahim and Maran who all turned
up at the airstrip to see me off. I told them that I would be back
to Bario someday with my younger daughter and, before five supposedly
tough policemen could make a spectacle of themselves, I boarded
the plane for the 15 minute flight and left the Baram for Miri
where it all began for me in 1965.