Borneo. It’s a pretty unique place. The first time I ended up in Borneo, I was sitting in the lounge of my friend’s place in Kuala Lumpur. He says to me, “Oh, Tara! I want to show you my most favourite place in all of Malaysia!” He walks over to the TV, surfs Netflix a bit and chucks on one of those crazy David Attenborough documentary and presses play. Opening shot is three million bats flying out of a cave all at once. It was such an incredible site.
I sitting there with my jaw dropped whilst looking at this. Just for a laugh, I whip open my laptop for a look. Couldn’t believe it; the tickets to the bat cave in Mulu would only be around $50 bucks each way. Bargain.
My second time to Borneo… well, let’s just say, the ‘interesting’ factor was through the roof!
About ten of us were invited by the Kelabit highland tribe for their yearly food festival. This food festival is located in a beautiful green valley plunked right in the middle of the highlands in a little village called Bario. To get here, I had to take a 12 seater prop job… or if you’re fat westerners like we were, the plane’s capacity reduces from 12 to 10.
After we arrived to the little airport in the middle of the jungle, our host picked us up and we all piled in the back of the ute – luggage and all. Off we headed to the long house. Long houses are pretty much a way of life in the heart of Borneo. These houses are built on stilts which means are raised off the ground one full story. This is pretty important because the jungle can get a bit wet during some months. What’s cool is the long house contains pods and each pod houses a family, fire and a living area.
For the next few days, we lived like the locals enjoying copious amounts of wild boar, some weird bug things and we even started every morning with sticky rice packets, fresh pineapple and sweet banana fritters. It was heaven…. well, as much as heaven could be with a very cold morning showers and electricity that runs out every night at 11pm.
One day, the ten of us decided to go on a bicycling adventure! Our local tour guide told us about another village about 8k’s away. So we rented bicycles from the local English dude living in the village and hit the logging trail. Logging trails are pretty common in Borneo. They’re basically these unpaved dirt roads that cut though the middle of the jungle. The one we were cycling on weaved up and down and around the bend. There were sheer cliffs of death to one side, mud patches that would come up to the middle of my calf with no way to get around it and another cliff on the other side that looked like it was a mud slide waiting to happen.
As the story goes, one the guys in our group made a deal with the local tour guide saying that we wouldn’t go to the next village. He basically told the dude in his best Aussie accent… “Ah, dont worry, mate.. Once they see the mud, they’ll come back… no worries!”
Yeah… about that…
I’m one determined buggar… Our goal was to get to the next village practically around the corner. So, what was I supposed to do? Give up? NO! I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I started to pedal. Somehow, I managed to get in the lead of our 10 person group. I cycled along the down hills (without breaks, too)… and walked though the muddy patches, because the next long house was only 8k away, right?
I kept cycling and walking and pushing the bike though the muddy bits. Sometimes one of the people in the group would catch up for a brief moment, We’d rest, drink some water, eat a rice packet, have a bit of a chat and then continue on. The numbers of our bicycling posse kept dwindling down. I guess we should say the ‘reasonable’ folk returned back to Bario but some of us pushed on.
Let me say, first, that I’m not a cyclist. However, last year I cycled around Ireland for three months. The longest I cycled was 60k and looking back I’m not entirely sure how I survived it. But now thinking about this jungle bicycle adventure, this felt like the LONGEST cycle I have been on in my life. After about 6 hours of cycling, the last of us coasted down the muddy hill. We finally reached the little village.
This village was practically cut into the middle of the jungle. Trees surrounded it and turned this village into a jungle garden of Eden. We pushed our bikes closer to the houses. That’s when we found a lady planting rice in a field. After a bit of a loose chat followed with a lot of pointing, she gestured us to another long house. Luckily, this host spoke English. She offered us tea and coffee and that we could stay the night as the sun would be setting soon.
That’s when horror set in. We needed to get back to Bario. The host made a few phone calls. We could take a boat to Bario, but that would take at least a day and there was a flash flood warning as there was a torrential downpour on the way. We couldn’t be picked up because the logging trail was closed and was unsafe to have cars and utes on it. We started to look at each other blankly. We were going to miss our flight? We were very stuck.
Then, about an hour went by and our new host pointed across the rice patty to a man walking to his ute and said, “You can ask him for a lift to Bario, but better catch him now as he’s probably leaving and he’s the only person that has access to the road.” We all looked at each other. Our one friend Vince bolted out the door. He was bilingual in both Chinese and English, so he was going to sweet talk this guy for us.
After some firm negotiations, the bikes needed to be left behind, and the rest of us would have to squeeze in the back of his ute. This was gonna be fine right? Well, it was fine as long as you had the stomach for it.
We piled into the back of the ute and sat on incredibly thin planks of wood. My self and 17 of my new best mates were in the back of the truck. The Chinese man was only there for the day and was just taking his workers back to the house in Bario. We were running out of time as the sun was setting. He started the ute and away we went. I felt as if I was on a real life roller coaster. I was sliding and nearly fell out of the ute on a number of occasions. The ute slid in the mud toward the cliffs edge. We all held on for dear life. Well, not the locals… they were surfing their Facebook pages and checking Twitter. I wasn’t sure if I was more impressed with their calmness on this real life rollercoaster or the fact they had incredible internet access in the jungle.
After about an hour, we emerged from the jungle. I had white knuckles and every muscle in my body hurt from hanging on for dear life. We survived.
Ultimately, we never missed our flight but as for the bicycles? Well, it took them a few days to finally get them back to Bario. Later, we found out that the 8k bicycling adventure was ‘as the crow flies’ and all up the one way trip to the long house was in fact over 16k. It was truly a crazy adventure for sure.
A girl gone walkabout in the great big world!