The Kelabit Highlands, home to the last hunter gatherer tribes in Borneo, are located in the middle of the mountainous jungles of Borneo. These remote lands are in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, but the borders of the Indonesian Kalimantan province are only a few hours hiking away. This is one of those few places you desperately hope not too many people will hear about so it can stay exactly the way it is: A magical escape, as far away from the modern world as you might possibly get.
The Kelabit people living here are one of the 26 different ethnic minorities of the Sarawak. They traditionally lived as headhunters – rumor goes some families still treasure skulls in their cupboards - and are famous for their rich culture and habits, including growing prolonged earlobes and tattooing limbs. Today, the Kelabit try to preserve their traditions, but modern society obligates the young women to cut their earlobes when they migrate to big cities to work. However, the people who decided to remain living in the Kelabit Highlands are still mainly hunters and gatherers, and they eat what the jungle has to offer them.
The only feasible way to reach this hidden land of sweet pineapples, hunters and prolonged earlobes is by a Twin Otter propeller that takes only nineteen passengers at a time, plus a whole bunch of eggs, milk and other goods that are obviously a rare commodity in the highlands. This flight, leaving daily from Miri and bearing for Bario, is only for the most audacious amongst us: The fact you get weighted upon check in so the crew can balance the plane is not very reassuring.
The risks are definitely worth it: After half an hour into the flight, the palm oil plantations underneath you make way for the real, ancient jungle. The first thing you see of these highlands is the pineapples growing on both sides of the airstrip. If you have somehow managed to book accomodation in advance, smiling faces of your guesthouse will be waiting with a jeep just outside of the ‘airport’.
While guesthouses in Bario are scarce, the choice where to stay is a tough one: Or you stay in the traditional longhouse, or in a local guesthouse owned by an artist, who will play traditional music for you in the evening, and even let you try out the traditional costumes.
After a refreshing night of sleep, a four hour muddy hike from Bario brings you to Pa’ Lungan, a breathtaking rice farming village consisting of only a couple dozens of houses and a football field. Forget about warm or even running water, electricity and internet here. The closest thing to traffic you might encounter is an old farmer walking around with his buffalo on his way to the rice fields. The well-deserved dinner in the guesthouse is unlike anything you ever ate before: Apart from the world famous Bario rice, this meal is ‘jungle ingredients only’: wild spinach, orchids and freshly shot wild boar that can whet anyone’s appetite.
Those who are not faint-hearted can join a local hunter equipped with a huge knife rifle from Pa’ Lungan on an overnight trip to the jungle. A three hour sweaty hike through the bushes, during which the guide collects all sorts of plants to eat, will bring you to a shack where you install your sleeping bag and mosquito net before heading out to hunt deer: Expect a magnificent trip full of beautiful sights, river crossings, gibbons and ten million leeches. In the evening, the guide cooks the freshly cut meat above a campfire, that at the same time will be used to dry the shoes of those who did not make the river crossings entirely dry – which is something you might want to take for granted. A long hike the next day will bring you back to Pa’ Lungan, where you will consider a cold bucket shower as luxurious after exploring the depths of the jungle.
A trip to the Kelabit Highlands is Borneo how you had imagined it: Wild and untouched, full of traditions and tribes. Are you audacious enough to join the Kelabit hunters on a trip you will never forget?
Please promise me one thing if you do – Keep this gem a secret. Our secret...
Written by Barbara Janssens