Reliving history, culture and stewardship of nature in the highlands of Borneo
I HAD NEVER DONE JUNGLE TREKKING for more than three consecutive days before. Hence, when I was asked to take part in the inaugural Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge in 2015, which required me to trek from Ba’ Kelalan to Bario in Sarawak for six days, I was terrified!
I worried that my knees and ankles might not support me throughout the journey. Could I withstand the cold nights in the highlands? Plus, I felt too old and out of shape for this. I made all sorts of excuses to worm my way out of the trip but, alas, I was committed to go!
To say that the Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge is not for the faint-hearted is an understatement. From daily leech parties in our hiking boots to trekking steep and dangerous terrain, the journey was a real test to our physical and mental fitness.
Mossy forests are found in the high elevation of the highlands on the way to Bario after leaving Mount Murud church camp.
After several falls, I kept going despite the fact that my muscles were screaming and my back was in pain. I even muttered to myself that perhaps I was not fit for conservation work.
At the end of my journey, as I flew back out of Bario in the 19-seater Twin Otter plane, I looked out the window and saw the mountainous range that I had hiked for days. Wow! I could not believe I had conquered those mountains on my two feet. A sense of achievement swelled inside me and if I had to do it again, I would.
It is hoped that by 2020, a responsible ecotourism programme is established in the highlands. Ecotourism means responsible tourism that has low impact to the environment or is conservation-focused and at the same time, sustains the well-being of local people.
The Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge is not just another ecotourism product in the state. WWF- Malaysia’s Community Engagement and Education Programme is working closely with the event organizer, Forum Masyarakat Adat Dataran Tinggi Borneo (FORMADAT), to promote long-term conservation work in the highlands of Bario, Ba’ Kelalan and Long Semadoh, Sarawak; Long Pa’Sia, Sabah; and Long Bawan, Kalimantan.
Local guide from the Ba’ Kelalan highlandsguiding a participant at the first Eco Challenge at Mount Murud.
It is hoped that by 2020, a responsible ecotourism programme is established in the highlands. Ecotourism means responsible tourism that has low impact to the environment or is conservation- focused and, at the same time, sustains the well-being of local people.
Hence, WWF-Malaysia is supportive of FORMADAT’s initiatives to co-manage their natural resources in the highlands to achieve balance between development and environmental conservation. Most of the highlands areas are either buffer zones or within national parks namely Pulong Tau National Park and the proposed Payeh Maga National Park in Sarawak, and Kayan Mentarang National Park, Kalimantan.
The second Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge will take place from July 20 to 29, 2017 and this time around, there will be six trails to choose from. For hard core jungle trekkers, the 10-day, 9-night Heart of Borneo trail is recommended as the adventure starts with a journey to Sipitang, Sabah and ends in Bario after crossing neighbouring highlands of Long Semadoh, Ba’ Kelalan and Long Bawan on foot, boat and four- wheel drive vehicle.
Visiting the Batuh Narit in Pa Ukat, Bario, one of the many megaliths found in the highlands.
Trekkers posing with an agathis tree.
Participants go through the migratory routes used by the highlanders in the olden days.
The Eco Challenge will benefit villagers in the highlands who work as porters.
For those who are pressed for time but do not wish to miss out on the adventure, they can opt for the 5-day, 4-night Jungle Exploration trail, or 6-day, 5-night Chillaxing In The Highlands trail.
Each trail, which was used by the highlanders as migratory routes in the olden days, will bring different experiences to participants. Unlike any other ecotourism product, participants will help to do their part for Mother Nature in a tree and bamboo planting activity with the locals in Long Semadoh, learn about highlanders’ culture and historical sites, and see how salt and soaps are made.
As the event aims to promote the purity of the highlands in its history, nature and culture, participation will be limited to 50 people only. The concept of treading lightly, “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” is core to the organizer and participants. FORMADAT members offering hospi– tality services, such as homestay, nature guiding, porter service, transportation, and cultural performances will benefit from this event.
Zora Chan works as a communicator for WWF-Malaysia, Sarawak Conservation Programme. Occasionally her work brings her to remote areas in Sarawak. For more information, log on to www.facebook. com/hobecochallenge or email: ecochallenge@ formadat.com.