Biking in the Sarawak interior
When you discover an unspoilt destination,do you tell the world or keep mum? LEONG SIOK HUI reluctantly shares her mountain biking trip in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak..
Cool, crisp mountain air, rolling hills, picture-perfect views, and 100% dirt trails? Sounds like heaven for off-road cyclists. And yet the Kelabit Highlands, nestled in the remote northeast corner of Sarawak, is hardly on any mountain-biking map.
Hence, after a five-day trekking trip ending in Bario, the largest settlement in the highlands, I went on to check out the riding trails.
Set within the fortress of the Tama Abu Range and Apo Duat Range near the border with Kalimantan, the Kelabit Highlands is dotted with pockets of settlements draped by emerald-green padi fields and speckled with
longhouses and cottage-like homes. The mountains hem in the plateau, and at 1,000m above sea level, it can get chilly here at night. Temperatures dip to as low as 15°C.
Famous for its fragrant Bario rice and sweet pineapple, Bario is one of the most isolated settlements in Malaysia. To get to Lawas, the nearest big town, you need two days of trekking and another half-day on 4WD. It’s best to hop on a Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Twin Otter plane on its twice-daily flights to Bario.
Due to its isolation, it can be a logistical nightmare trying to do things here, as we discovered.
When Sarawak Tourism Board’s corporate affairs executive Michael Lu first mooted this idea for a biking recce, the plan was to get tourist coordinator Yusup Labo to fly into Bario with the bikes.
Yusup explained he had tried to load the bikes into the plane on two consecutive days, but to no avail. There simply was no room.
We had no choice but to get somebody to lend us the bikes. Thanks to Reddish Aran of Bariew Lodge and Café (where we put up), we managed to get our hands on two bikes. They were your run-of-the-mill mountain bikes with knobby tyres – one a 21-speed and the other a single speed.
Despite the iffy brakes, way-too-low saddles and faulty gear, we were eager to take off.
A network of trails link the various community longhouses and villages spread out over the highlands. Some villages like Pa Lungan and Pa Berang are about four to five hours’ walk from Bario. We lined up the Pa Umor trail for our first afternoon and Pa Lungan for the next day.
Pa Umor, a small settlement, is a mere one to two hours’ walk from Bario. On bicycle, you can get there in 30-40 minutes. We climbed a couple of gentle hills, splashed through mud puddles, and crossed a couple of wooden bridges before arriving at the village.
The trail past Pa Umor took us to a salt lick, where the villagers harvest salt. If you’re lucky, you may get to see them process salt by boiling the spring water in giant vats over roaring flames.
After our leisurely ride, we headed back to Bario’s “town centre” – a row of small shophouses, eateries, grocery shops and the location of the only Internet shop here. There’s also a medical clinic, police station, church and three public satellite phones nearby. Since there is no electricity supply, most households and businesses use a generator fuelled by diesel or petrol. Firewood is still used by some for cooking.
Yusup and I stopped for a drink and chatted with the locals. Because most things are flown in, the prices are usually double what you pay elsewhere. A can of coke costs RM2.50.
Later we rode around Bario, past lush padi fields with water buffaloes, frolicking kids and farmers hard at work.
The Kelabit folk are the friendliest people I’ve met in Malaysia. The older folks in particular would flash a wide smile whenever they saw us. Or they would shake our hands and ask a few standard questions like, “When did you arrive?”, “How long will you stay?” and “Where are you from?” We noticed some had elongated earlobes adorned with heavy brass earrings and spotted Kelabit tattoos.
Halfway up Ulung Palang, one of the longhouse communities here, Yusup’s left bike pedal literally fell off the crankset. So we left our bikes at the bottom of a hill and clambered up. Atop the hill, we marvelled at the 360° view of the green valley below framed by an imposing mountain range.
We had to shelve our ride to Pa Lungan now that Yusup’s bike was kaput. It was a good thing I had trekked through the place to get to Bario two days earlier. Here, swaying reeds and ferns line wide trails, and you get glimpses of towering peaks in the distance. Generally, the hike here is pleasant but the few mud-sloshed, backbreaking slopes can make trekking hellish, what more biking. It should be great during the dry season, though.
Like its endless choices of trekking trails, the Highlands has many scenic mountain biking routes to explore. Bario’s seemingly mild terrain may disappoint the hardcore technical riders who crave the tight switchbacks, sheer hills and singletrack.
But equipped with a GPS and a good local guide, you might just discover new, gut-churning trails in the thick forest. One thing you are assured of, one way or another, is the highland’s tranquillity. Here the view is always breathtaking and the air refreshing.
Yup, the secret’s out. I’m definitely going back there. And if I have to go on bended knees to get the pilot to accommodate my bike, so be it.