May 11th, 2015
I visit the kitchen at the longhouse on a number of occasions in the morning but don’t see Julian. Stephen at the Jungle Blues Resort was supposed to have called and informed him as to whether the Belgian staying at his place had any interest on joining in on a hike with me, but at this point there is no way we will be able to do anything, given that the morning has passed by, and I have seen no sign of Julian.
I spend the morning writing and chatting with the young volunteers, but Julian doesn’t appear. It looks like my day will effectively be wasted, which is hardly very gratifying. Then again, spending the day hanging out at the longhouse or wandering in the Kelabit countryside is hardly the worst thing in the world to be doing.
Julian finally appears and tells me Stephen never phoned him. Instead, he calls Stephen on my behalf to find out what is up with the Belgian. Stephen indicates that the Belgian decided not to go to Pa’ Lungan, but hike up the Prayer Mountain instead. And he couldn’t have gotten in touch with me and let me come along? Someone here is not cooperating, which is annoying.
I decide to spend some more time writing, then head out to the fields with Julian so that he can show me where the trail up the smaller hill begins, which may be far from exciting, but at least I can climb on my own. In my usual inefficiencies and digressions, I ask Julian to wait for me, for what turns out to be hours, really quite disrespectful on my part.
When I am finally finished, I clean up, shower, and when I look for Julian again, he is gone – and no one knows where he is. His mother doesn’t have her own cell phone, so can’t phone him, and she certainly doesn’t know where he is, as he does what he wants to.
She opens the door to his room to look for him, and inside, a jumble of belongings stacked along the walls and on the bed. I ask her if she hasn’t tried to get him to clean up his room, to which she shakes her head, in her both demure and comical manner, implying that she has tried, but essentially given up.
The day is obviously utterly frustrated. Perhaps if I walk over to Julian’s fields I will find him.
The path to Julian’s fields is hardly that far, heading a short distance to the right, then bending to the left, past a wet paddy, passing through a covered wooden bridge, rising up a small hill, and from what I remember, on the dirt road to the right passing a small construction lot and spiralling to the crest of the hill along whose face Julian planted a swath of pineapple.
His truck is nowhere to be seen, which again seems frustrating, but the trail up the hill ahead of me can’t be that hard to find. I descend the slope towards the narrow cut between the hillock and facing hill he had meant me to climb yesterday, but as I descend through the ferns and bordering shrub, I see the trail wending to the left and right, but no trail leading up the hill.
He had told me this should be very easy, so perhaps there is a branch up close by. The trail leading to the left happily is fairly well-defined, but there is no apparent trace of a path leading uphill.
Low forested hills line the weaving narrow valley coated in grassland, speckled with the occasional simple shack with raw wooden plank siding and corrugated metal roofing.
Some of the flatland is dedicated to paddies, but most of it is wild and untended, the benign country setting revealing a host of exotic vegetation on closer inspection. The escarpments rise in an upsurge of hues of rich green, the play of the sun and clouds moving across the landscape unveiling a kaleidoscope of light and dark.
The clouds billow magnificently across the sky, the blue-tinged cotton batting witnessing the beatitude of the bucolic paradise below. Tiny herbaceous plants and unusual grasses brush against me as I weave along the path, the dense vegetation of the hillsides rising above.
Small paired tufts of greenish white bulbs climb up a slender shaft at even intervals amidst the seed clusters of rye-like grasses. At one abandoned-looking farmhouse, a number of orange trees drop ripe fruit onto the surrounding cleared plot, a small creek meandering at the bottom of the neighboring embankment rising up the same – or perhaps another hill – on the opposing embankment, with no visible sign of a path leading upwards through the dense vegetation.
A shadowy shrouded figure trudges through the handful of banana trees, the thick green tapestry of leaves reaching skywards at the far end of the valley. Tiny houses lie buried in the groundswell of foliage sweeping ahead and around me, up against the curtain of dense even pinnate leaves drooping behind me.
One of the more intriguing trees appears to be a fern, from which emanates a dense mesh of bifurcating slender branches lined with needle-like even pinnate leaves.
Butterflies cavort around me, flapping spryly in erratic circular fashion, landing on some leaf momentarily, then flying off again, the coloration of the outer wings when flying often entirely different from the lower wing surfaces visible when the butterfly closes its wings in resting position, typically more muted and camouflaging.
Much of the vegetation looks familiar from the more tropical forest I saw in Gunung Mulu National Park, which lies several days’ trek to the south. I can’t imagine trekking towards Gunung Mulu park through the dense jungle that was visible from the airplane.
Clusters of exotically shaped polypore mushrooms drape along the sides of trees in a symphony of differing shapes. Unusual and varied fern leaves unfurl almost before my eyes, thick clusters of pepper-like berries emanating from the stems of another shrub. Also familiar from Gunung Mulu to the south, the clusters of small red trumpet flowers, and on a slender liana, clusters of small and brilliant red waxy berries.
Eventually I turn back, it being amply clear that the path has no chance of going up any incline, never mind any hill, and I have already wound past several hills. At least I didn’t get any leech bites wading through the narrow grasses, although I do see rain clouds at the far end of the valley, and if they break open, this terrain will get substantially messier.
And there it is again, just below the escarpment on which Julian has planted his pineapple, a trail that leads up the hill, which I somehow missed as it begins just before I had dropped down to the lower trail.
After several misguided starts I weave along the thankfully firm trail, the skyline opening up between the cracks in the vegetation, the thick clumps of rattan standing menacingly to the sides of the thick matting of rotting fronds on the path, a perfect hiding ground for exactly the kind of wild creatures I would rather not run into.
My body begins sweating profusely now that I am climbing through the forest, the humidity palpably high even though the sun is not out. The vegetation becomes denser and more difficult to navigate, the trail becoming unclear, rising further and further on this small hill, eventually coming to a halt in front of a menacing clump of rattan.
I could try and push way onward in the bush, but given the preponderance of rattan, it would be very unwise. Whatever the momentary benefit of having reached the top could be, the light has dropped anyway, and no photo I could take would be very dramatic. So: I may as well return now to civilization …
The timing of returning to the longhouse couldn’t be better, as the storm clouds draw over the valley, the sky darkening considerably, a pale rainbow gaining gradually with strength. By the time I return to the Bario Asal Lembaa longhouse to inform the volunteers, the colours have already faded.
The group’s decision to go to the dam synchronizes conveniently with my own. As we all walk down the country road, darkness falls with the first drops of water gaining in strength. No further than a few rice paddies towards the imminent hills shrouded in dusk, the skies open up and inundate us with torrential rains, my umbrella barely holding up, of course no one else in the group having brought an umbrella or raincoat.
The beginning of the trip gives rise to beautiful photography that quickly disintegrates in the sole effort of trying to escape the freezing rain. For some reason, the group is intent on pressing on, which seems somewhat idiotic. The issue with getting drenched isn’t getting the skin wet in and of itself – it’s the problem of getting your clothing wet in a damp climate without heating, whereby clothing and shoes that remain wet for even a short amount of time begin moulding. My shoes are the big problem, and then of course I have no intention of getting my camera wet.
I decide to hide in the shelter that we came across shortly after the downpour broke out, huddling to the back of the open-faced structure while the rag-tag group vanishes in the distance. I wait patiently, the group eventually reappearing, completely drenched and bedraggled. I don’t believe they actually reached the dam in the end anyway.
Drenched, we eventually return to the longhouse for a tasty dinner of roast boar, stewed mushrooms, bush spinach amended with finely chopped torch ginger, white (Bario) rice, chicken curry with tapioca and vegetables, bush spinach and the ever-so-sweet local pineapple.
Julian tells me that Stephen has called to tell me that the Belgian and several others staying the Jungle Blues Resort are leaving tomorrow at 9:30 am for Pa’ Lungan – and that I should be at the guesthouse before then. It’s very little notice, but I will run with it …
At least the volunteers have moved downstairs, and the longhouse is quiet by 11 in the evening …