A hidden world deep within the Bornean jungle

Bario is a little corner of Sarawak relatively unaffected by modern, Western influences. This community of villages is home to the Kelabit people, a largely self-sufficient tribe who will welcome you wholeheartedly into their homes — and their jungle.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 22 Oct 2019, 12:20 BST
Views strech out across Bario’s rice paddies.
Views strech out across Bario’s rice paddies.
Photograph by Sarawak Tourism

Mother Nature must have been in an extravagant mood when she created the pineapple.The least economical of fruits, each plant produces just one offspring at a time, blossoming improbably from the centre like a spiky-haired, purple-headed troll. Bario’s pineapples are the sweetest on the planet, I’ve been promised — but I’ve arrived in Borneo’s highlands before the season has really begun and, rather than ripe ones, I seem to be surrounded by these odd-looking infants.  

“Over here!” Scott’s voice rings out across the valley and I look up to find him holding a golden prize aloft. It’s amusing to see how intently he and his friend Kevin are searching, scouring the hillside with the excited determination of a children’s Easter egg hunt. “We’ll stew them this evening with wild boar and plantain,” Scott reveals, as we pile back into his truck. “A real Kelabit delicacy. Now, what’s the verdict? The best in the world, no?” I bite into a chunk, nodding in agreement as sticky yellow juice runs down my chin — each piece is so sweet, it tastes caramelised.  

Bario's pineapples are well known for for being incredibly juicy and sweet.
Photograph by Charlotte Wigram-Evans

It’s so good, in fact, that it takes me a minute to realise I’m missing the tour. “...And here we have the ‘city centre,’” Scott jokes, gesturing towards a row of six ramshackle shops lining a small square. One rents out mopeds; another sells fresh eggs; the next professes to serve cold drinks between the hours of 10 and 2, ‘Closed on Sundays’. Adjacent is a lively food hall, full of scraping chairs and laughing families. Children giggle by a tilapia pond as adults guide homemade rods into the water. “You pay for what you catch,” Scott explains. 

Pineapple devoured, I begin to take in the beauty of my surroundings. Longhouses sit dark and silent beside rice paddies of an incredible, iridescent green. Swathes of tiny munia birds skim the surface of the crop like crimson clouds, their tweets joined by the chirps, calls and grunts of other wildlife. Buffaloes wallow in the shallows, watched over by egrets (“like Batman and Robin,” Kevin quips) and, beyond, the walls of the jungle come crashing down from the hills, halting abruptly at the fields’ edge.
The are seven Kelabit villages in the valley, totalling around 3,000 people. Each village has its own chief; Scott presides over Ulung Palang, as his father did before him, and describes the responsibility as a headache: “Keeping everyone happy is impossible,” he sighs. “But I was chosen, and I do my best.” “His father was a legend,” Kevin tells me quietly. “A truly learned man.” I look at Scott, long-limbed and lanky, and see wise eyes behind his spectacles.

Perhaps it’s all the talk of politics, but somewhere between the pond and the rice paddies, the idea of stew is abandoned and replaced with a plan to make pineapple cocktails. We pull up at Scott’s home — mine too for the next few days — and he leads us straight to his barbecue hut at the back of the garden. The blender appears, mint leaves are plucked, ice is delivered by a nephew on a scooter and, before long, we’re slurping happily on Martini-laced smoothies. Conversation swings between food and current affairs, Netflix and nights out, and finally settles on Kelabit history.

I learn of a cloistered world, so deep within the jungle that it was completely cut off from the rest of Borneo until after WWII. The Abaya (great spirit) ruled, headhunting was common and the rainforest was seen as an all-powerful entity, full of ada (spirits) who could both give you power and take it away. While women traditionally never ventured too far into the jungle, instead gathering wild vegetables and herbs closer to home, men — armed with spears and blowpipes — often plunged in for days at a time. 

The fashion for extending one's earlobes was once extremely popular among the Kelabit tribe, but Aunty is the last woman to still practice it.
Photograph by Sarawak Tourism

Morning prayers & cooking classes  

I fall asleep to a chorus of whistling cicadas and wake to a misty, dew-soaked morning. Its 5am, and I’m heading to Bario’s daily church service with an elderly lady known as Aunty. Waiting on the road, I watch her shuffle towards me, a spectral figure wrapped in fog and an enormous raincoat; she lives in Ulung Palang’s central longhouse and has missed only two services in the past 20 years.

Brought to the area by missionaries in the late 1930s, Christianity has been adopted wholeheartedly in Bario and, despite much prodding, I don’t find a single person who misses the community’s ancestral beliefs. “It was a time of deep-seated superstition,” Scott tells me. “When a snake would cross your path or an eagle would swoop above you, it was considered an omen so bad that fields couldn’t be ploughed for a week. My father always said Christianity freed him.”

The church is an enormous, cavernous structure and I’m welcomed into the fold like a long-lost cousin, my shoulders squeezed and hand shaken by every member of the congregation. The service lasts around an hour and is conducted in both Kelabit and complete darkness, thanks to an earlier power cut. Although I can see little and understand even less, it’s a fascinating experience. 
Afterwards, I follow Aunty back to the longhouse. Even at this time, in the early morning, it’s sweltering hot by the hearth. The air is heavy with smoke and light trickles weakly through slats in the wood, setting dancing dust particles aflame. Aunty begins pounding a pot of rice into submission, rhythmically stirring the mixture with incredible strength, barely breaking a sweat.

“The air swims with the heady aroma of earth and decay, electric-blue butterflies dance around my ears and, when a hornbill bursts from the treeline, I start in wonder”

by Charlotte Wigram-Evans

She’s making nuba laya, a Kelabit favourite in which rice paste is wrapped in heliconia leaves and heated on the fire. I quickly come to realise that there are no 15-minute meals here: bamboo shoots require stripping and boiling for three hours to rid them of their sour taste; venison is smoked, boiled, shredded and then fried; and wild boar will often sit on the barbecue all day, tended to by various members of a village.

Soon, more people begin to arrive. Two children in Superman pyjamas shyly shuffle in from the garden as their mother joins Aunty by the hearth, and Kevin and Scott come scampering over from his home next door.

When it comes to Kelabit cuisine, necessity really does seem to be the mother of invention, and the dishes we sit down to are astonishing: flying fox soup, baked catfish and barking deer, all accompanied by Bario’s famous adan rice, known across Asia for its sticky sweetness. There’s also garlic mushrooms, wild spinach soup and young fern fronds rather poetically named fiddleheads, their furled tops, shaped like speech marks — all seasoned with chilli, ginger and salt made locally at the Pa’ Bangar salt spring.

Aunty sings as she tidies away the dishes, a sad melody that seems to speak of love and loss and, as I help her stack plates, I find myself humming alongside her; I’ve long forgotten I’m only a visitor to her home. 

Sarawak has been dubbed the Land of the Hornbills, and with good reason; of the 54 species of hornbills in the world, eight can be found in the jungles here.
Photograph by Getty Images

Into the wild

Johnson is built like a small tank. Short, stocky and sporting an impressive tear on his right ear (the work of a rattan palm), he strides into the jungle with the deliberate tread of a person who knows it well. Guide-cum-security-guard-cum-farmer, and a close friend of Scott’s, he’d picked me up that morning with a machete in his belt and a plan to spend the day in the wild.

I follow more cautiously, picking my way through waist-high ferns, ducking under lianas and scrambling over rotting, rain-slicked logs. “If you’re bitten by a snake, suck the poison out straight away and rub...” His voice is lost among a sudden cacophony of birdsong and I immediately look to the ground. Rub with what?

The rainforest is part of Pulong Tau National Park — 600sq miles of protected wilderness that encircles Bario like a green cocoon. Most of it is virgin forest, meaning humans have never tampered with it, and the biodiversity is astounding.

Eyes still firmly on my feet, I come upon Johnson in a small clearing. “Watch,” he instructs, hacking into the side of an uwar vine. “If you get lost and can’t find a stream, this is your best source of water.” I find myself torn between amazement at the liquid now gushing from a hole in the stem and anxiety at what he clearly feels is a crucial lesson in jungle survival.   

 “You can eat like a king, too,” Johnson continues. Spiders, he assures me, taste like crab, while cicadas are indistinguishable from prawns — and snakes, well, they taste like cod, of course. As if to prove just how extensive this jungly assortment of sealife is, when I find a leech feasting on my ankle half an hour later, he picks it off and pops it in his mouth: “Squid!”  

We walk on, Johnson pausing to point out animal tracks on the forest floor, and what starts as nothing more than marks in the mud slowly begin to take shape. The deer hoof is two-pronged, the pig three, the foot of a porcupine larger still. The air swims with the heady aroma of earth and decay, electric-blue butterflies dance around my ears and, when a hornbill bursts from the treeline, I start in wonder, convinced the spirits have come to claim me for their own.

Emerging back into the sunlight five hours later, I’m exhausted, sweating and missing what must be a pint of blood from the leeches that followed my every move — but exuberant. The jungle has fulfilled my wildest fantasies and Johnson, too, has a spring in his step. “A day in the forest and now a night by the barbecue — soon you will be a real Kelabit, Charlotte.”

The smell of sizzling meat fills the air as we trudge up the path towards Scott’s home. Beer sits on ice in the corner of his barbecue hut and I notice just how impressive this wooden structure is. Overhung with a passion fruit plant and dominated by a grill so huge you could cook 100 burgers and still have space for more, it really is the ultimate man den. “Sometimes I call it the sulking hut,” Scott laughs when I tell him so, “if I get grumpy, I come and hide in here.”

The wild boar tastes of blood and earth and fire. Painstakingly watched over and seasoned with nothing more than salt, the meat is deep red and incredibly tender. There’s a feeling of primal backyard pride among the group — a sleepy, contented silence that comes after a hard day’s work. Beer cans pop, the fire crackles and out past the rice paddies, beyond the pineapple plantations, the jungle bellows its wild lullaby, enveloping this hidden world in song.

How to do it

Getting there & around: Malaysia Airlines flies from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur, then on to Miri, which is easily navigable on foot or by public transport. From there, a tiny 14-seater plane continues on to Bario.

Average flight time: 21h

When to go: April-September is drier, with temperatures around 24-31C. Showers can occur at any time and humidity is around 70-80% year-round.

Places mentioned: Scott’s home in Bario

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