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Wild journey into the Kelabit Highlands

A rough trek through the jungle uncovers friendly tribal members and a lush land that, for now, keeps most of the modern world at bay.

January 11, 2009|John Henderson

BARIO, MALAYSIA — "At one time or another, I imagine that we have all dreamed about how wonderful it would be to live in a Shangri-La where the climate is ideal, food is plentiful and the girls are beautiful." -- W.M. Toynbee, Canadian schoolteacher and author, on Borneo's Kelabit Highlands

Toynbee's words became a neon news crawl through my brain as my puddle jumper arched over the mountain into the heart of Borneo. The Baram River wound its way through the countryside like a giant anaconda.

Inside the plane I could feel a temperature change. Gone was the suffocating humidity of the Borneo coast, where I could barely find respite lounging at a luxury resort. In came cooler, clean air as the plane climbed to a lush land 5,500 feet above sea level.

I was flying to what Australian anthropologist and World War II hero Tom Harrison called "the last frontier of the tropical world." The Kelabit Highlands are home to descendants of headhunters, and they're among the most isolated places on Earth, reachable only by plane.

As I gazed down from seemingly just above the towering treetops, I spotted one mole on the Mona Lisa that Toynbee tried to paint. Crude dirt roads cut through the forest, but I noticed the roads didn't connect. They were built merely to roll into the jungle and roll lumber out.

After five days in the Kelabit (pronounced Kel-AW-bit) Highlands, I can confirm that Toynbee's observations ring true 40 years later. I trekked through mysterious jungles, slept in the Kelabits' 200-foot long houses in a village surrounded by majestic peaks and ate some of the best food in Southeast Asia. And, yes, the girls are beautiful.

But there is trouble in Shangri-La. The massive logging industry is encroaching, waiting to pounce like some of the ghost leopards that used to roam these jungles. The modern Kelabits, a people so gentle they rarely talk above a whisper, feel like shouting.

"The Bario Loop is one of the most famous treks in Borneo," said Ridi Lio, my jungle guide. "Since logging came in, half the Bario Loop has been destroyed."

The other half is alive and well. So are the Kelabit Highlands. For now.


If the planet could have a prototype village for escaping the real world, Bario would be it. About 120 Kelabits live along a few roads that lead into the surrounding jungle and highlands. On daily walks I'd pass rice paddies, climb grassy knolls and smell fields of the sweetest pineapple I've ever tasted.

Don't even think about e-mailing. Bario's lone Internet shop is solar powered and not nearly as dependable as the mercifully mild temperature, which, during my May visit, rarely rose above 80 degrees.

The Kelabit people, however, are what make the highlands glow. About 70 years ago, the Kelabits were headhunters, collecting in caves the heads of any people brave or foolish enough to enter their land. During World War II, this area was a stronghold against Japanese resistance. Harrison parachuted in here and led a successful British commando unit against the Japanese. In the 1960s, the Kelabit fought against the Indonesians who live just across the nearby border in Kalimantan.

Today, you can still see elderly Kelabits sporting the elongated earlobes that stretch to their shoulders, stylish back in the day when they were collecting heads and decorating their own. The Kelabit are now considered among the friendliest people in the world. As I left my comfortable guesthouse and walked along the dirt road, workers plying the rice paddies turned and waved. Giovanni, the young son of my guesthouse's owner, tagged along and smiled for every picture.

The Kelabit number only about 5,000, the second smallest ethnic group in Malaysia, but they are no longer isolated. Converted by Christian missionaries in the '40s, many Kelabits leave to get educated in the cities and work overseas. Some of those beautiful women marry Westerners stationed in Malaysia and live abroad. Most speak some English.

Pung Iu, 54, worked for Saipem oil for 13 years in Europe and retired to his village long house two years ago.

Sporting what looked like a $100 haircut and stylish shorts and polo shirt, Iu, who had lived in Scotland, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada, told me over tea one day: "It is the best place to live for me in the world today. You have freedom. You are not aware of war here."

A five-minute walk into the surrounding jungle and you aren't aware of civilization, either. I quickly discovered that the three-day jungle trek I organized would be no stroll along Pebble Beach. I sat down for lunch my first day, and a sign on the guesthouse wall read, "The Bario Loop: Mud. Blood. Wet. Sweat."

The message took longer to ingest than the wonderful Bario pineapple mixed with rice. Few advertisements were more accurate than that sign. I've hiked in jungles in Sumatra, Thailand and twice in the Amazon, and nothing quite matches the hardship and isolation of the Kelabit Highlands.

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