Walking for six days with the Penans

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December 18th 2006
Published: December 20th 2006
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Mat: After Mt Kinabalu Trace and I had 7 days before we had to fly out to Bangkok to meet up with Nicki. So we decided to book a flight back to KK from the Mulu National Park in Sarawak, and head there overland via Brunei and Miri (in Sarawak).

After catching the ferry from KK and a bus, we spent a night and the next morning in the capital city of Brunei. We then shared a private car to Miri with a very friendly Malay woman from KL who was visiting her baker boyfriend in Bandar.

Once in Miri we headed to a great backpackers called the Highlands, which is run by a Kiwi pilot living in Sarawak. Once there we tried to figure out the logistics of getting to Mulu.

I started talking with an older German guy "Theo" about Sarawak, and started to learn a little about an area I knew nothing about. Theo has been in Sarawak for the past three years, and despite government protestation to the contrary, virtually the whole of Sarawak (90%) has been logged. There are very few areas of primary forest left. Forget about the Amazon, something like 70% of all the tropical hardwood felled in the past 30 years has come from Malaysia, Borneo, and the surrounding areas. Japan, Europe, and now China are the biggest consumers, and there is huge money at stake. One tree can be worth US$60,000.

This deforestation, and the resulting havoc to wildlife and local people, can happen in Sarawak because the province is like a mini country, Western Malaysia does not have much sway there. The Environment Minister of Sarawak owns more than 1000 forestry bulldozers. He is a billionaire. There's not too much more you need to say...

Due to the wealth of those involved in the deforestation it is very easy to bribe, "compensate", or bully opponents of the logging. I can understand how the various indigenous people (Orang Ulu) can let the logging happen. All of a sudden they have jobs, compensation is made to villages, roads are built, power is supplied. But the jungle is GONE. Changed for good.

About the only Orang Ulu who are doing anything about the logging are the Penan people. The Penans are nomadic hunter-gatherers who have traditionally depended solely on the jungle, and still do. At present they have a road block near one of the last areas of unlogged forest near Long Lellang. This area of course has been approved for logging and its future lies in the balance. Probably like the rest it is stuffed, due to the power and money of companies like Samling, and the "Environment Minister".

So anyway, as I was talking about things like this with Theo he mentioned that he was heading to a small town called Long Lellang because he had been told by his friend David (the Kiwi pilot) that a Penan guy "Bellang" was going to be in Long Lellang on the 10th to meet a couple of tourists and guide them over the Tama Abu range (in the newly formed Pulong Tau National Park) to Bario. Bellang is the only guy who knows the trail. It is hard to meet up with him because he lives a day's walk from Long Lellang (which itself does not have a telephone). Apparently due to the difficulty of coordinating things with Bellang, and the fact that no one really knows about the trip, this trip is hardly ever done, even by the locals (5 times a year by anyone?). Theo invited me to come with him and Daniel a Swiss guy that was also staying at the backpackers. It sounded like a trip I could not pass up. My fantastic wife said she was sweet to head to Bangkok to meet up with Nicki after organising a 3 day trip to Mulu with a guide and group. I am not sure if I will be able to go back to New Zealand now because Annette and Marg (Nicki's mum) might hammer me for leaving those two fragile, vunerable girls in the wilds of Bangkok. I can see Annette's frown from here...

There are two flights a week into Long Lellang, and no road, so we waited for a day, and did some shopping for the necessities of jungle walking and camping. I had not brought much from KK because we planned to head back there because we were due to fly out from there on the 12th. After a whole day of looking for some cheap size 11 shoes with grip I found some. NZ$23. Sweet. I also got a hammock that you prop up with sticks, leech socks (nylon socks with a small weave), and a weeks worth
Camp day 2Camp day 2Camp day 2

Our first jungle camp - cleared in 4 minutes
of food.

I saw photos of a group of three Swiss people that did the same trail with Bellang and few months prior. They slept in stick hammocks under a shelter that Bellang and the Penan porter made. So we did not worry about a tent.

On the 10th we headed to Miri airport and checked in to fly to Long Lellang. As we did this we met a Malaysian family of three (the Chins) and their guide Veno. They were the tourists that had organised to meet with Bellang four months earlier! Despite their city looks (they live in KL) they are seasoned trekkers and nature enthusiasts, heading out twice a year for week-long trips into the Malaysian jungle. They have been up Mt Kinabalu 5 times! They were possibly the nicest family I have met, and had been to varsity in NZ in the late 70s. So I really enjoyed my time with them.

We arrived into Long Lellang, but Bellang was not there. So we sent a Penan guy that afternoon to try to meet up with Bellang, and to explain that there were 3 more people coming, and to organise 2 more porters.

The next morning after sleeping at a local Kelabit family's house, 4 Penan guys arrived that were going to act as porters and we headed off. We met Bellang after about 3 hours (I don't know exactly what he was doing there, I think there was a little village or something nearby), and pushed on to Long Sabai which is where he lives with another 15 or so families of Penan living off the surrounding jungle and river. We got to the river at about 3pm and hooked up with a long boat from Long Sabai which sent two other long boats down so we did not have to walk the extra 2 1/2 hours to Long Sabai. I have been on a few river trips in Asia, but those 30 minutes were so beautiful.

We stayed in Bellang's house, and sorted the logistics of the trip. The Chins and Veno had brought an extra tent for the porters and they very kindly offered it to Daniel and I for the four nights we would be camping (Theo had a hammock with shelter). This definitely made the camping far more luxurious than it would have been if we had of been under the Penan shelter. The tent was a haven of non-leech dryness (it rains in the rainforest).

From Long Sabai we headed northeast towards the Tama Abu range. Every day I would have scraped 100 leeches (brown leech and tiger leech) from my shoes and socks. After the initial concern about something latching on to you, you become quite unconcerned about them. They do not hurt and they do not carry disease. They are just a bit of a pain because they release an anticoagulant as they feed which means you bleed for 30mins after a bite. This would be an issue if you were wearing your Sunday best into the jungle. But you're not.

Jungle Tip Number One: Do not wear boxer shorts at the same time as you wear pants that you have ripped the crotch out of. Try as I might I could not find the source of the bleeding on my upper thigh, it was only an hour later when I went to relieve myself, that I got the shock of my life. An especially cunning leech had taken his fill from an particularly personal area of my anatomy. I would post the photos but I can not face looking at them, let alone inflicting them on other people. Showing the photo on my digital camera to the Penan guys did get a huge round of laughter though...

Our routine consisted of walking from 8am to 4ish then setting up camp - well at least the Penan guys setting up camp for us (we did put up our tent of course). On the first night there was no clear area so they just macheted a clearing. No camp site.... camp site, just like that. And the amazing thing was that despite the fact it was raining and everything was wet (its always dim and damp under the tree canopy) they would find a special soft-wood tree (small size) cut it down, cut shavings from it, burn some special tree resin, and bingo a fire and cup of milo! I can not tell you how good a milo is after walking for a day through jungle that does not seem to have a trail, as you watch the fire and the daily rice being cooked for the evening meal. As we headed higher, moss covered the trees and rocks. It was

These are the original orchids, before people started hybridising them,some you can only find in this area.
dreamlike. I actually could not wait to get up and walk through the forest, yet I also really looked forward to stopping and sitting in our forest camp, and washing in a stream, and eating next to the fire. At the beginning and end of the trip it was a fantastic trek, but during the middle three days I was in a semi-euphoric state the whole time. I really think we are missing something important living in urban areas.

The first three days were pretty laid back, maybe 6 hours of walking at a steady but chilled pace with a 15kg pack. The last three were longer. 8-10 hours walking. On the fourth day we crossed the pass (1800m) on the Tama Abu range. We were above the clouds, with pitcher plants scattered among the vegetation. I do not know how Bellang could follow the "trail", for most of it you could not make out it was trail even when you were on it. And we are talking about 6 days of walking over a mountainous area, not just a few hours. Apparently the trail has been used for a long time by the Penan, but Bellang and maybe his mate are the only ones who know it now. The photos are not selected to give a false impression of the remoteness of the area, at was like that the whole time, apart from maybe the first and last days when we were closer to Long Lellang and Bario. I would not really like to think of the difficultly of getting someone out had something happened like a broken leg. Suffice to say I was quite cautious while walking, especially during the middle, most remote, part of the trek.

On the fifth day Bellang shot a young Sambar deer, which was promptly butchered and packed away for the evening. As you can see from the photo below, even our big kettle was not safe from being used as a storage device. I would not know where to start to discuss with the Penan guys - whose ancestors have been hunting for God knows how long - why hunting in a national park might not be the best idea.

So after six days walking (10 hours of hard walking on the last day) we arrived in the dark and rain to Bario. Amazing trip. Trip of a lifetime.
Standing stones of "Batu Senuped Arur Tang Barat"Standing stones of "Batu Senuped Arur Tang Barat"Standing stones of "Batu Senuped Arur Tang Barat"

9 standing stones, said to commemorate the deaths of 9 important people. Three ditches beside the stones are used to indicate the route for the souls of the dead to return to the spirit world.
The photos will probably give you a better idea of what it was like rather than more text.


NB: Check out the scarring of logging roads in Sarawak in the Google Earth map below. Compare this with where I walked.

NB2: If you are interested in this trip you can contact David at the Highlands Guesthouse in Miri 0060 422327. He can contact Belang. The only email I can find is the one from the guidebook: maran_telian@kelabit.net David, if you read this send me an email with the best email for people to contact you guys.

Additional photos below
Photos: 94, Displayed: 30


20th December 2006

Truly amazing
That is an inspirational account of your trip. Not many people would undertake such a venture - me included. So thank you very much for sharing it with us.
20th December 2006

U really have the gut to go in deep jungle. Not many Malaysian want to go there...hehehe unbelieveable. Anyway...nice photo u got there. except the dog photo.
20th December 2006

Always great to hear about adventures after you have sailed thru them successfully!! Amazing trip and photos, rather you with the insect life than me!! What an experience and blog site. Superbly done! Have a great Christmas!!
22nd December 2006

You've got to be there
Hi Matt, hannah, my daughter and I, spent a few great days with trace climbing the pinnacles while you were getting down and dirty in the jungle. I did a similar trek about 6 months agfo, Long Banga to Long Lellang. It was the hardest physical challenge of my life and I will never forget the rewards. The smiles on the faces of the children as i played with them in the river, washed their hair, wrote in the sand. We actually stopped in our guides village for a couple of nights so really got to know the little ones well. We had taken in plenty of tooth paste, brushes, school shirts, pens and balloons for them. We had a lot of fun with the balloons tho in some of the villages the children didn't seem to know how to smile and laugh. One particular village was very sad, no flowers or plants, scorched earth, no grass. We were lucky to make it out when we did. My feet had turned septic in 3 places and 3 of us came down with the runs. Another girl is scarred all up both legs from the leech bites, she got blood poisoning in the end. Every single one of us lost 7 lbs. and I swear my legs changed shape! Yes I'd do it again. Since returning to Brunei where I work I have set up a route for the Penan craft. I have bought goods from the orang Ulu who come down to the Rumah Sakit ( Sick Room) in Limbang and sell them onto freinds. I have also sent a couple of parcels back to NZ, one to Buana satu in K Road and another to a shop in kaikoura with the hope of forging some permanent routes of income for them. They are truly in a desperate situation. If you read this....could you send me the contact details of your guide Theo or any of the local guys? Great Blogg you guys, well done!
18th January 2007

Thank for sharing matt
Not many people willing to go deep into jungle just to experience what we miss "city". I must salute you for your gut in making the trip and sharing your experience here. It makes me feel ashame - even though I'm a Punan, I've yet to venture more than a few hours beyond my longhouse at Punan Sama, Belaga. One of this day I should try find some time to do what you did.
20th January 2007

Thanks for that Calvin!
7th May 2007

Hi guys, great blog. Hope you don't mind if I link to this on my website I'm building. I also have a link to it on our computer desktop! Don't take it down anytime soon!. Since your trip I've sent another 2 trips for Balang and both were really thrilled with it all. I still had your photo's on the lodge computer and thats what convinced them to go. Your work here will help Balang and the community for a long time to come. Thankyou. David, Highlands Lodge, Miri.
7th May 2007

Hi David, thanks for taking the time to email me about this, I'm stoked that I have helped slightly in getting some customers for the awesome Penan boys. It is a real adventure to head out with them. I will check on the blog to make sure I have put your details on it so people know where to go to contact Belang. If anyone is reading this and is interested head to the Highlands backpackers in Miri and track David down.
27th July 2008

good job
Hye Mat and Trace!! Im Noami..from Miri, Sarawak...Im still studying now Im 19th....Anyway, I was going through the google and searching for the Long Lellang pictures....My mum was from Long Lellang :) Its been ages I did not go back there hahaha..I just love all the pictures!!!!!! It really remind me of the village...I just wanna say thanks for the pictures!!!!!! So, are you planing to come back again hehehehehe :P
15th March 2016

Contact information for Long Lellang
Dear Mat. I just finished reading your wonderful article on trekking with the penans. I will be going to Sarawak and want to do something similar. I would prefer to arrange things myself but since there are no phones in Long Lellang, I won't be able to make arrangements that way. I was hoping that you might have some e-mail addresses of guides in Long Lellang (or Miri), that might be able to make arrangements for a guide in Long Lellang to go trekking with me. Again, great article! Sincerely, Cooper...
15th March 2016

Contact details
Hi Cooper, thanks for your message. Glad you enjoyed the blog, it was a special few days. If David still owns the Highlands hostel in Miri, he knows Bellang and may be able to help. Unfortunately, other than that I don't have any other contacts. : ) Mat

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