Jessie Johnson sports mahogany highlights, beaded anklets and light make-up, not quite the grooming one would expect from a truck driver – especially one who drives not on paved highways, but through rugged logging roads and dense jungles in Sarawak.
“Everyone says I don’t fit the bill of a rough and tough 4WD driver. While I may not look the part, I can share a fair bit of heart-stopping stories about my experiences manoeuvring through the muddy and slippery roads from Bario to Miri,” says the 31-year-old Kelabit woman during an interview in Bario recently.
For the past two years, Johnson has been running JJENT Transport, a transportation business with her husband Avennie Lian Ray, 31.
They are in the business of delivering goods along the old Bario-Miri logging roads. The road conditions connecting both towns are not for the faint-hearted, twisting through deep jungles and muddy laterite roads which test drivers’ skills and endurance.
“Although the distance from Bario to Miri is about 300km, the drive can take anything between 10 and 14 hours. One needs to be skilful and confident to drive through the jungles,” says Johnson, 31, who takes turns with her husband to drive their 4WD pick-up truck through the perilous route.
It is not the norm for women to take the wheel on these roads.
In the Kelabit community, most women are traditionally farmers, homemakers or run homestays. Johnson used to work as an assistant co-ordinator at an oil and gas company in Miri for four years.
“The elderly women from my longhouse were surprised at my career switch. They were initially apprehensive about my new job. However, people from my generation – men and women – have been more supportive and encouraging. They view my career choice as one that breaks new ground for Kelabit women.”
Currently, there is only a handful of transportation drivers in Bario.
Although her choice of work is unconventional, Johnson is staying true to the Kelabit belief in sharing her husband’s workload.
“In our community, the wives always help out their husbands – be it in farming or raising the family. As a wife, I felt it was important to support Avennie’s venture into the transportation business,” says Johnson.
She is thankful that her parents are supportive of her work.
“Mum was initially worried. Her main concern was the lack of mobile network coverage in the forest and that we would not be able to reach out should there be any accidents or breakdowns.
“To lessen her worry, I make it a point to call her whenever I reached my destination, no matter how late in the night.
“Not many women consider working in the transportation business as they are aware of the challenges. The hours are long, it’s tiring and takes us away from home. But, a woman is as capable of handling this job as any man,” asserts Johnson.
Long, winding road
Bario, home to the Kelabit community, is located 1,000m above sea-level, near the Kalimantan border. The highland town is famed for its lush greenery, paddy fields and mountain ranges.
Due to its isolated location, everything needs to be transported via land or flight. There aren’t any petrol stations here.
Johnson and her husband set up a transportation business in Bario, as there was a need for such a service.
“Part of our transportation business includes carting petrol to Bario. We also bring in food items, furniture and motorcycles on our pick-up truck,” says Johnson, who makes two to four trips to Miri each week.
On days that they make the runs to Miri, Johnson starts getting ready at 3am.
She prepares and packs three meals – comprising rice, fried eggs, fried chicken, ulam and venison meat floss.
She loads the car with necessities such as a portable stove, water, cutlery and a change of clothing.
“I always ensure there’s extra food. You never know how the day will turn out. If it rains and a tree collapses on the road, we could be stranded in the middle of the jungle.
“Often, we end up camping overnight in our trusty Hilux till help arrives.”
And before each trip, Johnson says a short prayer.
“I pray for a safe drive and good weather conditions. I also pray no dangerous obstacles will be in the way as my husband and I travel far distances.”
The couple usually start their journeys to Miri at 5am, before the break of dawn. They must be fully focused when they manoeuvre through pitch-black roads past jungles. “Many wild animals like wild boars, porcupine, deer and sun bears roam the jungles at night. You need to keep your eyes peeled on the roads to avoid knocking into animals,” says Johnson, who brings along flasks of hot coffee and cans of high energy drinks to fortify them for their long journey.
Even after so many trips, week in and week out, Johnson does not take their safety for granted.
On treacherous stretches, it still feels like she has her heart is her mouth as she navigates the bends.
“There are times when a sharp steer on the right could lead to a 30m ravine. On the left, there are huge boulders and protruding tree roots across the pathway. Whenever I’m caught in such conditions, I always question my choice of profession.
“But on good days, I love the job as it’s filled with excitement and adventure,” shares Johnson, who is also adept at repairing her pick-up truck when it breaks down.
Equally challenging is sharing the roads with timber lorries, carrying logs weighing tonnes.
“It can be very frightening when trailing these lorries on uneven roads. At times, some lorries overturn when the roads are slippery and it is very worrying when we are trailing these large vehicles,” says Johnson, adding timber lorry drivers always lend a helping hand when their 4WD gets stuck in the muddy terrains.
Despite the challenges, Johnson is happy she has gone off the beaten path. “Sure, the job is tiring but it is filled with lots of adventure. I’m happy I am one of the first women from Bario to venture into this field. It clearly proves that women are capable of taking on the most challenging jobs,” stresses Johnson.