An eco-adventure in the highlands of Borneo spanning Sabah, Sarawak and neighbouring Krayan province in Kalimantan, Indonesia, offered two things: chances to be closer with pristine mountain forests and to help out in local conservation projects.

This was the Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge (HEC) that I went through last year.

The biennial HEC went far beyond an ordinary tourism package. Rather, it was an adventure event, initiated by the indigenous people of Borneo’s interior, that combined history, culture, and stewardship of nature.

Participants travelled by 4WD, walked through ancient Bornean rainforests, and visited villages and historical sites. These are places the ancestors of the highlanders once passed through on their migratory routes thousands of years ago.

The highlands of Sarawak, Sabah, and Krayan are located inside the Heart of Borneo, an initiative to conserve the mountainous forested core of this great island that was agreed upon among the three governments of Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia in 2007.

The trekking began at Long Pa’ Sia, in the mountainous interior of Sabah.

The eco challenge was organised by the Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples in the Highlands of Borneo (Formadat) with help from WWF-Malaysia.

Alicia Ng of WWF (Sarawak office) said the goals of the organisers were to heighten the awareness of ecotourism in the highland forests of Borneo.

Rather than a huge trail running competition, the challenge was more of an ecotourism journey delving into the roots of the people and the natural surroundings that have nurtured them.

The aim was to conserve the biodiversity of the Heart of Borneo for the benefit of the people who rely upon it through a network of protected areas (and sustainably-managed) forests.

Two eco challenge trails were featured. First was the shorter five day “Jungle Exploration” trail which covered only Sabah and Sarawak (Kota Kinabalu-Sipitang-Long Pa’ Sia-Long Semadoh-Lawas) that I went for. Then there was a 10 day “Heart of Borneo Experience” which extended to Long Bawan in Kalimantan.

Some key points along the Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge. – WWF-Malaysia

Most of the journey was done in the highlands at an average of 1,000 metres above sea level, which guaranteed an overall cool, even chilly, experience for all participants.

Day 1 – Long Pa’ Sia

From Sipitang, we got onto a 4WD over four hours to reach Long Pa’ Sia, a small village of about 800 people, mostly of the Lundayeh tribe.

After a walk around to know the residents, we had a fulfilling dinner of local food and a performance in traditional costumes. A prayer for everyone’s safety by the village pastor ended the night.

A steep downhill stretch during the trek.

Day 2 – Tough Trek

We were all bright-eyed for the hike across the mountainous border from Sabah into Sarawak.

Baggage was repacked for porters who would be doing the hard work – each hauling some 30kg of participants’ stuff, group camping gear and food. Trekking with the lead guide Lair Joseph began after the flag off by Penghulu George Sigar Sultan.

After several stream crossings in rubber plantations, we entered the forest proper. We soon began to meet with some forest residents – leeches. This translated into more pit stops to check up on our crawling friends.

But the real slowdown was caused by the messy, muddy and steep uphill terrain along the now-regrown logging trail that could pull you back half a step for each forward step taken.

At about 5.30 pm, we came to a standstill right at the Sabah-Sarawak border. There was no marker of any kind and most of the porters did not know how far more we had to go before reaching Kayu Buda, the campsite for the night (the sun sets in Sabah at about 6.20pm).

The participants were asked if they wanted to backtrack another half an hour to camp by a stream we had passed earlier or risk spending another two hours or so trekking downhill in the dark. Most decided to take a chance.

Daylight vanished quickly in the deep forest and we switched on our headlamps to hike. It was a punishing trek but we all made it in about 90 minutes. The six to seven hours of trekking which had been originally planned turned out to be 11 hours.

All of us were not expecting any bad weather but at about midnight, the rain came abruptly when almost everyone had slipped into their sleeping bags.

Participant Tan Yeow Joo commended the crew who “put the participants before themselves” as they ensured the shelters and food were protected from the rain. At about 4am, the temperature dipped down to 16°C.

One of the highlands settlements in Long Semadoh, Sarawak. – FLORA SABAN/WWF-Malaysia

Day 3 – Carved Rock

Trekking resumed downhill. Along the way, we stopped to see a mystical carved rock called Batuh Inarit. After this, we finally entered civilisation at Puneng Trusan village.

All in all, we had trekked a total of 27 km. Ngu Lock Nei, a marathoner from Kuching, commented that the route from Long Pa’ Sia till Puneng Trusan would also be suitable for trail run in small groups without significant damage to the forest trails.

We were greeted by the residents of Long Semadoh, a cluster of 10 villages where padi is grown, with a banner.

We were eventually transferred via 4WD to Long Tanid village. That night, after dinner, we were treated to another traditional performance, this time by members of the Lun Bawang tribe.

Traditional Lunbawang dance at Long Tanid.

Day 4 – Long Tanid

This was the “recovery day” before the next leg towards Ba’ Kelalan by the 10-day participants. We had simpler challenges like tree and bamboo replanting by the Trusan river, which was meant to help the environment by reducing soil erosion.

We then visited the ancestral burial site at Lengutan Anak Adi’ where remains of skulls were in a cave. We were told by Balan Berauk, a coordinator for Formadat, that earlier generations practised animism.

He added that Long Semadoh and the 10 villages within should be promoted to the outside world to upgrade the economic well-being of the community through ecotourism as nature lovers could admire the virgin forests in the area.

At the padi fields, we crossed a high suspension bridge to visit a decommissioned airfield for some photos. At noon, we settled down right by the river with a packed lunch that featured soup served in bamboo.

After dinner and various performances that night at Long Tanid, I adjourned to the field for some night photography. Deep in the interior, the absence of light pollution from nearby towns and clear weather allowed for some great night sky photography.

The lack of urban light pollution enabled a photo of this glorious night sky over Long Tanid.

Epilogue

The second edition of the the Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge had tripled the number of participants compared to the first round in 2015. More participants are expected for the third edition in 2019 (date to be announced).

Dr Henry Chan, head of conservation for WWF (Sarawak), who was with some of us doing the trek, said that they needed to keep working with government agencies and private companies to conserve the highlands.

This also involved working with the logging companies to have sections of the forests permanently reserved for ecotourism purposes.

Hopefully, when more people realise what a treasure of forest and culture we have in the highlands of the Heart of Borneo, all of us will want to save it.