Travelogue Borneo: Hardcore Hiking in Bario – 11 Hours In A Sarawak Jungle

I’ve never been hiking. 

Ever since a back injury in my teens, I’ve laid off extreme physical activity. The most I’ve ‘exerted’ myself is an hour at the gym, and that’s on a stationary exercise bike lol.

I was in Bario, Sarawak recently, and the media group I was with decided to visit one of the Eco-Shelters that Volvo Malaysia had erected for hikers and locals along the Bario Ancestral Trail, as part of a CSR project.

I was apprehensive. The only experience I had with the jungle was a school camping trip in Pahang back in Form 3, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant for this through-and-through city girl. Top that with me being a total klutz, and we have a recipe for disaster. After repeatedly asking our Kelabit guide about the trek’s difficulty (he described it as 4-5 hours, moderate) and against my better judgment, I decided to join. We were invited here to write about the CSR project, so the least I could do was go and look at one of the eco-shelters and take some pictures. (Ever the dedicated journalist? :P)

It would turn out to be an… unforgettable experience. 

Batu Lawi. Credit: Bruno Manser Foundation

The Bario Ancestral Trail: So called because it was used by the Kelabit people since ancient times, the ancestral trail totals 25km, and takes hikers and locals through thick tropical jungle and hilly terrain up to Batu Lawi, a twin-peaked mountain considered sacred to the Kelabit as well as the Penan who inhabit the region.

Shrouded in legend and myth, the mountains rise up high over the landscape, acting as beacons for locals and travelers. In fact, World War II pilots flying over the region used it as a marker to locate the Bario settlement, since they would have only seen a carpet of green hills otherwise. Today, the entire hike from Bario – Batu Lawi takes 5-6 days (for the locals) to complete.


We set off from the village around 9.30AM. The initial walk was easy, since the paths were wide and flat. Along the way were paddy fields and small clusters of homes along the way. The fresh air and beautiful scenery kept us in high spirits.




Cutting through a muddy paddy field.



And getting stuck.


Shoes/pants ruined within an hour lol. I didn’t have proper hiking shoes, so our guide, Julian, suggested we wear rubber ones from the long house. It was a tight fit but I thought it would be fine. Little did I know I would sorely regret this later lol.


Cute auntie about to head out to the fields.


We then started venturing deeper, into the actual trail. Our guide Julian picked some forest fruits for us to taste. It was sour and tart.

I think if I’m ever stranded in a jungle, alone, I would just die within 24 hours lol. I wouldn’t know where to get water, or food, which way to head to, etc.


Crossing a pipe, which channeled water from the river to the fields below.

The trek started off light and easy, before it quickly became a challenge. This wasn’t a nice little forest like those you see in books or Western films, with sparse trees and gentle vegetation. This. Was. Hardcore.

Everything was wet and dewy, the air was moist and humid, and the jungle floor teemed with small life: ants, insects, centipedes. Occasionally we would hear a bird call in the distance, or catch a glimpse of squirrels.

Not only were parts of the hill extremely steep, it was also slippery/muddy so I had to rely a lot on my balance. This tired out my legs quickly. The path was not always clear of plants and Julian, who was walking in front, would hack and slash away with a machete to clear it up. Sometimes, thorny vines would latch onto us as we crashed through the brush, digging in and drawing blood. There were parts where we had to cross haphazard log bridges with a sheer 50-foot drop into a ravine below. It was narrow so everyone had to go in single file.


Nature’s drink! Bamboo plants have lots of water stored within.


Tree with striking bark coloration.


Along the way, we were beset by leeches. They seemed particularly fond of my blood, because I was bitten by no less than fifteen. Another guy in my group also suffered the same fate. There are two types of leeches – the ‘ngau kei’ aka the black ones that fall off when they’ve had their fill, and the thin, tiger leeches which are persistent little buggers Since I wasn’t wearing high socks, they climbed into my pants and up my… thigh. Like really high. More on that later though.


After several hours, we reached a small waterfall where we stopped for a quick packed lunch.


Water was cold and crystal clear!


Then it was back to the jungle again. We were making very slow progress, and debated whether to continue the trek to the Eco Shelter or to turn back. Even some of the more experienced trekkers among us said the trail was ‘difficult’, so I knew it wasn’t only me being a newbie/pansy: it really WAS tough.

I was already tired then, having trekked for seven hours. But since everyone decided to push on, we pushed on. Around 4 pm, the EcoShelter finally loomed into view.


Funded by Volvo Malaysia and built by the local Kelabit villagers with the help of the nomadic Penan tribe who live in the region, the wooden shelters are basic, with a simple toilet/shower that uses a rainwater harvesting system. There are five shelters in total, spaced 5km apart. The idea was to provide a place for ecotourists and locals heading up the ancestral trail with a place to rest, since the entire trip would take days.


We actually headed to Shelter 2 instead of 1 because we were moving very slowly and this was closer. Went inside, stripped, and asked the ladies to help me check for leeches. I was horrified to find one had crawled very close to my hoo-ha. It had fallen off, but it was so close my underwear was soaked with blood, as if I had my period. .___.”

Gave me nightmares for days


Group photo ! We didn’t rest for too long because night was approaching and we had to exit quickly. At this point, I was still feeling okay, but about an hour into the return trip, exhaustion crept in.


The way was mostly downhill, and my legs were so tired they didn’t seem to want to listen to me and started shaking. It was extremely frustrating – if you’ve ever had a body part not listen to what your brain tells it to do, you’ll know what I mean. It didn’t help that I hadn’t had any training or even experience hiking, so it was like going from 0-100. I ended up stopping, sitting down on the ground and bursting into tears. The rest of the group were very patient and encouraging: since my body was overheating, they fanned me and gave me water, while Julian, the guide, held my hands throughout the return journey.

The tight shoes were pinching my toes – it hurt every step of the way and I was wheezing like a stuck pig, but when you’re at that point, you give up caring about how you look lol. I asked Julian what would happen if I really couldn’t walk anymore and he said he’d have to carry me out. I thought about it and decided I’d just press on, mostly coz I’m as heavy as a man and he’d have a hard time carrying + guiding the others (although we did have a backup guide, Agan, walking at the back).

I did an interview with South African explorer Mike Horn a couple of months back, and he quoted something about his solo trip across the Antarctica (the first man to do so without a team): when his ship left him at the shores and he was faced with the next 5,000km to cross, he knew that the only way to get out alive would be to reach the other side. That crossed my mind as I sat bawling on the forest floor of a Sarawak jungle. Of course, I didn’t believe I was going to die, but I didn’t want to be stuck overnight in a forest and I knew there was no way out but forward, so I forced the legs to move one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.


Clambering over fallen logs.

I spent most of the last three hours slipping and sliding rather than walking, because my legs simply did not want to listen to my brain anymore.

After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at a cow paddock on the edge of the jungle, where our guides radioed for a truck. What was supposed to be a five hour in-and-out trip took us a solid 11 HOURS. 


While waiting, I looked up and was greeted by an amazing sight: a beautiful night sky strewn with stars, like diamond dust in an ink pool. Definitely not something you’ll see in the city! The view took my breath away (or maybe it was the exhaustion? lol) and I realised what I had accomplished. Unfit chick with no hiking experience (or much sporting experience, for that matter), conquered a hardcore trail that even experienced hikers called tough. If that’s not something to tell the grandkids, I don’t know what is.

Course, I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to do this again anytime soon (or ever?) lol. 

When the truck pulled up to the long house, we were fussed over (and mildly scolded)  because they were worried and had sent some of the villagers after us, fearing that someone had been injured. My advice for tourists: don’t pull an Eris and go with zero training and without the proper equipment – this is no Broga Hill. Seriously. This is some hardcore sht.

But man, was it unforgettable.



**Photos not watermarked courtesy of: Ed Junaidi, Dishen Kumar, Zaharis Khuzaimah 

PS: A testament to my un-athletic-ness (is that a word?) – both my toenails got infected because of the blunt trauma/force from the shoes. The left one leaked pus, the other turned black and had a pool of blood under the nail lol. After some meds the left one seemed okay, but today the entire nail bed came out fahk. So now I have no toenail on my big toe wtf. I guess it’ll take a few months to grow it out again. I hope the right one doesn’t fall off too lol. 



Caving at Gua Tempurung, Perak, Malaysia

So a couple of months back I was in my parents’ hometown of Ipoh. Famed for it’s limestone caves and hills, it’s refreshing to get away from the hustle and bustle of concrete, high-rise Kuala Lumpur and just enjoy the scenery here. Instead of hanging out at the usual malls and stuff, we decided to be extra adventurous this year by going caving at Gua Tempurung. Gua Tempurung literally translates to ‘Husk Cave’ and measures over 3km long, making it one of the longest caves in Peninsula Malaysia.


Travelling from town to the outskirts of Gopeng, we took in the dark green of the surrounding limestone hills amidst the backdrop of the clear blue sky. It was an extremely sunny day (not that it mattered much where we were gonna go!) The air was clean and fresh when we alighted at the foot of the hills. My parents dropped Bro and i off, and we got the Top of the World/River package (medium challenge), which would take approximately 2 1/2 to 3 hours to complete. This was actually our first time caving for real – the last time we were here we stuck to the well-lit walkway, and that only took 40 minutes.


Dressed up in comfy tracks and sneakers with a good grip. I was really tempted to bring my camera along, but on second thought, I only put our torches and my water bottle in the water proof plastic. It turned out to be a good thing because guess what? I lost my torches D: More on that later.


Anyway, Gua Tempurung has existed since over 400 million years ago . It has a jaw-dropping collection of stalagtites, stalagmites and other formations, that have been cut and shaped by the mountain’s running water and streams for hundreds of millions of years. When you look at them, you’re looking at something that is almost as old as time itself.

Time to head in!

image: Google

We set off from the checkpoint at 10 am with a group of 20 people, led by a cute tour guide called Pata. The first leg of the journey was the normal 40 minute ‘dry’ walk on the path – while Pata showed us the various unique formations inside the cave’s limestone and white marble interior. There were even little sparkles along the cave walls where our flashlights fell on them – crystal deposits used to make the actual jewelry and accessories we often see in shops. One of the stops had us climbing a over a hundred steps – it was giddy looking down from such a height from in between the steps. Wobbly knees while I hung on to the railing for dear life!

The song Misty Mountains from The Hobbit came to mind as we explored the path and marveled at the beautiful insides of the mountain – ‘through dungeons deep and caverns old’. This would not have looked any out of place if it was the set of the novel Lord of the Rings, like the beautiful underground mines of the Dwarves in their ancient kingdom of Khazad-Dum.


Continuing our journey, we got to the end of the paved pathway, and into the adventurous part: A steep slide-like formation that extended 7 metres down the cave. Some of the abangs of the group went down first – it looked scarier than any shyt I’ve seen so far, since there was a part where it was almost a vertical drop to the bottom – you could easily break a leg if you didn’t do it right. We took turns sliding down one by one. The surface is surprisingly smooth and slippery, so it was hard to use your hands to create a friction brake. After much summoning up of courage, I went down before my bro (can’t appear like a pussy in front of him nao!). The last part had me sliding down almost out of control – but thankfully the abangs caught me without damage.

We then clambered down this narrow little hole to the bottom of the cave (I swear if anyone in the group was fatter we’d get stuck.) This part of the cave was pitch black, and still very dark even with the flashlights.. and we finally touched water! The underground river runs on for a long distance, and the cavern is very narrow in places. Following the lead in front, we had to get on our hands and knees at some points to crawl through the confined holes , some with water levels so high we only had our heads above water. It’s a good thing we were wearing long pants coz the hard stones and pebbles on the underground river bed scraped our palms raw. And yeah, about the torchlights….they floated out of my pocket when I was swimming in the water. LOL.

It was particularly scary at this stretch where we had to swim in the water up to our necks, and it was so dark without the flashlights I could barely see the silhoutte of my bro in front of me. I kept imagining weird things popping out of the water …. D:


Lost track of time inside the cave, since we didn’t have watches, but when we finally emerged in daylight I felt like a vampire: the sun hurt my eyes after having adjusted to the dark for so many hours. Felt rather relieved to be breathing fresh and clean air again instead of the dank, dark of the cave. I’ve survived my first, real caving experience! I’m glad nothing like The Descent or Sanctum happened..


It’s definitely something to remember to be able to experience crawling through a cave, even though I was initially pretty chicken to do it. It’s liberating and exhilarating to set a target and actually complete it. I kept reminding myself that if I couldn’t even complete such a simple task, how am I supposed to take on backpacking? And I’d never know until I tried. I’m glad I did. c:


Also, random picture of a monitor lizard spotted crossing the road over to the jungle.


Goodbye, Gua Tempurung! It’s been so much fun. I should try taking on the hardest challenge next time I come visit.