There it was outstretched in front of me, the Tamparuli Bridge that looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I couldn’t see what was at the end of the bridge that appeared to lead to an unknown world.
The suspension bridge that began in a world with houses and shops led to a new world on the opposite side of the river. Two problems became apparent, heights are not my friend and the thought of crossing a swinging bridge with rocks and water metres below filled me with dread.
There was only one thing for it, I had to get to the other side, one foot in front of the other and I was off. As the bridge began to sway I glanced down at the river and rocks below. Instead of thoughts of the bridge snapping and my body breaking on the rocks below my mind was taken over by the sounds of the wildlife, the sites and smells of the jungle and eventually the Kiulu Farmstay that I could see at the end of the bridge. My fear of heights was gone and I became excited about the day and night ahead.
The time spent at Kiulu Farmstay would stand out as the highlight of my trip to Sabah.
My accommodation was the newly finished Fig Tree, built by the hands of a group of female students from the UK. My guide Saidin told me that they worked constantly and without complaint, one piece of bamboo at a time until the job was completed.
The Fig Tree was designed to look like a traditional longhouse. Made entirely from bamboo, the building creaked and moved slightly under every footstep, and it comes with modern conveniences like two bedrooms with comfortable double beds, each has a massive mosquito net around the bed, a ceiling fan, hot and cold running water, a workable kitchen, shower room and two toilets. There were also tents set up in the grounds for more guests. I was lucky enough to be the only guest.
It was the perfect base to explore the nearby villages and surrounding jungle. Did I mention that the front garden looked out on to the river and the back garden into the jungle?
Saidin’s uncle owns the land, locals can buy the land for a very cheap price from the government to build and grow crops on.
On arrival I sat and spoke to Saidin and his friends about life in the jungle, living off the land, their culture and tribe and in particular Saidin’s visions for the future. While many traditions still exist within the local tribes, don’t think that they walk around in fig leaves and grass skirts. It’s the 21st century and things have changed in the jungle too. Tribal people dress the same as us, carry mobile phones, use Facebook and Twitter and all the children go to school.
As lunchtime approached, I went into the kitchen and watched and chatted while a local man from the village on the other side of the Tamparuli Bridge prepared lunch Borneo style and talked me through the process. He worked as an Italian chef at one of the big hotels in the city, so I had high hopes that the man could cook and cook he did well.
Lunch was served and the men (I, Saidin, Osman my guide and William my driver) tucked into chicken curry, fish, rice, noodles and vegetables while the women sat on the bench behind us and chatted. Once we had finished, the women ate and busied themselves with clearing up. Just as I was thinking about a little lay down the news was broken to me about the afternoon that Saidin had planned for me. I was going into the jungle to learn about plants you can eat and others that kill in seconds (could come in useful) how to extract rubber from a rubber tree, hunt using a blowpipe and darts, meet the children and visit Saiden’s village and house. As we prepared Osman and William waved me off and said they would be back to collect me tomorrow.
As we walked and climbed through the humid and wet jungle we picked various eatable leaves and fruits from the trees. Saidin passionately explained about the benefits of each one. Did you know that chewing on sugar cane counteracts the effect of a poisonous spider bite? No neither did I, but there’s no need for jungle survival skills in the city.
The tribes’ people use the land to grow everything that they might need. Fruit grows in abundance and vegetable patches and rice fields’ stretch out wherever there is an area of flat land. Saidin told me that people from the next village started stealing the fruit from the trees in his village. As so much of it grows, it was agreed they could continue to help themselves under the condition that they promised not to sell the fruit at the markets. The promise was not kept and the villagers called in a witch from another village to help them. A curse was put on the trees that caused paralysis and then death to the people from the other village when they touched one of the trees. Let’s just say that no one goes there now and helps themselves to fruits.
After an hour in the jungle, holding on to low hanging branches to stop falling and followed by three very young and inquisitive children, we arrived at Saidin’s village via another suspension bridge. I met some of the locals (most of them were related to Saidin one way or another) and was given a warm welcome. We sat outside his house and his wife brought us juice and snacks. Food was the last thing on my mind after such a mammoth lunch, but food is a big thing in Sabah.
I sat and absorbed the atmosphere. Houses scattered around, one completely flattened by a storm earlier that year, a Catholic church, community hall and children playing happily at the end of the school day. Locals stood around chatting, everyone including the children waved at me and chickens and dogs ran around freely. The village was small, but somehow managed to capture a little bit of hustle and bustle, mainly women carrying around huge baskets of fruit, vegetables and leaves that they’d gathered from the jungle that day. I could have happily stayed for a few days and may return. Saidin is in the process of opening up his house to homestay visitors. What a great experience living in the jungle with a family would be.
We took a different and slightly longer route back to the farmstay. Saidin had already decided to teach me how to extract rubber from a tree and hunt using a blowpipe, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought, but I was quietly glad that we didn’t shoot a monkey. I’m not a fussy eater and will try most things, but I saw a TV documentary recently with two guys eating a monkey, it contained a parasite.
When we arrived at my place of stay I changed into swimwear and headed down to the Kiulu River for a cooling swim. Believe me when I say that I needed cooling down. It was a great feeling being in the river with no one else around.
That night a local woman came and prepared a delicious Borneo style feast of chicken, fish and fresh picked vegetables that we’d picked that afternoon. After dinner I sat across from Saidin at the kitchen table as we laughed and talked like old friends, shared stories and drank rice wine (moonshine). He makes alcohol from just about everything that the land provides by combining it with yeast. It comes with a bit of a kick.
I slept in one of the two bedrooms. The slats in the window, upper wall and ceiling gave the feeling of being outside, but the mosquito net kept everything out. Tip here is to get undressed with the lights off if you want to avoid being seen naked. I wasn’t all that bothered about that, there didn’t seem to be anyone around.
My second day in the village was unfortunately going to be short, but I was excited none the less. After a big breakfast of fried bananas, sweet potatoes, chicken, rice and noodles, Saidin took me to meet my host Joe for a morning quad biking. After a couple of laps round the field and some nervous looks from Joe, I suggested that we went out on to the road. After two kilometers the road ends and is replaced with track. Quad bikes are designed for all terrain and holes in the road and rocks are no match for it, ten kilometers to the highest point and back through stunning landscape, paddy fields, jungle and local villages will stay with me forever. It was great fun. On the way back we encountered a snake lying across the track. We had no choice, but to wait for it to move on, it was in no hurry.
After a hefty lunch with Saidin, Osman and William returned and it was time to say goodbye to the jungle and my new friend Saidin and head to Mount Kinabalu.
It is believed that the dead live on top of the 1500 metre sacred mountain. I was not able to climb Kinabulu as it takes two days and I was on a busy schedule. I watched people climbing down and they looked tired, yet jovial. You can’t climb the mountain alone, guides are available, and a hostel and restaurant is en-route, so you can get your head down for a few hours before a 3.00am start. The views are, so I’m told, outstanding.
There is a poignant memorial to the eighteen mountain guides and climbers that lost their lives during an earthquake at 7.15 on 5 June 2015. It was the first earthquake in the area in years as no-one that I spoke to could remember one before. It is volatile as aftershocks are still occurring.
I plan to return, spend a few days with Saidin and climb Mount Kinabulu.
Thanks to Borneo Eco Tours and Osman and William, Saidin and to Rosalind for organising the trip.
Borneo Eco Tours is the most awarded tour operator in Borneo, and recognized by international awards from British Airways, National Geographic, Wildasia, Sabah Tourism, Green Globe, UNWTO, World Travel Awards and mentioned in CNN Travel, BBC, the Guardian, Flight Centre amongst many others. As part of a new sustainable development agenda, Borneo Eco Tours, Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society are adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals when developing and implementing community and environmental projects throughout Borneo. The team strives to incorporate and adopt the sustainable development goals into their existing and potential projects, policies, processes and systems over the next 15 years or more.
Words by James Clark
My time at Kiulu Farmstay was one of the high points of my year.
We have a nasty habit of glamourising the comparative poverty of those in the developing world as some kind of simpler ideal, and I don’t want to be guilty of doing that here. Education and medical care are still very much issues in communities like this, but initiatives like Kiulu Farmstay are going some way towards remedying that by bringing vital money into the community.
What I liked most about the experience was that, at least for now, this influx of money has not been used to cheapen the experience. There are no cheesy photo opportunities or cliched tourist traps here – just local people enriching their lives a little by enriching the lives of their visitors.