Lost, at night, in the jungle highlands of Borneo

[This is an edited and re-mastered excerpt from my 2005 travelogue, recounting my visit to Bario, in Malaysian Borneo.]

Myriad thoughts race through your mind when you are lost and alone at night in the jungle highlands of Borneo. Usually, this brain revving involves panic, urgency, and double attention to urethra control. However, my mind was almost entirely occupied with the question of “How the hell did I get lost in a place with only one fucking road??”

When I wasn’t cursing the growing legend of my abysmal orientation skills, I was mentally reviewing all of the native animals of Borneo that I had viewed from a safe distance behind chain-link a few days earlier at Jong’s Crocodile Farm. Then I sorted this list into what could conceivably be lurking in the highland bushes and finally distilled from that group an inventory of what could maim or kill me. Truthfully, it was ultimately a non-intimidating roll-call of small, furry, largely harmless creatures, but this did little to soothe me.

I had walked out of central Bario – a noncontiguous jungle village sprawled across a valley 3,280 feet above sea level in the Malaysian state of Sarawak – 45 minutes earlier at a fast clip. My objective, and temporary home, was Gem’s Lodge, six kilometers (3.7 miles) down a muddy jungle road. I had lingered too long in Bario waiting out a series of downpours and now the quickly setting sun and distant regrouping clouds were cause for concern, but I was optimistic. I knew that average human walking pace was a little over three miles per hour and if I floored it I could be at the lodge in about 45 minutes, just as total darkness was setting in and, with any luck, before the next round of showers caught up with me.

It was my first full day in Bario and I had spent the afternoon working in the Telecenter, the village’s pride and joy, catching up on neglected cyber-duties while simultaneously charging both of my laptop batteries. I had depleted both laptop batteries earlier in the day at Gem’s Lodge. Gem’s had been doing without electricity for four days, ever since the installation of a new diesel generator that made a lot of noise, but no actual electricity. The Telecenter is open four hours a day, five days a week, solar powered and sports a surprisingly speedy internet connection via a satellite feed. A 21st century marvel in 19th century Bario.

Bario is deep in the Sarawak highlands, within blow-dart range of the Indonesian border. Its population of roughly 800 people are spread thinly and widely over tens of kilometers in small settlements and longhouses in the surrounding jungle. The village is only accessible by the daily 18 seater prop plane service from Miri on the northern coast of Borneo and Marudi a town bordering the miniscule country of Brunei. Well, truthfully you can also reach Bario by journeying upriver and overland, but this is a grueling three week death march and no sane person has made this trek in over 30 years.

My choice to visit Bario was literally a spur of the moment impulse. During my short flight from Kuching to Miri, I happened upon the few brief paragraphs devoted to Bario in my Lonely Planet. My plan was to spend the night in Miri and then push on overland into Brunei the next day, but as occasionally happens when I see vague descriptions of very remote places, I suddenly had the urge to detour to Bario. After landing at Miri airport, I walked over to the tiny desk selling tickets to Bario, discovered that a plane was leaving in only a few hours and purchased a ticket. I then phoned a dubious number I found in the Lonely Planet of a guy who knows a guy who has a lodge in Bario (this is apparently how things work in remote jungle villages) and secured a bed.

A few hours later, I was standing in the diminutive center of Bario, comprised of a half-moon shaped collection of tiny shops, a couple cafes and the Telecenter. Despite the somewhat sketchy, but otherwise painless one hour flight to get oneself into Bario, there is a profound sensation of having arrived in one of the most remote, disconnected places you are ever likely to visit. People are sparse. “Roads” are grass and butter-soft dirt, peppered with incessant suspension snapping fissures. Electricity, when available, zaps out of modest generators and solar cells. Plumbing is via forced water coming down distant mountains.

Even if I wasn’t an enthusiastic walker, my options for getting around the far flung parts of Bario were limited. There are few vehicles, being that everything needs to be air-lifted in. Anything larger than a moped requires a ride on a specially chartered plane, costing roughly US$1,300. With Bario’s humble economy, saving up to buy and fly a tiny jeep into town is a life-long investment. Many people get by on motorcycles or bikes, but most simply walk.

I was traveling light for my furious, ill-fated walk to Gem’s Lodge, carrying my tiny day bag which held my laptop, the spare battery, power cable, camera, raincoat, water bottle and roll-on bug repellent. Even in the cool early evening, the jungle humidity combined with my walking pace had me drenched in sweat in minutes.

After 45 minutes of vigorous walking, it was utterly dark and I was troublingly in the middle of nowhere. Worse still, the road was now climbing a sizeable, unfamiliar hill. Though I was plainly not paying much attention earlier during my walk into town, I was certain I had not passed this particular obstacle.

Just as I was absorbing the inconceivable possibility of having somehow taken a wrong turn on a road with no turns, I crested the hill and saw lights. Knowing Gem’s Lodge was candle-powered at the moment, this cemented my status as being hopelessly lost and confused. Additionally, there wasn’t just one set of lights. Even through the murky night, I could make out a half dozen Kelabit longhouses grouped together at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of showing up unannounced at a longhouse after dark, never mind as a doofus foreigner, but I needed directions, so I headed toward the light.

The only ace up my sleeve throughout this self-engineered disaster, was my key chain light. The last time I visited Minnesota, a friend introduced me to the Garrity key chain light. Cracker-thin and less than two inches long, it casts a startlingly bright beam considering its size. This little miracle had repeatedly proven to be invaluable over previous months while stumbling through dark hostel rooms, preparing for bed while trying not to wake sleeping roommates, but now it was going to save my dumb ass from becoming a jungle rodent buffet.

I used the key chain light to guide me over a two-log wide “bridge” that crossed a thin marsh, separating the longhouses from the road. A small child standing on the nearest porch saw me coming and summoned an adult who thankfully spoke some English. I explained the situation and asked for directions, but deep down I was praying that someone would take pity on my sorry self, put me in their truck, or failing that, the village tractor, and drive me to my destination. Having just spent a week in the company of the Iban tribe, people who would give you their last insulin shot if you asked for it, I was hopeful the highland dwelling Kelabit tribesmen would be similarly generous and helpful. They were not. At least this guy wasn’t. He curtly gave me the dispiriting news that I had indeed missed a subtle, but vital turn nearly 4km back down the road toward Bario. Then he turned around and disappeared back into the longhouse without another word. I was on my own.

Not only was it full-on night, but the thick rain-cloud cover that I had been attempting to out-run had overtaken me. Mercifully, it wasn’t raining yet, but equally now the amazingly illuminant moonlight that had been helping me negotiate the dark road was gone. I was able to stumble along in the near absolute darkness, barely able to make out the course of the road, hitting the key chain light every few moments to scan for the innumerable potholes, ruts, fresh piles of water buffalo shit and muddy slicks that could lead to a leg-flailing, ass-first slide into the boggy, roadside trench.

Once in a while, way off in the distance, there was lightning. Assuming no further screw-ups, and I wasn’t overly-optimistic about this, I was looking at a minimum of another hour and 20 minutes of slow, careful trudging through jungle darkness, with a bag full of decidedly un-waterproof, expensive equipment. A rain shower would have been catastrophic. And let’s not forget the ever-disconcerting prospect of stepping on the tail of one of the little, cuddly jungle creatures, that I imagined sprouted six inch fangs after sunset and could accurately spit deadly venom into a man’s eyeball from distances of up to 10 feet.

Forty cautious minutes later, I saw the familiar sight of De Plateau Lodge. I had flown into Bario with De Plateau’s owner, Douglas, and I stopped to verify the brief, vague directions I had received at the longhouse. Douglas assured me that there was a turn-off just up the hill from his place that I had neglected to note both on my way into Bario that afternoon and again as I motored past while racing against time, light and the elements.

After finding the turn and cursing myself out in four languages for a solid five minutes, it was yet another forty minutes down atrocious, ankle-breaking terrain to Gem’s Lodge. This trek was enlivened by an incident where I unintentionally snuck up on two water buffalo half submerged in the roadside bog-ditch, an encounter that caused all three of us to yelp and evacuate our colons in unison with the speed and power of an airplane toilet.

Only moments after the hyperventilating from that event subsided I walked square into a horror film sized cobweb, impressively straddling the entire road. Had it not only been partly completed, I’m confident it could have detained a Doberman. As my imagination went hypersonic, visualizing the size of the mutant, blood-sucking spider necessary to create such a thing, my legs weak, my mind nearing irreversible madness, I finally spied the dark silhouette of Gem’s Lodge and faint candle light in the middle distance.

My concerned hosts were relived to see me and fed me a restorative meal as I recounted my adventure. Though I had been borderline hysterical only moments earlier, it was impossible not to laugh at the memory of it, especially that last-straw, excessive spider web fiasco. It was as if the jungle spirits wanted to get in one last kick to the ribs to punish me for being such an idiot before allowing my salvation. Lesson learned.