Blood sucking demons from hell! That was a phrase I didn’t think I would use much in the remote and peaceful Kelabit Highlands. But there it was dripping off my tongue, more often that I would have liked.
Let’s rewind to the start.
That day the relaxing village of Pa Lungan was to be left behind, and the plan was to go for a nice few hours walk along a jungle trail, reach a jungle shelter for the night, and then after some more walking, take a boat down the river back to Bario, the main settlement. So around midday, the guide/hunter showed up and it was time for the jungle!
You start the walk feeling all enthusiastic and relaxed, you would think to yourself, “time for a cool stroll in the wilderness”. But as many people from the far northern hemisphere will tell you, in their summertime the illusion of a ‘peaceful’ walk can be interrupted by the countless mosquitos that come out en-masse, to pester you at every turn.
Up until this time you have enjoyed wandering around the jungle on easy trails, with minimal wildlife encounters, and so it was the same at the start of this jungle adventure. But that was soon to change. FAST!
The first 30 minutes are easy enough walking, but then the trail starts becoming more and more difficult to follow, until the guide takes you away from any resemblance of a trail, and straight into the pure jungle itself. Now that is exciting and adventurous for sure, but then they come along.
They being leeches. Let’s be very clear about leeches. Fuck them!
Leeches are small, wiggly, fast as hell little bastards, that latch themselves onto your feet, then faster than you could think, start making their way up your leg and into your shoe to start sucking your blood! Leeches are absolutely everywhere. You can see them crawling over the ground as you walk, and climbing all over your feet.
Grabbing a stick, you try to push them away, but they are strong little suckers and are difficult to move. They stick like glue. The guide seemed to look back on all of this with a sense of bemusement and wonder, as these people behind him kept stopping every 2 minutes trying to remove leeches, while slipping around in mud.
The going gets worse and worse. The mud is so thick in places, it almost sucks your shoes into it. The branches scratch at your arms, as you try not to slip over. All the while with those leeches crawling around your feet. In many parts, the guide has to build makeshift bridges to get across ravines. He cuts down bamboo with his machete, which he has also used for cutting a path in the jungle at times, and places the bamboo across to walk over.
Some people seem to think that walking in the jungle brings you closer to nature, and that you can see wildlife all around. Bullshit! The only wildlife you can see regularly in the jungle are leeches. Ok, I lied. You will also see mosquitoes, bees, and various other insects that like nothing better than to follow you around and bite you. Awesome!
The only time there happens to be an actual animal to see, in this case a monkey, the guide/hunter shoots it. That’s right, shoots it! A fellow traveller comes up behind ,and I inform that there is a monkey in the tree. The excitement on her face soon fades fast, when informed that our guide is hunting it for dinner.
Just ahead you hear the sound of the rifle firing, and see the monkey fall from the tree. Happy with his kill, the guide/hunter brings it back to show.
Content, the hunter attaches the dead monkey to his backpack, and off you go again slogging it out in the jungle.
Having been swearing all this time at the leeches, generally referring to them as blood sucking demon fuckers from hell, I gave up trying to keep them off. Constantly stopping was getting annoying, and with the hard jungle walking I gave up caring about anything by this time. It was rather amusing watching fellow travellers trying to keep them off. Especially when one had a leech crawl all the way up his leg to his butt!
Then it starts to rain. Didn’t really matter at this point however, as by now you are covered in mud and sweat anyway.
After around 5 hours of this hell, you finally reach the jungle shelter where you will stay the night. Here you take off your shoes to see what leeches may have got inside during the walk. Luckily most of the leeches that had got onto the shoes, hadn’t made it inside them, or up the legs of all of us.
Still, pulling a few leeches that were there out, was not exactly fun. Especially the smaller ones that like to hide among the shoelaces. I managed to only have a few leeches biting into my flesh that day. Not bad compared to what it could have been.
The shelter is basically a wooden structure, with a fireplace inside. All around were bees buzzing about, and insects and spiders creeping around. Welcome to the jungle baby!
We were definitely unprepared. There were no sleeping bags, mosquito nets, sleep matts, nothing. It would be a fun night. The guide/hunter went straight to work cutting up some bamboo for firewood, and got a fire going.
With the fire going, the hunter takes the monkey from the backpack, and places it into the fire. The smell of burning hair is everywhere. After sometime in the fire, the monkey is taken to the river in front of the shelter. Here the hunter cuts it up into smaller pieces, cleans them, then brings back up to the fire to cook some more.
Being a bunch of westerners up there, the hunter also had some tinned sardines and instant noodles. But I am always up for trying something new when offered the opportunity, and grabbed some of the cut up pieces of monkey meat, and happily started eating.
How does monkey taste? Well if your waiting for the standard answer of chicken, then you are wrong. It actually has a kind of pork taste to it, and I can happily say it tasted rather good, being barbecued and all. It was a little chewy however. The other travellers there refused to try it. Even after a few attempts at goading them into it!
The hunter then went out by himself, to go hunting in the dark. A gunshot was heard around an hour later, and soon the hunter appeared with a dead mouse deer. If you hadn’t guessed by the name, it is basically a really tiny deer! With nothing to do at night, it was time to try and get some sleep. A novel idea considering that sleeping would basically involve lying down on the wooden floor, with nothing but your dirty clothes on for protection.
Trying to get to sleep with insects trying to bite you, and cockroaches crawling around you, and most likely over you, is not what one could call a luxury holiday for sure. As the night progressed it got colder and colder, to the point where what little sleep you were trying to get is given up on, as you get up to start the fire going again for warmth.
For an hour there in the middle of the night, by yourself listening to the sound of the jungle all around, sitting around the fire, a great peace comes over you. This is what you came to the jungle for. One of the best feelings.
Now it is daylight again, and with some more tasty(!) purified water from the dirty river in you, and a sore back from lying on wood all night, it’s time to set off again into the hell of the jungle. It is just as bad as the day before, leeches around and so on, but you get used to it after a while. And today was sweeter because after only over an hours walk, it was time to get in the guide/hunters boat, that he had gone on ahead to get.
Getting onto the boat for a 1.5 hour cruise down the river, and eventually out of the jungle, was a great experience. The boat weaved in and out around obstacles. Fallen trees, small rapids and buried branches being the worst. A bit bumpy at times, but all the more fun for it.
Reaching a small village, you take a short ride to the main settlement of Bario. Finding a homestay for the night, you then get all your clothes washed as you take a 20 minute bucket shower. It feels so good to shower after being out walking hard in the jungle. A good home cooked dinner, and a fun night with the locals at the homestay, makes for a great ending to the trip.
The jungle was hard, but an amazing adventure. Everyone should try it at least once to see. The next day you head to the small airport and board the tiny propellor plane to fly out of the Kelabit Highlands.
The Kelabit Highlands.
If you ever happen to be in Malaysian Borneo, then a visit to the Kelabit Highlands cannot be recommended enough. It’s remote, peaceful, has delicious food, and is full of some of the friendliest people you could meet. With plenty of fun(!) to be had in the jungles!
If you’re heading to Southeast-Asia take a look at what I recommend to pack for your journey.
Check this out for more offbeat adventures in Borneo.
*Update Kelabit Highlands June 2015*
Two travellers John and Heather who blog at roamingaroundtheworld recently came back from the Kelabit Highlands and posted this information in the comments below about recent costs in the area. I’m posting the info here in case you didn’t make it to the comments.
Hey there! I actually just returned from Pa’ Langun last week, partly inspired to go from reading over this awesome post! Anyhow, I can fill ya in on our costs and experience…
Bario guesthouses ran about 80-100 ringgit per person including 3 meals (we paid an odd amount of 87.50). We hadn’t booked anything but a friendly home stay guy intercepted us at the airport. In Pa’ Langun, we stayed at David’s place and paid 90 ringgit / night including meals.
We did not go on the jungle trek, and just hung around Pa’ Lungan, so I can’t comment on costs there. We weren’t in the mood for monkey, lol.
The return boat trip cost 250 ringgit per boat (fits about 4 people) and you can share that cost if you can find other people.
The return trip from Pa’ Lungan to Bario takes 3-5 hours. If you’re catching a flight, I’d plan to take at least 5 hours. And even though its a tiny little airport, the check-in counter supposedly closes 45-minute before the flight, so don’t delay! You can trek back or take the boat. The boat actually didn’t shave off much time because there’s still a bit of walking involved there too, but the boat is just more fun! From Pa Lungan, it took nearly an hour to get to the boat where we hung out and ate some lunch for a while. The boat ride took more than an hour. Then we walked for nearly another hour down a road back to Bario (and also hitchhiked w/ the one and only truck that happened to pass by.)