Malaysia // Sarawak //

The Kelabit Highlands

Right up against the Kalimantan border, 100km southeast of Gunung Mulu, the long, high plateau of the Kelabit Highlands has been home to the Kelabit people for hundreds of years. Western explorers had no idea this self-sufficient mountain community existed until the early twentieth century, and the Highlands were literally not put on the map until World War II, when British and Australian commandos, led by Major Tom Harrisson, used Kelabit settlements as bases during a guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese. Before Harrisson’s men built an airstrip at Bario, trekking over inhospitable terrain was the only way to get here – it took two weeks from the nearest large town, Marudi, on the opposite side of Mulu. When missionaries arrived and converted the animist Kelabit to Christianity after the war, many traditions, like burial rituals and wild parties called iraus (where Chinese jars full of rice wine were consumed) disappeared. Many of the magnificent Kelabit megaliths associated with these traditions have been swallowed up by the jungle, but some dolmens, urns, rock carvings and ossuaries used in funeral processes can still be found, so the region draws archeologists and anthropologists from far and wide. The Kelabit are not the only inhabitants of this part of the state, however; there are also populations of Penan and Lun Bawang (formerly called the Murut).

Despite logging in the Bario area, the Highlands remain generally unspoiled, with occasional wildlife sightings and a refreshing climate – temperatures are only a few degrees lower than in Miri by day, but at night they can drop to an untropical 15°C (60°F). As such the region is a great target for walkers, and it is easily accessible by air, with three villages served by MASwings. Most visitors head to Bario or Ba’ Kelalan as they have formal accommodation, but the real point of being here is to get out into the countryside, doing day-walks or longer treks through the jungle, on which you can be hosted in little settlements or longhouses en route. It’s also possible to do more challenging treks up to the peaks of the Pulong Tau National Park (which has no facilities and no one to collect the entrance fee), notably Gunung Murud. There are no banks, so bring enough cash to cover board and lodging plus guiding/trekking fees.

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