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An expedition to Batu Lawi

Batu Lawi

On my arrival to Bario I realized how much the forest had worn me out. For the first time in days my skin was dry and warmed by the sun, instead of wet in dew and perspiration and overheated by the walking.

Walking around Bario’s few but tidy road, my feet could lay flat and stable instead of balancing on slippery roots and rock edges or sinking into mud. I told myself it was time for a rest, and yet, over few “rest” days I explored the surrounding of Bario, climbing Prayer Mountain and visiting some waterfalls hidden in the jungle that surrounds the village’s well-groomed rice fields. These leisurely activities allowed me to reload my batteries and keep my restlessness in check. But as energy came back, so did the longing for being on the road.
Only then I found out of Batu Lawi.

Before my journey in Borneo I willingly avoided to gather too much bookish information on the places I was going to visit. My background as a scientist and researcher taught me that books can be a source of knowledge as much as of preconceptions. On this journey I gave myself the chance of learning by direct experience, looking at things with a look as unburdened as possible by the interpretation of those that came before me. This cast on all that I saw on my way a taste of discovery of times gone by (or that I perceived as such), but it also created awkward situations, like the fact that I had barely any knowledge of Batu Lawi until I realized it was not too far from Bario.
Batu Lawi is an iconic mountain with fame of inaccessibility. It has two, uneven peaks, the “female” one, lower and covered in forest, and the “male” one, taller and lean, with steep flanks, white by the weathered limestone. The mountain used to be at the center of myths and legends that the christianization of the Kelabit people let fall into oblivion. Its name literally translates as “Tailfeather mountain”, but they could not find the origin of the name. They say the two peaks used to be a couple that was turned into stone, it is hard to say whether as a punishment for some misdoing or as a glorification of their love (in the elder Kelabit beliefs, stone is made of solid energy).
In recent times, the mountain became part of modern-day legends centred on the character of Bruno Manser. Bruno Manser used to be (and, some believe, still is) a Swiss activist that, from the ’80s to the early 2000s, became an international advocate of the struggles of Dayaks (Bornean indigenous people) to protect their lands and save the forest in it from the greed of logging companies. Manser lived for years in the forest with nomadic Penan tribes, gaining the nickname of “Penan putih” (white Penan). He was regarded as a public enemy by the government of Sarawak, then heavily colluded with timber companies, to the point that he was forbidden to enter the country. In 2000 he crossed illegally into Sarawak walking from Kalimantan, reached Bario, and disappeared into the jungle between Bario and Batu Lawi. His body was never found. Some say he was eliminated by killers hired by the logging companies active in the area. Others say he simply had an accident, died, and animals devoured his remains. Others say he still leaves, hidden by the Penan, or he hides in a secret cave near Batu Lawi from where he surveys the progress of the battles of locals that are trying to protect the forest against those that want to exploit it. The name of Bruno Manser came to my ears many times during my wanderings in the region of the Baram river, shrouded in mystery and with the tones of a myth. Similarly to Tom Harrisson, Bruno Manser has become part of the local folklore.
All this lit my curiosity. My friend Julian, a Bario local, told me that Batu Lawi was not “for tourists” anymore, as the area around the mountain had been ruined by logging for more than a decade. When Batu Lawi was finally integrated in the Pulung Tau National Park, in 2008, large extents of primary forest had been cut and the trails that used to take to the mountain had been disrupted or neglected, letting ferns and bushes to grow over them. This only succeeded at increasing my interest. Batu Lawi, a mountain playing a major role in both past and present folklore, seldom visited and only by the few that still have the knowledge and the will to reach it. This was more than enough to challenge my wanderer’s spirit. Moreover, I did not come to Borneo to see only its pretty sides. I came to see Borneo the way it really is. After arriving in Bario I was not sure of what my next step would have been, but now I knew. Batu Lawi would be my next goal.
Julian introduced me to my guide at the at the Bario Asal Longhouse, where we were to celebrate New Year’s Eve, guests of Julian’s family. The guide, Philippe, was a friend of Julian from the village of Pa’ Ukan. A jolly guy, energetic, chatty and a bit of a boaster, he was quite a different character from the Penan guides who guided me from Long Lellang to Bario, silent and discreet, almost shy. We decided to leave on the 2nd of January, to give ourselves time to sleep off the celebrations for Tahun Baru (New Year). Safety dictates to take the way of the forest in three people, so that if someone has an accident, one of the party members can go to find help while the other stays with the injured. In the case of a guide with client, the third man is known as “porter”, even when their role is to support the guide and not to carry weights. Since the reputation of the road to Batu Lawi scared off all potential porters, Julian reluctantly accepted to join me and Philippe for the expedition. Philippe was very optimistics, claiming that we coud reach the mountain, climb it and be back in three days. Julian did not seem convinced. What Philippe claimed to be a three-day hike would turn out to be a five-day desperate trek harshened by heavy rains, mud, and paths encroached by thick walls of entangled tree-ferns. The one that follows is the report of those five long, wearing, sweaty, muddy, leechy days.
On January the 2nd, Julian and I left Bario to meet Philippe in Pa’Ukan. In the early morning light, a low mist hovered over the rice fields. We met Philippe, drank a three-in-one “kopi” at his house, and took off. Soon the village and the fields were behind us as we headed to north-east, towards the hills. The forest embraced us. Not far from the last huts, a group of gibbons cruised high over our heads, observing us, leaping from one tree to the other, free-falling for many meters before grabbing the next branch to continue their seemingly gravity-defying dance.
Philippe was carrying a shotgun, officially for protection against sunbears, not a rare sight in the area. I had never met a bornean bear to that moment, but I had seen a tree clawed to its core by one that wanted the honey from the bees hiding in it. I am not used to guns, but I could see the utility of bringing one along in the forest, just in case. Conversely, Philippe was obviously very familiar with it. His eyes were often distracted from the trail by the sight of game marks. He is a keen hunter, which is how he became so familiar with this area. I could see his fingers playing with the trigger, but the shotgun remained unloaded the whole time.
The path climbs a steep hill up to a ridge. There, the pass is guarded by two big round stones covered in mosses and engraved with human-like figures. They dated back to a time before the arrival of Christianity, before the road and the airplane came to Bario. Back then Kelabits were still ‘pagan’, headhunters, and this pass was one of the few ways connecting the valley of Bario to the world outside.
As we proceded beyond the pass, the first signs of logging activity appeared. We intercepted a logging road, like a red scar in the forest, and we started following it. The mistery of the lush, dark jungle left the ground to a wounded secondary forest. The valuable timber had been taken away, only the trees of no commercial interest being left behind. There, the sunlight reaches the ground, increasing temperature and evaporation, thus making further shade-loving and water-thirsty plants disappear. The empty spaces are filled by so-called pioneer species, more resistant, fast at colonizing the free spots and at taking advantage of the unusually abundant sunlight. Tree-ferns of the genus Gleichenia proliferate, encroaching the abandoned logging roads and paths. Their fronds, densely branched, entangle forming thick green walls that only an intense parang work can overcome.
A curious fact: as we got deeper and deeper in the former timber concession, in the area most damaged by the logging, the sun-burnt dirt road was full of various species of Nephentes pitcher plants.
Eventually, the parang work absorbed all our energy and attention. Darkness came and we were still struggling to open a passage in the seemingly never-ending wall of Gleichenia. Sightseeing was left aside, the goal was to reach an abandoned logging campsite as soon as possible. When we finally got there, the night had come and our hands were cramping from gripping the parangs. Reaching Batu Lawi was going to be a challenge.
The following day was a painfully slow progress into the Gleichenia. We took turns at cutting a passage in the wall of ferns. Even I gave my clumsy contribution. Nothing works like practice for refining one’s poor technique at swinging the parang, that improved from almost non-existent to somewhat acceptable.
As if struggling with thick ferns and bushes was not enough, the rains came. They hit us when we had finally reached the foot of the Mountain. They were sudden and torrential. We managed to cross a river minutes before the water level and flow made it impossible. We struggled to set up our camp in a slopey patch of trees slightly less overgrown with bushes than the rest. The rain gave us no rest, drenching anything that was not protected by our tarps. Julian found himself with a  torrent of rainwater flowing from the side of the mountain within steps from his hammock. Incredibly, in spite of the awful conditions, I spent a pleasant night, dry and, unusually, warm.
The third day was the day: the approach was over, it was time to seize the summit. The steep “male” peak (2046 m asl) would have required technical climbing gear for a multi-day ascent in full big-wall style. It would represent a challenging expedition of its own, that was attempted by few teams in the past, with only three of them ever reaching the summit since the first ascent in 1986. We modestly aimed at the so-called “female” peak (1870 m asl), that does not pose any different challenges than the usual bushwacking. Shamefully, the low section of the mountain was not spared by the logging activities, hence we still had to fight our way through ferns and bushes. The higher sections of the mountain had been spared. Was it a choice driven by the reverence that the mountain inspires, or simply by the steepness of the terrain? Regardless, occasional earmarked trees are the only signs of the passage of man. Progression there was easier and faster, both because the untouched forest was not encroached by ferns, and because the highland forest is naturally less dense than the one growing on lower, flatter terrain.
Philippe predicted that the ascent from the camp to the summit would have taken us less than two hours. It took us seven hours to reach the col between the two peaks. From there it would be another hour to reach the female peak. It was five in the afternoon, too late. A cold wind was bringing in clouds, wrapping the mountain in a milky, impalpable blanket. We bailed the summit, and started our way down.
I did not mind missing the summit: when I came to Borneo I left my mountaineering velleities back home. But I was starting to be annoyed by my guide’s utter inability at providing reliable time estimates. To be fair, this was something I had dealt with before. Back in Long Lellang, when I was about to undertake my walk towards Bario, time estimates offered by locals ranged from three to seven days. Back then I was still fresh enough to see it as something exotic and funny. But the last three days of struggling with encroached paths, cutting a way through the bushes, taking leeches off my legs and chest, and dealing with heavy rain had eroded my patience. Philippe’s faulty estimates had a simple explanation: nobody had been to the mountain since 2013, and ferns and bushes were left to grow and encroach undisturbed for at least one year and a half. Philippe’s optimism led him to underestimate the extent of their growth. But instead of admitting the obvious, I tried to blame the ‘delay’ on the alleged slowness of Julian and me. When he remarked that, I snapped. The patience that, to my surprise, accompanied me all the way from Miri to Bario had reached its limit. Up to that point I accepted delays, mishaps, bad weather, and the other challenges of the journey with an unusually phlegmatic, philosophical calm. In truth, the straws of what I could take had simply being piling up the whole time. Being blamed for what was an obvious cock-up of my guide was the proverbial last straw. I raised my voice and cleared things up, essentially scolding Philippe, that probably did not deserve it.
On day four we cleared the uncomfortable camp at the foot of the mountain and began our way back. The weather was still bad, with short sunbursts teasing us just before rainy clouds closed in again. The rain came back just when Philippe, Julian and I were starting to dry up. I was silent and grumpy, impervious to both the beauty of the forest and the deep scars left in it by the greed of men. All I wanted was to avoid further quarrels dictated by tiredness more than by reason, and to be back, somewhere dry and warm. I kept marching at a fast pace through the passages that we cleared the days before, dragging Julian and Philippe until the lumberjack’s barrack that was our first camp. We got there early in the afternoon, a nice change from the late-night arrivals that marked the previous days. Being too late to carry on to Pa’ Ukan, we set up to enjoy a relaxed afternoon. We hung our clothes to dry and our hammocks to nap. The barrack was made of a  floor of planks on stilts, a tin roof, a fireplace made of concrete bricks, and no walls, and yet it was a commodity compared to the accommodation over the two previous nights. Heavy rains hit again, but they simply made our shelter more enjoyable as we stared at the rain, swinging in our hammocks, and filling our water bottles with the water dripping from the roof (a litre in ten minutes).
Our last day on the go was long, started under a burning sun and ended under familiar, torrential rains. The numerous creeks had swollen, so that we had to cross them many times in the few spots that allowed it. As grumpy as I was towards poor Philippe, I was grateful of his knowledge of the area. Half-blinded by the raindrops on my glasses, slipping in the mud every few steps, by then I was not doing much more than sheeply following his steps.
Finally, the forest turned into padi fields. In Pa’ Ukan, at Philippe’s home, we drunk “kopi”, finally with a real house to shelter us from the rain. The “3in1” mix never tasted so good, and in few instants it melted away all the silly grudge that accompanied me for the last two days. I even foretasted the mouthful I would have given Philippe at the moment of paying him, the whole “a guide cannot afford bragging” little speech. I was suddenly realizing how silly and childish would I sound. Philippe has a family, two little kids, rice fields to harvest, the new aqueduct for his village to install, and yet he accepted to take me to Batu Lawi with almost no notice, certainly for the money, but also for the pleasure of roaming the forest and sharing some of his knowledge with Julian and me. He was the only one left to know all the way to Batu Lawi, and our little expedition simply would not have happened without him. In spite of my grumpy attitude of the past days, at the moment of parting he greets me with a brotherly hug.


The two pictures of me on this page are by Julian Aran of the Old Bario Longhouse. Thank you Julian!

Further notes on Batu Lawi and the history of the logging industry in the area can be found on the “Under the Bayan” website.