Rob Armstrong set out on a journey from his homeland in Australia, with the end goal of reaching Iceland. As of yet, he hasn’t made it. Along the way he has however, had an incredible, expansive and learned journey. This outtake from his single man journey through the jungle is just a taster…
I was first told about Bario by an Australian journalist that I met in the small jungle town of Long Lama, a mix of low concrete and wooden buildings set out on a grid of roads barely wide enough for a single vehicle. After 5 days picking my way through the jungle on unmapped roads, battling dust so thick it choked my air-filter and mud so slippery excavator tracks need modifying to operate in it, I unwittingly arrived in the middle of the regional pump-boat championships (so named for their use of a water pump motor that drives the propeller). The two small hotels in town that usually cater for the logging company workers looking to blow off steam and their hard earned wages were already full with boat racing competitors and their teams. Thankfully the church had a spare bed that the pastor offered me for free, as long as I didn’t mind shaking the dead insects from the bed sheets and scraping them from the sink. With my own room, a shower and a proper bed to sleep in, I felt like the luckiest guy in town.
The next few days were spent resting, eating, washing the mud and dust from my gear, going over the bike and getting drunk by the riverside with the locals while we watched the little homemade pump-boats scream up and down the muddy river. I was ready to quit the jungle, head back towards the coast and a sealed road that would take me south towards Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching for a dose of air conditioning. But then something as simple as one of my new local friends called drunkenly from across the dusty street “hey, your friend is at the café!” changed the course of my life.
“Glancing up momentarily from the notebook and glass of tea on the table in front of him, it becomes apparent he has been expecting me.”
I walked through a gap in the low, white wooden fence of the open-air establishment. Of the 3 tables that were occupied on this lazy humid afternoon, only one caught my attention. Sitting at a small plastic table, a lone figure, dressed in what was once a white collared shirt, now yellowed with dust and age, half unbuttoned in the heat and stained with sweat under the arms, was something I hadn’t seen in weeks; another white man.
Glancing up momentarily from the notebook and glass of tea on the table in front of him, it becomes apparent he has been expecting me, inviting me to join him for a drink. While waiting for my coffee, we comment on how nice it is to finally meet after being told so much about each other. Being a little shy to speak fluent English, something I hadn’t done in many months, I let him do most of the talking. A journalist from Australia, he was in Borneo to do a follow up story on an ethnic minority known as the Kelabit, a smallish population of former headhunters that lived deep in the heart of Borneo in the Kelabit Highlands. Long Lama had been his jump off point to hitch a ride in the back of one of the 4-wheel drives used to transport bulky goods to the end of the road, Bario, hundreds of kilometres from here and only a stones throw from the Indonesian border. It sounded isolated, unique, difficult to get to, potentially a little dangerous and I’d never heard of anyone riding there before. My interest was suitably perked.
That night, laying in a bed meant for pilgrims and missionaries, I made the decision to abandon my dreams of air conditioning and sealed roads, instead stocking up on rice and petrol in preparation to leave the next day for a place called Bario.
The road out of Long Lama was rough, even by Borneo’s standards. A jagged surface of stones embedded in dried mud shook and rattled every part of the bike and I. Riding beyond the palm oil plantations that have such a terrible reputation for death and the destruction of the rainforests in Malaysia, the stones gradually gives way to the more common hard-pack clay of the jungle, adorned with heavily cambered turns leading into sharp crests, perfect for lofting the front wheel skywards. The day wears on, the sun skirts its way quickly across the narrow strip of blue sky visible between the trees lining either side of the road. The track narrows, vines and creepers occasionally bridging the two sides. A seed of doubt about making it to Bario forms. If the track is going to be like this for the next few hundred kilometres it could be a tall order. Vague directions from the few locals still using the road don’t help to ease my concern, the instruction to “stick to the big road” often means backtracking to a junction when one branch of identical tracks either fades into the jungle or abruptly ends at the longhouse of former headhunters.
Here and there are the remains of the once thriving logging industry that all roads through the jungle were born from; a bridge spanning a wide river, sturdy enough to resist the flow of monsoonal floods and to support the weight of lorries overloaded with tropical hardwoods. A portable wooden cabin made of undressed planks, chainsaw marks still visible in the wood, makes for a shady place to eat lunch. This is all that’s left of both the logging industry and the forests in many parts of Sarawak. Logging companies depart quickly once they have pillaged, leaving only the locals to ply and maintain these tracks from the back of the occasional 4-wheel drive, by moped or on foot, often with blowpipes slung over their shoulder and a bamboo container of poison tipped darts hanging by their side.
The unease I feel about the track condition fades in the afternoon as it intersects with the main road, a wide strip of bare earth that winds its way upward into the mountains and the heart of Borneo. It’s well graded and with the jungle pushed back to allow the soil to dry in any available sun. Turning onto it and settling into a rhythm, I remind myself to adjust to the unique rules of the logging roads. Small wooden signboards, oblong in shape and painted with red and white arrows, nailed to stakes and hammered into the ground by the roadside indicate which side of the road you’re supposed to be on. This is subject to regular changes. It’s a confusing and often dangerous system that despite the best attempts of the locals to make sense of it for me, remains haphazard at best, if not completely random. Missing one of the dust encrusted, mud spattered road signs hiding in the undergrowth however, can quickly lead to a motorcycle rider staring deep into the radiator grills of a heavily loaded, all wheel drive semi-trailer. Regardless of what side of the road you’re on, the logging trucks always have right of way.
“She responds in kind, a large conical, home rolled cigar never leaving the corner of her mouth as it billows bluish smoke up.”
With the sun low in the sky and the trees beginning to cast shadows across the road, I stop at the next intersection. My worn rubber skids slightly in the loose stones, kicking up a cloud of dust whose momentum overtakes me as I ponder over a small wooden sign; “Long Semiyang”. I’d learnt that ‘Long’ means the point of confluence of two rivers and was synonymous with human settlements, which meant the possibility of a flat piece of land to pitch a tent for the night.
Access to the river valley was via a steep and narrow set of twin tracks covered with square edged stones that seemed to enjoy unexpectedly rolling around under the weight of the bike. My flight from some local hunting dogs became a test of riding skills that I was not overly excited by this late in the day. The further from the main road I got, the tighter the jungle pressed until I was ducking under broad leaves hanging across the road. At the base of the valley, long mud holes, the defining feature of unsealed roads in South East Asia, greeted me as the terrain flattened out. I’d long since learnt not to fight these stretches of impossibly slippery sludge and resigned myself to riding in the wheel ruts of vehicles that came before me. Putting myself in the lowest part of the track meant I couldn’t slide any lower and the walls of the ruts kept the bike pointed straight as the rear wheel churned up the sticky clay, spraying it all over the rear of the bike and luggage in its attempt to maintain forward momentum. One last short, steep rise and I found myself in a wide open grassy area, bordered on opposite sides by twin wooden longhouses some 70 metres long, standing high above the ground on stilted frames.
Riding slowly in first gear between the buildings, I stop in front of a stout woman leaning on the handrail of the elevated platform that makes up the main living quarters of the longhouse. She watches me dismount and remove my helmet, her dark brown eyes and smooth skin masking any feelings she may have about this filthy stranger standing in front of her home.
“Hello, good afternoon” I say in my best Indonesian (the Malaysian national language is essentially the same, but pronunciation differs and there are a few words that are not common between the nations).
She responds in kind, a large conical, home rolled cigar never leaving the corner of her mouth as it billows bluish smoke up and around the straight black hair ponytail hanging down her back. My language skills haven’t impressed. She turns her head to call to other family members for help, her long extended earlobes, stretched out by years of wearing steel or brass weights. A sign of feminine beauty in the jungle, they swing gently by her neck. Her daughter, about the same age as me, emerges from the house. A brief exchange in Indonesian occurs. This includes me fumbling over the word for ‘tent’ for minutes before she breaks my fumbling in near perfect English. “My name is Bulan”. With the headman not around, they make the decision amongst themselves to not only let me spend the night, but sleep in the longhouse too. With such privilege comes a shower in spring water, a home cooked meal of rice, fried fish and fern shoots with garlic and ginger and a roof over my head. I’ve hit the jackpot again.
The following morning I wake to the sound of heavy rain and break my fast with the men of the family. They’ve been up since dawn collecting fish from the nets they set in the river the day before. As the rain subsides my mind wanders back to the main road, now likely a slick mess that will take days instead of hours to get to Bario on. Even the logging trucks pull over to the side of the road after rain like this. The cost of recovering one of those loaded behemoths after sliding off the side of the road and into a ravine outweighs the profits that they haul. I get permission to stay another night and spend the day wandering around the village or following Bulan’s brothers, Mathew and David (Australian Christian missionaries did a lot of work in this area in the 70s, bringing with them changes both good and bad), while they show me snippets of their culture. A decades aged door salvaged from the old longhouse, carved by hand from a single tree trunk in the motifs of the Kayan people they belong to; lethal blowpipes drilled and carved with hand tools from tropical hardwoods; the skin of a sun bear, now protected but once hunted for food; women using their feet to separate dried rice husks from the harvested stalks on woven mats under the shade of elevated rice storage houses. I even got to see the preparation of the cigars Bulans mother was smoking the day before, constructed from locally grown tobacco, sliced with a knife carved of bamboo to avoid the metallic taste that a steel knife gives to the smoke. Sometimes a day off the bike is a necessity, and this day is one well spent.
My second morning in the longhouse is much the same as the first; sitting silently through prayers before a meal of steamed river fish and rice. The sound of rain smashing on the tin roof destroys any hope of conversation. I’m compelled to stay another night in the hope that the rain will subside and give the roads some time to dry out, but fear of overstaying the welcome of my gracious hosts forces me onto the road again. The climb back out of the river valley was the worst of it. The stones spin and roll in time with my rear tyre as the mud from the valley floor clears itself from the tyre tread. spraying the broad, deep green leaves of the surrounding jungle, still dripping from the morning’s rain, with specks of light brown clay. It’s still too early for the dogs to chase me and I’m soon out on the main track, steam rising from its compacted surface as it bakes in the morning sun.
Progress is quick but cautious. The track has dried where the sun strikes, but greasy patches lurk around bends shaded by the mountainside. For the best part of the morning the track continues to climb towards the Kelabit Highlands, named for the people that inhabit these far reaches of the jungle. The temperature drops as the altitude increases, providing some respite from the tropical heat. With the rain having tempered the dust, the traffic almost non-existent and the fine weather holding, it seemed as though my fear of the rains making the days ride difficult were unfounded. Things change quickly in the jungle and with little warning.
Cresting the highest point of the mountain ranges, the drying roads change so abruptly it feels falsely constructed. The greasy slop suddenly sucking and popping at the tyres as they slide and spin demands all of my attention to keep the bike upright. Surely part of some roadworks. While distracted by the changing road conditions, the blue sky above is silently enveloped by a matt grey blanket that’s been obscured by the mountain until now. It’s only a few hundred metres more before the logging camp and the hill where this story and the rain starts. Checking the roadside markers to make sure I’m on the correct side, I idle over the crest of the mountain, letting the engine do the braking until the track twists to the right as it follows the contour of the hillside it’s carved into. A little light pressure on the rear brake and the bike accelerates. Wait, that’s not right. The rear wheel begins to step out. I change tactics and give the front brake lever a squeeze. I’ve lost steering. The front tyre washes out momentarily. The voice inside my head remains unnervingly calm.
I pick up speed, headed directly for a 3-foot deep culvert filled with loose jagged rocks on the uphill side of the track. I frantically feather both front and rear brakes in a desperate attempt to maintain control through the curve. First the front washes out, then the rear tries to overtake it, sliding as I steer the bike towards a patch of scattered gravel that I hope will bring this nightmare to a satisfactory conclusion. My flailing foot catches one final low-side and I’m stopped, hauling the loaded motorcycle upright while I try to catch my breath. I scrabble back to my side of the road and toward the top of the hill.
The roads in the jungle after the rain are inexplicably slippery. The inch-thick layers of dust that build up during dry spells are the first to absorb the rain, transforming it into a sheet of clay that refuses to adhere to the road but readily clings to rotating rubber. Each turn of the wheels adds layer upon layer, filling the voids between even the most aggressive tyre pattern and jamming tyres against swing arms and low fenders until wheels stop rotating. The soil underneath is hard and doesn’t offer any more traction than the wetted dust on top. There is nothing. No grip, drive or control. The lugs of most adventure tyres barely mark it, leaving them to spin aimlessly on the thin layer of surface grease. The jungle doesn’t deal in short muddy sections; the mountains are made of mud and when it rains it’s all-or-nothing. These are the most difficult roads I’ve ever ridden, an endless battle to keep the rubber side down. Respite can only be found on hillcrests or in the bottom of valleys where the road flattens. Stopping while on an ascent means a total loss of momentum. The sole option is a trip back to the bottom to try again. Stopping on a decent is only possible with the use of a handlebar end as an anchor.
“Four hours of constant up and down abuse later, both the bike and I needed regular rest stops to cool down.”
For reasons unknown to me, I took the plunge and rolled over the crest of that hill for the second time, sliding from one small patch of gravel to the next as I attempted to keep speeds down and avoid the drop into the ravine to the right over the kilometre long decent. In doing so, I had committed myself to the same conditions for the next 10 hours, each decent being followed by an even longer climb. I would see more wild animals than humans; mouse deer bounding along the side of the track before disappearing into the thick jungle, wild water buffalo that would stare me down from the middle of the road and even a family of wild boar that scuttled expertly through the mud on short legs, their pointed hooves doing a far better job of maintaining traction on the slippery roads than my engineered tyres ever could. The only human I did see could only laugh after letting me know “it’s like this all the way to Bario” in response to my query about the road conditions ahead. At least I had confirmation that Bario existed, even if I still didn’t know how far away it was.
Four hours of constant up and down abuse later, both the bike and I needed regular rest stops to cool down. The complete lack of traction on the hard-pack clay would force me into the softer soil by the roadside, where the tyres could sink in a little and engage more of the side lugs to help maintain momentum on the uphills. The additional traction comes at a price though with the soft mud adhering more readily to the tyre and swing arm; let the mud build up too much and it was enough the lock the rear wheel on the downward slopes, necessitating the application of throttle to keep the bike pointed straight; on the uphills it would rob the bike of power to the point that additional torque was required through the use of the clutch. The clutch abuse was so bad that the steel plates expanded to the point that the clutch could no longer be disengaged, only more throttle applied until the hill was crested where switching off the ignition would bring the bike to a violently stop. Half an hour of dousing the engine with muddy roadside water collected in a leaf and the engine had cooled enough that the clutch could be disengaged normally, but the damage was done. The steel clutch plates were already glazed with burnt engine oil, causing them to slip whenever the engine approached 3000rpm. The solution came in the form of the addition of a short length of bamboo cut from the roadside to my toolkit, perfect for poking at the mud built up between the swing arm and rear tyre after each hill.
After 100km of the front wheel constantly twitching left and right and the rear spending more time on the wrong side of the threshold of traction, I began to have difficulty seeing the track. I’d long since removed my goggles, the combination of incessant rain, slow speeds and physical effort fogging them beyond use, so they weren’t at fault. A quick glance at the GPS revealed that I had completely lost track of time, the thick monotonous grey blanket of clouds above me having obscured my usual timepiece, the sun, for most of the day. It was already close to 7pm, the sun was setting somewhere out of sight and I had no place to sleep. The track is hemmed in on both sides by thickly jungled slopes. Continuing in the dark wasn’t an option, so with the narrow strip of mud I was on being the only level ground available, I set about putting up the tent on the road, cutting branches from the jungle to position at one end, a technique used throughout South East Asia to warn other road users of a hazard ahead, and left the bike parked at the other end. Removing my mud encrusted boots, the physical strain of the day caught up with me and I collapsed in the tent, still fully clothed, and slept a dreamless sleep with only the plastic floor of the tent to separate me from the torturous mud below.
I woke early, shivering on the floor of the tent. Wet riding gear and the muddy soil below sucked the heat from my body through the night. Venturing into the still air of a quiet, grey morning, the strip of mud that had become my world disappeared in both directions into a mist that had settled over the jungle through the night. The silence was only broken by the muffled calls of monkeys somewhere in the mist and the sound of my camp stove as I set about filling the void left in my stomach. Exhaustion had overruled hunger the night before and I’d slept without dinner. Squatting in the mud, a double portion of porridge filling me with warmth, I dreaded the thought of getting back on the bike again to repeat yesterdays’ seemingly endless nightmare. I had come too far now and put in too much effort to consider turning back, so began to prepare myself mentally for what was likely to be another long, difficult and unproductive day.
“As I stood up a white Toyota Hilux crested the hill behind my tent at a 45-degree angle to the road, all 4 spinning wheels”
The sound of an engine being held at high revolutions broke my concentration. As I stood up a white Toyota Hilux crested the hill behind my tent at a 45-degree angle to the road, all 4 spinning wheels, hurling large clumps of mud into the air. As the vehicle slid to a halt in front of me, shotgun pointing out of the drivers open window, the sun darkened face of a man called Wilson smiled broadly at me, sending deep furrows across his face from under the brim of an Akubra hat. Wilson seemed almost as surprised to see me as I was to see the gun a couple of feet from my face. He was friendly enough, despite the 16-hour drive he’d just completed to get back to his home in Bario, choosing to drive at night in search of the same wildlife I had seen the previous day (hence the shotgun being so close to hand). He tells me it can take anywhere from 7 to 20 hours to drive this road, depending on the weather. Today we don’t have it so bad. It’s merely the second straight day of rain; it needs to rain for weeks before it gets interesting. Before continue on to Bario, he offers me water, fuel, and a slab of raw flesh cut from the deer laying in the bed of his pickup. I decline but thank him for his generosity before he continues on up the road, vehicle pointing in the wrong direction as he fights against the mud.
My brief encounter with another human puts me in a better mood than I woke, particularly after learning I’m only 20km from Bario now. I’m in no rush and delay my departure as long as possible, giving the road some time to dry in the sun that has burnt off the mist and emerged from behind scattered clouds. Once again, the jungle has other plans for me and sends inch long bees to lick the sweat from my gear and me. The bees are peaceful enough, as long as they don’t feel threatened. Partially crushing them between your riding gear and body seems like a good way to make them feel threatened, so I take my time in clearing them from the salty interior of my jacket and helmet. With the bike loaded and gear painlessly donned, I make the slowest getaway in history from the now swarming bees, desperate to keep the bike upright for fear of them catching up to me. The combination of the drying road and having Wilsons’ wheel tracks to ride in make the mornings ride almost enjoyable, and it’s not long before I round a bend on the mountainside to be greeted with the most relieving view I’ve seen in days. Off in the distance, nestled in the centre of the base of an enormous bowl shaped valley, amongst a patchwork of cultivated rice fields, is a clearly visible cluster of buildings. Bario.
On reaching town, I spend the first few days cleaning the mud from my gear and bike while sourcing parts to try to breath some life back into my ailing clutch. As the days turn into weeks, the rain continues to fall daily, the 4-wheel drives coming into town getting muddier and muddier with the deteriorating road conditions until they stop coming altogether. I begin to loose hope of riding out again. Fresh tyres aren’t available to suit the 18 and 21 inch rims of my bike and with the transport trucks not running due to reports of a collapsed bridge, I begin to consider stripping the bike down so that it can be flown out one piece at a time. But even the flights are becoming unpredictable, the bad weather preventing landings on the high plateau. Word gets around the village of my predicament and a handful of people come forward with offers of help that, although well intentioned, ultimately fall short of a solution, like the set of brand new knobbie tyres tucked away in someone’s shed that I’m offered that turn out to be for 16 inch rims.
“There I spent the rest of the afternoon, cutting and welding the chain into what looked like a short ladder”
A few weeks of waiting for the rain to stop and I begin to settle into a routine, a part of which includes Saturday nights at the local pub, a wooden structure straddling a stream that serves as the local sewerage disposal system. Between games of snooker, while sitting at a table stacked high with illegally imported beer cans, many of them crushed by strong hands used for a life of manual labour (this helps to quickly differentiate those cans that are full from the empty ones), an idea is born. Like most of the best ideas of history, it comes later in the night, the stack of crushed cans in front of us building as the stories of growing up in the jungle began to flow hard and fast. By now it was apparent that we could not have had more different upbringings; for me a day spent truanting from school back home would be spent surfing at the beach, for them it was an opportunity to catch one of the neighbours chickens and butcher it for a BBQ; while I was trying to trade up my lunchtime snacks in the playground with friends, they were hiding the pigs from the schools farm in preparation for a feast. Having never even seen an animal butchered before leaving Australia, it was sometimes difficult to relate to the banter.
Occasionally the stories would drift to something I was more familiar with, like motorcycles, and I could participate a little more, ride stories from Australia capturing the attention of the locals in much the same way their stories of the jungle captured mine. One story of theirs in particular stood out more than the others though, when an offhand comment about wrapping lengths of rope around the tyres and wheels of their little mopeds to make riding in mud easier captured my imagination. Running my finger around the top of a half drunk can of warm beer, I may have still been physically in the pub but my mind was already generating a solution to my slippery situation.
The next day, word went out that I was looking for a cast net, preferably one whose fishing days were done, and a welding machine. The school principal had access to both and in no time I had the netting cut away from the chain that gives the outside of a cast net its weight, and excavated the stick welding machine from a small mountain of sawdust in a shed behind the school. There I spent the rest of the afternoon, cutting and welding the chain into what looked like a short ladder, all while keeping an eye out for any smoke from the sawdust that still partially covered the welder. By the time I was finished, I had my ticket out of the highlands and back to civilisation in my hands, and not before time too, with the expiry date on my visa quickly approaching.
One week later and my extended jungle stay came to an end. I said my goodbyes to new friends and family, after being adopted by the parents of one of the local families, loaded my bike up for the first time in 2 months and rolled out of town, leaving behind a series of chain link imprints in the soft soil as my new set of mud chains did their job. Even with the fear of having a length of chain flying by the back of my calves, the additional traction that they gave to the now bald rear tyre more than compensated. The ride down out of the highlands was twice as fast as the ride in, even with regular stops to check the ropes holding the chains in place.
Another quick overnight stop in Long Semiyang was again extended when I stayed to help with the annual rice planting which saw me trekking across charred hillsides with the rest of the village, the jungle burnt from the soil to allow the rice to take root on the hillsides, all the while drinking tuak, an unfiltered, fermented rice wine with the consistency of porridge on an empty stomach at 6am for days on end. After three days of planting rice and spending the mornings in a drunken haze while shooting a blowpipe with others in the village, only to pass out by early afternoon, I took my leave and headed back to the real world. But not before being gifted with a blowpipe of my own, a bamboo tube of darts and a small pouch of poison wrapped in a leaf, which made for some interesting luggage rearrangements.
It’s been a few years since that first visit to Bario and I’ve been back there multiple times since, for weddings, funerals, to witness headman initiation ceremonies, the fruit season (trust me, it’s worth a mention), to fish in the rivers and hunt wild boar in the jungles. It’s become a second home and a place whose power to draw me back only grows with each visit. Thinking back to the little unassuming café in a dusty town in the middle of a jungle where I first heard the name Bario from a total stranger that I’ve never heard from again, I will always be reminded that the best adventures aren’t born from inflexible planning and strict routines. The best adventures come from saying “yes” when you don’t have all the answers, but are willing to make the rest up as you go.