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Flight of fancy to Bario, Miri

By Philip Kiew

welcomed with a refreshing drink

Sarawak's Decputy CM, Dr Chan,

being welcomed with a refreshing drink

MIRI: We all hanker for our private Shangri-las; a secret hideaway in which to unravel the knots in exhausted minds and bodies. Half a century ago, bone-weary British plantation managers who sweated profusely in the heat discovered and established hill stations in Peninsular Malaysia. These included Fraser's Hill and Cameron Highlands.

We're no different. We long for fresh air, away from the bedlam, pollution and sweat-inducing work schedules.

Beckoning us on for a quiet retreat are the highlands. These include the hinterland of northern Sarawak, with picturesque rivers snaking through the undulating landscape, quaint villages, unexplored forests and mist-shrouded mountains. It's a refreshing change.

My zig-zag course into the slow lane started with a Vision Air flight. Bario was just a 55-minute flight away. Once on board, you're stepped into a different time zone altogether. Everybody's relaxed.

Epitomising this slow-lane mindset was former flying doctor Captain Mitchell Nuek, who is from Kuching. He quipped that there is more to it than just boarding the aircraft and getting from point A to B.

Nature has a way of unfurling its wondrous beauty and allure, but sometimes it's best seen from the perspective of an airborne aircraft. The bird's eye view has a subtle way of re-mixing the palette of colours into a blurry, heady panorama.

Boarding the powerful 19-seater Dornier 228, twin-prop aircraft at Miri airport and experiencing its unique air-conditioning was a prelude to the exciting aerial tour.

Many have seen the legendary Loagan Bunut lake which brims with shoals of tilapia. It's the famed disappearing lake which turns into a dry bed of clay in the dry season. As the amazing scenery unfolded before me, I mused over how locals believe that dressing up in red invites a rainstorm. Bragging of landing a huge catch isn't advisable, for you shall return empty-handed.

That thought soon passed as I gaped at the deep gullies and Melinau Gorge of Mulu, with razor-sharp pinnacles; the imposing Batu Lawi; Gunung Murud and the Tama Abu range and the extensive forest that carpeted everything below. From 1,500 feet in the air, it's an amazing sight.

For Captain Mitchell, it's all in a day's work of ensuring that passengers enjoy such natural wonders and take home cherished memories.

Getting up close to the limestone pinnacles and Melinau Gorge, the hidden valley of Mulu was an exhilarating experience; the climax was the fly-by past the imposing Batu Lawi of the Tama Abu mountain range.

One bite and you're dead.

Doing the Bario locomotion

AFor the pilot, it's no circus fly-by. It takes much skill and experience to fly much lower and slower than on commercial flights; you need to watch out for air pockets and sudden changes in the direction of prevailing winds.

Captain Mitchell then prepared for touchdown at the Bario airport, nonchalantly announcing in his dulcet tone that the plateau is known to be windy, and less-than-perfect landings are expected. As a doctor, he used to take bumpy rides in the light and small BEM plane during his flying doctor service days in northern Sarawak.

We had arrived. As the captain emerged, Pemanca Ngimat Ayu, Penghulu Henry Jala and other village elders were on the tarmac to greet him. Unsurprisingly, they were his patients.

We were overwhelmed by the warm hospitality of locals. The vista of swathes of paddy fields in the shadows of towering peaks never fails to impress first-time visitors.

It takes some courage to shower in the icy-cold water. Shrieks echo through bathrooms, much to the amusement of the hosts.

Bario, which is also famed for its sweet, succulent pineapples, is not linked by road to the rest of the State. However, its remoteness has been no barrier to locals, some of whom have become academic high achievers. Among the Orang Ulu community, the Kelabits have the highest ratio of professionals. Numbered among them are an Associate Professor, medical specialists, lawyers, engineers and corporate high flyers who have travelled widely.

That's an astonishing achievement considering how remote the plateau is. In the past, they had to trudge for weeks to the nearest town, which is Marudi; or a week to Lawas. Inclement weather frequently caused the cancellation of Malaysia Airlines flights. With the launching of Vision Air services, travel to the famed plateau has markedly improved.

In the past, air travel had always been problematic because aircraft had to land on a grassy strip. Sometimes, passengers were stranded for weeks.

Now, thanks to the newly-built all-weather airport, flight schedules are more predictable. Locals are now clamouring for a longer runway to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft to funnel in more visitors and cargo.

Bario is on the cusp of a digital revolution too, thanks to the widely-publicised e-Bario community project.

The State Government has already earmarked Bario as one key location for tourism in years to come, starting with plans to turn it into the flower capital of Sarawak.

Visitors, including Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan, said there is immense potential waiting to be tapped. Dr Chan has pledged to assist locals take the plunge if they put their hearts and mind to it.

For starters, he has suggested that they grow flowers for the domestic market which is still largely dependent on imports.

A much-travelled cabinet minister who has seen it succeed in Kunming in China, believes it could also help reverse the brain drain. He similarly pointed to the huge promise of the e-Bario project.

The highlands is now only a click away from the outside world, and this digital infrastructure could help the highlands evolve into a high-tech hub.

The picture of mud-caked buffaloes wallowing in paddy fields and a straw-chewing geek tapping away on a computer in a hut may sound far-fetched now, but it could be a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Also, expect an influx of tourists in search of largely pristine scenery and hospitable hosts. A direct flight to Bario takes only 40 minutes. Judging by the response to the scenic tour, many travellers would not mind adding on a 20-minute detour to take in the magnificent sights.

I've had the privilege of being on this unique flight, to be among the first to sample the new thrust in tourism-oriented flight services. Also with us on the flight of fancy were Assistant Minister of Infrastructure Development and Communication Dr Judson Sakai Tagal and several local press representatives.

Source: Borneo Post


6D/5N Bario Highlands Tour



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