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Bario an unlikely highland paradise
By EDWARD SUBENG
BARIO: During the last school holidays, a young boy accompanied his parents from Miri to visit their relatives in the cool highlands of Bario.
Just after midnight, the lad, sleeping in a room, woke up and called out to his dad to switch off the air conditioning.
No, son, this is natures air-conditioning. There is nothing dad can do about it, the father replied.
This anecdote is a favourite of Barios chieftain, Penghulu Henry Jala Tamalai, 65, when talking about its weather.
The lad is one of his grandsons and his predicament best illustrates Barios perennial weather. It is always pleasantly cool and almost temperate, despite being in the tropics.
A picturesque flat plateau in the states north-eastern corner, it is 1,000m to 1,100m above sea level.
The temperature hovers between 16 to 25 degrees Celsius during the day and gets as low as 11C on some nights.
It is almost entirely surrounded by forested mountain peaks rising to more than 2,400m, including Sarawaks highest mountain, Mount Murud. At 2,423m, it is the fourth highest in the country.
Bario is one hour by air from Miri on a MAS Twin Otter 19-seater aircraft. The rural air service operates one flight daily except on Monday when there are two. Another company, the Vision Air, complements the service with an extra flight (19 passengers) on Saturday and Sunday.
An alternative is to trek for a week to 10 days through the leech and mosquito-infested jungles from Marudi, its closest town. Many foreign tourists opt to take the two-day walk from Ba Kelalan after arriving by 4-wheel drive or flying in from Lawas.
To Sarawakians, Bario, the homeland of the minority but highly industrious Kelabits, is the source of the highly popular and prized Bario rice and its outrageously sugary sweet pineapple.
The Kelabits are one of the state 26 ethnic groups. Based on a recent census, of the more than 5,000 Kelabits, about 1,500 of them from 355 families live here.
They live in either individual houses or longhouses in 17 widely dispersed kampungs and most of them are farmers.
There are two schools, a clinic, various offices manned by skeletal staff, 12 lockup shops and four food stalls.
To tourists and adventure seekers, Bario is an eco-tourism heaven. Besides being very remote, there is no logging, the scourge of many such rural areas.
It is snugly cocooned within a national park, the 164,500 sq km Pulung Tau. This was at the request of early leaders who wanted to keep it free from logging, said Penghulu Henry.
Its usual early morning scene is one of absolute, though misty, tranquillity and throughout the day, charmingly rustic. Buffaloes pulling carts are a common sight.
The Barios remoteness almost bordering on isolation, seems to work more to its advantages than otherwise.
It is the site of the e-Bario, the states first and pilot rural Internet project to link remote areas to the rest of the world.
A leaflet explains that it is set to define the extend to which contemporary ICTs can deliver sustainable human development to remote rural communities.
John Tarawe, the project area co-ordinator, says the Internet is popular among some elders who would approach him to send e-mails to their children working outside. There are only two public telephones in the whole area.
Fellow countrymen working outside keep in touch with all Bario happenings on its website. Of course, we have the tourists too checking on the latest news and developments back home for a fee.
The Bario health clinic is teleconferencing-enabled, the first rural clinic in the state to have such sophistication. It is online with the Miri and Sarawak General Hospitals.
Defying its description as one of the states most remote places, there is the monthly arrival of between 20 to 30 tourists. During the peak season, their numbers can swell to a few hundreds.
John agrees that they provide a good source of income for the locals who act as guides to destinations such as the Pulung Tau, the Batu Lawi and Mount Murud.
Despite all these, Bario is also a land of hardship, said Penghulu Henry or Tamabo (a sort of recognition of seniority) as he is often addressed.
He was a teacher 11 years ago, teaching in various places including in swelteringly humid Miri. Now, Bario is the preferred home for him and his wife Lapu Sakai.
Now and then, the affable couple will travel to England where their son, Idris, works as a senior vice-president of Shell International Petroleum Company and to Australia, Miri and Kuching where their other children reside.
I am puzzled why people like to visit Bario. Apart from the cool weather, there is nothing special, he said.
He said the cost of living in Bario was very high as all necessities had to be flown in and their prices were at least triple the
For example, all forms of fuel whether petrol, diesel or gasoline, are sold at RM19.00 per gallon or RM5 per litre.
Like it or not, he said they had to pay the price to move around on their motorbikes or to work their generator sets.
Penghulu Henry said the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Rural Development had several years ago provided them with a RM15mil mini-hydro electric project.
Sadly it is now a white elephant due to some technical misjudgements.
In this paradise too, sugar costs RM7 to RM10 a kg, while a 14 kg cylinder of cooking gas is a staggering RM195 (inclusive of the cylinder) or RM70.0 with an empty one in exchange.
He claimed the high freight charges and limited load capacity affected Barios agricultural productivity. Most farmers now prefer to grow only for their own consumption.
It is really difficult here but what can we do? he said.
On a more mundane matter, he said hypertension was quite common among elderly folks. He attributed that to their changing lifestyle, fewer recreational activities and daily high protein diet of wild boars, deer and other wildlife which were still plentiful and cheap.
The local birth rate is alarmingly low and only four deliveries had been recorded at the clinic this year.
However, another community leader, Pemanca Ngimat Ayu, said expecting mothers nowadays preferred to deliver at the Marudi or Miri hospitals.
Our young couples are also into family planning which can be unhelpful if we were to request the government to upgrade our present junior secondary school, he said.
A recent visit by Sarawaks Assistant Minister of Public Health and Environment Dr Soon Choon Teck, gave a valuable insight into the hopes and expectation of the folks here. They are generally just as concerned about health, environment and politics.
Having a road cutting into Pulung Tau to link them up with the rest of the state is not exactly their top priority. A road will mean daily essentials could be brought in larger quantities to substantially lower the price.
Penghulu Henry is less than optimistic in his assessment of the situation.
While village head Mustapha Raja, 58 and a Muslim convert, said some had opposed the road as they believed that would open it to an onslaught of outside influences and new settlers.
There is the consensus too that their clinic, built 28 years ago, should have a resident medical officer.
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