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Journey within the Heart of Borneo

Posted on February, 14 2014

I am glad that my first trip to the field was so far the hardest I’ve ever experienced since I joined WWF-Malaysia and I didn’t give up being part of this family but instead, it made me a better person.
10 Jan 2014 marks my third year anniversary as part of the Panda family. 
Before I joined WWF-Malaysia, I was working in 5-star international hotel chains in the Marketing Communications Department. It had never crossed my mind that one day, I would be finding stories with a bunch of people who love nature and want to protect it while walking on foot for hours in a virgin forest in Borneo. I’ve never even heard of the term ‘Virgin Forest’!
Being a city girl, family members and close friends didn’t think I would last and I am very glad that I proved them wrong. Having no conservation background, it has been an enjoyable learning curve for me, having to catch-up with technical terms and understanding conservation projects in the organisation. 
In Sarawak, my role is to support the programmatic strategies by applying suitable communications tools to establish partnerships and create consensus among different stakeholders. Communications support in conservation programme is crucial in the implementation of project activities on the ground while promoting key messages.
Throughout the years, one of the more active programmes which I have found most exciting and adventurous has been the CEE Programme where WWF-Malaysia is collaborating with WWF-Indonesia and Forum Masyarakat Adat Dataran Tinggi Borneo (FORMADAT) to raise awareness, and develop capacity and skills and build partnership with government agencies and cooperate sector to further develop community based eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture without compromising the environment and its natural resources. 
FORMADAT is a trans-boundary, grassroots initiative that aims to increase and understand about the communities in the Highlands, maintain cultural traditions, build local capacity, and encourage sustainable development in the Heart of Borneo without risking the degradation of the quality of the social and natural environment. FORMADAT’s vision and pillars of interests are closely aligned to WWF’s conservation interests in the highlands of Sarawak.
During my third month in WWF-Malaysia, I was assigned to follow the programme officer to the field to familiarise with the programme and cover FORMADAT annual meeting. That was an event that opened my eyes and changed my perception of life. It made me appreciate who I am, the life I have love nature even more!
My journey within the Heart of Borneo started with an hour flight from Kuching to Miri and a twin-otter flight from Miri to Lawas. My first experience of checking-in to board on twin-otter was very amusing as we had to weigh everything including ourselves with all the hand luggage. This is due to the fact that a little twin-otter plane cannot be overloaded and for security, the airline staff needed to ensure that the passengers and all the items onboard are not too heavy and so the plane can safely take off.
When we reached Lawas, we had dinner with FORMADAT members from all parts of the highlands. They came from Bario, Ba’ Kelalan and Long Semadoh (Sarawak); and Ulu Padas (Sabah), known by many as the Kelabit and Maligan Highlands. The dinner went well as the FORMADAT members were humble and nice people.
At 3.30am when most people were still soundly asleep, our group checked-out for a 12- hour convoy road trip to Ba’Kelalan. We didn’t board on the plane because there wasn’t any flight scheduled to fly from Lawas to Ba’Kelalan on that day.
I was told that if the road conditions were bad, we would get stuck and the drivers would help each other to pull the vehicle out from where it got stuck. Some people were stranded overnight as they travelled alone. That sounded super adventurous to me but this is a hard way of life for the locals in the event of emergency.
We travelled in 4 heavily modified four-wheels-drives (4WD) that had gigantic and rugged looking wheels. The drivers wore cowboy hats and played country music in the car all the way. It is a trend among the local transporters and I figured the bumpy ride resembled riding on horses. I call them ‘Lawas cowboys’. True enough the journey was rough, on yellow muddy logging road, reminding me of teh-si-peng (my favourite tea with evaporated milk). I had to forgo my plan to sleep and rest in the car because it was so bumpy all the way that all of us had to hold on to anything that we could grab on to.
After 12-hours of battling in the sea of mud with 5 stops to help pulling either ones of 4WD that got stuck in the mud, we finally arrived at Ba’Kelalan, a beautiful Lun Bawang village surrounded by pristine forest. That wasn’t where the meeting was scheduled to be held but it is part of WWF-Malaysia’s field site. 
We took half an hour’s break, left most of our heavy things in Ba’Kelalan and took off for a 2-hour walk crossing the Indonesian border to Long Midang where a 4WD would bring us to the actual meeting venue, Long Bawan. I’ve never walked for more than 30 minutes in my life but I told myself if I want to be part of the Panda family, I had to change and besides, it was a good exercise. With 7kgs backpack newly bought just for that trip, I walked together with 11 FORMADAT members and 2 colleagues from WWF-Malaysia. 
It was another round of muddy logging road except this time, we were on foot. I was wearing a new pair of ‘Adidas Kampung’. It is a cheap and durable black rubber shoes with rubber studs used by most of the locals for walking in the jungle. Some declared it as world’s best hiking shoes after the shoes was used by the winner of Mount Kinabalu hiking competition years ago. Not being used to my new shoes I gingerly stepped into the mud and had hard time pulling my foot out from it. When I finally broke free with some help from fellow walking mates, my foot ‘popped’ out without the shoes because it was still in the mud! 
Everything being so new to me, I can’t stop laughing at myself and the whole situation. I enjoyed it a lot although my body was aching from the horse riding-like experience earlier and both my legs were almost giving up.
That was just part of the animations until we reached Long Midang at 7pm with no transportation waiting for us. At more than 1,000 metres above sea level, it was getting cold and phone reception was bad so we had to find the signal in the Indonesian army post while the rest sat in the middle of the deserted road. We found out that the transportation left after waiting for hours and will come back the next day. 
After the FORMADAT members spoke to the locals in Long Midang, we were invited to stay in two of the houses and the hosts cooked for us. The house we stayed in was where all the armies in the Indonesia army posts stayed with their families. Through the experience, I learned that plans change all the time especially in rural areas without phone reception and I also realised that the Lun Bawang and the Kelabit are very warm and friendly people. They welcome people to stay with them with open heart.
The next day, we were served with biscuits and coffee as pre-breakfast meal and to my surprise, the actual breakfast was rice and different dishes of vegetables and meat. The locals explained that traditionally, they were farmers and they needed big meals to fill up their stomach for all the energy they needed to work in the field. Until today, most of the people in the Heart of Borneo are still rice farmers.
After breakfast, the 4WD showed up and brought us to the meeting venue. The colours of our trip didn’t end there but that was the most challenging first part of the journey. The good news is that the road from Lawas to Ba’Kelalan has improved tremendously over the years and today it only takes 4 hours’ drive without getting stuck on the muddy road anymore. The people in Ba’ Kelalan can travel more comfortably and faster to Lawas for supplies, education and health care.
I am glad that my first trip to the field was so far the hardest I’ve ever experienced since I joined WWF-Malaysia and I didn’t give up being part of this family but instead, it made me a better person. I don’t complain about life as much as I did before!
Alicia Ng
Senior Communications Officer, Sarawak Programme, WWF-Malaysia
Alicia Ng, WWF Malaysia, Heart of Borneo, 2014
Alicia tried harvesting traditionally to experience life of a farmer in Ba'Kelalan
© WWF-Malaysia
Alicia Ng, Heart of Borneo, HoB, FORMADAT, Sarawak, 2014, WWF Malaysia
Back in 2011 when the road was bad, it didn't stop FORMADAT members and WWF-Malaysia to travel to Indonesia for FORMADAT annual meeting
© WWF-Malaysia/Alicia Ng
Alicia Ng, FORMADAT, Ba'Kelalan, Heart of Borneo, HoB, WWF Malaysia, 2014
FORMADAT members walking from Ba'Kelalan to Long Midang for the most important meeting of the year for the forum.
© WWF-Malaysia/Alicia Ng