Adventure to Batu Lawi

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Datuk John Tenewi Nuek

After a very interesting talk by Datuk John Tenewi Nuek about Mount Singai and its heritage, history and people, here is an article by John about another mountain in Sarawak—Batu Lawi.

BATU LAWI, Batu Lawi we are coming. Do you know where Batu Lawi is? Don’t worry if you don’t. Here is a little background on Batu Lawi.

Batu Lawi is a twin-peaked mountain in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak that has played important roles in both ancient mythology and modern history. The taller ‘male’ peak is 2,046 metres above sea level, while the ‘female’ summit is at 1,850 metres.

Batu Lawi is sacred to many of the people who live in the region, such as the Kelabit and the Penan. According to the legends of the Kelabit people, the mountain’s peaks are a husband and wife—a pair of protector gods that are the parents of all highland peoples.

In World War II, the twin peaks of Batu Lawi served as an important landmark to pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), during Allied missions (known as the “Semut Campaign”) to send commandos behind the Japanese lines to train the indigenous communities as part of the Z Special Unit to resist the Japanese invasion.

In those days, the maps of Borneo were of very poor quality. However, the pale sandstone peaks of Batu Lawi stood out like a lighthouse and allowed the parachuting commandos to be sure they would land somewhere close to the settlement of Bario, and the Kelabit people they sought.

Batu Lawi’s twin peaks

My three friends and I decided to have an adventure and visit and climb Batu Lawi. It took six days for us to eventually reach there from Kuching. If you include our one-night stay in Lawas on our return trip from Ba Kelalan and the day of our departure from Lawas to Kuching, the whole adventure took eight days.

We flew to Miri and after an overnight stop, we left Miri for Ba Kelalan, transiting in Lawas, at about 9.15am the following day. The flight gave a good indication of what we were going to experience—we were using the Twin Otter which could accommodate only nineteen passengers. Most of the passengers were rugged village folks heavily loaded with their shopping from Miri. Most of the time we flew over uninhabited jungle, except for the loggers, rugged hills and mountains.

After a stop of about fifteen minutes or so at Lawas Airport, we resumed our flight to Ba Kelalan. It took only about 35 minutes and we flew over even less inhabited and rugged areas. Approaching Ba Kelalan Airport was particularly beautiful and exciting. The airport lies within a rather narrow valley with paddy fields and the village of Guduk Nor at one end.

I fell in love with Ba Kelalan immediately. The mountains, with green and luxuriant vegetation, which envelop the valley are both beautiful and enticing. The paddy fields which cover most parts of the valley; buffaloes chewing the grass, bathing in the mud or just stand and stare on them; all exuded an air of rustic serenity and romance. But it was more than that. Despite having no road access except for the logging tracks, the houses which were dotted at the edges of the paddy fields were spacious, well built and well maintained.

After a two-night stay, we left Ba Kelalan at about 8.00 am. From Ba Kelalan we traveled in a 4WD Toyota heading westward towards Batu Lawi on logging tracks all the way until after about seven hours or so, we arrived at a timber camp where we spent the night. We stayed with the bulldozer driver and family in a clean but small camp—the total area of the camp was no bigger than that of the 40-foot container.

Batu Lawi timber camp overnight stay.

We left this camp at about 9.00 am. We took with us only our most essential stuff as we were walking the rest of the way to Batu Lawi. Though this leg of the trip was the longest—we had to walk a total of about six hours—it was the most enjoyable part as far as I was concerned.

After walking along or rather up the logging track for about an hour, we travelled through jungle and sub-montane jungle. The jungle at the lower part of the mountain is characterised by giant trees, more dense undergrowth and more weird looking creepers. And yes, according to the Bidayuh at least, the jungle is also the abode of many spirits: munuo (spirit in general), mut (devil), komang (male spirit) and triu (female spirit). I think anybody who had spent some time in the jungle would agree with the Bidayuh.

We also learnt a number of new things about the jungle from our Lun Bawang porters. They told us what type of rattan was good for what, they showed us the dammar tree and that its “frozen” latex (dammar) was good for lighting fire, the bark of the agathis was the best material for making incense; water boiled with the tabor leaves could cure diarrhoea and buah salad was one of the favourite fruit of the wild boar. The jungle is indeed a trove of our national assets. We were very lucky to have seen three Kenyalang flying so beautifully so close to us.

Guides giving medicinal leaves to Nurse Jacinta.

After walking for about six hours, we found a place to set up camp for the night and began erecting our camp and ‘bed’. One of the two camping plastic sheets we brought with us was used as the roof and the other as the mat. There was no protection “wall” from any side. To ensure that the mat would not be too cold against the bare earth below it we put some leaves in between them.

We noticed that as the day transformed into night the air felt cooler and cooler and then colder and colder. Yes, it’s cold at night in this part of Sarawak—the temperature was about 10°C. Just some hours back we were experiencing a temperature close to 30°C.

After tidying up, we left our camp for Batu Lawi at about 8.00 am. This part of our journey was more difficult than the other parts in a number of ways. Firstly, we were going ‘blind’, creating our own tracks most of the way. Secondly, we were climbing up most of the time. Thirdly, we were going through very spongy and soft ground. The whole area was covered with thick layers of moss and lichen. As Georges said, it was like a big sponge, absorbing all the water. Indeed, we found no water ever within narrow valleys, though from the wet ground we could tell that it rained quite frequently here.

Batu Lawi’s mossy, spongy, wet terrain.

As we moved nearer towards Batu Lawi we passed through different and more challenging topography. We clawed our way up slippery mountain slopes, climbed up huge rocks and maneuvered our way through gullies. Then finally, I heard someone shout that we had arrived at Batu Lawi, at what is known as the ‘male section’. We could not go any further. It was too difficult and we were not equipped for it.

What a thrill it was to finally reach Batu Lawi. We had conquered! Never mind that we were only at the base of the ‘male’ side and did not climb right to the top of the ‘pillar’. I am told that so far only one team had reached the top of the ‘pillar’. The thrill of sheer achievement was compounded by the beauty of what surrounded us. Immediately, we were engulfed by a mix of trees, shrubs and flowers of multiple colours; below was a mat of green tree tops and in the distant horizon, dark blue mountains. On reaching the top of any mountain I always feel that I am the lord of all I survey and want to bless it. So here was no exception. I did my blessing and prayed that Batu Lawi would forever remain as it is: majestic, pristine and beautiful.

Base of Batu Lawi ‘pillar’ with pitcher plants.

Almost immediately after lunch we began our journey back to our camp. At some parts, the return journey was more treacherous as we were coming downhill on spongy, soft and slippery ground. After walking for about three-and-a-half hours or so, we finally arrived back at our camp, tired and weary, but also exhilarated by our conquest.

Almost immediately after breakfast, we made our return trip to the timber camp, taking a different and shorter route. It was definitely shorter and it felt so. It took about three-and-a-half hours and we finally reached our favourite timber camp. But even by car, Lawas was still another five hours or so away. So after lunch, we left the timber camp quite on time about 2.00 pm.

Though without doubt, the climax of our trip was reaching Batu Lawi itself, the little timber camp which gave us a temporary home will always have a place in my heart.

The drive to Lawas was rather uneventful. It was about 7.30 pm when we arrived at Hotel Perdana, our abode for the night. I have not had a shower since we left Ba Kelalan. So the first thing I did as soon as we entered our room was to have a real good scrub. Never had I felt so good after a shower.

After the largely cold meals that we have had for the last three days we were quite glad to have a change—a hot meal! Upon finishing our dinner, we went for a short walk before we returned to our hotel for an early sleep. I slept so deeply that there was no moment for any dreams. There was no need to dream for the next few days; we could not stop talking of our Batu Lawi adventure.

Thank you, Batu Lawi. May you continue to remain majestic, erect, pristine and beautiful, giving to others the same pleasure that you had given us.

Datuk John Tenewi Nuek was an officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia(Wisma Putra) for 33 years. He was our Ambassador to Myanmar, Mexico and Venezuela. Upon his retirement in 2004 he involved himself in a number of NGOs including the Koperatif Kemajuan Singai, Bau Berhad(KoSingai) and the Dayak Bidayuh Literary Society(DBLS) both of which he is the Chairman, as well as The Sarawak Initiatives(TSI) of which he was its first chairman.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily