The Salt Trail : Into The Depths of Crocker Range

The Salt Trail – I grew up listening to my mother talking about it. Her story of how she as a child had to tag along behind her parents and a group of others to walk for days from her remote village in the far corner of Tambunan all the way to Tamparuli on the West coast of Sabah just to buy salt. It never failed to fascinate me every time.

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She told me how she would usually be assigned to carry some of the food supply. She’d cry because it felt so heavy on her back and sometimes she’d get bitten by ants and all kind of insects along the way. They had to walk across mountains and hills and deep valleys through thick and dense forest. They’d stop whenever they felt like stopping usually when it was too dark to continue walking. They’d set up their temporary tents, usually by stacking banana leaves on tree branches under which they would take a nap before continuing walking the next day. I never get bored of listening to her stories about the Salt Trail as it is now known.

The idea of doing the salt trail had always been in my wish list for such a long time but it only got materialized when my application for 2-weeks Christmas and New Year holidays was surprisingly approved by my management. I hastily contacted my friend Frankie to ask if he could get a few more others to join. The rest as they say – is history. Heh.

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We started our trek from the starting point in Tikolod on the Tambunan side, and walked all the way to a place called Kionob on the Penampang side where we stayed overnight before trekking on to a village called Terian – but not before crossing through a beautiful village called Buayan – to spend another night before continuing on to our last stop at Inobong Sub-station.

The trek between Tikolod and Kionob was quite a tough one for us especially for the fact that we didn’t hire any porter so we had to carry ourselves all the necessities to survive through 2 nights in the deep forest.  The forest really is so beautiful. It is so lush and green and mystical and mysterious that it quickly made me realize how blessed this land called Sabah is and that most of its beauty lies deep in its pristine forests. After all the forest that we trekked across is part of the Crocker Range which is a declared National Park.

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I like to believe that it is a secondary forest though – a leftover of extensive logging activities in the past, just like most other forests in Sabah so it was a no surprise then that we didn’t even come across any wild animals. The only wildlife that we came across was a snake – probably a cobra, a very poisonous one according to the guide – and I almost freaked out when I spotted it because it was so close to being stepped on by one of my trekking buddies. Seriously, it could have been fatal. Phew.

But of course, the very first challenge that we came upon was the existence of so many leeches along the way. They’d crawl all over and they were almost impossible to avoid. We’d stop every now and then to take them out because who knows how much of our blood would be sucked out of our system if we let them suck for too long. The thing is, they tend to be very itchy and they’d bleed so profusely, leaving my skin with ugly scars that would stay there for weeks if not months (I’ve still got them now!).

One of my favorite things while trekking the Salt Trail was the food. I mean, we all know that food is tastier in a jungle but even more so if it is the right food that you eat. My trekking buddy Din really looked into that by bringing those kinds of food that really boost the appetite when eaten in the deep forest. The likes of fried salted fish, grilled wild boar meat, those foods that really really open the gate of appetite especially when eating in a jungle.

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I have come to find out then that it is always a good idea to bring somebody who is handy and good at cooking and preparing food. Din really knew how to put things in. He always came up with an idea or two to make the food even more tasty and delicious than they already are. There was one time when we walked across an abandoned village and found a mango tree which was heavy with fruits and we actually plucked some of them off which he then sliced up into pieces and became part of our lunch. Then there was a wild fruit – a very sour one – which he also plucked off from the tree and made them part of our dinner. They were all so good to come with rice so much so that I couldn’t even stop eating and almost passed out from too much eating.

One of the best parts of the trekking was the night we spent at Kionob. We stayed at a wooden double-storey building which we later found out was once a chapel but has now been abandoned and taken over by Sabah Parks. It is quite well maintained with all basic cooking facilities, complete with shower rooms and a make shift toilet.  Apart from a large table and a full set of gongs, the chapel is almost empty now. I was so glad that I had brought with me a sleeping bag to protect myself from the hard wooden floor and the cold night air. I had also brought with me a small bottle of Tequila so we had something to do at least until we were sleepy enough to be able to doze off. Despite the tiredness, I found it quite difficult to put myself to sleep.

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One of the most interesting things about the trek is the abandoned villages that we had to walk across while trekking from Tikolod to Kionob and later to Buayan. It really felt strange to be walking past big empty houses and farms and many more signs of human occupation in the past.

I was told that the villagers had to leave because the area was taken over by Sabah Parks and was closed off to any public encroachment (although the guide argued that they were there long before it was declared a protected area) since then. Besides, the area was almost totally out of reach so it was only natural that they all shifted to areas that were closer to modern civilization.  There was one old couple – a sister and a brother – who had opted not to move out and they still stayed there. My heart broke when the guide showed to us their place of residence. It was more like a shack – a very run-down one – and it looked to me like it was very much on the verge of collapsing. I took a picture of the house and for a moment I really thought I saw a woman peeking through a hole by the window. Somehow I felt a chill oozing up the back of my neck when I saw her.

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One of the main challenges while trekking the Salt Trail was the river-crossing that we had to do several times along the way. We were lucky because it didn’t rain so the river-crossing was quite manageable. It was still quite challenging though, especially when I had to protect with all my might the bag from getting wet. I had to put everything digital inside my dry bag just in case and sure enough, I stumbled at one time and drenched myself up. Luckily my camera had remained intact. Phew.

The walk from Kionob to Buayan was easier but it was quite a long way before we arrived at the famous village called Buayan. It really was a beautiful village, perched on a riverbank that plunges deep into the river itself – which is one of the most beautiful rivers that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Sadly enough though, it is the very river that they are going to block off as part of a very controversial project called Kaiduan Dam. The dam, if proceeding, will submerge the whole area and permanently wipe out all the beauty that we see now. This Kaiduan Dam is one of the very reasons why I decided to do the Salt Trail walk quite sooner instead of later because I wanted to see it all before it was all gone.

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Then the walk across the paddy fields was also one of the highlights. Backdropping against the beautiful green hills in the background, they really were made for picture postcards. Then those hanging bridges. I’ve never seen longer hanging bridges anywhere else before so walking on them really made me so excited than I probably wanted to. LOL.

Then the overnight stay at Terian. We stayed at the community hall as part of the package and we actually had it all to ourselves. The community of Kg Terian had prepared all the cooking facilities including a clean kitchen, a double-stove and all the necessary utensils. The community hall was located very much nearby a river so we had all the fun in the world taking a dip and swimming (albeit stationary)   in the rather cold but refreshing water. It really was such a relaxing time after such a long long day. Every now and then the silence would be broken by a group of kids who were all happy to see a bunch of new faces within the vicinity.

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I really liked the night at Terian. It was full-moon and yet I could see dots of stars scattered all over the beautiful night sky. We bought a carton of beer from the villagers over which we had a long night chat and laughed like crazy whenever something funny came up in between the conversation. That one carton was enough to put us to sleep – something that we desperately needed because it wasn’t easy to get a decent night sleep when you are too tired and having sore muscles all over the body after trekking all day long.

The last part of the trail from Terian back to Inobong Sub-Station was probably the toughest one. I mean, it was more like walking across a bush and farms and rubber plantations but the uphill treks were fast to suck the hell out of us. Thanks God we had by now gotten rid of most of our food stuff so our backpacks were much lighter than they were before. But still, it was quite a struggle. We’d stop every now and then to catch our breath and it was one of those times when I had to summon up all the courage to go on. But of course, we had to finish what we had started.

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When we finally reached the end-point at Inobong Sub-Station, we were all jubilant. I could hardly believe that we had actually walked from Tambunan all the way to Penampang through mountains and valleys and all that comes in between. On the other hand, it really was such an eye-opening experience – a reminder of how difficult it was for our ancestors to get hold of salt – something that we could simply buy from any of the marts or convenience stores nowadays. It was such a humbling experience too.

The Salt Trail in the Crocker Range also showed to me how Sabah is NOT all about Mount Kinabalu or Sipadan alone but a combination of so many other attractions. We’ll just have to digger deeper to find more of them and The Salt Trail probably one of the best platforms that could take you to (some of) them.

A little bit of information on the arrangement to the Salt Trail 

It’s easy peasy. You can directly contact the Sabah Parks mini office at Inobong Sub-Station to do the arrangement. Some fees apply – mostly on paying for the guide and probably a porter if you want to trek light. They’d get a local guide – usually from any of the villages along the trail – and they are usually readily available. It usually takes 4 days and 3 nights, with the first night is to drive up to the starting point at Tikolod in Tambunan and spend the first night there. The trekking only begins the next day. Since we were all from Keningau which is quiet close to Tikolod, we only went to Tikolod in the morning so we only spent 2 nights doing the trek. Well, most trekkers bring their own food stuff and they’d cook, like how we did. Cooking facilities are actually available at every overnight stop (Kionob and Terian) so you don’t really need to bring your stove etc, unless you want to experience cooking in the jungle.

But of course, if you want to make things much easier for you, you can contact any of the local tour companies and they’ll arrange everything for you. A little bit of extra on the expenses may be, but for sure things will be much easier. Besides, it’s a way of supporting our local tourism industry which was hit quite hard by some unfortunate incidences these past few years. Buli bah kalo kao!

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My Journey to the Remote Town of Belaga

I first heard about a place called Belaga in Sarawak when I was still at the university. I happened to have quite a number of friends from Sarawak and some of them were from this little town in the far corner of the biggest state in Malaysia. I’d listen to them talking about their life, particularly while they were at a boarding school called SMK Belaga where they met up with other students that hailed from all corners of this very remote district.

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Somehow I found their stories very inspiring. I mean, it really was amazing how these people who were born and raised in a very remote area could face the logistic challenges and eventually made it to the university. Some of them even exceled and are very successful in their own career now.

Well, being surrounded by them, and listening so much of their stories, I could only imagine how places like Belaga or even Kapit were really like in my head. When my boss told me that we were going to be heading there soon, I was ecstatic. It was an opportunity that I had always wanted to have for such a long long time.

I’ve been to Kapit and I have written about it before so I’m not gonna write about it this time. We flew to Sibu from KL and literally hopped in an express boat to Kapit where we stayed for a night before taking another boat to Belaga the next morning. The journey took us about 6 hours – departing at 11am sharp and arriving at around 5pm.

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There really were long long hours but the scenery along the way was so breath-taking that all the hours passed by almost unnoticed. I spent most of the time sitting on the rooftop so that I could have a full view of the surrounding. I’ve never seen so much greenery in a single trip in my whole life before so I was very much excited. The boat was traversing along the Batang Rajang – the longest river in Malaysia – so it really was such a rare experience. Perhaps, it was the closet to Amazon that I could get to. Heh.

The ride was not without some nerve-wrecking moments, at least for somebody who was not quite used to riding on water rapids like me. The most turbulent boat ride that I’ve ever been to was in Mirrisa of Sri Lanka when I joined a day tour to a whale-watching trip but it was totally a different thrill. I knew if it had to sink, it’d sink slowly. But this one at Batang Rajang, it might go down much faster due to the turbulence. Thanks God it did not happen. Phew.

I was on the roof of the boat when the boat rode the famous Palagus rapids so I could really see how turbulent the river currents were down there. There were moments when I really thought the boat was not gonna make it past the rapids. The engine was roaring thunderously as if trying to free itself from a sheer suffocation and there were times when it suddenly fell silent as if hinting a white-flag but then we are talking about a boat handler who’s probably done it hundreds of times so he knew exactly what he was doing.

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I mean, he had to. Otherwise the lives of the passengers would be at stake. There’ve been many incidences in the past anyway with the latest one happened just before Christmas last year. 4 people died when a fleet of strong waves created by a passing boat fell on a small boat and instantly filled the boat with so much water. I was told that the boat became too heavy and sank.

With all the things that happened in the past, I couldn’t help but letting out a big sigh of relief when the boat finally made it past the rapids and the waters returned to their normal calmness. Then the journey continued and again I returned to what I enjoyed most – taking in all the beauty that I was presented with as the boat cruised deeper and deeper into the heart of Sarawak.

Every now and then the boat would stop to drop off or take in new passengers. It was so damn packed in the beginning, so much so that we couldn’t even find any space to put our bags in. Some of our bags had to be put on the roof together with many others. Whenever the rain comes, they’ll have them covered with canvas. It really was amazing to see how efficient the crew was in running the things around. They knew exactly what they had to do, as if they were already programmed inside, no kiding. LOL

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So – 6 hours later we found ourselves stepping onto the ground again. I knew then that we had arrived in Belaga!

Belaga that I found out is more like a very small town with only a few rows of shop lots and mostly dilapidated government buildings with wooden houses scattered all around. We checked into the first hotel that we bumped into, a budget hotel called Belaga Hotel and was run by an elderly Chinese couple. I asked them if they had any children and they told me they had eight. “But they have all moved out of Belaga now” said the elderly aunty as if trying to hide the bitterness in her voice. Somehow it came to me – who’s gonna take care of the hotel when they are gone? – I refused to give it any further thought.

The room was very basic but I had no problem with it. I’ve stayed in a far worse hotel room before so it didn’t really bother me, not even when cockroaches began to show themselves up and all kinds of insects began to fly in to get their share of the lights. Belaga is after all surrounded by thick forest so it really was a no surprise when insects, some of whom I have not seen since I was a kid, came by to give me a welcoming hi.

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I’ve come to find out that there are more marts in Belaga than restaurants and there are a very limited number of Halal food restaurants. Since I was there with my Muslim colleagues, it was quite a problem looking for a place to eat in. In the end we had to return to the same Halal food restaurant all throughout our stay there, except for the last breakfast when we bumped into another Halal restaurant.

Despite the beauty of the surrounding, there really is nothing much to do in Belaga. It is more like the jumping point for people to go to Bakun which is famous for its mega-dam project. We went to the police station to get some head-ups on things around there and one of the police officers lent us his car so that we could at least drive a little bit around. I seized the opportunity to drive over to SMK Belaga – to finally see how exactly the school that I had heard so much about from my Sarawakian friends back at the university.

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Then we drove on to an adjacent long house to see if there was anything interesting to see but there was none – unfortunately. The villagers including the Tuai Rumah (kampong head) were busy putting up a fence for their garbage disposal area so we didn’t really want to bother them unnecessarily. But we had a good view of the river from there. Somehow, it looked very calm and serene and if not for the passing boats the water doesn’t even look like it is moving at all.

So, we ended up doing nothing much in Belaga. But it has some of the most interesting communities that I have ever come upon. It’s like the shoplot area is dominated by Chinese who have probably been there since the establishment of Belaga as a town. Most of them had roosters that they put in cages so you can imagine the pandemonium of noises that they could come up with when they all crow simultaneously. And somehow these roosters have a problem with their biological clocks that they’d crow at the oddest of times – at mid-night and even at 2 in the morning. It didn’t take long for me to hate their existence within the vicinity.

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I was told that the biggest ethnic group there is Kenyah and probably followed by Kayan and also the Penan who are mostly residing further up the river.  Everybody seems to know everybody in Belaga so people did know that we were new in town.

I was told that it would take us about 1 hour to go to Bakun Dam by road. I have always wanted to go there and somehow I felt like I was going to be heading there soon but not on this trip. I was also told that Belaga is now well-connected with Bintulu – an option of transportation that we had briefly considered taking before deciding that we should just return to Kapit and later Sibu by river so that we could see if there was anything that we had missed.

We said goodbye to Belaga on the second day. It was Sunday and I could see that more and more people were coming in and we were about to leave. I later found out that there was a local weekly market that takes place every Sunday so I was quiet disappointed that we had to leave and miss that market.  I’ve always been a big fan of markets.

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So, that was about it. The return journey felt somehow shorter, probably because it was going downstream so the boat was going much faster. Again, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the surrounding as I pegged myself to the tiny flag mast on the rooftop of the boat and returned to the cabin only when it rained. But I’d peek through the windows because I really didn’t want to miss anything. We arrived in Kapit at about 1pm and instantly checked ourselves in at Meligai Hotel.

Will I be back to Belaga again? Only time will tell. For now, I’d just let the memories that I had picked up along this one trip mingle within me until they are renewed again. The meandering river of Batang Rajang, the lush greenery, the rusticity and the kampong charms of the villages on the riverside – they’ll stay in my head for a very long time.

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