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Pa’ Tagal Paran owner of Apple Lodge and a local community leader was also on the radio as he inquired of our estimated arrival time. He informed us that as we entered into the village by crossing buffalo gates, there would be no more hills to climb. True, there were no more hills, but thicker deep mud. We got over the deepest ruts, crossed a clear flowing mountain stream, and hit the cement path to Apple Lodge. Time 9.15 p.m. and we had been on the road for 11 hours including rest stops.  

Radio contact ensured that the last remaining cars comprising of Voon’s mechanic vehicle towing the limping Suzy and co-leader Laurence Baraw’s BJ 40 were guided into Buduk Nur; the village where Apple Lodge and the airstrip are located.

 Almost there.. final stream crossing before Apple Lodge

Hot steaming ‘adang’ rice and vegetables and chicken soup made one of the best meals ever after a hard day’ off roading and adventure. It was gobbled up in record time. Being so hype by achieving our quest, we sat and chatted into the night in 19 degrees Celsius cool crisp mountain air.

Day 4. Awaken by noise of people moving about, I peeked out from the lodge to see a line of the muddiest 4x4 cars ever seen against a tranquil back drop of mountains and low clouds. We had survived the night without much drama aside from Suzy’s ailment.

The adventurers turned domestic tourist as they roamed the village shopping for items uncommonly found in the cities. Eddie Alvarado the group leader and scout found himself a steel spade, most people bought the rubber shoes with studs. Adang rice was another much sought after commodity especially the fresh newly harvested ones.

 Mutang Tagal took the group on an afternoon agro-tour of to see temperate fruits such as apples and Mandarin oranges, vanilla, ‘abeyu’ (a South American fruit), horses, buffalos, cattle, and hills. Normally an afternoon walking tour under the sun at 2.30 p.m. would exhaust all but the hardiest. But in Ba’Kelalan it was pleasurable as perspiration would evaporate in the cool mountain air. Another highlight was the micro hydro plant that has been producing power for a number of houses since 2004.

Agro tour of temperate fruits

Ba’Kelalan gets its name from the Kelalan River and Ba’ which means wet lands in the Lun Bawang language. Its population is about one and a half thousand people but as many as eight thousand call it home. The Borneo Highlands is reputed to have the highest PhD holders per capita of its population.

The Ninth Malaysia Plan has a lot installed for the area in both tourism as well as agricultural development. There are talks of improving the road as well as linking it up with Bario and to other parts of Sarawak without having to cross over Brunei where we experienced the long Chinese New Year queue at Immigration and suffered the wrath of a custom’s officer for unknowingly not having filled the forms for the vehicle’s permits.

Crossing over the Kelalan River

That night the group gathered around the fire place in the lodge and had a barbeque farewell dinner. Again the drivers shared their off roading experiences and dreams into the night while the younger ones had their own gathering.

Day 5. After presenting the souvenirs to Pa Tagal Paran with the mandatory group photographs, the convoy rolled out from Buduk Nur. We had received reports that the road was even drier and the drive to Lawas at our pace would take about five hours. The adventurers wanted to fully enjoy the area and it was suggested to go off the main track.

Group picture with Pa' Tagal Paran, local community leader with Mutang Tagal

Having made this trip about five years ago, I remembered a river crossing between Ba’Kelalan and Long Semadoh. The plan was to have lunch there, swim in the cold waters, and then get our vehicles through it.