Heath forests of Sabah's Long Pasia

(Nature Watch/July-September 1996)

Text by Chua Ee Kiam ; Photography by Billy Kon & Chua Ee Kiam

The intrepid pair were lured by stories of the glorious pitcher plants in that remote region but they found far more -not only heath forests rich in medicinal plants, rhododendrons, and a splendid show of wild orchids in bloom, but a graveyard of burial jars on a hill so ancient that no tribal person could tell them when this mysterious burial ground was abandoned.

Far south of Kota Kinabalu, close to the Sarawak border, is Long Pasia, a fertile basin which is home to the Lundayeh Muruts, one of Sabah's tribal people. Enticed by stories of the glorious pitcher plants in that remote region of Borneo we headed for their village which was to be our base 'camp' while we explored the nearby hills and mountain, covered with heath forest.

It was fortunate that we had planned our 'adventure' for March (1996), as it was their dry season. Had we tried to get into the village during their rainy season, we would have found ourselves sloshing in leech-covered mud and torrential rain. Even then it was an arduous trek into the village of about 40 homes and 200 odd villagers. (see box on 'Getting There'). The Lundayeh Muruts still live a life very little different from that of their ancestors hundreds of years before them. They plant hill padi and harvest bamboo shoots, mushrooms, ferns and many other edible plants from the nearby forest. They also harvest damar (a resin that is obtained from the bark of dipterocarp trees and used in some paints and coatings) for sale, and that appears to be their only commercial activity

They hunt deer and wild boar which are abundant and fish in the clear, clean waters of the Pasia and Matang Rivers. Their village Long Pasia, in Lundayeh language, means "confluence" (Long) and "red river' (Pa Sia).  

To us urbanites, loaded with our sophisticated gear, it was hard to fathom why anyone would want to live in such a remote place without any modern amenities whatsoever. But they appear a contented lot and their only health problem seems to be high blood pressure. This is apparently due to their heavy use of salt. As wild animals are plentiful, their hunts bring in more meat than they can immediately consume. So excess meats were salted.

That first night, after dining by flickering candlelight (there being no other forms of lighting), we found the chill creeping in. Night temperatures at this elevation (1000 metres), can be as low as 18 degrees C. Undeterred we decided to do some trekking by torchlight, led by our sure-footed Lundayeh guides.

On our way into the village we had passed clumps of the spectacular Torch Gingers (Etlingera sp.) and also grove after grove of bamboo. We headed out to see some luminescent fungi. We spotted some tiny ones but it was difficult to capture them on film. On the way, training our eyes across the river, we spotted a civet cat, probably on the prowl. We also met a couple of villagers who said they planned to spend the night by the streams, waiting for the fish to spawn that night. Like salmon, these fish also swim upstream to lay their eggs in the shallows where they are fertilised. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the fish, fat with roe, are most vulnerable. You guessed it. Some landed in our cooking pot!

We spent the night at the village, in one of the rooms in our guide's home. Bed was a thin mattress and blanket was a bedsheet. When dawn broke, we were raring to climb another 1025 metres, to reach the 2025 metre high Bukit Rimau.

It was a slow climb of eight hours, over undulating terrain which drained our energies. But 1 must say that the slowness was due more to our frequent stops to photograph the splendours of nature, than anything else.

At the initial ascent we saw an Aroid in bloom, spotting it by its characteristic spike-shaped inflorescence. We also came across quite a few wild Ixoras, a woody shrub of about five metres festooned with orange flowers. Not only were we drawn to these outstanding blooms, but butterflies too crowded around them. In some areas of the lowland forest here, Tristania (from the Myrtaceae family) flourish. These tall trees which shed their easily - the bark peels off in scroll-like pieces, exposing bare and smooth trunks.

Another common sight were spiders with such gigantic abdomens their heads were well hidden. But not only are their abdomens outstanding in size but in colour too. A flashing metallic blue and orange hue, the spiders are probably so brilliantly coloured to warn predators of their toxicity. As we climbed higher, the vegetation changed. Rattans became common. Though attractive, they were a thorn in the side. Literally. This was because the extended rachis from their leaf stalk bore recurved spines that frequently ripped our clothing and tore into our flesh. Sometimes we even had to take a couple of paces back to detach the tenacious rachis. (Some thorns may remain in the flesh and the area could become tender and filled with pus. To prevent this, dig out all thorns with a Swiss knife.)

Another bugbear on these trails are the leeches, yes, even in the dry season, But special "white leech socks," worn over the usual socks effectivIcy protect the feet. Should any leeches manage to attach themselves on our skin, we find that the best way to dislodge them is to dab them with "Axe Balm" oil (Minyak Chap Kapak).

 

Naturally we were exhausted by the long trek -burdened too by heavy camera equipment. But the sight of the glorious pitchers that had lured us on the long hard haul to Long Pasia brought the smiles back. Nepenthes stenophylla were in abundance, most of them being aerial pitchers. At the plateau summit, we had a gloriously clear view and could see, far worked up an appetite. The hill rice tasted good with wild boar 'jerky' and rebung (bamboo shoots). The water, albeit clear, was the colour of tea due to the presence of tannin from fallen leaves. To be safe, we boiled the water before drinking.

Our native guides, in particular Fauzi bin Daud, were very knowledgeable about which plants were edible and which were not. They taught us that young rattan shoots, when trimmed off its tough covering, can also be eaten. It has a mild sweet taste and a light crunchy texture. After sampling some we could understand why elephants periodically raid the rattan plantations in Kinabatangan. (Kinabatangan river lies east of Sabah and herds of elephants are found there).

We also got to sample wild mushrooms. But only the fresh buds are tender. Once in full bloom the texture becomes as unchewable as leather. (Billy claims that nothing beats Nepalese chicken for rock-hard toughness.)

We also came by some wild raspberries. These are pretty but the berries have an empty core and taste a little insipid. Then we also had shoots which grow wild by the river's edge. The villagers collect these and we found that it tastes like asparagus. Another edible plant, this one grows wild along the trails, is a fern which the locals call "Parkis". Only the green shoots are collected. (The Malays also cook "Parkis" in a curry with sweet potato and it is delicious but these shoots are pinkish and could be a different species!)

Having mostly had bamboo shoots from cans or the markets, we now had a chance to taste it harvest-fresh. Our guides identified the rebung, deftly chopped it down and removed the outer covering. Even with the outer layer peeled off, the rebung was about the size of a small missile about 800 cm long and they said it would be enough to feed a family of five for a few days. We ate it and found the taste mild and refreshing without the tinge of urea odour one normally gets from barnboo shoots in the market. Besides the array of edible plants presented to us, we also learned that the forests around Long Pasia are rich in herbal/medicinal plants. But it was beyond our scope to explore this in the short time we had.

The next day, there were more uphill trails to tackle. Another woody shrub, we encountered, were the Rhododendrons with brightly-coloured and showy flowers. A few species were seen in the montane forests. (When photographing the blooms, do not move the branches too much. The petals drop off all too easily)

Many species of wild orchids were in full bloom, a visual feast for orchid fanciers! Trekking, here in the heath forest, was a little easier as the ground had a natural cushion-like feel to it. Heath forests (also known as "Kerangas") are vegetation which can grow on nutrient poor cidic soils. Unlike the empty floor of lowland forests, the soil is covered with thick carpets of liverworts and mosses.

More glorious pitchers awaited us. The Nepenthes veitchii with their rims streaked with red, the almost sensuous N. reinwardtiana and the very attractive N. tentaculata. Our journey back to the village took us about 10 hours, due mostly to the numerous photo stops and detours we made.

The next day, as our primary objective - the pitchers -had been reached, we decided to climb a lower hill, Bukit Butoi, to investigate what we heard was a popular burial ground in the past.

We had to trek along some rather steep trails to get to this burial ground which was located at the mid-level of the hill. What we finally came on was a graveyard of earthenware jars, some of which were glazed. Some jars were placed on flat ground, some along the mountain edge and others in shallow caves We learned that this burial ground did not have a recent past, but a past shrouded in the mists of time and intriguing legends. How did the jars get there? Of what origin were they?

We learned from the local guides that these jars had been brought to Borneo in trading sailing ships, way back in history. Written records show that as early as the ninth century A.D., Borneo was trading with Imperial China and exporting camphor wood, pepper and bird's nest. These precious cargoes had been stowed in earthenware jars.

But here in Borneo, among these tribal people, the large jars clearly found another use. Like something out of the Arabian Nights (shades of Ali Baba), we learned that the large jars were sectioned near the top and the deceased placed in it. The top was then replaced and a hole made at the bottom to allow the fluids to drain out.

A year later, the bones would be transferred to a smaller jar and then both the jars would be carried to the hill and laid to rest in the tranquil forest surroundings. The practice had been abandoned a long, long time ago. The villagers could not tell us when.

More mystery was in the air when we came on a mound, shaped like a tortoise, at one of the burial sites. The explanation the guides offered had a distinctly sinister ring to it. They said that this mound marked the place where the victors of tribal wars or disputes gathered to celebrate and drink themselves insensible after they had slain their enemies or rivals. Again they could not put any dates on when such gory celebrations had taken place and one can only surmise that it must have been at least a couple of hundred years ago. We heaved a sigh of relief that headhunting was definitely a thing of the past!

Our guides cleared the area, cutting down a few trees (reminded me of what we do during "Qin Ming") and then solemnly observed a few moments of silence.

Having satisfied our curiosity about the burial grounds and the victory ound, we began to observe the flora and fauna around Bukit Butoi. Bright orange longhorn acorns (seeds of oak trees) scattered on the forest floor and noted that they would be an important food source for mammals like the Bearded Pig. Besides the common Bearded Pig and also common Sambar Deer, our guide told us they frequently sighted Long-tailed Macaques, Gibbons and Red Leaf Monkeys. We only, heard the Gibbons call but spotted a black-spotted green frog. It sensed our presence and jumped off the instant my camera flashed. Naturally easier to see were the gingers with their brilliant scarlet flowers.

Before we left Long Pasia we made arrangements to photograph a Lundayeh girl and she turned up early the next morning waiting by our "landing" all rigged up in traditional attire. Like her fellow villagers, and our guide Fauzi bin Daud, she had a Malay name but they are mostly Christians. (The missionaries have been as busy as the loggers!)

Yet another Last and possibly Lost Frontier?
We have been told and we can believe that the forests around Long Pasia are home not only to the Lundayeh people (one of 32 ethnic groups in Sabah), but they also are a storehouse of medicinal plants. We can only fervently hope that these forests will be gazetted a national park before the loggers switch on their destructive electric saws. In adjacent Malingan, timber lorries ply the roads almost unceasingly From out plane we saw the scarred forests of Malingan. The forests of Long Pasia -are they the shrinking last frontiers of the once mighty wilderness in Borneo? Or will they end up as the lost frontier?

We wish to thank the following for assisting us to identify the flora & fauna in Long Pasia: Anthea Phillips (plants) Anthony Lamb (plants), Prof D H Murphy (beetle), Kelvin Lim (frog) and Joseph Koh (spider). References: Pitcher Plants of Borneo by Anthea Phillips & Anthony Lamb and Borneo Magazine Vol 2, Issue No. 2, March-April 1996. "Long Pasia -to the Borneo Triangle and Back" by Henry Coleman.

Getting There-A Long Hard Haul
Our trip was organised by Borneo's Memories from Kota Kinabalu, capital city of Sabah. Expect to pay about M$1,500 to $2,000 for a week's stay for one person. From KK, the 4WD we travelled in took three hours to reach the town of Sipitang. Expect to hit the roof a couple of times as the the roads are badly rutted. From Sipitang we had hoped to get as close as possible to the village of Long Miou, which is the village before Long Pasia. But the road was even more badly pot-holed and it took us five hours to get reasonably close to Long Miou. Even then we were still an hour's trek away ftom Long Miou.

In the monsoon season the roads will be impassable to vehicles even 4WDs. From Long Miou we had hoped to get a long boat that could take us upstream (M$50 per boat) to Long Pasia but unfortunately, for some unknown reason, the boat was not operating. So we had to trek another three hours to reach our final destination. Fortunately we didn't have to back-track to get out. There is an air-strip about 20 minutes walk from Long Pasia. So we flew in a 19seater MAS twin-otter (M$35 per person), from Long Pasia into Lawas where we hired a car for the one hour journey to Sipitang. As Lawas is in Sarawak, we had to have our passports re-stamped, a border regulation despite our still being in Malaysia. Do note that the plane only flies into Long Pasia every Thursday, so if you're on a tight schedule, meticulous planning is called for before you embark on this "adventure".

The Glorious Pitchers
Worldwide, there are about 70 varieties of this plant which are pretty to look at but a deadly trap for insects. Most pitchers grow naturally in Malaysia and, in a cover story entitled "Pretty Deadly Pitcher Plants" in Nature Watch (Oct-Dec '94). Hugh T W Tan featured several species, including the mottled brown Nepenthes rafflesiana. All pitcher plants belong to the genus Nepenthes in the family Nepentheceae and it is interesting to note that the ones featured in Hugh's article are different from those that Dr Chua and Billy came across in Long Pasia. Hugh had photos of the cute cup-shaped Nepenthes ampullaria, the elegant Nepenthes gracilis and Nepenthes trichocarpa.

The first clusters of pitchers encountered in Long Pasia were Nepenthes stenophylla, most of them being aerial climbers. Others seen and photographed were the Nepenthes veitchii with their spectacular red-streaked rims. They are the only pitchers that clasp tree trunks to grow vertically. The Nepenthes reinwardtiana with their curvy shapes appeared most sensuous to the exploring duo who were also impressed by the size of Nepenthes tentaculata they encountered. Most of the pitchers were well-filled with water, possibly because the rainy season was just over. Some had holes in the base and it appears that these holes were made by small mammals who nibbled at the water-filled pitchers to quench their thirst. Dr Chua also noted that N. tentaculata were larger and more attractive than those encountered while climbing Mt. Kinabalu on a previous trip.

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