Bario Highlands & Tom Harrisson ~ Sarawak Borneo



Bario is definitely not the place to visit if you're short of time. The highland is completely surrounded by peaks and is almost as isolated from the rest of the country as it was when Tom Harrisson and the "Special Force" parachuted onto the plains, in 1945 (throughout the article, there will be references to Harrisson's adventure in the highlands and his brief stay with the kelabits (for more on Tom Harrisson's life in Sarawak, look out for : The Most Offending Soul Alive:Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life by Judith M. Heimann, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press and World Within; A Borneo Story by Tom Harrisson: Cresset Press).

kelabit warrior at the turn of 20th centuryThe highland rests on an altitude of between 3400 to 6000 feet above sea level in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak. There are times when the fog gets as thick as pea soup and flights are cancelled, leaving passengers stranded back on the tarmac in Miri for an undetermined period of time â?? but that happens mostly during the monsoon seasons â?? towards the end of year and stretches into the New Year. Then there are times when smoke from forest fires ignited in parts of Kalimantan, Borneo and Sumatra is blown into the highlands, blanketing the entire valley. Sometimes the smoke lingers for days on end. But of course, this happens mostly during the dry season, sometime between June and September. So, as I was saying, if time is of essence, this trip is not for you.

But if there's a place in Malaysia Borneo that really reflects the lifestyle of the local people, their existence, and their legacy - this is the place. The Northern Highlands of Bario is dominated by the Kelabit tribe (a highly intelligent, agrarian community) and small groups of penan tribe (the only nomadic tribe existing in Sarawak now) scattered here and there.

For many generations, the highlands had been left to its own. The peoples in the highland required little help from Rajah Brooke and they needed little food aid. For years, the only people they traded with were the kelabit communities from across the border in Kalimantan; only about a day's walk from bario; and other visiting tribes. Occasional white people would drop by. One of the earlier reports written to Shell Company just before the war was by an oil geologist, Dr Schneeberger, who turned up at their doorstep during an exploratory expedition.


The War and The Highlands

It was, in fact Dr Schneeberger who was instrumental in providing enough information for the Z Special Unit's operation SEMUT to be dropped in by an Auster from Mindoro for the reconnaissance trip. The Z Special Unit is part of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD; a branch of the combined Allied Intelligence Bureau in the South West Pacific theatre). Previous Z Special Unit's operations arrived by sea and were quickly discovered by the Japanese forces. Tom decided the best way to infiltrate was to parachute far inland and work their way from the headwaters.On that fateful day, the plane flew off the coast of Phillippines to the northen eastern highlands of Sarawak in search of the Plain of Bah.

Tom Harrisson and 3 other Australian soldiers jumped out of the plane and parachuted 6000ft into a boggy area cleared for paddy planting. The plane on leaving Borneo, however, didn't make it back to base and crashed in East Timor, killing all 13 crew on board.

Tom and his men were met by the Penghulu or Headman of the village who came up the path towards them with a white flag in hand. A handful of warriors dressed in headgear, loincloth and leopard fangs protruding from their ear lobes, welcomed the white people into their longhouse. Tom felt at ease in the highlands, having lived through an expedition in the Solomon Islands (being in contact with a community famed for its cannibalistic rituals) in the 1930's, he had a great admiration for communities living in complete autonomy of civilization.

Having established a friendly encounter with headman, Lawai Besara, his man radioed to HQ and the following day, the rest of the team parachuted in, bringing with them"storepedos" filled with items that the locals needed and didn't make themselves such as fish hooks and needles; of which the team managed to collect 50,000 and ¼ of a million pieces respectively! Along with these supplies were canned food for the soldiers and ammunition.

The war lasted another year from the date, 26th March 1945 when the SEMUT unit parachuted into Bario. In that year, the SEMUT platoon scoured the entire length and breadth of the Ulu Baram area plus into areas of Sabah and Kalimantan in search of Japanese troops. Tom recruited a number of local people ~ warriors from the kelabit, kayan, penan and other tribes as well as villagers living along the river. These recruits were the eyes and ears of the SEMUT unit, helping the Allied Forces build an intelligence network in north- central Borneo. The recruits expressed desire not only to act as spies but also as guerilla fighters. Their expertise and dedication to the cause of ridding the area of the enemy was to be admired. Despite having outlawed head hunting during Rajah Brooke's rule of Sarawak, the war discounted such rules and Tom allowed the activities to occur. The warriors' overzealousness in head collecting did get a little out of hand according to reports and were duly controlled. There was even an incident where a Japanese patrol was ambushed and were killed and beheaded , including their Chinese informant.

In gratitude to the peoples' dedication to the allied forces, Tom and his troops remained in the highlands and continued - fighting for the people even months after 'peace' was declared. They were determined to ensure that the people were safe from the straggling Japanese troops still patrolling the lands, unbeknownst to them that the war had ended and that Japan had already surrendered.

As the war wore on and food became a shortage, the orang ulu (the interior people) down in the lowlands were ordered to provide the Japanese soldiers with rice and livestock. The war however, had not affected the highland people much, as they were too far upland to make it worth while for the Japanese to venture into. However, imports from the coast were blocked and the people living on the Plains of Bah could not trade with the villagers down in the lowlands and across the Kalimantan border.

The goods they relied on especially clothes, thread, medicine etc soon ran out. However, the kelabit tribes were self sufficient in other ways. They had their own iodised salt springs, they planted their own rice and they knew how to work with their hands ~ making knives, clothes out of bark cloth, hunting in the nearby jungle and generally making do with what nature had to offer.

Not long after SEMUT's arrival in Bario, Tom had word from the Lun Bawang tribe, cousins to the Kelabit living across the border in Kalimantan. They were harbouring 9 American airmen, survivors of planes shot down by the enemy. The Lun Bawang who were earlier missionised by North American evangelicals, were more than eager to help the white people.

They watched in horror as the American missionaries and their families were dragged off and slaughtered by the enemy troops and they realized what the enemy was capable of. The Lun Bawang people fought hard against the enemy troops and were successful in picking off any wandering troops into the area, thus keeping the small community safe and the airmen out of the hands of the Japanese. Several of the airmen were in need of medical help and Tom figured that the only way was to repatriate them by air. Then came, possibly the most ambitious plan of the war; the ingenious idea to build an airstrip in the padifields of the Bawang Plain in Kalimantan. With no landing space and also for fear that the Japanese air bombers may discover their plans, the unit began work in the fields. The community of Lun Bawang, the Kelabits and the Ibans got to work, draining an unused portion of the padifield, leveling its bottom but yet keeping the embankments intact. In the event of any enemy reconnaissance visit, within an hourâ??s advance notice, the whole field can be flooded by punching a hole in the banks and thus camouflaging the entire airstrip. The idea was to build the airstrip from split bamboo, 30ft wide and 100yards long and secure it firmly to the leveled ground with sharp pegs. The Auster planes were most appropriate for the task.

Being lighter, it required a shorter landing strip. Despite the calculations etc, the planes came bombing down the world's first strip bamboo airstrip, crashed past the bamboo decking and nosedived into the mud beyond the strip. Tom and troops worked overnight to rectify the runway, by the next morning the runway had almost doubled the original length and was ready for a test pilot. Tom decided to take the first flight out, it succeeded in taking to the air after some initial problems. The 2nd Auster that landed damaged its fuselage and Tom arranged for a Catalina to drop fabric and dope on the Bawang Plains for the pilot to repair the damage. The pilot was immensely impressed with the Ibansâ?? handiwork. The Iban helped by piecing together bamboo struts and bamboo strips to hold together the fuselage; which managed to fly out of the Bawang Plains and to the safety of Tarakan for medical help.