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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Unsung heroes of the Ba'Kelalan highlands

LAWAS: With a limited flight frequency, a return road trip to the Ba’Kelalan (LINK)highlands in northern Sarawak(lINK MAP) could cost an astounding RM6,000 depending on the weather condition and the length of stay.

The fee includes renting of a specially modified four-wheel drive and a driver who knows the treacherous terrain of Ba’Kelalan located 973m above sea level. Ba’Kelalan is 160km from Lawas town.

Armed with shotguns, ammunition, hoes, toolboxes, axes, choppers, canvas and food rations, this group of daredevils are risking their lives every week either to bring sundry goods or petrol and even important documents like passports to the local communities.

Those expecting the trip to be a smooth one will be disappointed as they have to endure a punishing, back-breaking logging road, a tar-sealed road with many potholes and mud-filled road that could scare the living daylights out of city folk who are not familiar with off-road conditions.

“It is not for the faint-hearted,” 43-year-old Ating Padan, a Lun Bawang native said.

“Negotiating sharp and slippery bends, crossing muddy roads and avoiding timber lorries are some of the challenges we have to face,” said the father of four, adding that the trip could take between five to 13 hours depending on the weather.

Ating has been doing this for two years and the most interesting experience he encountered so far was when he was chased by a wild boar.

“Luckily my friends shouted to warn me and I immediately ran as fast as I could,” he said, adding that he was resting at that time.

But that experience has not deterred him although his family is not keen on his profession.
“I was in the recycling business before, but business was slow so I decided to venture into something else and then came this idea of transporting goods and carrying passengers to Ba’Kelalan which is in high demand,” he said.

Ating opted to buy a second-hand double-cab Toyota Hilux for RM48,000 and further invested RM3,600 buying a new set of tyres specially for off-road conditions.

“There was a lot of misconception about our profession, claiming that we are in it for the lucrative income which is untrue,” he said.

He said one return trip during unpredictable weather could cost between RM4,500 and RM6,000.
“What people don’t know is the risk we have to take because only highly skilled drivers can reach Ba’Kelalan,” he said.

“We also have to spend at least 30% or 40% of the money to service our vehicle, wash the interior and exterior parts of the vehicle and replace parts to ensure the vehicle is in tip-top condition,” he said.
Shirtless with short pants, slippers and sometimes bare-footed, most of them have to drive in groups as driving alone posed a greater risk.

“We have an unwritten code of conduct here. If one vehicle breaks down then all must stop to help. Those who refuse to help will be boycotted,” he said.

Coincidentally, the four-wheel drive carrying this reporter and photographer suddenly broke down while the driver was trying to help another driver who was trapped in the mud for two hours.
After five hours trying to identify the main cause of the problem, Ating decided that we had to spend at least one night in the Ba’Kelalan jungle.

We have to wait for my relative to come down. Am not sure whether he can come by tomorrow. He is a mechanic and should be able to fix the problem,” he said.

For Nelson George, 40, the most experienced among them, one of the most harrowing experiences was when his vehicle turned turtle.

“It was raining and slippery. Suddenly when we were driving up a steep corner, one of the tyres went off the track and a minute later we found overselves upside down,” he said.
Luckily no life was lost and the 40-year-old father of three said the incident had not affected his passion.

Nelson’s partner Paru Garang, 46, said his fee per trip was about RM1,500 and this excluded fares for those from Ba’Kelalan who wanted to go to Lawas town.

“We charge between RM120 and RM150 per person depending on the weather,” he said.
Rosebiah Balang, 60, described them as taxi drivers but the job is not as easy as it looks.

“They have the toughest job in the world with low financial returns, risking their lives for others and yet they are willing to do it every week,” she said.

They are truly the unsung heroes of Ba’Kelalan. — Bernama

MASWings realises the important the transport to the community in Ba'Kelalan
In the context of Ba’Kelalan, MASwings said it had added its fourth frequency to Ba’Kelalan last year but reduced it back to three times per week effective March 26 after consultating the Transport Ministry.

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