LONG Lellang is a STOLport built for a Kelabit village in 1972.
Surrounded by several Penan villages near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border, this clustered Kelabit settlement in the Highlands used to be reachable after seven days’ trekking from Bario – and perhaps, several weeks’ walk from Marudi.
The STOLport (Short Take Off Landing Airport) supports rural air service by the Twin Otter aircraft. The daily paid ground staff are from RELA (Jabatan Sukarelawan Malaysia or The People’s Volunteer Corps).
According to Penghulu Freddie Abun, a retired educator and a community leader, the ground staff are trained to conduct safety checks to ensure no sharp objects such as knives, spears and axes are taken on board as carry-ons. They also check the weight of passengers, luggage and cargo.
Travelling to Long Lellang by air for the first time, I felt a little nervous when “advised” not to leave the airport until the all-clear sign was given. Was there some trouble?
I waited with the rest of the passengers from Miri, including the Penghulu and his wife, a family of five Penans and three Iban women, at the canteen. The other arrivals were chatting away.
There was enough time to shake hands with and thank the two young pilots personally for the good flight from Miri.
Travellers from Long Lellang bound for Marudi and Miri were given a warm send-off with handshakes all around.
As soon as the plane took off, the RELA ground staff put their jackets away while the small Bomba outfit got ready to call it a day.
There was only one flight. I saw some villagers on the runway opening the gate and walking over to the STOLport building.
Penghulu Freddie said to me: “Your trolley service is here, my sister.”
The trolleys are actually wheelbarrows from the village and the service is free. The way out of the airport is a walk across the runway towards Long Lellang Village B.
The Penghulu has a lovely bungalow situated at the eastern end of the village. A national flag is hoisted on a pole in front of the building from where a cement path runs all the way to the western end of the village.
The STOLport is owned by the Malaysian government and operated by Malaysia Airport Sdn Bhd. It was declared open by the then Transport Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Ling Liong Sik.
A Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) member is said to have mooted the idea for an airport in Long Lellang since the villagers had to walk seven days through treacherous jungles to seek medical treatment in Bario or fly out of the Kelabit Highlands to study in Miri or Kuching.
It took only three months for the Public Works Department to clear the land for the runway.
Ba Kelalan, Bario, Belaga, Kapit, Lawas, Long Akah, Long Banga, Long Lellang, Long Semado, Long Seridan, Marudi, Mukah and Tanjung Manis are served by STOLports.
Nowadays, teachers can travel to Marudi and Miri for in-service courses or pursue long distance university studies without having to walk seven days to the nearest airport. Upgrading of in-service teachers in Long Lellang is no longer an issue.
Fresh food and household necessities can also be flown in. There is a sundry shop well-stocked with rice, milk and other essentials, and equipped with two big freezers.
The shop supplies provisions to the village school. The Penans and Kelabits also shop here. They could be seen sitting on benches along the five-foot way, chit-chatting like any customers.
A villager told thesundaypost: “Every evening, you can see the shop assistant, with chicken wings, the children’s favourite food, in a back-pack, crossing the bridge to make his delivery. Thanks to the Twin Otter, we are now having a better life – and better food here.”
One of Long Lellang’s first attractions is jungle trekking. Over the past few years, the trekking destinations have been Penan villages, many of which are within a day’s walk from Long Lellang.
Adventure tourists can take a flight to Long Lellang for jungle trek, nature walk and meeting the Penans, guided by friends and/or tour guides from the village.
SK Long Lellang
Across Long Lellang Village B is SK Long Lellang with over 100 pupils, mostly young Penan boarders. The school watchman with a loud and commanding voice, makes sure no strangers pass through the school gate after crossing the Long Akah Hanging Bridge.
He told thesundaypost: “The guru besar with some of the teachers have gone to a sports meet in Marudi and if you don’t have permission, you cannot come into the school or any of the buildings.”
I asked for permission to take a few photos from “outside.”
The watchman followed me around, rather stern and unsmiling. He appeared very suspicious and deemed me an intruder.
While waiting for dinner, some of the children played on a well-maintained football field while others waited near the dining room for the signal bell.
I managed to have an interesting talk with one of the school staff from West Malaysia about the white-feathered fighting cockerel tied to a nearby tree. Indeed, the handsome bird would soon become dinner for them.
The staffer told me the school was well-equipped with Wifi, computers and a resource centre. A belian walkway from the staff room to Village A is sponsored by American Peace Corps teachers. All the staff members live in the school quarters or the two villages.
Living in harmony
According to Penghulu Freddie, Long Lellang has two Kelabit and several Penan kampungs.
“We Kelabits are outnumbered by the Penans. But our two ethnic groups live in harmony. As their Penghulu, I see to it that we all live in peace. I listen to all their problems and try my best to understand them. Most of their requests are met. If they are satisfied with my service, it’s easier to perform my duties.
“The Penans generally go hunting, fishing and foraging for fruits and vegetables. Whenever they have extra meat to sell, they will come to the shop in the village. We often buy fish and wild boar meat and other exotic meat from them. We get along well,” he explained.
Not long ago, one Penan man set a record for having so much gaharu (fragrant wood) to sell that a Chinese man showed up with more than RM100,000 to buy it.
Connectivity and water supply
The Penghulu and his wife live in their bungalow (like a town house) fully furnished with sofas, carpets, mats, TV, freezers, stoves, water pipes and ceiling fans. The walls are panelled with the best timber.
The Penghulu’s siblings came for dinner that day and shared the latest news. After meal, all took out their handphones to read their text messages. Long Lellang has better connectivity 24/7 than most rural areas in Sarawak. Yes, everyone can text, and with a good hand phone, enjoy YouTube 24/7 as well.
Electricity is provided by solar power panels, installed only a few years ago. However, the villagers continue to maintain their generators while several families have satellite TV.
Gravity feed water supply is excellent from the hills beyond the STOLport. Every family has uninterrupted piped water supply.
Accessing Long Lellang
There are now many ways to get to Long Lellang – by plane, road, boat and on foot.
The villagers can drive from Miri to Long Lellang in about six hours or less via Long Lama. They bring in fresh food supplies, cooking gas tanks, diesel and petrol and send out agricultural products such rice and coffee from Long Lellang within the day.
The adventurous can walk to Long Lelang from Bario in four to six days. This is a famous trek many hikers have enjoyed over the past few decades.
Another option to get out of Long Lellang is a two-hour longboat journey to a logging road where a car can take the passengers the rest of the way. The longboat has to be arranged in the village and it’s costly.
Fishing in Akah River
A trip to Long Lellang is not complete without fishing in the Akah River. Ikan Semah and some smaller fish may be caught in under two hours, especially when the river water is conducive.
Akah River can overflow its banks if it rains non-stop for a few days. Over 10 years ago, most people used engine-powered outboards to sail up and down the river on hunting and fishing trips.
Today, most of the people have jobs and fishing has become a past time. Penghulu Freddie, who is multi-lingual, summed it: “Come to our village where you can enjoy Wi fi, TV news, other urban comforts and a taste of real Sarawak jungle life.
“The friendly Kelabits will welcome you and you can visit a Penan village or even stay with them. If you stay longer, you will see more.”