IT was a pleasant encounter with so many people at a well-managed homestay in Long Banga, Ulu Baram.
The Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) team, staying in their company quarters, were also there to collect dues from the villagers.
Long Banga is one of the few places where SEB runs a collection centre on a Sunday. The team flies in the day before.
Like many places in Sarawak, there are other things to know about Long Banga besides the history and origin of the Sabans, one of the rarest and smallest ethnic groups in the world.
The settlement was set up at one curve of the Banga River, probably around 1900 and a STOLport (Short Take-Off and Landing) has been serving it since 1963.
A Marudi resident told thesundaypost, “I used to travel to Lio Mato and other places as an agriculture assistant about 20 years ago and I thought the Long Banga people were very lucky, to be able to fly out of their village. I was envious actually.”
In those days, logging was still in its infancy. He had to travel by longboat all over the Baram on official duty.
He said this was normal for him and his colleagues.
“But thinking back, we walked a lot too – from one village to another. About 40 years ago, the older generation did walk from Long Banga to Bario to send their children to school and at year-end, the children would walk back to their village. Children those days were very tough. Now, there is a primary school in Long Banga.
“In the 60s, very few people outside the Baram knew there is a group of people called Sabans – and maybe even today, few people know about Long Banga,” he said.
Today, electricity has come to the village. Many of the villagers also own motorcycles, pick-up trucks and cars.
Some of the homes have solar panels, televisions, and cell phones, while almost every household has electrical appliances such as refrigerators.
Apart from the primary school, there are two churches. Many homestays have sprouted up to cater to domestic and foreign tourists.
Facebook and history
The Long Banga STOLport brings back a lot of memories for Lim Yu Seng, who was with the Rajang Area Security Command (Rascom) in the 70s.
He was the official photographer when Rascom visited the village before the military base there closed down.
He took many memorable photos, which are now shared with Long Banga friends on Facebook and have connected him to the villagers he photographed.
“I visited Long Banga in the 1960s with some dignitaries and guests of Rascom. I took a lot of photos. It was a memorable trip for me. Everyone lined up to welcome the VIPs after we touched down.
“At the school compound, the children stood in an orderly manner and sang to welcome the visitors. They also played in the bamboo band. A school teacher led them on the guitar,” he recalled.
Tom Balan from Long Banga was touched when he saw, for the first time, a photograph of his father taken by Lim.
Asan Tajit, then a young schoolboy in the village, recognised the children in the bamboo band.
Asan, who now lives in Kuching, told thesundaypost, “With WiFi now, our people can connect with the world online. Many have reconnected with friends of their parents, and visitors to Long Banga about 40 years ago.”
British forward base
The British military set up a forward base at Long Banga on Jan 20, 1963, after Indonesian President Sukarno declared the Confrontation to oppose the formation of Malaysia, lasting till Aug 11, 1966 – three years, six months, three weeks, and one day.
During that time, Long Banga saw many military activities like Caribou air force aircraft transporting military equipment to the village, among others.
The British soldiers carried out military exercises regularly at the border. Today, spent shells could still be found on the hillslopes facing the STOLport.
According to Asan, at the end of the runway is a stream the locals call Arol Bum, dotted with holes five metres in diameter.
Arol Bum in Saban means Bomb Stream. The holes were made by grenades and mortars of the British army probably as part of a routine exercise to maintain security.
“Hopefully, the beautiful hillside will be covered by coffee shrubs in the next few years.”
William of the STOLport showed thesundaypost a huge mortar casing left behind by the army.
It might be a good idea for the STOLport to have a special history gallery displaying the various artefacts left behind by the missionaries and the army. History buffs and foreign tourists would welcome it.
Long Banga STOLport
The Long Banga STOLport was built in 1963 by gotong-royong for the mission aircraft and maintained by the Baram District Office in Marudi. Its measurement – 550 metres by 18 metres – makes it one of the shortest runways in Malaysia.
The British army improved the airstrip with the help of a small bulldozer parachuted in by the Royal Air Force.
It is said the land was donated by Long Banga resident Lale Wa. After the military left in the 1970s, the Borneo Evangelical Mission handed the airstrip to the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). MAS took over the STOLport in 2000.
In those days, it was possible to charter a Dornier or Skyvan for RM5,000. To maximise ROI (Return On Investment), traders would load the plane with cargo and take some paying passengers.
These chartered planes also benefitted teachers and government officers who served in Long Banga and the surrounding areas – otherwise they would have to trek to Bario, Marudi, or a pickup point in the Baram for a long longboat ride to Marudi.
Today, MASwings’ Twin Otters fly into and out of Long Banga three times weekly, benefitting not only Long Banga villagers but also the people of Long Peluan, Long Lamai, and Long Beruang. Senior citizens pay as little as RM160 return to Miri.
Every Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday the STOLport will be buzzing with life. Rela members help with the ground service. The tower controller is government-trained.
Long Banga people
The Sabans – with a population of about 1,000 – are considered one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak and have been living in Long Banga, most probably since the 1900s.
In the last 30 years, many Sabans have moved to Miri seeking a better life and employment opportunities.
Many are also working in the oil and gas industry in faraway places like Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Some are senior government officers in Kuching.
The Sabans speak their language and have their own Bible, translated into Saban from English by Dr B Clayre about 40 years ago.
Dr Claryre and her family lived in a house built by the Sabans in Long Banga.
Anthropologically, the Sabans are quite closely related to the Kelabits, whose language they understand very well and some scholars have regarded them as ‘offshoots’ of the Kelabit community since they share some commonalities in terms of culture, tradition, customs, and language.
A small group of Kenyans have also settled in Long Banga as their ancestors found the valley very fertile and full of potential.
One of the villagers, who wished to remain anonymous, said it would be nice if the Sabans could be recognised by them as one of the ethnic groups under the Federal Constitution.
“So many people outside of Sarawak don’t know about us. I hope the politicians recognise this and will take note of our status,” he added.
Road, river access
Before the 21st century, logging had not reached Long Banga. There were no logging roads out of the village, so most people walked to Lio Mato and Bario along well-worn footpaths.
Back then, the journey from Lio Mato to Marudi took two days and up to two drums of benzene for a longboat, powered by a twin 30 hp outboard engine. It was the main mode of transport.
The return journey (against the tide) took three days and three drums of benzene.
According to a civil servant, such longboat trips were only made once or twice a year because of the high costs, usually shared by 10 passengers.
Logging brought with it what were known as timber roads. Today, good vehicles such as pick-up trucks take about 12 hours to reach Miri from Long Banga.
Much-needed items can be sent to Long Banga by road. Even cooking gas cylinders can be delivered by road.
The villagers can charter 4WD at about RM800 per trip. Hopefully, the quiet little village will grow into a township with plenty of eco-tourism potential.