Rebuilding essential transport links in Northern Borneo

The Kelabit Highland plateau of northern Sarawak is a remote upland rainforest region, and the source of some of the major rivers in Borneo, including the mighty Baram, the Trusan, and the Limbang. The village of Pa’ Dalih sits alongside a meandering tributary, the Kelapang river, which varies seasonally from gentle mountain stream to angry floodwater: a useful transport route but also a potential barrier. As an agricultural community, farmed land is extensive and spreads well beyond the village and across to the far side of the Kelapang. Irrigated padi fields lie closer to the village whilst further afield, areas of forest are maintained and planted out with fruit trees and vegetables. Getting across the river is therefore an important issue for the community, and one that has in the past been achieved with the a traditional bamboo bridge. Using locally available materials, this type of bridge is constructed relatively easily, but lasts at best 2 or 3 years, and ideally is replaced annually.

After collapsing in floodwaters, the bridge across the Kelapang had not been replaced for several years, as the unpredictable river was deemed to be too dangerous to rebuild a bamboo bridge, thus restricting access to those with a boat, or those able to take the long diversion to the nearest ford. The alternative, and one which had been planned by senior villagers for some time, was to construct a more substantial hardwood and wire-rope hanging bridge. Thanks to the money from APE, villagers were available to acquire the materials, and in April 2009, construction began.

Work was organised on the local system of communal labour (gotong royong), in the same way as other large projects, usually labour intensive farm work such as planting out the padi are undertaken. For the bridge building project, a group of about 10 men would arrive, deposit their tools, light a fire, and begin off-loading materials brought by boat, manhandling them up the bank to the construction site. The very durable belian hardwood was used throughout, an unusually high specification for a bridge in this area: long lasting but costly. This came from a Penan sustainable forestry co-operative in nearby Long Beruwan. Other parts such as wire rope was recycled from cranes, whilst cement and the various fixings came form Miri, an industrial town on the coast 10 hours drive away. The cement was mixed with sand and stones collected by local women from riverbanks, to make the large concrete anchor blocks.

The bridge is an innovative ‘developed-catenary’ design – not quite a suspension bridge, but more than a simple hanging bridge. On each side of the river is a pair of belian uprights, stabilised with cross-pieces to form 6m high wooden support towers. Over these support towers runs a pair of wire ropes, anchored at each end to posts set into the concrete anchor blocks, and pulled taut. Two more wire ropes cross the river between the bases of the support towers to carry the walkway, made up of a series of belian planks. The upper support wires and the lower wires are then tied together with a safety net fixed along the side

The bridge was eventually finished in April 2010, after several sessions of gotong royong, and the unstinting drive of the villagers in the face of a demanding agricultural routine. It now provides easy access to the padi fields on the far side of the river, and has opened up the possibility of more areas for hill farming and fruit trees. The bridge also forms part of the route to Indonesia for the villagers, from where their relatives travel to Pa’ Dalih and nearby villages to help with farm work.

The ever present threat of commercial logging, and the problems it has caused in river levels and silting of water supplies, has not diminished, but at least now the problems of crossing the river have been dealt with for everyone in Pa’ Dalih, their friends and relatives. Ultimately it was with evident pleasure and pride that we celebrated the opening of the bridge. As one senior villager remarked “This is the best Kelabit bridge ever”.


Hear more from APE and Rhythms Del Mundo