A stone’s throw from Kuching lies the Penrissen Range — the playground for locals who cannot afford to visit exotic sites in Northern Sarawak.
Only an hour’s drive from the City, it is well worth exploring the hills of Padawan which has been the preserve of many environmental lovers in recent times.
The “gateway” to the Padawan Hills is Kampung Abang — an old village leading into the Bidayuh hinterland sharing the same border with KALTIM — the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan.
For many years this quaint little corner was “out of bounds” for city folk because it was the entry point for terrorists at the height of the communist insurgency in the 1960s and 1970s who used Padawan as secret route into Sarawak.
But 30 years ago when the insurgency ended, visitors to the hills discovered that this region contained some of the best hills, waterfalls and picnic spots and a unique people living in this remote enclave.
Having first explored the Padawan hills two decades ago, I spent the year’s New Year’s Day with a small family re-visiting over the hills that I once trekked through.
Unlike the old days when the journey into the interior was over bamboo bridges and jungle track, the new way of travel to Padawan was a roller-coaster drive via a network of tar-sealed roads.
Together with a family friend and his two young daughters, we left early and our first stop was at Kampung Abang at the foot of the hills.
After refreshments, the drive entailed a very narrow stretch of road very much like the Kuala Kubu Baru trail in Selangor’s Fraser’s Hill, before reaching the village of Kumbug (pronounced Kam Boog) which is the site of the district’s small primary school-cum-hostel.
Students of the school come from villages in Upper Padawan such as Assom, Kiding, Kakas and Sapit — the last outpost straddling the border nestled 2,000 high in the hills.
In the past, parents from across the border sent their children to the school because the nearest Indonesian town from the remote “Tembawang Goon” village is about two days away by foot and river.
My destination was Assom to meet farmer Na’u or Na’oo as he is called who was celebrating his first harvest of the “Injok” palm toddy.
Na’u, whose two sons have benefitted from education and are now based in Kuching and Johor, said, “It’s the first time that I have harvested the tree and collecton from sales have exceeded RM5,000.”
It was his father who planted the “Injok” palm at their ancestral land 30 minutes walk away past a quaint waterfall.
The hill-paddy farmer who used to smoke a traditional bamboo pipe, has opted for modern-day cigarettes because it is cumbersome to carry his pipe, whenever he went to his farm.
“Since you first visited us, the people of Assom have been able to earn enough to build new concrete homes costing as much as RM200,000,” he quipped.
But he was quite happy with his wooden home with a bamboo drying stage at the back of his premises and his old shed where he fashions “parangs” (long knives) for work.
In the old days I had to trudge through a muddy track for 90 minutes to get to Assom and then another 30 minutes to Parang — the next stop.
On this trip we stopped at the Kampung Abang tuck-shop to get some bites for the girls and their father, an Iban from Batang Ai dam locality, and also to check if the village kiosk had a sufficient supply of petrol.
When we were on our way — we went through a roller coaster drive with steep gradients that even my brave Iban friend would not undertake if he was alone.
In fact, if your vehicle is not powerful enough, don’t take the risk if you have children in the car.
We arrived safely at Assom and after catching up with our long-lost friends, we then found Na’oo already waiting for me.
After the formalities, our next destination was a popular jungle pool where the children from Kampung Parang play.
Not too deep, the little girls and boys test their skills here by jumping off a large rock into the deep end of the pool — an act which City folk would never allow their children to take.
Frolicking in the long stretch of cool and clear stream cascading down the hills, I noticed piles of rubbish dumped just below the stream.
And then I realised that the price of development is always high.
If in the old days the villagers lived off the land, it is now a world of soft-drink cans, junk food wrappings and plastics that comes with modernity.
The journey back that afternoon was pleasant as we passed by the junction to the placid Bengoh dam and Padawan River famous for kayak enthusiasts.
On reflection, Padawan has the potential to be an international tourist playground with its pristine environment and the friendly people.
With traditional longhouse communities such as Annah Rais and Benuk, several waterfalls and the multi-million ringgit Borneo Highlands where Prime Minister Dr Mahathir had a bungalow facing a highland golf course, there is no reason why it is not promoted!
If Sarawak has benefitted from its World Rainforest Music festival at seaside Damai enclave, why can’t the Padawan mountains be another alternative?
The hills beckon and before society destroys one of God’s greatest gifts, let’s save whatever that is left.