A Road That Finally Reaches Ba’kelalan

(Bernama) — For years, the abandoned and muddy logging track between Long Luping and Ba’Kelalan in Lawas, Sarawak, has been the main access to the outside world, apart from four-times-weekly air service operated by MASWings.

The journey through this logging track to reach Ba’Kelalan, located on the highlands bordering Kalimantan, Indonesia, can be very challenging and dangerous due to it appalling conditions.

But since the end of last year, the situation has dramatically improved following the upgrading of the track, which begun in 2009 as part of the effort to help the rural communities.

It used to take eight hours to two days, depending on weather conditions, to reach Ba’Kelalan from the nearby town of Lawas; but today, travellers can reach their destination within three to four hours.

The former logging track between Long Luping and Ba’Kelalan — a 75km stretch often impassable when it become too muddy after a heavy downpour — has been improved through an allocation of RM52 million by the federal government.

The recently completed improvements, which include access roads to several villages and 10 new bridges, was carried out by the Royal Engineering Regiment of the Malaysian Armed Forces, through a soil stabilisation technology under the “Jiwa Murni” project.

Ba’Kelalan community leader Tagal Paran, 78, has been reported saying the upgraded road has cut travel time by half, and the people are delighted that they do not have to worry about being cut off from Lawas during the monsoon season.

He said villagers are grateful to the federal government for funding the project, and the Defence Ministry for sending soldiers to complete the work through the ministry’s community outreach programme, Jiwa Murni.

In order to show their appreciations, about 30 community leaders and village elders from Ba’Kelalan and Bario travelled recently from the highlands to Putrajaya to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, to thank him personally for the road.

What is interesting about this project is that the army managed to build the 75km Long Luping-Ba’Kelalan road for only RM52 million, slashing 75 per cent from the estimated RM250 million if it had been implemented by conventional contract.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the project was a development concept that has never been carried out before.

“What attracted me and the government most is that the project, under the old thinking, would have needed to wait for quite some time, as the allocation was substantial, but it could be completed very quickly once we had taken the decision,” he told the visiting community leaders and village elders.

Just a few days after he took office, the Prime Minister sent his political secretary Datuk Shahlan Ismail to Ba’Kelalan to survey the people’s needs and make recommendations.

“He came back with gruesome pictures of road conditions, and it would have taken a long time to resolve the problems with the conventional concept. That is why we decided that a new concept was needed,” Najib said.

Already the impact of the project has been tremendous, as villagers now enjoy lower transportation costs and cheaper daily necessities.

“I was told that a can of soft drink used to cost RM3 but now it’s RM2, while a cylinder of gas that costs RM60 is now RM45 in Ba’Kelalan,” Najib said.

Completion of the road has brought much relief and happiness to the Ba’Kelalan folks.

As pointed out by Sandra Munga Tagal in a letter to a local newspaper and on a blog, the completion of the Luping-Ba’Kelalan road enabled many natives to return to the highlands to celebrate last year’s Christmas.

With limited off-days and just timber tracks connecting the outside world to her village in Ba’Kelalan, she explained, it used to be very difficult for people to spend holidays in the remote highlands with their families.

However, last Christmas, many drove home from various parts of Sarawak.

“Today, many enjoyed Christmas and the long holiday season with their families and loved ones in the remote highlands. You no longer need to travel by four-wheel-drive vehicles and spend the night on the road when it rains.

“This year we enjoyed the biggest Christmas gathering in history, as almost everyone made it a point to drive home to Ba’Kelalan. Those who returned home to Long Semadoh and Ba’Kelalan for Christmas drove from as far as Kuching (more than 1,000 km), Bintulu, Miri, Brunei and Kota Kinabalu, much to their old folks’ delight,” she wrote in a blog.

She said some had been dreaming for 29 years of getting their families together at the village for Christmas, but it was never easy, especially for those travelling with infants and children on the rough tracks.

Getting a seat on MASWings — a rural air service operated by Malaysia Airlines’ subsidiary — during the festive season was too difficult because of the limit of 19 seats in the Twin-Otter aircraft.

However, with the newly built road, many people were able to spend Christmas in the village with their parents and families.

“Thank you, Mr. PM (Prime Minister), for what you have done and, Oh! The smiles on those wrinkled faces.

“And you should have seen the joyful light in the eyes of the fresh little faces,” she summed up.