Nightmare on ‘red road’ border crossing to Kalimantan

Desmond Davidson

The so-called red road from Ba Kelalan, Sarawak, to Long Midang, North Kalimantan, frequently turns into a quagmire. – The Malaysian Insight pic, January 28, 2023.

THE distance from Ba Kelalan, Sarawak, to Long Midang across the border in North Kalimantan is roughly 10km but the fare – going either way – is an astronomical RM100 each way.

The fares here – as they are everywhere else in rural Sarawak and haggled before the start of the trip – are determined by the condition of the road.

Starting from the highland Lun Bawang settlement of Buduk Nur deep in Baram, there is only one road that leads to the border.

It is fondly referred to by the locals as the “red road” due to the colour of the laterite soil.

“To describe the condition of the road as very bad would be a gross understatement,” McDonald Matius told The Malaysian Insight.

He is one of the dozens of transporters who ply their trade on the rural roads between the northern Sarawak town of Lawas and Buduk Nur, a stone’s throw from the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

In this current rainy season, McDonald said the road is a suspension busting quagmire.

The state’s unpaved rural roads are so bad that a relatively short drive could take half a day because the 4x4 wheel drive vehicle – the only transport of choice – has to move at a crawl pace to avoid breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

Even though it’s in a remote corner of the state, McDonald said the “red road” is heavily used every day by vehicles taking hardware and food to the towns and villages on the other side of the border.

It is also used by people visiting their relatives or to get to their farms.

“We always get orders to transport zinc sheets for roof, plywood, PVC pipes, nails, screws, bolts, tools and even foodstuffs from our relatives, friends and people from the other side,” the 38-year-old graduate of UniKL, said.

McDonald, from the village of Long Meringau, said his 4x4 can carry up to 1,000kg of supplies.

With that weight, the drive in the sometimes knee-deep mud must be dead slow to avoid breaking the suspension.

“Below all that water and mud, the road is uneven. It’s like driving over a large rumble strip.

“Very often we also do not know what’s in the mud. Getting punctures as a result of hitting sharp rocks is something that is very common,” he added.

An excavator faces an uphill battle of trying to even out the road surface and clear the thick mud. – The Malaysian Insight pic, January 28, 2023.

Regular breakdowns

Singa Buas, another transporter from Long Semadoh, said he was on his way from Lawas to Long Bawan – another town across the border roughly 15km from Long Midang – when his rear suspensions broke.

“It was not far from Ba Kelalan but there is no phone signal in that area,” he said.

Lawas is about 140km away from Ba Kelalan.

He blamed the damage to his vehicle to the “poor road conditions” as he pondered on whether to spend the night in his vehicle.

He added that there were lots of potholes and the road surface was uneven. Luckily for him, a fellow transporter and friend happened to be passing by.

He offered to help by giving Singa and his friend a lift to Ba Kelalan.

“I told him to help me buy a new suspension in Lawas and fly the spare part to Ba Kelalan the next day.”

Like most, if not all, the transporters, these drivers are trained to make all kinds of repairs to their vehicle.

Singa said despite his misfortune, he continued driving his broken-down pick-up “at a very slow speed” until he reached Ba Kelalan hours later.

“I had no choice but to keep on moving,” he said.

One general rule is never to abandon your vehicle when it breaks down, because thieves will steal your load.

Singa said he felt so lucky to meet his friends so quickly after breaking down.

“There was no telephone coverage in that area. I can’t imagine my friend and I having to spend the night in the middle of the jungle.”

Government must act

Transporters like Singa and McDonald said with the reopening of the border, cross border trade at Ba Kelalan has picked up tremendously.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions on movement in 2019, the road was maintained by the authorities.

This stopped when movement control order was imposed and later when the border was closed.

Isac Mutang, who runs the lodging house The Jungle Hide Out in Puneng, Kelalan, said there were times he had to bring in foreign volunteers to help him repair the road.

“It was all done by hand. We have no heavy machinery. It’s a very tough task,” he said.

He added that the repairs they make would only last for a few days. When it rained, the road returned to its terrible condition, brought about by the heavily laden trucks.

Singa, McDonald and Isac said pleas for assistance to repair the road have all fallen on deaf ears.

They said it should be a priority because the road will soon be the key to the cross-border trade in the area when the customs, immigration, quarantine and security (CIQS) border complex is completed.

“The CIQS project is in progress. The General Operations Force is already stationed there.

“This is the one and only access road to the border. The government should look into it for the sake of the people and trade.” – January 28, 2023.

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