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The World's Most Enjoyable Air Service

Mike Reed hops around the interior of Borneo to prove that flying can still be fun.

"Air travel can be exciting, enjoyable, adventurous, and a great way to make new friends."

Of course, anyone who has ever flown for business or pleasure will find that statement faintly ridiculous. But then very few people have experienced the sheer enjoyment of discovering the interior of Sarawak with Malaysia Airlines' (MAS) Rural Air Service. The Rural Air Service is one of the world's last great air travel experiences, and is guaranteed to put the fun back into flying for even the most world-weary traveller.

Twin Otter At Mulu Air Strip
Twin Otter at Mulu Air Strip.
© Wayne Tarman
The secret of the Rural Air Service is the people it's designed to serve. Instead of the usual throngs of tired businessmen and jet-lagged tourists, the passengers are a colourful cross-section of Sarawak's upriver people, for whom the flights are a vital lifeline. On some routes, such as Bintulu to Mukah or Sibu to Kapit, the flight saves just half-a-day's travelling by road or river. However, in some areas, weeks of trekking have been compressed to minutes in the air. Bario, for example, is a two-week trek from Marudi, and anyone who feels that daily air links ruin the romance of getting there has never needed the kind of emergency medical treatment that up-country doctors are not equipped to cope with.

When the history of 20th century air travel comes to be written, the de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter should take its rightful place alongside the DC3 Dakota, the Comet, the Boeing 747 and the Concorde. This humble workhorse, designed for Canada's arctic wilderness, has become one of the most successful airliners of all time, without really attracting any attention in the process.

The Concorde and the 747 may have movie-star glamour, but the Twin Otter is the great character actor of the aviation scene, able to adapt to virtually any role with unfailing competence and reliability. Whether fitted with wheels, floats, balloon tyres or skis, the Twin Otter can deliver 19 people or two tons of payload to some of the most hostile terrain on the planet, landing and taking of on lakes, rivers, deserts or grass airstrips not much bigger than a cricket ground.

For such a rugged aircraft, the MAS Rural Air Service doesn't really pose much of a challenge. Twin Otters in Sarawak operate from fully-fledged airports and well-made rural airstrips, so they never get pushed to their limits. But the sense of reassurance you get from flying in such a tough little plane under such benign conditions just adds to the sheer enjoyment of the journey. The Twin Otter is a high-winged plane with big windows, and on the short hops it does in Sarawak it usually keeps below 3,000 m (10,000 ft), so there's always plenty to see on the ground. But the real joy of flying the Rural Air Service is the people you fly with.

Right from the start of your journey at Miri or Sibu, you realise that the Twin Otter service is a little different to regular flying. When you check in at the counter there are two sets of scales; one for your baggage and one for you. MAS tolerates no margins of error in loading, so everybody has to get weighed. If the plane is full of chunky caucasians, the cargo handlers start unloading boxes and crates. Don't even think about paying excess baggage if the plane is full, for as MAS Captain Peter Tellala explained to me "Your few dollars won't make the fuel tanks any bigger or the engines more powerful."

The airport is also where you meet your fellow passengers. Kenyah matrons with tattooed arms and extended earlobes shyly conceal the dial of the scales from the queue behind, whispering their weight into the ear of the MAS security officer. Tall, powerfully-muscled Kelabit men, whose weather-beaten faces are their only concession to advancing age, murmur gentle words of comfort to prized fighting cocks trussed up like Christmas turkeys. Another security guard carefully checks the birds' restraints - a necessary precaution, as Peter Tellala explains. "The Twin Otter has an open cockpit, and it can be a little difficult to concentrate on flying the plane if some demented rooster is trying to peck your eyeballs out."

Boarding is on a first-come-first-served basis, but it doesn't really matter as every seat has a good view and there's no in-flight service to worry about anyway. Once everybody is seated, a phenomenon occurs that is unheard of in the annals of modern air travel; all the passengers start chatting to each other and introducing themselves to any strangers on the flight. The pilot and co-pilot join in, and the whole journey starts to take on a festive atmosphere.

Sarawakians never travel on an empty stomach. Rice wine, meat dumplings and fried chicken appear from inside cavernous holdalls, and are generously shared with poorly-provisioned foreigners. The crew finish their pre-flight check and start the engines. As they release the brakes there is a massive surge of power and the plane is airborne before your brain has grasped the fact that you are moving.

What is so unusual about the take-off is that nobody seems to notice. Conversations continue unbroken and palms remain dry. That sensation of wondering how long the aircraft is going to take to finally get airborne doesn't apply to Twin Otters - one moment you're on the ground, the next you're in the air.

Who your fellow passengers are depends on where you are heading. The Rural Air Service flies to 19 different destinations in central and northern Sarawak, and another 9 in neighbouring Sabah. From Sibu to Kapit and Belaga your travel companions will probably be Ibans, Kayans and upriver Chinese. From Miri you will meet all manner of people; Kelabits returning to the mountain fastness of Bario; Berawans going home to Long Seridan for the weekend; Lun Bawang and Lun Dayeh visiting the folks in Lawas and Ba Kelalan; European and Japanese tourists heading for the mighty caves of Mulu; or the occasional Penan heading back to the isolated settlements of Long Lellang and Long Semado. Don't expect loin cloths and blowpipes though; everybody on the plane dresses like the frequent flyers they are.

As you cruise at 6,000 ft over a rainforest landscape criss-crossed with serpentine rivers, the engineer from Sarawak Shell will point his ancestral longhouse, and the small tributary where he shot his first wild boar. Up front, the headman of another longhouse will be reminding the pilots of a forthcoming wedding feast at which they are the guests of honour. This is the most remarkable thing about the MAS Rural Air Service; it's not so much a transport service as a part of the upriver community, and the people who run it belong to the community, whichever part of the world they were born in.

Landing is another surprise. The plane descends lower and lower over the jungle, until you feel you could reach out and touch the treetops. Then suddenly you're hurtling down to a small patch of green that looks no bigger than a football pitch. Only then do you realise what a versatile aircraft the Twin Otter is. It seems to be almost stationary, but it's still airborne. The stalling speed is only 58 knots, and most family cars can go faster than that in second gear. The actual landing is pure anti-climax. The wheels touch down as if they are kissing the ground, and the plane rolls to a halt in just a few yards.

Almost anywhere you fly in rural Sarawak, there is a welcoming committee at the airstrip, waiting to meet friends and relatives and chat with any strangers on the plane. There's usually no need to make advance arrangements when you head into the interior. Someone at the airstrip always knows where you can stay and what there is to see in the area, so wherever you go, your visit will be a memorable one.

Checking in for the return flight can be quite unlike anything you've ever experienced before. If you're heading back from Belaga on the Upper Rejang, you just turn up at a small grocery store near the waterfront about 45 minutes before the flight. The proprietor, clad in singlet and shorts, weighs you and your baggage on the same scales he uses to weigh rice and vegetables. When all passengers are present, he shuts up his shop and marches everybody down to the village jetty, where they all climb into a native longboat.

A powerful outboard brings you down-river to the airstrip in about 10 minutes, and everybody files out to the small terminal building. The grocer doubles up as airport manager, security officer and air traffic controller; he unlocks the building, starts the generator, checks the tickets, weighs everybody and their belongings again, and contacts the plane by radio. As the plane approaches, more longboats bring the welcoming committee for the arriving passengers, and pungent home-made Kayan cigarettes are passed round.

In mountainous Bario, the procedure is slightly different. They actually have a small airline office and it's like a real airport in miniature, complete with a very unusual security feature. The devoutly Protestant Kelabits put little faith in the creations of man, despite the Twin Otter's excellent safety record. Instead, they prefer to seek the protection of the Lord, holding an impromptu prayer meeting to ask Him to ensure everybody's safe arrival.

Time does not stand still in Sarawak. Sealed roads are being driven into the interior, making a 50 mile flight redundant. Airstrips are being transformed into concrete runways, which allow Fokker 50's and de Havilland Dash 8's to land and take off. Now these are admirable aircraft, but nobody ever said that flying in them was fun. The Rural Air Service is not going to survive in its present form forever. I give it 10 years maximum before it becomes a feeder and commuter service like any other. Catch it while you can.

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