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Up the Rejang River


I was up before 8 for my next onward move, and yet an early departure was scuppered by first every ATM in town being inexplicably mobbed by an army of people making multiple withdrawals, some of them seemingly having never used a machine before in their lives. Sibu had also awakened very busy in general and it was an assault course of "Hello misters" in crossing the town to get to the ferries. With no boat for Kanowit apparent at the express terminal I traipsed further along to the local service boats, yet in spite of what the signs promised, no boat to Kanowit there either. Back at the express terminal the touts were perversely up front yet unhelpful, and it was only with a patience sapping rigmaroll that I finally bagged a ticket for 11am, the touts hadnt even wanted to put me on the first one initially.

It was all testimony to Kanowit's humble dimensions I guessed, and though there were plenty more direct services heading further up the river I was determined to make this complicatory uncommon pit stop in search of more local history. It had been the original regional HQ under the Brooke administration before big city Sibu had even existed. Early morning cloud soon burnt off to reveal the Glorious Twelfth as being pretty glorious, 34 degrees I had seen on TV and I felt every last one of them. My Russian designed Komet named "Happy Journey 3" happily pushed off spot on 11, only to emulate Sumatran Railways in seemingly pointless tooing and froing, it took us another 15 minutes to apparently redock just to uplift a single sheet of plywood. It was a beautiful 1 hour trip up to Kanowit, with fluorescent green rainforest to either side only being periodically punctured by more predictable logging yards, a large gaggle of dredgers scooping up mud, surprisingly also 2 major bridges in a land largely devoid of roads and the occasional random shack, church and longhouse. Disembarking at the confluence of the Rejang and the narrower Sungei Katibas, Kanowit was immediately discernible as a tremendously pretty little affair, with its one main street proving to be a 2 minute stroll of singularly yellow painted blocks, sporting red tiled roofs, blue and russet coloured window shutters, all finished off sweetly with decorated balconies in varying pastel shades. Though ostensibly now in Iban country, perhaps the colourful hue was in part due to a still predominantly Chinese urban populace, and first point of note positioned right on the river junction was a ubiquitous red and gold dragon temple. A step in the wrong direction was inconsequential in revealing further pleasing architecture, notably a propensity of churches, and I even received waves and hails from what was apparently a military college in a town not used to tourists.

Upon retracing the centre, a short riverside esplanade soon had me arriving at the one major impetus for my patronage of the town, Fort Emma. Though I knew vaguely what to expect, it was only upon checking its sign that I was sure this largely incongruous building was indeed my goal, amounting to no more than an elevated blue-grey 2 story wooden block under an orthodox crown of red tiles, unfortunately not open for viewing. Kubu Emma had been erected under the 2nd Rajah Charles Brooke in 1859 in order to police and protect the prevailing climate of expansionism, with tribal conflicts, headhunting and piracy proving a discouragement to early pioneers. Its position belied the fact the the Iban of the Sungei Katibas had been particularly problematic. The fort was quickly taken by an Iban war party, hardly surprising given its obviously unfortified design, and it was only with the subsequent stationing of an ethnic Iban and Malay garrison here that Kanowit developed into what it is now, the tiny provincial capital of a vast swathe of inland Sarawak.

It had barely taken half an hour to stroll round its entirety, and so I headed out for the jetties under pressure of time, hoping to catch an onward boat connection further upriver. Enquiry revealed that it was simply a case of sitting in a riverside cafe and waiting for one to show up, and though a couple materialised they surprisingly failed to put in. It wouldnt be a problem if I got stuck though, Kanowit's 2 hotels were right at hand and as satisfactory looking as the rest of the town, I just had to wait and see. As it turned out the eventual promise of a boat at 3.30 was incredibly deemed to prove correct to the minute, and so I jumped aboard once again onto a speedy craft to take me further up to the larger town of Kapit.

The river continued intriguing as ever with the boat periodically putting into small rickety jetties and blaring its siren to signify the arrival of the odd local, logging worker or arbitrary delivery, an experience only compromised by the presence of a tour group of fellow Westerners sat upon the boat's roof, I felt that they had intruded upon my adventure. It had originally been my intention to stop off at the upriver staging post of Song which I had finally resisted upon realising there to be little of obvious merit other than its location, and upon scanning its scant dimensions I was glad to have declined that one in the end. Kapit materialised larger yet of the same prettified ilk as Kanowit, and I didnt hang around in jumping off and negotiating the riverbank ascent in order to beat the gaggle of fellow itinerants. I made a beeline for the cheap hotels and though the first was full I ended up suitably ensconced in rapid fashion at the excellently dubbed Dung Fang Hotel next door, with a room so tiny that the ensuite bathroom was almost the rangier option. A late stroll around pocket sized Kapit soon had me at the gate of priority no.1, Fort Sylvia, a typically wooden hued mansion of the Brooke era, and the humble origins of the whole town. Alas it was predictably closed but I still gained merit from the remainder of the day in a fantastic sunset over the jungle wrapped boat studded river, from where I resisted the only ostensibly Western orientated restaurant upon finding it full of the boat trippers, a tour group of Italians as it turned out. Tsingtao beer and Mee Goreng (Fried Noodles) were about the only way to wrap off any day in sleepy Kapit it seemed.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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