Still in the dark as to possible connections upriver to Belaga, all I could do was make an early start and hit the jetty for 9 that morning in the hope of an odd speedboat making the trip. That was looking unlikely yet I did come across an express boat heading just as far up another tributary to a spot called Putai. The scant information of the guidebook revealed that to be nothing more than a logging camp, though it certainly promised the allure of untouristed territory. I elected to contemplate it during a diversion to the now happily open Fort Sylvia then, the main attraction in town and now a museum relating its fascinating history since its foundation in the days of frontier pushing pioneers.
A history of Kapit told of the migration of Chinese groups into the area, the Iban into previously uninhabited river reaches and the Islamification of the Melanau. Malays also joined Hokkien traders plying the Rejang, reaching as far as Belaga which boasted 14 shops by 1893. It was a typical tale of a fort being established in order to subdue unrest, to be then adopted as a trading post by the settlers. Inaugurated mainly to settle disputes and maintain law and order, Fort Sylvia was originally provoked by headhunting and migration into prohibited tributaries of the Rejang by the Iban, especially the Baleh which was only opened up in 1906. Native rebellions were quelled with numerous military expeditons, especially against the Iban of the Gaat tributary. After the 1924 peace treaty the fort was subsequently stationed with Sarawak Rangers before becoming colonial district offices under the British, then the Resident's house of the newly formed Kapit Division. These District Officers were listed here on a roll call of civil servants and possibly included a few Scotsmen, with a MacBryan and MacPherson serving during the 1920s, and the final colonial born Resident being a certain M.M. McSporran no less! It also listed many Iban who had performed military service during the Malaya emergency and against the Indonesian "Konfrontasi' campaign, with many having been recruited as trackers. Colonial photos also showed 3rd Rajah Vyner Brooke with legendary Iban chief Temenggoh Koh, and 3 chiefs with a kilted Malcolm MacDonald, another later Resident.
A particularly fascinating yarn told of Temenggoh Koh's life story, one of the great Iban chiefs who was born in Dutch Borneo, his family later emigrating to the village of Song on the Rejang. He took part in tribal wars against the Kayan and Kenyah, at one time revenging the death of his uncle by destroying 8 longhouses and taking several heads. He then lived as an outlaw but eventually faced colonial justice, from then on co-operating with governmental efforts in quelling uprisings and helping to promote the cultivation of rubber plantations. He gained a prominent position on the Baleh River when it was opened to the Iban in 1922, and finally received the MBE for his efforts in 1953, bizarre.
More superb relics showed a group photo of the 1924 treaty gathering, with the locals still wholly in traditional garb and Brooke and attendant Dutch officers porting pith helmets. The Dutch influence at that time was revealed by a huge party of 960 of them attending the ceremony. The artifacts on display were mainly uninspiring ceramics, but many small but ornate cannon were a notable wonder, of a style I had always taken to be Portugese and yet these were obviously of local manufacture. Their mountings resembled perhaps the "Aso" Dragon-dog figure and other adornments were crocodiles and ferns. Then a newspaper cutting from 1962 related that a convention of Penghulus (chiefs) at Kapit had elected to support the Cobbold Commission on their plans to federate Malaysia. Points they raised interestingly included that English should remain the national language of Sarawak and that it should be recognised as one of Malaysia's official tongues, also that migration should remain under the control of Sarawak. The Sarawak Tribune at the same time told of US-Soviet sabre rattling and nuclear tests in the run up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, quite a contrast. A display of chunks of amber related that the largest amber deposit in the world was recently discovered in Sarawak at the Merit-Pila coalfield near Belaga, including the largest single piece ever discovered.
The displays had been sufficiently diverting for me to forego the single departure for Putai, having convinced myself after lengthy soul searching that an early return to Sibu and then quickly onto Bintulu held more allure in its promised progress than the potential expense, delay and uncertainty of trying to find a bed in spartan surroundings not set up for it. I had learned upon enquiry from the curator at the fort that he had recently been to Belaga himself but it was now undoubtedly only accesible via the land route from Bintulu, even small speedboats with reduced draught were conversely now too susceptible to capsize in the troublesome Pelagus rapids en route.
There was nothing for it but to head back to Sibu then, a frustration tempered by the knowledge that I had tried and failed only due to nature's final say, it was just a pity that I had hit upon this unforeseen diversion up the Rejang at precisely the wrong time of year to be attempting it, the heart of the dry season. Notable recordings of the river levels propensity to fluctuate had been inscribed on the wall of Fort Sylvia, with its highest ever recorded level having been 62 feet above its mean, halfway up the walls of the fort and assuredly engulfing great swathes of the jungle. It was now clear why the township stood so elevated above the bank. The dry season still managed a shower to soak me on my way back along to the ferries but I was at least fortunate in securing passage on the top notch express boat back to Sibu within the hour, further witnessing how the riverbanks revealed the water level to be significantly reduced, perhaps by 4 feet. I stepped aboard Sibu bound, sad to have come so close to traditional culture yet painfuly out of reach.
To be honest my previous sightings along the Rejang together with investigative reading had convinced me that I was probably destined to disappointment should I continue determinedly on in the search for authentic longhouses and archaic practices, the greatest lesson of my whole hinterland foray was that people everywhere I might go had been commensurately integrated into modernity, I could not have been the first. With the potential for further jungle forays further north in the back of my mind I let it go.
I retraced the Rejang back to Sibu in a blur and then against all expectation found myself on a local bus out to the regional terminal for an unanticipated same day connection to Bintulu. Though Sibu was a nice spot my presumed overnight staging there was deemed unnecessary by good progress and the preponderance of buses, and so I had my first experience of Sarawak's one major road artery at last. Surprisingly, it actually proved to be just a bumpy single carriageway you might have better expected across the border in Kalimantan, and though fatigue and a showery overcast sky only allowed me snippets of it, it still managed to redeem a sense of wonder comparable with the Rejang, in jungle clad mountains and rustic rickety longhouses. Though timber yards, clearfelling and palm oil plantations were in evidence, it was nowhere near the ecological disaster which I was still afraid of running into. The patchwork of asphalt perversely transmorphed into an illuminated pristine dual carriageway for the final 22Ks into Bintulu, god knows why they hadnt spread the money about more evenly, and in the dark now a taxi was deemed the only solution in tracing the city centre from the distant bus terminal. It was reputedly an unremarkable town offering little distraction but proved lively and functional, certainly I secured a bed, a curry and more time on the net before beer in quick succession, if only it was always that easy.