Bintulu had evolved as little more than a staging post for transport between Sibu and more northerly Miri, a place which deliciously saw its foundation as a pirate's hole-up from where they would attack passing shipping on a long established trade route running along the north Borneo coast. Bintulu means "a place to gather heads", and though sailors are now safe from the promise of summary decapitation, the modern not unappealing town had only grown to importance with the discovery of sizeable offshore gas deposits in the 1960s. The heads had certainly gathered since. That rather explained the dearth of local points of historical interest then, and it was a perverse happy realisation that it wouldnt warrant more than a few hours that morning before moving on again, I was glad to be now making unexpectedly swift progress. A short tour around the city centre revealed a pleasant riverside scene of very colourful fishing boats tied up alongside a fish market, where a freshly arrived catch of what I took to be metre long Barracuda and many sharks reminded me of the Chinese penchance for Shark's Fin Soup. Even the local Chinese temple was remarkably subdued however, and it wasnt far until I reached the sole real point of note around town, an obviously Islamic influenced obelisk crowned with a golden onion-dome cupola. This was the Council Negri Monument, a testimony to Bintulu's one historical contribution in hosting on this spot in 1867 the first convention of states which would later be unforeseenly federated together as Malaysia. A surprising spot for it, it was perhaps merely selected because it was geographically a centrepoint for Sarawak, Sabah and the peninsula. I resisted the allure of the Malay "kampung' (stilt village) the other side of the river and completed a loop back to my hotel via the old disused airport whose runway remains marooned, surrounded now by modern conurbation. Locals redeemingly unused to tourists unilaterally volunteered the whereabouts of the elusive bus back out to the terminal, from where I realised I was close to a tempting animal park but plumped for progress instead. The touts in civilised Malaysia were no match for my determined stance, but a bus leaving imminently for Miri was not to be resisted. Aiming for small town Batu Niah only equidistant from Bintulu, I tried to ensure that I would be dropped off in town and not just out on the highway as suspected, but it was no surprise when I was grumpily dropped at an interchange still 11Ks short. In the process I had at least gained a better insight into the pervading scene along the highway, a 2 hour trip prompted by an incessant patchwork of roadside longhouses, variously modern and pristine, some now in brick, others timber wrecks, every one signed with their headman's name. "Rumah Entawai" for example simply meant "Entawai's House", even if it was a whole community 400 metres long. The palm tree plantations were more in evidence along this stretch, with many trucks laden with palm nut bunches, some having fallen out onto the road to be avoided. Occasional pockets of clearfelling and slash and burn practices were thankfully humble, and more memorable was the stark contrast of still pristine jungle clad mountains topped by radio masts. The odd logging truck, a first, was another matter.
On principle I belligerently avoided the sharks' not unreasonable 10 Ringgit fare into town, frustrating at the lack of fellow takers, only to finally realise a brainwave solution. I simply hoofed the short distance back to the junction and stuck out a finger, not a moment later I was nabbed by a local hungry for petrol money, with my agreed 5 Ringgit being reduced to 4 in the end in the absence of change. He had even had the decency of going out of his way to drop me at the sole cheap flophouse in town without my behest, sweet. That perversely rather presented a quandry since it had been my original perhaps somewhat ambitious plan from there to immediately tackle the 3K bag laden jungle trek out to the HQ of the adjacent Niah National Park. At 5pm, it wasnt a bad time of day to tackle it yet I finally resolved to resist it, unsure as to whether there would be a bed for me at journeys end. Prior booking in Kuching had been impossible since there was no telling of my arrival date, certainly I hadnt imagined it would be so soon, and for sure Niah was popular. I shacked up at the tellingly deserted Niah Cave Hotel then with the promise of an early start the next day, redeemed by Sarawak's facility even in tiny Batu Niah of being able to square away more pressing work on the net. Just as well since at just a few hundred metres square by the side of the small Niah River, there werent too many other distractions in town.