A Travellerspoint blog



Keen to escape my claustrophobic air-con cupboard I was out on the street early for a crack at Kapit's attractions, and Fort Sylvia was still top of the list. Sad then that it was closed, it always seemed to be the case in finding that opening hours differed from what I had been led to expect and hitting it almost punitively on its weekly day of closure. That at least gave me no reason to delay in heading off to execute Plan B, Kapit had a regional museum for good measure. Though quickly realising what had to be the museum from the indicatons of my map, the very large traditionally stylised civic building I came across was ambiguously signed to the point that I could not be sure if I was actually at the right spot after all, and the deserted nature of the place had me similarly wondering whether it was also shut anyway. As it turned out it was, but only until in poking around I managed to track down the AWOL caretaker who unlocked it for my perusal. It turned out to occupy just one small ill-evident section of the building but was a modern and well presented collection for such a small isolated town, stereotypically I was left to contemplate it all by myself.


Kapit is the largest division in Sarawak, comprising about 30% of the state's land area, stretching over a massive 39,000 square kilometres. Consisting mainly of largely unpenetrated forest it has a population density of only 2 per square K though. Besides Kapit town of around only 8,000 people, the smaller towns of Song, Merit and Belaga would be considered merely villages elsewhere, and most settlements are just isolated riverside longhouses. The whole division incredibly boasts less than 50Ks of road, clustered around Kapit and Song, and around Belaga where I was soon intending to head there were no roads at all bar the odd logging track. Subsistence rice farming is the main pursuit of the predominantly Iban locals, though some are now finding success with Cocoa as a cash crop, and a recently invoked coal mine at Nanga Merit has the largest reserves in Sarawak.

Chinese settlers first arrived to transform the Rejang in the 1870s, with successive waves of Hokkien, Hakka and Foochow migrant traders being attracted to settle here after Fort Sylvia's construction, the protection it afforded also encouraged the arrival of the first Malays at this time too. This effected the incorporation into Iban culture of hitherto unknown goods such as ceramic jars, gongs and metalware of all kinds, and some of the traders also turned to farming in turn upon discovery of good soil here. After a preceding fort at Nangah Balleh was founded in 1874, it was abandoned in favour of Kapit's present site due to dangerous currents, and missionaries soon followed in 1882, continuing here until the 1960s. The museum related how the fort had been minimally manned, with Domingo de Rosario who was the son of James Brooke's Portugese chef being posted here with only 1 or 2 Malay officers and a few locally recruited "Fortmen". Having received no formal education, de Rosario incredibly "held the fort" here for over 30 years, overseeing law and order, brokering disputes such as adultery and swindling, and most trickily in implementing the confiscation of heads and slaves captured on raids. An unsung hero of sorts, he also toured the longhouses to collect a poll tax and became something of an expert on local ethnography. An interesting practice here in this vain was the relaying of "Summon Batons", a bush telegraph system whereby longhouse chiefs were held responsible for passing messages onto the next longhouse, an attached string was knotted to indicate after how many days the recipient should attend. A white "General" baton was replaced by a red one for urgent messages, and it was forbidden for this to be allowed to overnight at any longhouse, essentially rendering its progress to be unfaltering day or night through the jungle. In spite of his dedication de Rosario was never officially enrolled as a civil servant and only received payment upon the Rajah's whim.

A mock up of an Iban house displayed such necessities as "Rencong" curved handled swords, spears, a tall narrow shield, as well as much basketry and woven artifacts. Most important were the Kenyalang (Hornbill) icons, wooden bird-like representations which are carved and painted as part of a ritual festival before being "brought to life" with Tuak (rice wine) and being paraded along the longhouse accompanied by sacred chanting. Then mounted atop a carved pole, its beak is pointed towards enemy territory and the Kenyalan's soul is believed to depart in attacking enemy warriors and property.

An Orang Ulu section then related them to be fine carvers of wood and Hornbill ivory, also accomplished boatbuilders. Scary totems and face masks used in their harvest festival were displayed, and not to be outdone by the Iban's Hornbill icons, they popularly created images of an "Aso" (dragon-like dog) with a long snout, curling fangs and long horns. The totems were used in rituals associated with headhunting, farming and initiation ceremonies, comprised of humanesque figures one atop another, the uppermost typically wielding a sword and shield, all of them grotesquely faced like a Picasso. They would have scared the crap out of any approaching enemy sure enough.

It was here at Fort Sylvia that a peace treaty was finally signed between the Iban and Orang Ulu in 1924, overseen by Rajah Vyner Brooke. A large glazed jar displayed here had been presented to an Iban chief by the Rajah at this time and surprisingly there was even a photo of the ceremony betraying many warriors still dressed and tattooed traditionally. Quite amazing to realise that these people had persisted in tribal warfare and headhunting against each other in the jungle until 1924, wow! A subsequent photo of Kapit in 1940 bore no relation to the present town, just a line of stilt elevated shacks huddled by the river. It was here that I also learned that Kapit is derived from the Iban word "kepit' (bamboo), as in "Kami ngagai rumah panjai kepit" (we are going to the bamboo longhouse). Altogether now.......

The ubiquitous beastie section related the decline and demise of local species, with the Orang Utan population now restricted to 2 small separate groups and the Sarawak Rhinosceros is now sadly no more. A storyboard then fantastically related "If you are one of those people who have an irresistible urge to sample the aphrodisiac properties of a Rhino horn, you might as well start chewing your finger nails!". Fauna here which had thus far eluded me were the Clouded Leopard, the striking Prevost's Squirrel (black back, red chest with a white stripe separating), Barking Deer and the Stork billed Kingfisher (very large).

From the museum there were no further palpable distractions around town. It took all of 5 minutes to walk a circuit of Kapit, and so I escaped the ferocious heat over a couple of cold ones before finding a net cafe with requisite air-con. For a net cafe it remarkably resembled a disco, with kids bopping to pop music in the gloom between the terminals. The connection was surprisingly good too considering where I was and I contemplated how compared to Indonesia for example, Malaysian development really did know something about standards.

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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.

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It was a pity I hadnt managed to square away at least some of the city the day before, and an early start had me racing the clock to make up for it this morning after a standard Martabak brekkie. The town square proved to be a stark sterile space of polished stone not inviting any reason to linger, and in what was obviously recently cleared parkland a nearby incongruous memorial lay sheltering under 2 massive isolated trees which looked naked now, as if the jungle had only been cleared away yesterday from around them. Written only in Bahasa, I was still able to discern a short local history mentioning one of the Brookes, centred upon a memorial to locals who had been lost opposing the Japanese. The adjacent King Howe Memorial Museum appeared empty and deserted but was not much of a drawcard in any case, simply a testimony to a local who had transformed early healthcare provision in the region. This early in the day, it was notably exceptionally humid here, the moisture laden air proving even too thick for good photography. The local methodist church proved to be very grand, new and shiny, and then the nearby Chinese temple which is one of the city's most defining sights markedly competed with its garish red 7 tiered pagoda. A poke around inside revealed predictable dragons and incense sticks burning but sadly the staircase leading to the roof was closed off. Past the jetties congregated with boats of all shapes and colours the local bus station proved conveniently located even if the services were an enigma even to most of the locals, but eventually I bagged a bus out to the Civic Centre 2Ks north, promising the attraction of a small local museum.


After scanning models of many ambitious construction projects which showed Sibu to be a town and region on the move, the juxtaposition of many old photos relating indiginous culture in traditional dress and practice was an excellent departure. Chinese immigrants founded the town at least 180 years ago and in 1862 the Brooke government moved their Rejang River headquarters here downriver from Kanowit, establishing Fort Brooke. By the turn of the 20th century Sibu boasted 60 Chinese shops and government sponsorship brought in many more immigrants at this time to open up agriculture in the area. At last a short history of the Brooke dynasty was related here, revealing that Sibu came under the "Lands of the Cessation", meaning land granted by the Sultan of Brunei in reward for affording the area peace. The first of the 3 "White Rajahs", James Brooke concentrated on establishing Kuching initially from 1841, only building Fort Brooke in 1862 to quell insurgency from the Ibans of the Rejang. Unfortunately nothing remains of the fort today, the Wisma Sayan, Sibu's tallest building now stands on the spot. This could be claimed to be the birth of Sibu since it was only under the fort's protection that the Chinese were able to establish the first shops here. It was the same history of insurgency which had led the Sultan of Brunei to initially seek Brooke's help, ceding these "troubled lands" to him in payment of thanks in 1853. After Sir Charles Brooke and then Vyner Brooke, who returned to Sarawak upon the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sarawak became ceded in turn as a British Crown Colony in 1946 at his behest, since the dynasty could not unilaterally afford the expense of post war reconstruction.

The adjacent museum though small proved to be surprisingly well presented in reflection of Sibu's go getting spirit, with delicious air-con proving vital, sadly though no photos were allowed. A distribution map first revealed the ethnic distribution of Sarawak, with the Iban (also known as the Sea Dayaks) inhabiting the shores of the major inland waterways, especially the Rejang. In the central interior including Belaga where I was now headed the Kayan and Kenyah were predominant, and small pockets of the Murut and Kelabit were concentrated in the north, just south of Brunei. The Land Dayaks, Melanau and Kedayan were restricted to the banks of smaller coastal rivers and ethnic Malays were concentrated around Kuching. The nomadic Punans were nominally native to the most remote internal regions. In the absence of a translation I could only deduce that the Iban had been successively pushed north eastwards from one extremity of Sarawak around Kuching to finally settle around Brunei in the early 20th century. A neighbouring map again somewhat ambiguously related the periodic expansion of Sarawak as an entity under the Brooke dynasty, appropriating progressively further lands in 1873, 1882, 1885, 1928 and inexplicably even in 1973. Then a superb relief map showed the topography of the Rejang River valley, my intended trip up to Belaga would be rewarded with more mountainous views it seemed, and the whole area was riddled with watercourses.

A fauna display matched the museum's general vibe in being much better presented than normal, with 3 species of Hornbill, Sarawak's state symbol, though now protected its feathers are prized for ceremonial performances. The Tarsier was a favourite, a very slow moving nocturnal insect feeder with big bulging round eyes and the rare Hawksbill Turtle was a beautiful dark mottled breed, reputedly a species unchanged for 100 million years, a living dinosaur. I came across a hitherto unencountered beastie here again, the Moonrat, which resembles a pointy nosed conventional rat but is the size of a cat, it allegedly shares little ancestry with the rat family however and is a nocturnal ground dwelling invertebrate forager sporting a white coat and unusual musky smell. 3 impressive aquatic mammals found in these parts are the Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin which has a pointy beak, the very contrasting round headed Irrawaddy Dolphin which has large broad flippers but a tiny dorsal fin, and the rare Dugong which has no dorsal fin at all. Dubbed the Sea Cow, it mimics one in grazing on sea grass with its wide bristly mouth, and retains 2 nostrils unlike the single spiracles of the others. Finally I learned that the Estuarine Crocodile indiginous to the Rejang can reach 7 metres in length.

A single floral species was represented in the Rafflesia, the worlds largest flower which I had seen in the Cameron Highlands. I learned here that its scientific name is Rafflesia Arnoldi, since it was actually first recorded by Raffles and his sidekick Dr. Joseph Arnold whilst jungle bashing. All 9 Rafflesia species are total parasites, with no roots, leaves or ability to produce food for themselves, they simply live off their Liana Vine hosts.

I then moved on to learn about the Melanau people of Sarawak's coastal rivers, who from pagan origins are now divided into pagan, Christian and Moslem groups. Naturally they are proficient boat builders and the men also practice excellent woodcarving of mainly "Blum" (sickness images) and "Suk" (fishing fetishes). The examples on display amounted to scary looking totems meant to resemble the evil spirits responsible for illnesses, used in ceremonies by the "Dukun" (Spirit Doctor) to extract the illness out. The totems are then cast adrift or hidden in the jungle. The womenfolk are similarly renowned for their basketware, and as well as fishing the processing of Sago is very important in Melanau culture.

I glazed over an uninspiring Malay section before reaching a sizeable and important relation of the Chinese community in Sibu. A painting of Sibu in 1880 revealed it to have been just a tiny settlement of a few longhouses and a dozen or so smaller shacks at that time, but that was soon to change with the arrival of immigrants contracted to transform its virgin soil into pepper and rubber plantations. A notification printed in the Sarawak Gazette that year related a formal invitation from Rajah Charles Brooke to attract "Chinese settlers with wives and families numbering not less than 300 souls", setting favourable terms in the expectancy that "the said Chinese will permanently settle in the territory of Sarawak". Word got around. After reconnaissance by influential Chinese wishing to escape instability at home, deals were done to subsequently establish "New Foochow", as Sibu is still often referred as to this day. Many further Chinese ethnic groups followed, and clan associations sprang up to co-ordinate these communities. An important development in creating unity was the adoption of Mandarin in the 1930s as the language of education. A surprising revelation in this regard was the importance of Christianity too, since besides the sponsoring of missionaries by Rajah Charles Brooke, the majority of Chinese immigrants were Christian. Further displays of Chinese culture showed traditional costumes and explained their many festivals, which though interesting I considered to be too much work to record ad infinitum. One example was the Moon Festival however, a mid-autumnal celebration which honours the moon goddess and features the eating of "Moon Cakes". They also mark the Wandering Soul festival (one for me perhaps), the Dragon Boat festival, the Jade Emperor festival, the Tomb Visiting festival and most importantly, the Chinese New Year.

Onto Iban culture, Sarawak's largest ethnic group mainly live in longhouses along lowland riverbanks and are responsible for much of the rice, pepper and rubber cultivation in the state. Still retaining strong traditional ties, they were once warriors and headhunters, building their longhouses elevated on stilts for defence. Their renowned crafts are the weaving of blankets and skirts, the carving of Hornbill images and the building of burial huts. The men would sport prolific body tattoos and communal life centred on the longhouses' external verandah. The fireplace here was used to smoke the skulls of dead enemies. These were often the Orang Ulu (the Kayan and Kenyah people) who had migrated from north east Kalimantan. Persistent conflict with the Iban has split them into many separate groups, with many having returned to Kalimantan. For those who stayed a peace treaty was finally settled with the Iban under the tutelage of the Rajah in 1924, and so they remain on the upper Rejang and Baram Rivers. The Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Punan and nomadic Penan also belong to this group. Much of their supernatural folklore revolves around the cycle of rice cultivation and besides habitual whickerwork and woodcarving, elaborate beadwork is an important craft, they also produce knives and blowpipes.

From here a short history of the local timber industry related that in 1986 it was Sarawak's greatest foreign exchange earner after oil and gas, reaching 1.4 billion Ringgit. That says it all. Cardboard passports of the once independent state of Sarawak were fantastic colonial vestiges, francked with postage stamps portraying either Rajah Vyner Brooke or George VI. It was also notable that the currency was referred to as the Dollar on these, and that perhaps explained why locals sometimes still referred to it as that.

After a great fire destroyed much of Sibu in 1928 it was soon rebuilt, the people curiously further polarised in the creation of many anti-Japanese organisations, indicative of the political climate back in China and the local peoples' continuing attachment. The Japanese subsequently invaded mainland China in 1937 (again) and were in Sibu by 1942. Political development in opposition to British colonial rule matured from street protests into the foundation of the Sarawak United Peoples Party in 1959, which was overwhelmingly supported in Sarawak's first general election in 1963. Amongst many photos of dignitaries and political rallies, one inexplicably showed "security forces" patrolling during an unexplained curfew in 1971.

The museum had been unexpectedly excellent and it was a lot like hard work trying to do it justice. The final fling was a walk around an excellent ceramics collection boasting dozens of enormous glazed jars, I resisted their history though since fatigue already had me begging for no more by 2.30pm. That still rather precluded my onward progress all the same though. Not expecting such a fine in depth documentary I had hoped to head back to my hotel in time for the noon check out and hop aboard a boat upriver. A second night was a delay I could stomach however, my air-con room and the assurance of curry and beer would probably be unobtainable indulgences for the next while, and Sibu had merited it. Initially planning to hit the tourist office in search of more distractions, a handy net cafe adjacent to the museum proved too good to turn down instead. I assured interested parties back home that I still breathed, checked the airline website in view of some important time-sensitive planning and then re-affirmed my poor typing in more diary dabblings. It was another chance bonus in that in a town full of Chinese eateries and little else, my overtly Moslem hotel just happened to neighbour a unique "Islamic Cafe" tabling excellent curry and Roti Canai, it was a saviour from greasy MSG and gelatine poisoned concoctions even if you couldnt get a beer there. The favoured dish around here besides the indiginous Foochow noodles (steamed in soya and oyster sauce, with spring onions and dried fish) was caramelised frogs legs. It aint Kelty.

An afternoon storm meant that the net cafe had actually proved a blessed distraction and though thankfully fresher, the stubborn cloud served to rob me of the gorgeous crimson sunset I had witnessed the night previous. I checked out the Wisma Sayan that night, an incredible polished marble palace of a shopping mall featuring designer fashions and KFC in the jungle, and then it was an easy choice between Tsingtao beer and prayers on TV. As I supped away, the squeaks of the giant Flying Foxes dangling from the aives overhead kept me company and it was here that I became aware of the renewed convention of proferring items to be passed (mainly money!) respectfully with both hands, a throwback to Thailand almost. A couple of further realisations came to the fore here in that the predominant Chinese probably found English as preferable to Malay as I did, certainly they were more inclined to speak it, also that in spite of the Islamic weekend which had presented many businesses closed today, the pubs had contrastingly kicked off bigtime. It was just a pity that presumably in line with local sensitivities, every single one was located up a stark foreboding staircase out of the limelight and so I thought better of frequenting any of them. Though doubtless I didnt know what I was missing I didnt so much fear the potential for clip joints as excruciating oriental karaoke!

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Kuching to Sibu


Too compromised to have made a move the day previous, I redeemed my frustration at having succumbed to Kuching's cheap and cheerful chill out factor by clearing up still more pressing practicalities. I finally managed to treat myself to a new T-shirt but concentrated in the main on corrolating many important notes, with more hours also invested in the net and the research of imminent considerations.

Next morning I finally managed to shirk off my unintended lengthy stay with an early taxi ride out to a terminal for the express ferry boat to Sibu, the next city north east. It had always been my presumption that Borneo's one major road artery in that direction would make matters simple for the want of alternatives, yet upon research I learned that the bus journey would take fully twice as long as the boat. Though I might have preferred the road trip in order to avail myself of more unexplored scenery, the ferry at little more than a fiver was finally a no brainer. In fact it had been a major point to ponder over the last week whether I would now actually trace any of the land route through Sarawak in the end, since from Sibu an unexpected tantalising alternative had become more exciting the more I had contemplated it. Exploring the reaches of the Batang Rejang, the longest river in all Malaysia at 560Ks long would offer the chance to appreciate a more authentic experience of Borneo away from modernity, up waterways promising variously indiginous culture, rainforest and the sadly associated logging operations. My resolve to extend the simple half day bus journey from Sibu to Bintulu would alternatively be stretched to a week in that detour, but in the end my only reservation at that prospect was the lack of an onward connection. The staged river trip would take me hundreds of Ks into the interior of Borneo to an outpost called Belaga, but it was a crushing realisation to discover that sods law, the onward air connection from there onto Bintulu and back to the coast had been suspended due to aircraft maintenance. It was a ridiculous affair moreover for the locals to have lost their only convenient contact with the outside world for 2 months or more, a poor shortcoming. There was an alternative in the prospect of a 4 wheel drive trip down logging tracks but that would be an uninspiring and notoriously costly indulgence. I would save my decision until Sibu then.

The deliciously modern air-con boat thrust me powerfully up the final reaches of the bay around Kuching past jungle clad banks to realise another exotic wonder, the South China Sea. The name itself was enough to make it amazing just to be here. After a while of sea skimming we entered an arm of the Batang Rejang delta for a short pit stop at a spot known as Tanjung Manis (Cape Sweet), immediately witnessing the sorry forboding scene of logging yards and freighters loaded with the same. One just departing with logs piled the length of its deck was Thai registered I noted. More bankside logging yards, some now cutting it into timber or manufacturing plywood materialised, and massive mounds of offcast sawdust testified to the longevity of the assault on nature. A major confluence then took us from the primary fork of the delta into the Rejang River proper, with the dark hue of the former immediately transforming into a golden tan coloured mud laden highway. The propensity of small log laden merchantmen and larger tugboat towed barges was only alleviated by a couple of enormous gravel filled trampers precariously sunken to the gunwales, then the small town of Sarikei materialised functional and modern but unremarkable. It was simply the location itself which was amazing. More concerted timber operations peppered the banks periodically now, a particularly massive pile of grey logs proving unusually hollow, and then just short of Sibu the already rusted hulks of vessels under construction sat beached at rudimentary dockyards. Still surrounded by jungle, a prominent tower block perversely pierced the horizon from afar, and I knew this to be Sibu's tallest building, a skyscraper some 28 storys high thrusting up from the rainforest. Not what one expects in the Borneo hinterland. The town materialised at another river fork, actually the parting of the Rejang and one of its major delta arteries the Igan, immediately impressive in its modern, clean and colourful Chinese character. It also became promptly apparent that my tatty guidebook lagged somewhat behind it, with prettified parkland lying where my first 2 hotels of choice should have been. Weary of the heat, in the end I ended up plumping for a palpably mid-range option complete with elevator, air-con, TV, western style en suite and even that previously unknown concept, a bath. I dont know if it was the shock but I conked out and wasted the remainder of the day. A late foray down to the river could only muster beer besides a statue testifying to Sibu's title as the "City of Swans", from whence a fantastic sunset over the river then descended into a full on thunderstorm, it was still the rainforest sure enough.

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Semenggoh Wildlife Park


Finally managing an early start for a change, I resisted the Stupid O'Clock urge to beat the crowds and so headed instead for the 7.45am local bus out to Semenggoh. At least thats what the timetable promised. With no bus apparent I believed a rival van driver when he said that it was actually 7.30, and so together with a token English couple it was a redemption to plump for his more direct alternative at a still cheap as chips 4 Ringgit. From the park gate where I bagged a cheeky student discount costing all of 1 Ringgit 50, a race was assumed with the aloof Anglo duo in resistance to any distractions, we had an appointment at 9 and wanted to be early. The 20 minute tarmac trek brought us to a clearing adjacent to the park nerve centre, a jungle ringed haven which finally mustered perhaps 50 fellow itinerants as opposed to the 5 there had been at Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. That comparison was pertinent in the realisation of a second stab at a rare opportunity, the chance to get up close and personal with wild Orang Utans. As the prescribed feeding time arose, park wardens would let out a holler which was promptly answered by movement in the distant jungle canopy, and soon a juvenile male made himself centre stage courtesy of a network of elevated ropes. A second larger juvenile wasnt long in joining him, and this in itself was a new departure since at Bukit Lawang it had only been pregnant or mothering females who had materialised. One amazed at their dexterity and precision, always maintaining 3 points of contact as every good climber knew when manoeuvering, though first trick of the day was juvenile no.1 dangling upside down by his feet to catch an upwardly thrust banana.

The show was soon stolen though by Ritchie, a dramatic appearance provoking audible awe, ambling as he was on all fours along one of the paths. Ritchie was famous, an attraction I had particularly come to witness and it was superb to realise him showing up right on cue. Amongst a local population of perhaps 30 Ritchie was the Alpha Male, the King of the Swingers and a very contrasting soul to any I had hitherto encountered. As males matured they began to develop very striking physical attributes of dominance, displaying bizzare otherwise functionless cheek lobes making their face a rounder concave dinner plate. A throat pouch would also develop so that they might avail the forest with a booming croak to ward off competing males and attract females, and their coat would become a lengthened cloak of hanging dreadlocks. An amazing quirk of natural selection meant that such indulgences were partially supressed in less dominant males however in order to prevent needless confrontation, but Ritchie had risen from his introduction to the park in 1981 to subdue all contenders and display these incredible traits to the max. Somewhat intimidating, he promptly displayed his unparalleled prowess by mounting a feeding platform via a tree trunk with consummate ease despite his incredible bulk, it was reckoned that comparing like with like such males could muster 6 times the strength of a man. Further evidence of this was revealed upon him first biting off the husk of a coconut and then cracking it open with one strike against a branch, so that the milk ran down the tree trunk before grating off the internal flesh with his teeth. The juveniles had understandably made way but no.1 still stole centre stage momentarily as he deliciously peed over the carpet of camera clickers beneath him. Ritchie then had some of the tourists scarpering off frantically as he lumbered off unintimidated in their direction, he took no challenge from any quarter that was clear, and with the juveniles humorous rope walking departure the day trippers departed just as quick. I was left on my own then to take a more measured wander around the park's other neglected delights. After eyeing a trio of cage ensconced crocodiles, an interpretation centre rather overwroughtly tried to supersell the park's priority in dubiously claiming that Orang Utans are the only nest building apes (bollocks, gorillas make them too for sure), also that they were the only singularly tree dwelling apes, not too sure about that one either.

An introduction to Borneo's many varied frog species courtesy of a poster related such wonders as the Hole-in-the-Head Frog for example, and outside I also chanced for the first time upon another notable which had hitherto eluded me, bug digesting pitcher plants. A presentation gleaned such facts as the life expectancy of the "Men of the Forest" being upwards of 60 years, another characteristic revealing them to be closer to humans than one might expect. Of the 2 species worldwide, there is reckoned to be a world population of around 15,000, split between the "Pongo Pygmaeus" of Borneo and the "Pongo Abelii" of Sumatra. A roll call revealed how Ritchie is 27 years old and the oldest know ape present is a 37 year old female.

The cherrypickers had all but disappeared by now, but determined to make the most of nature's opportunity a site map illustrated that the grudge trudge back along the 20 minutes of tarmac to the bus stop would be much better rewarded with a walk through the parallel Arboretum instead. The Masing Trail as it was also dubbed proved to be a muddy kilometre long walk past many buttress rooted trees of very tall perfectly straight trunks, and though the full on screech of insects and whoop of Borneon Gibbons went unrewarded of any sightings, it was still an intimidating wonder in itself to be alone in the full on throes of the jungle. I had to exercise care since the rich tapestry of tree roots underfoot could well disguise snakes, scorpions or other such drawbacks, but in the end I only came across a predictable rustle as probably a disturbed lizard scuttled off, a crack which reminded me to look up in deference to the danger of falling branches, and a sizeable brown centipede cum caterpillar. The trail ended at a seed garden which betrayed the propagation of many weird floral species, and for my trouble I was rewarded with a traffic dodging walk and long wait in the infernal heat.

With transport conspicuous by its absence I was thankfully joined by an older Tamil couple on an indulgent short break from K.L., who helped negotiate a minivan and bus connection back to Kuching. Practicalities from there took me a hitherto unexplored quarter of the centre which rewarded me with a very rare small bottle of surgical spirit and underrated Tsingtao Chinese beer, and then en route back to the tourist office I endured the midday scorch to trace the series of pavement plaques along the Sarawak River waterfront I had previously spied. A friendly pharmacist lady had related bizzarely that insect repellant of any potency was illegal here, so not wanting to succumb to that inadequacy I then retraced a shopping plaza boasting another great rarity a camping shop and ridiculously contradictory 99% DEET solution. In deliberation as to whether it was practical to dilute it, lathering on lotion which would melt my skin still seemed preferable to getting eaten alive by life threatening bugs. The pavement plaques were a vagiary of unexpected importance in that after my disappointment of the local museums not relating a single reference to the 19th century dynastic heritage which had founded Sarawak as an entity, this was the only evidence to be had.

Kuching still presented the odd street name as unlikely as Jalan MacDougall, Jalan Crookshank and Bishopgate, and yet many more had obviously been altered out of nationalistic fervour. The fact that Malay was but a secondary tongue to the majority of the populace had detracted little from it. That night a rare indulgence in a trip out to a conventional bar was still qualified by sexy leeches, and the subsequent patronage of a trio of aging unlovely rednecks who promptly got latched onto further managed to scupper any illusions of normality. I told the chicks straight that they were wasting their time, paid lip service to the doubtless genuine Hokkien locals and eventually got the fuck out. In search of redemption, a stark overilluminated Chinese foodcourt offered more eyelash fluttering come to bed looking lady boys than peace, and I went to bed contemplating once again that like every country I had ever imagined, Borneo was a very contrary place from rainforest and little else. As I sat writing in objection to the prevalent culture of bullshit, a big bottle of Tsingtao was thrust at me courtesy of an unforeseen fellow indulgent. The wobbly manic teenager wouldnt take no for an answer, man if the locals didnt want to fuck you they wanted to get you shitfaced instead! As if I needed any encouragement! Upon ridiculously trying to "bless" me with a packet of cigarettes for good measure, I took my cue from a worried young stallminder and escaped into the night. Fucked up.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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