JUST like last year, a storm struck Miri.
On the fifth floor of the Imperial Hotel, a wild wind whisked away chairs and shrubs and flung them into the pool. So much for a swim before breakfast, or a seat by the pool afterwards!
Meanwhile, out at sea a tug and barge were negotiating the perilous entrance to the Miri River. They laboured through a following sea; and ploughed on through churning surf to a safe haven in Miri Harbour.
Around noon, I arrived at the Miri bus station. For the next eight hours my bus bumped and bounced through Sarawak, enroute to Sibu. For a less turbulent trip, I would have happily paid double the RM50 (around $19.99) fare.
At Sibu on the muddy Rejang River, a flotilla of fast ferries lay along-side the pier. Each was pencil-thin, slender; and sleek with a raised bow that tapered down to a low-slung stern.
Nearby, ocean-going vessels lay at anchor; and tugs tethered to barges laboured along the wide, tidal Rejang.
But before boarding the Bahagia 2000, a craving for food called for a quick meal of coffee and kuey chap at the Victorious kedai kopi all for RM6.50. Hmmmmm ... and tasty too.
Three hours later, we arrived at the busy river-side town of Kapit. The Bahagia 2000 docked alongside two already moored ferries. We alighted across their bows and trudged up the steep steps to that thriving hill-top town.
The next day, intending to explore more of Borneo's interior, I boarded the Sentral Vision, bound for the upper Baleh River.
Many years before, the English explorer, Redmond O'Hanlon, had ventured up the Baleh Into the Heart of Borneo; this became the title of his book. Water flared off the bow as the craft cleaved through liquid mud. Astern, a creamy, cappuccino-coloured wake fanned out, rippling across the brown surface to lap and slap both banks.
Thirty minutes later, the river forked and the ferry swung hard to starboard, into the narrow Baleh.
From there onwards, the emerald jungle encroached, with vine entwined branches overhanging the water-way. The river carved out a sinuous course, curving and coiling through the rainforest, like some gigantic serpent rolling beneath the damp drooping vegetation.
The Baleh continued to constrict and shallow. Rainfall having been low. Below the meandering bends, water rippled over shallow shoals of shingle.
Piercing the churning brown current, ominous rocky outcrops thrust up like malignant crocodile teeth, ready to slash the hull.
The vessel rolled when cornering, and passengers cowered when it seemed to tip too far.
Round bend after bend on the Baleh, bow and stern sections of sunken vessels broke the surface, derelict debris and a brutal reminder of the river's perils and of the frailty of water craft.
Suddenly the Sentral Vision lurched steeply to starboard. Anxious passengers leapt up with audible aaaaahhhs, gasps and shouts. The distant exits were too far to reach if she capsized.
I spent the next three hours on the roof with the baggage; and with 30 others. It was safer sitting on a washing-machine, roasting under the sun than trapped down below. At least I could swim if it rolled right over.
For passengers wishing to disembark anywhere along the way, the skipper nosed the bow up on to the shore, with a metallic crunch on the shingle. Many were returning home to family, for the Gawai Harvest Festival.
All along the banks, the planned destruction of the tropical rainforest proceeded with routine efficiency. Lumbering vehicles with steel pincers prowled about, gathering up raw logs. They delivered these to a crane, perched on a wooden platform high above the water. The crane then grabbed the timber and lowered it in to the river, below.
In the water, about 300 logs were tethered to a central rope, like strings of tightly packed fire-crackers. Small motor boats guided the drifting raft, down river to a barge for eventual export by ship.
And the primal jungle falling to the chainsaw; fast forwarding an ancient equatorial forest to oblivion; the rightful inheritance of all life on the planet squandered by the selfish few, for tainted pieces of silver.
At last a blast from the horn heralded our arrival at the Rumah Penghulu Jambi Longhouse, a thriving centre of Iban life. A steeply pitched plank served as a rickety gangway, down on to the dry shingle. A safer option was jumping down.
Encircled by jungle, the Iban settlement perched on a hill by the Baleh. Two parallel longhouses faced each other across a central plaza. Like terraced-housing, each longhouse was comprised of dwellings, separated by a common wall, but sharing a long communal porch.
My Iban hosts Christie and Ella, provided meals and accommodation, generously declining payment, which I preferred to make. A flat-screen TV screened Astro football; and a new washing machine added to their long list of mod-cons. I enjoyed a delicious Iban meal and later quaffed the potent 'tuak'.
On my return journey, the Sentral Vision swung to port as it exited the Baleh River and re-entered the Rejang.
As it did so, I resolved to make a return journey; next time, up the Rejang as far as Belaga.
The Brunei Times
Sunday, August 5, 2012
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