Report From Borneo (Continued)

JULY 1998

DAY 10

Early Morning at Royal Mulu Resort

We were up at reasonable time for breakfast – it felt very strange being three of only about nine people in the resort! There were more staff in the dining area than house guests. In a way it was a little depressing to think that all this infrastructure, and time and effort which has gone into developing the resort is not being utilised. A resort which is so full that you cannot move is not much fun, but in its own way, a resort of this nature with no-one in it is also not much fun. We had breakfast on the large verandah area overlooking the lake, where we could see and hear the boats of the villagers coming and going.

After we had finished breakfast and organised ourselves, we headed to the main foyer area where we met our guide for the day – James. It turned out that he was from one of the nearby villages up river a little. His son even went to one of the nearby schools, which was pointed out to us during our trip up the river. We were today heading up the Batang Ai to Batang Ai National Park, and then later to visit one of the longhouses in that area. The trip was going to take about 2.5 hours – quite a long time to be seated in one of the longboats – they tend to get a bit hard on unpadded rear ends.

The four of us – James plus the three of us – headed off across the mirror smooth lake, heading upstream. James had said that we would have to find a “front man”, whatever that meant. The lake is very large, and it was quite some time before it started to narrow down. There are still areas where the old vegetation from before the valley was flooded, sticks out of the water, and at times we would weave our way through the “tree tops” with the odd Kingfisher or other water bird, looking on. Occasionally we would pass a longboat loaded down with produce of some type, or other goods, going in the other direction – the main local market is apparently somewhere up towards the main Batang Ai dam. Scattered on the hillsides are a few villages, some of which are visited by people from the resort. But we were headed a lot further up the river, and did not have time to stop off here.

Fish Farm on Lake Batang Ai

After a good half hour of travel, we came to a village where the villagers farm a local fresh water fish – the red Telapia. It is the same fish which we had eaten a couple of days beforehand in Kuching. The fingerlings are bought from the local fish hatchery (just on the downstream side of the dam) and then farmed until they are large enough to be sold on the market. It usually take about 6 months for them to reach maturity. There were a number of sizes in the farm when we were there – some dated back to the end of February, and were nearly ready for sale (they were also a nice looking size) while others were a lot more recent, and had arrived in mid June, and looked as if they might be ready about Christmas. While we looked at the farm, and the various activities that the locals were undertaking, James went over to the village to find our “front man”. Before long, he reappeared again, and the five of us set off.

It was not long before we found our what the front man is for. He assists in guiding the boat through the river! It became apparent as we entered a narrower section of the river which is the point where the lake ends and the river starts. We came around a bend, and there before us were so many logs lying on the water, that you felt that it was almost possible to walk across the river on the logs, they are packed so densely. The “front man” guided the boat with his paddle, and indicated to James (who was on the motor) which direction was the best bet. The logs are apparently washed down stream during flood periods, and reach this area of the lake where the flow stops, and just bank up to form an almost impenetrable barrier. We managed to chart a course through the logs and then found ourselves in the river proper, with the jungle closing in on all sides. There is very little evidence of habitation as the sides of the valley appear to be quite steep, and would preclude any longhouse construction, or farming activity. It did not take long until we found ourselves venturing upstream against a strong current. Rapids were beginning to mark the places where the river was changing level rapidly.

Guiding the Longboat through the Rapids

The “front man” was beginning to work harder – in the beginning, just with his paddle, later with a pole which he would use as with a punt – placing it into the river bed and then straining against it to change the course, or sometimes to help to hold the course of the boat as we went through the rapids. Large rocks loomed on all sides as we headed up the rapids. Sometimes we thought that there was no way that we were going to get up the rapid without being drenched (the longboats sit in the water with only a little freeboard), but it was rare that we were even splashed!

The method for getting up the rapid involves revving the engine to get the speed up, then tilting the engine out of the water at the last second so that the propeller is not damaged on the rocks of the rapid. The “front man” guides the front of the boat until such time as the water is deep enough to lower the engine again. Sometimes, on a particularly tight corner which has a rapid at the start of the upstream bend, the boat will be manoeuvred back and forth until it is in line with the rapid, then “gunned” to get the speed up, the engine tilted up, the “front man” straining on his pole trying to prevent the boat from slipping back down the water fall, and then the propeller placed just far enough below the surface of the water to allow some momentum to be gained from the motor. Both the driver and the “front man” are incredibly agile – not once did either of them look as though they might lose their balance – all this in a boat about 8 m long and 600 mm wide!

Travelling up the Batang Ai River

Once we came across a large log which barred our way. The Ibans don’t build bridges, they just knock down a likely looking tree on a river bank, and walk across it to the other side. The log was large enough to make you think that without a chain saw, we were not going to be moving much further up the river in the boat. The boatmen thought otherwise. With his punting pole, the “front man” managed to lever one end of the log into the water on the upstream side of a little protuberance that it was sitting on (that way, the log would remain basically in the same position, and could, with a lot of effort, be moved back into its position again). The log still blocked our way, but it was at least half floating. So, without further ado, it was run over by the boat, and at the last moment, the engine was tilted up so that we were able to clear the log.

The trip continued in a similar vein the rest of the way until we arrived at the entry to the Batang Ai National Park. Along the way we had passed a couple of longhouses on the river bank, one of which, Tibu Longhouse, we would visit on our way back down the river.

The National Park headquarters are located on one side of the river, while on the other side, at the confluence of the Batang Ai and the Sungai Lubang Baya, the National Park begins. All visitors are required to register at the park headquarters, and park rangers are available to take you on hikes into the park. It was just our luck that the Ranger had today decided to have the day off! James was not particularly perturbed by that and reckoned that he could do just as good a job as the Ranger, so, back we went to our boat, headed across the river to a little jetty at the start of the trail, and we headed off up the hill. The first point of interest is a warriors’ cemetery which the track winds its way through. In all there are seven graves belonging to warriors from tribes close to the area. The graves are always put on a ridge of a hill – in this instance, the ridge was almost razor sharp as it fell away sharply from either side of the track we were following. Iban tradition is to always leave primary growth trees on and close to the ridge, and to farm the land further down the slope. The graves are also placed within this area at the top of the ridge. Each warrior takes with him his important material possessions – one has a pile of ankle bracelets, others have their spirit jars, one has a small metal chest containing who knows what. The walk up the hill is very steep, but in its own way, it is not too hot. The speed of the climb tends to be slow, as the intention is to try to listen out for animals. This is wild orang-utan country. If you are lucky you will see the animals while you walk through the jungle. The sun does has little effect on you, because the forest canopy is so thick that only filtered light manages to get to the ground. Every now and then a refreshing breeze wafts through the under storey of the forest to provide a little cooling to the sweating skin.

There were many birds present in the trees – unfortunately, we could hear more than we than we could see. At one time, the distinct call of the hornbill reverberated across the hill.

Trekking through Batang Ai National Park

The trail tends to climb in a series of steps – generally up, sometimes fairly level, sometimes even downhill, but often steep. Along the way are a couple of places to have a rest and admire the view – what little could be seen through the trees. The area is in very close proximity to the border with Kalimantan, in fact, if you were to continue up the Batang Ai, you would eventually cross the border another couple of hours boat trip from the rangers station. The view from the hill is over primary and secondary rainforest. There are no logging trails in this area, the only removal of the rainforest has been by the native Iban people clearing for their farming.

Wild Orang-utans are often found in this area. During the bush fires of earlier in the year and last year, many wild orang-utans from Kalimantan came across to the National Park to escape the fires on the Indonesian side. As we were walking through the jungle, we were suddenly hit by the pungent odour of wild beasts. It was as if we had hit a wall. One second there was the mixed smell of the jungle, a step or two later, and there was the strong smell of the orang-utan. I had never smelt it before, but knew immediately that it was the smell of the orang-utan. My thoughts were confirmed by James. We stood motionless for a few minutes to see if we might be lucky enough to actually sight an orang-utan. We were able to hear the distinct noise made by the animal, however, we were not lucky enough to actually sight it. It would not have been very far away though. During the fruiting season later in the year, the Orang-utan is found in quite large numbers in this area. it is, however, a solitary animal, and does not usually gather with others to eat, as many other animals tend to do. When the fruit is not abundant, the orang-utans tend to spread themselves out, and are more difficult to find. We were hopeful, but a little disappointed as we moved on up the track. We knew, though, that we had come very close to finding the orang-utan in its wild habitat.

At the top of the hill, we found a nice area under the shade of the jungle canopy where we were able to sit and rest and take in the sights, smells and sounds of the jungle, while we quenched our thirst with water which we had carried with us from the resort earlier in the day. We knew that it might be a good idea to bring a bit of water along. Then began the descent to the river – this time down the other side of the mountain. We were very glad that we had walked up the track we had, as this side was amazingly steep, and also through more of the primary rainforest, where the ground was thick with mulch from the trees. There had been attempts to create steps in the track using timber to form the risers, however, the moisture of the rainforest had started to eat away at them, and more often than not, they would be rotten and fall apart as soon as rested your weight on them. The park staff were obviously aware of the problem, because as we got closer to the bottom of the mountain, we came across a stockpile of new timber for the risers, and new ones had actually been placed in the ground.

We also came across the smell of orang-utans again as we descended. It was interesting, as James had noticed it first, and we had all stopped in our tracks. I could not smell it as I was at the rear of our little group, and it was a minute before I grasped exactly why we had stopped. As soon as I moved forward about a metre, there it was! This time we were not able to hear the orang-utan, perhaps we were in an area where it had spent the night, although there was no sign of its nest high up in the trees.

A little further on, we came across a group of Macaques in the bush to our right. We were fairly close to river, so it was possible that they used the river to drink. The track circled around them, so that we were able to get a good view of them in the bush. One of them started to head across towards the track which we had just come down, but as soon as he realised that we were nearby, up went a screech, and they all disappeared into the jungle.

THE Sungai Lubang Baya near the end of our trek

Our route continued further down the mountain, until we came to the Sungai Lubang Baya which joined the Batang Ai at the Park headquarters. The waters were cool and inviting, however, after washing down our faces, we still had to travel a little until we were able to hop into the boat, which the “front man” had brought up the river a bit to meet us. We headed down the river towards the Batang Ai, and then had our lunch on the banks of the river, in a nice area where we were able to go for a bit of a dip. It was actually surprisingly cool in the water, compared to other water which we had been in during the course of our trip. The current in the river was quite strong, and you had to be careful you were not caught up in it and whisked downstream, although I don’t think that I would have gone too far before finding a way out of the main stream. It was also not particularly deep. We found that there was actually an area just near the base of the rapids which swirled in the opposite direction, and pulled you back upstream!

Lunch was not bad – plenty of it, although we did wonder why it is that the Asians tend to see Westerners as not particularly interested in eating Asian food, and insist on providing their definition of what they think we like to eat. I, personally, would not mind eating what was supplied for our “front man” and James, our guide. While we ate, we dried off, so that by the time we had finished the lunch, we were ready to proceed downstream a bit to the village at Tibu Longhouse.

The Tibu Longhouse

The longhouse is located high up above the river on a sharp bend in the river, which provided a large sand and gravel spit on the bank which allowed boats to be pulled from the river, yet to still be close enough to easily pull back in the river. Access to the longhouse was up a steep track and a flight of stairs. From the edge of the river, the longhouse actually looked rather picturesque, although, it at the same time, appeared to be a ramshackle collection of buildings.

Again, most of the villagers were away for the day – in the fields and at the markets – so we were introduced to some of the women and children, and the remaining men in the longhouse. Tibu is used exclusively by one tour company for providing accommodation in order to be able to access the National Park area early in the morning and early evening when the chances of seeing wildlife would be even greater than during the day. The accommodation is in a separate dormitory to the longhouse, although you would share some time with the people of the longhouse while.

The longhouse is constructed in the traditional style, but appeared to be more in keeping with what one imagines a longhouse should be like than Nanga Murat on the Skrang River. This longhouse had the more typical bamboo slat floor which sometimes felt as though it would not support your weight, but is in actual fact quite strong. There were no skulls hanging from the ceiling in this longhouse – whether it is because they have been sold off to a museum, or simply because it is not as commercial a longhouse as the Skrang River building, we don’t know. We had the feeling, though, that it was a more traditional longhouse. Although we did not manage to see inside the living quarters, they were obviously not as large as those on the Skrang River.

A large mat is placed on the floor, and all who are present seat themselves on the mat. We were welcomed to the longhouse with rice wine. The visitors book was presented for us to sign, and the wine handed around. Each bottle of rice wine, or tuak, is different from any other, the taste depending on the amount of sugar which is added to the rice to make it ferment. We were treated to one bottle, and then an old lady (she looked pretty old, although may well have been only in her sixties) who could speak no English except for “very good” which she used constantly while patting my 10 year old son’s head, produced another bottle which was a lot sweeter than the previous bottle. She was quite insistent that we all have a drink of her brew.

Some of their handicrafts – baskets, small containers etc, were presented for us to appraise and perhaps buy. The prices were a little less than those on the Skrang River, but not substantially different. They are certainly a lot cheaper than those in Kuching, although the range of different goods is quite a bit less, and obviously comes from only the one area, whereas, in Kuching, it is possible to buy artefacts from all regions in Borneo. We made them happy by purchasing a few things (you actually feel a little guilty if you don’t buy something – we do anyway).

Tibu is a neighbouring village to Beritik, which lies on the other side of the river and can be accessed by a suspension bridge across the river. Beritik is also sometimes visited, depending on who is not farming or at the market at the time of the visit.

We departed Tibu, feeling glad that we had made the effort to find a remote longhouse to visit. The people in this part of the world are all so friendly – they appear that they would do anything to help you.

Our trip continued back down the river. I had thought that the trip down would be easier than the trip up, however, the amount of effort that goes into keeping the boat on course while negotiating the rapids is amazing. Although there was no need to use the engine to power the boat down the rapids, the problem the front man had was to slow the boat down enough so that it did not crash into the rocks at the bottom of the rapid, or the large boulders sticking up on the sides of the rapid. Only once did we actually end up going where it was not intended that we go. The home stretch, however, was a little wetter than the trip up.

The return trip down the river did not take as long as the trip up, and it did not seem to be too long before we were again negotiating the log jam at the entry to the dam. Once through the logs, we headed back to the fish farm village to drop the front man off. It was about this time that we noticed a thunderstorm brewing in the distance, and started to hope that it would hang off just long enough for us to get back to the resort. We were in luck. We made it back at about 16.45 hrs after a very full day which was full of interesting sights, sounds and smells. (You can probably tell by the amount of information in this page that it was one of the most interesting and fascinating days of the trip.)

The thunderstorm rolled in not long after we had arrived back, and cooled the air just enough to make the evening enjoyable.

Trip Travelogues

Clarissa’s Diary continues on the next page

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