With the rally gone and the music festival over most yachts had moved on and we too started to get ready for the next leg. Another couple with the same plans decided to heave anchor the same day and thus the 2 boats, ALISHAN and SILENT WISH left Santubong together. Now, this was new to us: buddy boating with another yacht. And a DUTCH yacht at that…
We wanted to go up a long river, the Rajang, as far as Sibu, 160 km inland. From there on our masts would restrict us, but we could take a ferry for another 85 km as far as Kapit, a small town that is only accessible by river. It made sense to travel together. We could easily get stuck on uncharted mud banks or some of the floating debris could get in our propellers and with the strong currents you’d be grateful for a helping hand.
Long house on the Rajang River
Armed with good advice and the coordinates of safe anchorages from other yachts we made our way north. The first stop was behind Lakei Island, part of Bako National Park, where we hoped to – and did – spot the probiscis monkeys. Funny guys with huge noses, aptly named Orang Belanda. (Dutch man) We also sighted a Stork-billed Kingfisher, big and tremendously colorful. Others, like the Collared Kingfisher we saw here almost daily, but this beauty was a first.
Sorry, no photos of these two, but there were lots of pitcher plants, different ones again, and magnificent butterflies
2 Days later we continued along the coast of Sarawak towards the entrance of the Rajang. We made it just before sunset and dropped the hook a mile upriver. There was a lot of traffic coming down, like the current flushed them out, but we were safe just outside the main channel. The next day was a beautiful day. The tidal current started pushing us in from the morning. We would not do much (if any) sailing in the narrow channels, the river was quite wide, but mostly shallow. So it would be all motoring and a current in the right direction was a bonus. With binoculars and cameras at hand we sat in the cockpit, ready to enjoy the scenery.
At first both shores were lined with mangrove type shrub, but soon we started seeing clearings and loads of timber. Most of the timber was piled around roofed-over storages that held more logs. One company after the other, harboring mountains of tree trunks, waiting to be transported, smoke spewing chimneys around every bend.
Lots of brick chimneys as on the left. They were generally not in use.
This first day on the river was a bit depressing, but when we reached the little town Sarikei our moods changed. The pineapple kingdom of Borneo, it sported good markets, good Chinese eateries and a music shop that sold all our favorites! We anchored off some stilt houses, where people smiled, waved and watched us, (wile we watched them) sitting in their windows, handling a fishing line or a net.
A collection of cultures: Tribe’s people, descendants of the headhunters, living in ampong houses (left). Chinese, mostly businessmen with shops or in the timber trade. And Malay muslims, like these young ladies coming off the ferry (right) on their way to college.
We hauled the bike ashore and Marijke peddled off in the early morning to a pocket of forgotten trees. It seemed all he birds in the area had found a sanctuary there. There I saw my first Malkoha’s up close. (scroll down)
The Sunday market at 5:00 am held several surprises, even for us! How many countries, how many markets have we explored? Sarikei was special!
Farmers from way up country gather to sell their wares at the Sunday market. They come by boat down the Sarikei river, to where it meets the Rajang.
Life sago worms on the left, very nutriciuous. On the right: Orange cooking bananas.
Life poultry is wrapped in newspapers, string attached, easy to carry.
25 years on the way!
A small celebration was due. On July 20th 1984 we checked out of the Netherlands on our 32ft steel JAN HARING.
Ellen and Jits came over with coffee, cake and slagroom! Thank you guys for sharing this moment with us!
Furher upstream the scenery changed. The river was narrower and the shores were now lined with Nipa palms. Still not junglish, but better. It was only half a day motoring to the next town, Bintangor, were we didn’t stop. Instead we took a turn up a side arm, the river Tulai. Here we found a selection of longhouses right at the point where the river became too shallow to continue. The banks were closer now and straight ahead some big trees could be seen overhanging, touching canopies. This was more like it! We dropped anchors and went ashore to pay respects to chiefs and then rode the dingy further in.
s/y ALISHAN and SILENT WISH in Sungai Tulai
This place had seen other visiting yachts, after s/y Crystal Blue had made it their home for a number of months 2 years previously. Their website was full of useful info and hence we felt no qualms about coming this far. What a surprise when one of the longhouses invited us to join their last harvest feast the following day!
Iban people, as all other Orang Ulu (river tribes) are fishermen and using casting nets they catch beautiful freshwater crayfish.
Great, a party! But what should we do? What was expected from us? We had read “Into the Heart of Borneo” by Redmond O’Hanlon. It’s the story of 2 British men traveling up the Rajang River in search of the Borneo Rhinoceros and staying at Iban longhouse somes 30 years before. We figured that although much of the jungle was gone, the customs of the Iban people would not have changed much. We got ready to dance and sing.
And that’s what we did. The first part of the evening was filled with local popular music, karaoke and a kind of line dance. We were seated in the long communal room with plates full of local dishes. Tuak, a sweet homebrew of rice wine was going round in abundance and our cups were kept full. Jits of Silent Wish sang an Eric Clapton classic and Ellen, Jaap and Marijke danced the traditional line dance. Most of the young people spoke English, but this dance was a way to interact with the ones that couldn’t. And that was a lot of fun.
After 3 or 4 hours we felt quite tired and got ready to leave, but were told we couldn’t. We had to wait till the main ceremony that involved a decorated banana tree on the other side of the long room was over. So we sat down and waited.
Just as well, I would not have wanted to miss this. Around midnight the karaoke stopped. The elderly took seats near the banana tree and started playing Iban music on traditional instruments. They beat their drums, gongs, turtle shells and something that sounded a bit like Indonesian gamelan, but more primal. After hours of quietly watching the crowd sing and dance, they came alive to play their part. Their faces lit up and became quite expressive. They laughed amongst themselves and looked happy, playing these ethnic tunes with a complicated rhythm.
The chief started a sword dance around the tree and when he cut off some part of the decoration, the next high ranking person took turn. This was followed by another one and another and it didn’t seem to end, with the same tunes being played over and over, so after what we thought was a polite time we got up to leave again. But no, in vain. We had no choice, but to sit it out till the end, which came eventually when someone else had enough and ended his dance with cutting down the whole tree. We applauded and felt like we’d worked hard at the harvest ourselves.
We left the day after the feast, worked our way back to the Rajang river and continued upstream, against the current.
This area has funny tides. Twice a day, one small and short, the other big and long. Now more then 100 km inland, we had left salty sea water far behind us. Around us it was all fresh, however muddy. Still, we had currents running both ways, up river and down. At the lowest tide the water nearly all ran out of the Sungai (river) Tulai, which had us sleep with the cockpit in the bush among the fireflies at night.
Apparently, every high tide, the body of salty seawater runs in and pushes the mass of fresh water upstream, which in its turn streams back at low tide, thus creating currents, stronger than the river flow. And so we didn’t get to Sibu, our last town, before dark. We just spend the night a few miles short, around one of many bends and postponed our arrival till next morning.
We were told this small city with mostly Chinese inhabitants, has the highest number of millionaires per capita in East Malaysia. Typical Chinese not to change their way of living. Except for 2 or 3 modern high rises and a church, the houses look just as poor as 100 years ago. For us the most interesting building was 115 year old the Chinese temple at the quay.
It’s easy to see its importance, situated on a junction of major rivers and thus another town where the jungle tribes congregate to do their trading. They camp all around the 2 markets, one wet, the other dry.
Loads of dried fish
And of course more packages of lifestock
We found several machine shops and hardware stores in town and a mall with a camera shop where we could buy a replacement for the coolpix that had died the week before. Jaap hunted for fuel filters again. The engine and the fuel tanks were behaving well, but we want to be prepared.
We didn’t make the trip to Kapit, the town at the end of the river. We didn’t feel like sitting in a noise banana (also known as river ferry, the only way of transport up there) for 3-4 hours, walking around a bit and doing the same on the way back. Instead we took a bus and got a little further upriver, as far as Kanowit. Good enough. Kanowit looked pretty, but didn’t have much to offer. We did confirm the existence of the low bridge just up from Sibu, so couldn’t help but turn around.
The gate to a Chinese temple and some town houses at Kanowit.
Another Dutch sailboat, the Alk with Hans and Marijke had followed us up the river and we agreed to meet at a junction, 10 miles down from Sibu. They came from Sarikei and the 3 of us would proceed via another river arm towards a town called Daro. However, those strange currents… again we didn’t make it before dark. This time we dropped anchor behind a shallow bank in front of some jetties.
The next morning we decided to go ashore to take a look and found Kampong Semop, a lovely Malay village, with jetties instead of roads and houses on stilts. The people were very surprised and really happy to see us. I don’t think any yacht had ever been here.
Old people might have difficulties walking, but sitting on a bamboo floor for hours, making hats or baskets seems no problem.
We were taken on an excursion to a new palm oil plant nearby, Learned what there is to learn and felt sad about the future of the river delta. But I guess it all looks quite different when you live here and have to earn a living for you and your family.
When we left Semop it was only a short hop to Daro, a town marked on our charts as the last town down the river. There was a channel leading in that looked quite negotiable at high tide. The Alk ventured in while we waited outside. Just as well they didn’t stay too long. At dusk the water raced out, leaving very little in the town basin, as we discovered when we took the dinghies in. He could have sat in the mud all night.
By now it was the beginning of August and suddenly things changed. The sun was bleak, the sky brownish, our visibility gone. Everywhere around us the peat swamps burned.
These enormous fires are started every year to develop the land and make it ready for agriculture, or more likely for oil palms plantations nowadays. But it’s hard to control them and they burn for days or weeks, till a major down pore extinguishes them.
It was time to leave the river. We were tired of motoring everyday and needed a good days’ sail. We took our time in the morning, knowing it paid to wait for the right tide. Our next leg was an overnighter, around 80 miles to a city on the coast called Bintulu. So the 3 yachts sailed on this beautiful day, with gentle winds, enough for our spinnakers, which we, in a very un-ALISHAN way, left up till midnight.
Bintulu was nothing but a place to drop anchor and get some sleep. Yachts had enjoyed pleasant stays here for many years, according to an old guestbook, but since new harbors were built we were allotted to an out of the way corner that gave us no protection against the prevailing SW wind, no dinghy landing and no possibility to go ashore.
At night suddenly Jaap got up. He smelled fire! And this time not from the shore.
Our fuses had popped, we had no light, but in the dark we could sense and smell some smoke. Where was this coming from??? Obviously something electrical. Logical thinking got us at the back of a panel behind a 12V connection.
A curled up piece of wiring ( poorly installed by previous owner) was melted and caused the shortcut. It hadn’t burned any of the wood - yet. But we were shocked by the sense how easy this can happen and how dangerous, specially at sea!
We continued the following day, another overnighter to the next town: Miri. When we got there in the morning we had no visibility thanks to those swampfires and needed all our equipment: GPS, Maxsea and radar to find the entrance. It wasn’t a problem, but…
HOW DID WE DO THIS IN THE OLD DAYS??
July, August and September 2009
From Kuching, via Sibu, Miri, Labuan to Kota Kinabalu.
Up the Rajang River, past Sarikei and as far as Tulai River.
From the Tulai River, to Sibu. Then from Sibu to Semop( green line).
From Semop, via Daro and out to the South China Sea again.
Along the coast from Sarawak to Miri. See all the oil and gas bizz? CAn you believe it: some of the rigs are NOT lit up at night, so take care!
Chestnut-breasted Malkohas (Sarikei)
I cannot find this butterfly in my new Borneo Butterfly book...
Must be rare. (Sg Tulai)
2 Woodpeckers, the Buff-umped and the Sunda Pygmy
Red-eyed Bulbul on a banana leaf (Sarikei)
Crimson Flowerpecker and Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike (Sarikei)
The Dusky Munia is endemic in Borneo
Gold-whiskered Barbet at nest and lilies that look like orchids (Sarikei)
Gold-whiskered Barbet at nest and lilies that look like orchids (Sarikei)
West Viscount (Lakei Island)
A family of Flowerpeckers (Orange-bellied) feasting on a custard apple (Sarikei)
One of many colorful hoppers around Sarikei
Green pigeons, the Thick-billed above and the Cinnamon-headed below (Iulai River)
Some shots around Semop
Pitcherplants of Lakei Island
Pandanus and Nipa palm fruit
Bugs and a bit of pepper in between, a Thai would call it a meal.
Somebody seems to like the smell of fishing nets
Wild orchids on the Tulai River
The local river bus-boat.
Oops, yes there is a decent tidal difference.
A forest floats by....
Still good old man-power.
Yes indeed, this is a float!
Rajang River Cruise Ship