Dense jungles, bats and blow-pipes. As our accidental party of four cheerfully unkempt backpackers and a quietly intrepid, forty-something Canadian couple travelled further up the Betang Rejang river and into the heart of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo’s southern province, this otherworldly combination gradually became an altogether more tangible reality. We had sped out of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, on an 80-seater catamaran which boasted a super powered air-conditioning and a steady loop of James Bond classics. Five hours later, we left the inland town of Sibuh on a vehicle older than Sean Connery himself. As the open sea changed from estuary to swirling brown river, rutted muddy tracks came into view. These jagged scars revealed the obvious presence of machinery in the previously untouched Malaysian jungles.
The unrestrained logging which claimed so much of Sarawak’s rainforest in the 1980’s and 1990’s has fortunately been brought under tighter controls. However, economic pressures and the interwoven need for sustainable employment ensure that significant logging (both legal and illegal) continues. While a small percentage of the remaining forest in Sarawak has now been allocated to government protection, the controversies surrounding the logging, and more recently the palm oil industry, remain significant. As we passed upstream, evidence of current work completed was in no short supply. Huge piles of felled forest awaiting transportation downriver lined the riverbanks. Although saddened by the piles of timber, we could see that this industry provided much-needed income for the impoverished workers who were scattered at logging sites along our route.
After an overnight stopover in the one-time garrison town of Kapit, we awoke eager to advance deeper into the jungle and away from modern civilization. Unfortunately for us, another boat trip was required. Our ferry skimmed across the currents of the Pelagus rapids and into the Upper Rejang. Although the damage done by loggers in past years was evident, the surging jungle seemed to be regaining much of its’ previous strength along the riverbank. Here, elegant coal-eyed egrets patrolled the shallows, the brilliant white of their plumage in stark contrast to the vivid greens of its surroundings. Above the dull roar of the outboard engine, the song of unseen cicadas broke through the thick rainforest. Nature was, without question, still the dominant force.
We were confident that we had broken free of the beaten path, but our hopes were crushed within moments of arriving in Belaga. Happy to vacate the confines of the cramped boat and begin our adventure into the wild, we were surprised to catch sight of a chubby pair of locals taking part in a clumsy game of tennis on a well-kept riverside court. Given that the town itself was comprised of little more than two shabby streets, an imaginative use of surplus concrete seemed to explain this odd sight. Not quite the bats we’d been expecting.
Within five minutes of arriving, it was quickly established that we six were the only tourists in town. A much needed shower and a cold beer later, an improbable meeting with an enterprising but as yet unknown local had been arranged for early the following morning. With a growing sense of anticipation, we readied ourselves for what we hoped would be an unmissable adventure.
Tired, hungry and frustrated, we decided to rest up for the night in Belaga, hoping that we would be refreshed for the adventure ahead of us. After questioning a few of the locals we were pointed in the direction of a guide to lead us on the next part of our trip. At only 24, the energetically mischievous Andreas had a merry twinkle in his almond eyes. Proudly professional and unquestionably entrepreneurial, he was a man of many talents. This one-time Sarawak Tourist board employee and tribal dancer deployed an inexhaustible stream of cheeky banter, jokes and magic tricks throughout our trip- inevitably drawing playful slaps from the tribal women, hearty guffaws from the men and coy glances from the younger girls. With little negotiation and a few last-minute errands, Andreas had us heading upriver towards a local Longhouse in no time. Peppering the banks of the otherwise uninhabitable jungle, these stilted, elongated buildings are home to communities of the modern-day tribes people of Sarawak – the Orang Ulu and the Iban. Constructed from hardy Balian or “Ironwood”, each Longhouse accommodates up to 180 people, whose homes share one roof and a huge communal front porch. Despite the excitement of our visit, I was still wary of the head-hunting tendencies of the Iban ancestors. This concern never left my mind as we approached the building.