Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Baleh River Trip

On the fifth day, after the usual start, we have one trip planned by a special Express Boat, starting at nine o’clock. The Express Boats we’ve seen before have had an enclosed cabin and glazed windows. But the Express Boat that ties up on our port side has the usual window cut-outs but no glazing –and no roof! Instead of the normal welded steel roof, there are a series of round steel arches supporting sheets of white plastic securely held in place. It actually looks quite suitable as a ‘day trip’ boat. There are no seats on the boat so, once again, two rows of rattan chairs are placed back-to-back down the long cabin and we all troop on board.

As we head upstream towards the confluence of the two rivers, we pass on the left an opencast coal mine. Yesterday, a massive barge with its attendant tug was being loaded but that’s already departed to go upstream and the coal being gouged from the hillside today was passing through the Screens and being discharged via a conveyor into a huge, conical pile. A further two conveyors are arranged so that, as required, the coal stack can be transferred to a barge.

A large timber barge, with its attendent tugboat, at a logging camp on the Baleh River.

At the confluence, we turned right into the Baleh River and passed through impressive jungle scenery with periodic logging camps and longhouses. The amount of logging activity is amazing – it’s supposed to be sustainable forestry these days with Government control to ensure re-planting. The majority of the Longhouses we saw were modern. We rarely saw individual houses or traditional, old wooden Longhouses. We passed one big sawmill with the finished product – constructional timber - being loaded onto timber carrying cargo boats. A few yards upstream, a longboat with an outboard was being loaded with a few pieces of timber, for some local building project I imagined.

Most of the Longhouses were either completely new sites with manicured gardens leading down to the river with impressive concrete entrance steps or what appeared to be modernised Longhouses on a traditional site, with various surviving outbuildings of traditional wood construction.

There are lots of pictures taken during the cruising here.

Arriving at Mujong, there was clearly a mixture of old and new buildings. The Methodists built a chapel here in 1959 and added a primary school. Much expanded, the school survives today and we disembarked for a visit.

Young pupils at Mujong Primary School

Primary schools are boarding from Monday to Saturday, presumably at least partly because of the distances children have to travel to school in country areas. We assembled in the school canteen and were addressed by the schools head teacher who was dressed in grey trousers, white shirt and tie secured by a tie-clip which doubled as a name badge. All the male teachers dress smartly as an example to the pupils. We looked at the dormitories used by the children and some empty classrooms. Although we met some children in and around the school, we didn’t go into any of the classes being held. Pictures around the school are here.

Crossing the football field, we came to a number of wooden houses and the Medical Clinic. Only minor operations are carried out here and there are a couple of treatment areas with examination couches. All the rooms have been furnished in modern style with wooden workstations, each provided with a computer screen. The patient waiting room was not in use whilst we were there, but it was provided with a large flat-screen television. We talked with the doctor-in-charge and he told us a little about the work of the clinic. It appeared that no expense had been spared in equipping the centre. I’m ashamed to say that I was expecting something a little more third-world in the middle of Borneo. There are a few pictures of the Clinic here.

We returned to our soft-top Express Boat and carried on upstream past more logging camps and more modern Longhouses. Whilst we had been looking around Mujong, our boat had taken the ‘Pandaw’ staff and lunch provisions upstream to the site for our picnic lunch, set on a sandy beach on the inside of a bend in the river. When we reached the site, we could see all the preparations which had been made but we paused only to drop off the Purser, Neville, after which we continued upstream to look at two wrecked cargo vessels fairly close together with, in each case, part of the bow exposed.

One of the two wrecks we saw in a treacherous part of the Baleh River

Having been suitably impressed with the sight of the damage that the river water had done, we looped around the upstream wreck and continued back to our picnic place. The sun was hot, the sand was golden and the food was excellent.

It was odd that cargo boats and the occasional express boat were passing noisily a few tens of feet from us but nobody seemed to noticee and I think everybody enjoyed the meal. Part of the food had been cooked using the traditional Iban-style bamboo pot cooking. I found it very tasty. The boat driver let me walk along the deck of our waiting boat to take some pictures in the engine room (included in the collection here).

When everybody had had their fill, we all clambered aboard for the journey back to ‘Pandaw’. We’d brought a fair bit of sand from the beach back on board and the crew collected our shoes for cleaning, clipping a peg bearing the cabin number onto each pair of shoes to avoid mix-ups. Shortly afterwards, ‘Pandaw’ set off downstream whilst the passengers relaxed. A little later, the sky darkened and we had a fierce downpour which lasted for some time, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

On the way upstream, we’d passed by the village of Song without stopping but, this time, we docked. It was already almost dark but a few of us arranged to go for a short walk before the Briefing and Dinner. We got as far as the Chinese Temple where a number of young men were practicing on a temple drum and cymbals. They were good. It amused me that the drum was transported on a four-wheel truck. With a small audience of foreigners, the good-natured young people got out the Dragon Costume and two of them did an unscheduled Dragon Dance for us. Pictures at Song Temple are here.

I’d been invited to join my new friends Richard and Alison for dinner, because it was Richard’s birthday. After a splendid meal, the lights went out and the restaurant staff brought in a birthday cake as we sang happy birthday.

Amazingly, there was still one more item on the evening’s schedule. The Sun Deck had been cleared and chairs moved back, leaving a performance area covered with two patterned carpets. A group of young people from the town performed a number of traditional dances for us. They were attired in marvellous brightly-coloured traditional dress which made a wonderful spectacle. See pictures. At the end, the passengers were invited onto the floor to join the dancing. The Group’s Dancing Master, in Western dress, invited me to join him. I stayed on deck to watch the dancers leave and then went straight to bed.