Thursday, 25 March 2010

Katibas River

I was up before six to take a cup of tea before going on a longboat excursion. The longboats are long and thin elegant wooden craft with a Japanese outboard. Just after six about five longboats arrived, one with an awning, and waited at the landing stage. We each donned a lifejacket and carefully boarded the boats. The boats left when full, so I’m not sure which I was on – the fourth, I think. Not all boats had guides but Henry was in my boat. We went downstream at a fair pace and then slowed to turn right into a small tributary. Immediately, we were transported into a different world – the jungle towered above us in the early dawn, mist still hanging on the hills. Plenty of birds were singing but we didn’t see too many.

We carried on upstream for nearly half an hour, past various habitations where people were stirring. Then we turned round, cut the engine and started to drift back. It was a wonderful, tranquil experience. My pictures are here. But breakfast and the day’s timetable called, so the engine was re-started and we made our way back to ‘Pandaw’, where I immediately took breakfast, in order to be ready for the next trip which departed at nine.

Another version of the Express Boat was now berthed at the landing stage, steel-hulled but with the superstructure built of wood on a welded steel frame. I gathered it was a ‘first-generation’ Express Boat, not as fast as the all-steel version and generally referred to as a ‘Wooden Express Boat’. Once again, there was no internal seating so rattan chairs from ‘Pandaw’ had been arranged in two rows facing outwards. We all boarded and I found myself a perch near the front where I could easily lean out side for photography.

The boat slipped away from the landing stage and headed upstream, shortly turning right onto the Katibas River. After about twenty minutes, we pulled into an extremely dilapidated wooden landing stage on the right bank serving the Nanga Kebian Longhouse. The land between the river and the Longhouse was the opposite of manicured, filled with an ill-assorted collection of wooden buildings with various functions, hen-houses, storage and similar. There were chickens of various breeds, all confined on a very short tether. A concrete access road was provided along the length of the Longhouse with a series of wooden garages for motor bikes, pick-ups and small saloon cars. A number of residents watched this invasion by a boatload of foreigners either impassively or with a slight acknowledgement.

The Nanga Kebian Longhouse

At the far end of the Longhouse we found a good hard-surfaced road from Song lined with concrete posts carrying overhead power lines distributing power around the area. There were a number of detached houses with well-tended gardens and, across the road, a modern water storage facility.

Behind one of the detached houses were three palm trees used to make Ijok palm juice wine. This is unique to the Song area and has never been commercially exploited. Short bamboo ladders are used to access the productive branches which are cut to allow the tree to exude a milky, white liquid. Each tapping can produce a few litres of fluid. Over a few days, the liquid will ferment, because of the natural yeasts, to produce a drink of a few per cent proof.

Tapping Ijok Palm Juice

We were taken to a wooden building distinctively painted pale blue where members of the crew gave us samples of Ijok and the widely-produced rice wine, while the elderly Longhouse Chief looked on. Whilst I've always found rice wine rather rough, the Ijok slipped down very well.

A couple of women in traditional dress wearing variations of coolie hats were spreading out rice on large mats to dry in the sun in a ritual performed in every village. Growing rice is a sure way of producing a crop that can be sold for cash. I noticed some bags of fertiliser on hand. Another wooden shed appeared to be threshing the rice, using a fairly modern machine driven from a little Japanese internal combustion engine. Everywhere, you see these contrasts between the traditional and the modern. We didn't go into the longhouse itself but it was of modern construction with louvred glass windows. The verandah section running the length of the building had a white tiled floor and, of course, each family*s private room led off this verandah.

We cautiously returned to our boat using the steep landing stage with missing slats. A box of nails was sitting on the landing stage so, presumably, some remedial work was in progress but there was no other evidence of activity. For me, that summed up the whole site – a rather curious visit! In twenty minutes or so we were back at Pandaw. Before leaving the boat, I was allowed to take pictures in the engine room which, to my surprise, was exceptionally clean with well-organised storage lockers.

My pictures of our Katibas River cruise are here.

Lunch was a leisurely affair and, in the afternoon, we left Song behind and cruised downstream, retracing our outward route of a few days ago – it seem like some weeks ago to me. At three o'clock, Louis gave a very interesting talk titled 'Longhouse and its management' on the Sun Deck. Before he'd finished, there was the distraction of sailing past Sibu. After a few days up Country, the sprawl of Sibu and the amount of industry – mainly ship-building and timber-related – was quite impressive. We carried on past the 'Pandaw' Landing Stage where this adventure had started and continued towards the Delta area where the Rajang discharges into the South China Sea. The river broadened and we saw in the distance what appeared to be ocean-going ships. We passed a local container terminal – no special container handling cranes - and more shipyards. We saw a number of sprawling sawmills.

Our channel then narrowed somewhat so that we might have been in a canal. In the Delta, the land is quite flat and the lush forest grows to a uniform height so as to look almost artificial – a complete contrast will the towering hills and magnificent trees we'd left behind. We passed one small town called Bintangor and various minor communities. Very often, children on the bank would wave to us. My pictures of the cruise downstream are here.

As it was getting dark, we approached the town of Sarikei but, instead of docking, we turned around to face upstream and dropped the anchors about 200 yards offshore, where we stayed for the night. After dinner, we were entertained by most of the crew on the Sun Deck. The crew is Malay, Burmese and Cambodian and we were treated to displays representing each culture. One performer looked fearsome in his tribal dress but, fortunately, his blowpipe was used to merely to burst balloons. At the end, the passengers were invited to join in the dancing which quickly moved to Rock and Roll and The Twist. After a token contribution from me I went to bed, totally shattered as usual after a fascinating day. There are a few pictures of the show put on by the crew here.