Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Pelagus Rapids

This is the fourth day of the cruise and the pattern of life on board has become familiar and agreeable. Early Risers’ Coffee and Tea is available self-service from the Saloon Bar on the Sun Deck from 6.0 a.m., a wide range of items is available buffet-style in the Restaurant on the Main Deck from 7.0 a.m. Although it’s self-service, there are always a number of attentive and friendly waiters to bring tea or coffee, arrange refills, provide cooked items to your choice from a menu, and clear away used items promptly. Like all meals on ‘Pandaw’, breakfast is an informal, sociable time.

Boarding the Cargo Boat for transfer to the 'Jungle Walk'

It’s an 8.00 a.m. start this morning for the ’Jungle Walk’. A small cargo boat has berthed alongside to take us ashore. These craft are steel-construction, all-welded where most of the length is a single cargo hold with a small wheelhouse at the rear. This rather basic boat has been imaginatively adapted for use as our ferry by adding steel steps allowing passengers to climb into the hold from the foredeck. I presume a floor has been fitted, but it’s covered by either thick P.V.C. sheeting or the gaily-patterned vinyl sold as a floor covering for domestic use. Bench seats have been added along the length of the hold on either side and that’s it! We climb aboard and only a handful of passengers remain on board ‘Pandaw’. We set off upstream and draw level with Kapit, on the starboard side, after a few minutes sailing. But we turn towards the port river bank, where a hillside covered in rain forest stretches down to the water’s edge. The boat enters a tiny inlet shaded by branches and gently nuzzles the bank. The ‘Pandaw’ crew then rig a gangplank from the foredeck to the bank at a spot where a series of steps have been cut into the hillside, with rope handrails arranged on either side to assist the climb. This trek has been built by Pandaw, specifically for use by Pandaw passengers, with periodic resting places and bamboo bridges. There are two treks, one of 2.5 hours with Louis and, for the less fit, an easier trek of 1.5 hours with Henry.

I happen to be first off the boat, so I lead the way to the first resting place, about 200 yards ahead. The first pitch is mainly steps and the rope handrails are fairly essential to haul yourself up. Once everyone has arrived at the first resting place and Louis has made some explanation of the exotic vegetation around us, we carry on to the second resting place, re-group, then continue again. Occasionally, the track is muddy as it winds across the hillside providing a sometimes easy, sometimes challenging trek. Looking around, you could imagine yourself miles from civilisation but, in fact, the bustling town of Kapit is only two or three hundred yards away across the river and the noises from the town and, especially, from the express boats waft across to us. With the forest canopy for shade, I don’t find it too hot but, like my companions, I’m perspiring freely. After about 130 minutes, we’ve looped around to the first resting place and then we have the final descent on the steps leading back to the waiting boat. Our cargo boat, with its precious human cargo, then takes us back to the moored ‘Pandaw’ in plenty of time for lunch. Pictures of the 'Jungle Walk' are here.

In the afternoon, a further excursion had been arranged with the cargo boat. A number of rattan chairs had been arranged in two rows along the centre of the cargo hold, facing outwards. A large plastic sheet had been rigged as an awning over the hold. Once we were all on board, we headed north to the confluence of two rivers, the Pelagus on our left and the Baleh on our right. By this time, they’d rigged the gangplank as a temporary seat across the foredeck and I was one of the people who moved to this position. It was a wonderful vantage point. We passed a number of logging camps and various Longhouse communities. The buildings were very modern, in complete contrast with the 1880 traditional Longhouse we’d visited in Kapit. Thick rain forest came right to the water’s edge on both sides which reminded me of the the Mekong in Laos. Then the waters became troubled – whirlpools and vortices appeared. To make headway, the boat was zig-zagging across the complex currents – at one moment heading straight for the left bank and a few moments later pointing at the right bank. I spotted a modern looking building on the left which was clearly the Pelagus Rapids Resort and shortly afterwards the water became very turbulent.

The engine noise increased as it attempted to propel our boat through the surging water – it really appeared that the boat was going uphill. We emerged into somewhat quieter water but two more times we traversed further rapids. The boat was turned around and speed picked up as we were carried by the current. By this time, I was alone on the foredeck and thoroughly enjoying myself. Once clear of the rapids, we retraced our steps as it started to rain but I stayed where I was for a while. The other passengers in the hold seemed to be getting quite wet as well, because the rain was driving at us almost horizontally. Umbrellas were handed out but the fierce wind damaged a number of them. Henry, seeing the series of ‘Pandaw’ umbrellas deployed all over the cargo hold commented that it looked as if we were growing mushrooms. In addition, the weight of rainwater was causing the temporary roof sheet to sag and crew and passengers were attempting to discharge this water by lifting the roof sheet with brooms or similar objects. Eventually, I decided that I was wet enough so I climbed down into the hold and discovered that, if I tucked myself into the very corner of the hold, with an open umbrella above and to the side of me, most of the rain missed me. By the time we arrived at the ‘Pandaw’, we were a pretty wet bunch but I think everybody entered into the spirit of the occasion. After a shower and a change of clothes, I felt fairly human again. Pictures of our trip are here.

The day concluded with cocktails, briefing for the next day and, this time, a ‘Rainforest Dinner’. This comprised a spicy wild fern salad with balsamic scallops and lemon grass followed by radish soup with fresh basil leaves. Each table was served with plates of all three main courses, allowing diners to mix-and-match. There was pan-fried fresh Dory river fish with lime gherkin sauce, grilled beef with calamansi chili sauce and steamed rice and, finally, baked chicken leg with steamed rice, pineapple and turmeric sauce. Dessert was advertised as Rainforest Sago Pudding. After a good dinner and good conversation, I was happy to retire at about 10.30 p.m.