Outlandish Allure

24Nov06

as published in Virtual Malaysia Magazine [November / December 2006]

Sarawak. Asia’s final outland. Majidah Hashim joins the voyagers from Mitsubishi Motors, boldly going where few outsiders have ventured, and discovers whole new worlds and civilisations in some of the most uncharted regions of Ulu Baram.

You have got to have a serious set of wheels and not to mentionserious manoeuvring skills when it comes to driving on the logging roads of Borneo. I am of the suspicion that my L200 truck driver for the rally, Ambrose, secretly hovers two ambitions: to melt tar at the Sepang F1 circuit, and to battle it out at a monster truck arena. I tried to negotiate an almost impossible compromise with my heavy eyes as the truck makes its way over the uneven terrain. A fusion of hip-hop and techno club mix streams from Ambrose’s modified stereo system. After about seven hours, our truck is completely covered with a thick layer of dust and just about every limb on my body has been loosened from its sockets.

Seven trucks left the heart of Miri town this morning and made its way to Lapok, before proceeding to Long Lama for lunch. James, our ground handler, tells us that this is the last stop to refuel or to stock up on any other creature comforts we might need for our next three nights in the little known outlands of Sarawak.

Despite the seemingly rugged scenario I got myself into this time, being in a 4X4 rally brings the word ‘road trip’ to a whole new level. One tends to get used to the rhythm of the logging terrain after awhile and the view in this region is both frightening and spectacular. We drove over narrow strips of red earth, bone-rattling slopes, and through clouds of thick dust. The road curved along hill after hill of plunging cliffs, which overlooked awesome million-year-old rainforests.

That day, we encountered a Penan longhouse called Long Kabeng – a rare treat as the Penan tribes are nomadic and do not settle on a particular location for very long. It was late in the evening and the Penan children were playing sepak raga amidst a background of a half-completed longhouse.

We arrived at the day’s destination, Long Tebangan, a Kayan Longhouse on Akah River. Kayan is one of the ethnic groups of the Orang Ulu people. Though located almost 10 hours from Miri, Long Tebangan is among the most developed longhouses I have visited. Though still maintaining the essentials of communal living, the longhouse was built on land and had two storeys. The longhouse has 30 doors, reflective of the number of families that resides here. The Tuai Rumah (Longhouse Headman) was a solemn man named Juman Ibau.

On our first evening here, we were entertained with not one, but 11 cultural song and dance performances, including an instrumental sape number, a ghost dance, and what is uniquely a Long Tebangan speciality – a raft dance. The village boast some of the most skilful champion women rafters in the Baram region, able to navigate ferocious rapids and exhibiting incredible resilience through the forest’s hardships.

We got to experience the rapids for ourselves the next morning. Packed in five longboats, we were fairly assured that we would be finely splashed on the ride over the rapids. And ferocious they were! I experienced a momentary dejavu of my boat submerging with oncoming rapids and overturning with some harsh corners. Don’t worry, none of this happened here. These boatmen were as proficient as they come. It even came across to me that they enjoyed taking on the challenge, having studied the flow of the water and memorised the location of every rock. It was as if the men were taming a fierce animal, firmly and yet tenderly.

We arrived at our afternoon picnic site, soaking wet, as promised. The site was called Gah (rapids) Geru – named so after the sound of the water crashing into rocks. Along the way, our boatmen netted fish, and were now making ikan pansoh – fish barbecued in bamboo, grilled fish and a fish stew. Soon, a delicious smell filled the air, and the fresh fish was savoured with nubuk – steamed rice wrapped in leaves.

The next day, we made for our next destination, Long Selatong. Long Selatong is a Kenyah community, residing on either side of the Baram River. In those days, the two communities were called Selatong Kanan (right) and Selatong Kiri (left). The villagers quickly realised that this caused confusion because the lefts and the rights were dependent on whether you came from upriver or downriver! Eventually, one village retained the name Long Selatong, while the one we were visiting changed its name to Tanjung Tempelit. Tanjung Tempelit’s tuai rumah is Penghulu Usang.

That afternoon, we took longboats to Gah Ganeh, a plunging waterfall just 20 minutes from the longhouse. Patrick, a native to the area, tells me that the waterfall used to be much bigger, evident from erosion markings on the surrounding rocks. Another barbecue was organised and soon, the sweet aroma of chicken wings filled the air.

That evening, we were presented with cultural performances of more songs and dances. As it was paddy-planting season, we also participated in a traditional ritual to bless the seedlings in hope for a good harvest. The ritual was called Mukoi, where all the guests form a single file on a long piece of rope, and visit every door in the longhouse.

Our final journey back to Miri the next day was a nerve wrecking, but yet pleasant one. For one thing, we were getting used to dozing off on the bumpy roads, but more importantly everyone has bonded. This was certainly one of those trips that bring out the true colours of people. Ambrose changed the CD in his player and an operatic chant fills the truck as we passed some of the most enchanting views and spectacular landscaped Sarawak has to offer.


The writer with friends at Tanjung Tempelit Long Selatong (August 2006)
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