Thursday, August 07, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Rejang roof-riding

Kapit wharf [IMG_4765]
Upriver express boats [Enlarge]

Finding the boat upriver to Belaga was not very easy. Kapit has at least two wharfs, and another huge pier is being built right next to the town's market. So not only did we not know exactly where to catch the boat, we also didn't know what time it sailed. Or even if it sailed! Allow us to explain. All along the Rejang River, people had been a bit vague about the Kapit to Belaga boat. In Kuching they sucked their teeth and told us it was impossible to get further than Kapit in the dry season (i.e. now). In our next stop Sibu they said there was a boat some days, but only if there had been enough rain upstream and the river was high enough. The Sarawak Tourism Board's handy little Sibu and Central Sarawak Visitors' Guide says:

Note: During the dry season (July to September) express boats may not be able to reach Belaga.

While the same organisation's Sibu and the Rejang leaflet says:

Express boats leave Sibu for Belaga (7-9 hrs approx.) at about 6 am (and 9 am during the rainy season), stopping at Kapit.

We were confused and prepared to be told that we would have to either fly out of Kapit or backtrack down the river until we found a road. But when we asked people in Kapit they looked at us like we were daft and said of course, there's one boat a day. They just couldn't agree on the time.

It's not really their fault. The time is variable because it depends when the boat arrives into Kapit (it starts off downriver in Sibu). After loading up and taking on a new set of passengers it continues to Belaga. Some people said it would arrive at 09:00, some said 09:30, some said 10:00. We didn't want to risk missing it, so we went down at 7:45 to find the right place, make sure we had tickets and generally watch the comings and goings in early morning Kapit.

Rejang river [Enlarge]

It turned out that the upriver wharf was signposted as being the right one for Belaga, although only in Malay. Several locals confirmed that we were in the right place for the Belaga boat, and that the place to buy the tickets is on the boat. We sat down on the concrete steps to wait. There was plenty to watch. Although this wharf is of secondary importance to the downstream one, there was still lots of activity. Boats to local villages and long houses were constantly coming and going, and being loaded up with provisions, livestock, goods and people. Every so often an express boat would torpedo in, tie up and quickly unload something or someone and take off again. The boats moor side by side and the only way to reach the most recent arrival is across all the other boats. How they kept track of which string-tied cardboard box should go onto which boat, we couldn't even begin to guess.

Everything imaginable was being taken upriver, from bedsteads and freezers, to pet dogs in wooden crates, local Tiger beer, and jellyfish satay, to live chickens in plastic shopping baskets. It was the Bornean equivalent of an Ikea car park. The people were a fantastic mix too. The teenagers and twenty-somethings were dressed in Levis and logo'd t-shirts, while the older generations, travelling back to their longhouse communities, were distinguishable from the ethnic Chinese and Malays by their hugely elongated earlobes. The practice of piercing and then stretching your ears isn't practised much by younger generations, and will probably die out within another few decades.

The boat came at about 8:50, and there was no shortage of friendly locals telling us that it was the boat we wanted. We sat down inside on one of the cracked chairs, in refrigerated air conditioned coldness. The in-flight movie was already playing. It was something Malaysian that we didn't understand. Then one of the other passengers told us that we shouldn't be inside—the best place to sit was on the roof! It seemed like a great idea so we walked round the side of the boat on the wide metal skirt that acts as both a loading platform and a splash guard, and climbed up onto the roof. The white painted metal wasn't too hot, and was more or less flat, sloping slightly from the middle towards the edges. All around the edge was a rail, about 15 centimetres high, to stop cargo sliding off the top and into the fast-flowing water.

On the Kapit to Belaga express boat. [IMG_4770]
Riding on the roof [Enlarge]

We positioned ourselves behind a bed frame, gas cooker and stack of boxes, which were coming up river with us. At 09:25 we set off. At first we had the roof to ourselves. From time to time someone would pop out of the doors at the front for a smoke. With our UV proof sun hats, sunglasses, ear plugs, SPF 50 shirts and trousers and a lot of sunblock, we were actually very comfortable and quite cool. We had a nice breeze from the movement of the boat, and a fresh ozony smell from the river mingled with the wood smoke of jungle bonfires. And there was no trashy movie!

Two hundred kilometres inland from the sea, the Rejang is still wide, but it's no longer very deep. Our skipper was having to constantly adjust course, throttling back and steering wide arcs around invisible rocks and sandbanks that he knew were there. The scenery was truly stunning. We've done some great journeys by road, rail and waterways, but this might well have been the best.

From the roof of the Kapit to Belaga express boat. [IMG_4775]
Rejang river longhouse [Enlarge]

About an hour upstream we came to the Pelagus Rapids. This is a stretch of water that was practically impassable until the 1960s when British Army engineers and a lot of explosives opened up a navigable channel. But even these days, it's only the shallow bottomed speedboats and express boats like ours, with reinforced hulls, that can make the trip. Fifty years ago, passengers had to disembark and trek through the jungle to reach a second boat on the other side of the rapids. We were expecting a wild ride, and they were an undoubted challenge for the skipper and the boat. There were a couple of points where it really felt as if we were driving up hill, engines revving, but disappointingly they weren't nearly as wild as we thought they'd be. They're probably worse in the wet season.

We stopped at almost every longhouse on the way upstream. People were constantly joining and leaving the boat as every twenty minutes or so we'd slow up and drive, nose first, into the muddy bank to let people on or off. At one point a small group of men carrying construction tools boarded and hopped up onto the roof with us. We exchanged smiles and after a bit one of them wordlessly expressed an interest in the GPS. Glenn ran through its different functions to the guy's obvious delight. Who needs a shared language when you have a shared love of gadgets?

Disembarking [Enlarge]

Three hours into the trip and with at least another hour to go, we were in the full untempered force of the midday equatorial sun, and in spite of the breeze it was becoming too much. We retreated below to where loud Malaysian dance music was playing on the TV screens to drown out the engine noise, and loud tribal women were shouting the latest longhouse gossip to each other to drown out the TV. But at least we were cool.

At first sight Belaga looked homely and very welcoming. Above the narrow jetty a big sign proclaimed "Welcome to Belaga". Mowed grass—you could almost call it a lawn—coated the river banks all the way up to the first line of buildings. It was not what we were expecting!

Our first task as ever was finding somewhere to sleep. It wasn't a big job as there are only a handful of hotels in the town and they are all metres apart. In fact after five minutes in the town we had explored it fully! We chose the Sing Soon Hua Hotel, the town's most expensive, and got a large twin room with private bathroom and air conditioning for 35 ringgit a night (GBP 5.62 / USD 10.45). Excellent value as ever in Malaysia. Can you really ask for more?

All our photos from today are here.

Map of Day 622

Day 622
Kapit to Belaga

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

Ochial "Oluv" Ellison said...

Rejang Roof-riding sounds like fun!
It seemed like it was a nice day on you guys voyage.