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Published: February 9th 2010
Well, we’re sitting here and sipping our beers, as the sun slowly dips behind the teeming jungle - overlooking the treacherous Pelagus Rapids, the site of innumerable battles between various headhunting tribes in years gone past…
After Mulu and a brief stop in Miri, we paused overnight at the Niah Caves on our way south - a National Park again renowned for its caves. But whereas Mulu had the flashy, showy ones, Niah’s are of another interest altogether.
The caves house the remains and paintings of the oldest known peoples of Southeast Asia - a skull has been found here which has been carbon-dated to around 40000 years, give or take. We spent a lovely afternoon trekking the eight kilometre roundtrip to the Traders Cave where over the ages, the locals have come to trade guano (apparently it comes in your higher grade stuff as well as your lesser, standard shit) and the saliva-built swift’s nests, culinary delights of so many Chinese banquets. Indeed, while we were wandering around in the aptly named Great Cave, we spotted a few blokes, wielding massive bamboo sticks (or constructions of multiple sticks as they needed to reach the distant cave roof), retrieving
While Niah may not have been as showy as Mulu, it was still an amazing experience. There were no boardwalks so you slipped and slithered across the damp, guano-strewn floor and no guides so we were free to take our time, equipped with our head torches as we descended deeper and deeper down towards Gia Kira or Moon Cave. It really felt like you were descending into the heart of the earth as the air got decidedly cooler and suddenly the various openings were gone and you were enveloped in absolute, utter darkness. We finally emerged for a quick trek to the Painted Cave where numerous coffin ships have been found and the walls are daubed with prehistoric images of boats carrying the souls of the dead to the afterlife.
The next day was mostly spent traveling to Sibu - home to more millionaires than anywhere else in Borneo apparently and a large, bustling Chinese-dominated city near the mouth of the Batang Rejang. This river, while not one of the longest, is one of the greatest in the world in terms of volume due to the five metres or so of rain the area receives each
year, and has played a massive role in the history of Sarawak. Sibu was the launching-off point to our next destination - we had decided to treat ourselves to a couple of nights of absolute luxury at an isolated resort up the river and thus we embarked before the sun had even risen on the local ferry to the Iban trading outpost of Kapit.
We were met there and escorted to our private speedboat (seriously, it was just the two of us) and whisked yet further upstream for the best part of an hour. The Pelagus Resort is only accessible by boat (or helicopter, but we figured that was probably taking it a bit far). We rounded the final bend and reached the resort itself, a beautiful traditionally-styled longhouse, perched on the rapids amidst the towering jungle.
This area has long been home to various tribes which are collectively called Dayaks. Around the Batang Rejang, they comprise of the Orang Ulu (meaning upriver or interior people), a collection of numerous sub-tribes including the Keyan, Keynah and Melanau on the one side, and the Iban on the other. The rapids had for time immemorial provided a natural barrier that
prevented the Iban raiding parties making it further upriver as they had to all climb out and take to a narrow cliff-hugging pathway as the boats were carefully steered through them, making them easy pickings for the Ulu hunting parties. So quite likely the scene for many a confrontation then...
Long ago, both of these groups were fearsome headhunters - indeed there still exists the odd longhouse displaying animist totems and lovely collections of human skulls. Oh, and beware any man with tattoos on his hands - only permitted when you’ve proved your worth by taking the head of an enemy…
We were greeted with fresh face towels, orange juice and champagne flutes of rice wine before being escorted to our deluxe air-conditioned room, complete with private balcony overlooking the rapids and the largest bed either of us have ever seen - seriously, we could have easily fit another couple of backpackers in here. Not only that, but it only took us a few moments to realise that we had the entire place to ourselves. Six staff. And us. So at lunch and dinner, which comprised of three courses each time, one table was set aside with the
best view of the rapids. (And while the local dishes were absolutely superb, the Western ones were sometimes slightly creative - Jane’s spaghetti looked delightful and we both commented in surprise when we noticed the long strips of mozzarella that topped the dish (cheese being a rarity here). Until we discovered that it was shredded cabbage. At the pool (oh, such bliss in these sticky, muggy climes) there were two deckchairs set out in the sun, two set out in the shade, and two lovely beach towels just for us. It was a little eerie, wandering around this place and not seeing another soul (when they weren’t attending to us, the staff generally disappeared to their own longhouse over the bridge) but we did manage to get used to it. Except maybe for the cleaning lady you saw fit to ensure that our room was tidied no less than three times a day, regardless of whether we’d actually slept in the bed yet or not.
The last couple of days have thus been spent waking, eating, wandering through the jungle, eating, reading, walking, eating, and drinking. We’ve been blessed with a great guide, Melang, who has displayed his proficiency
in all things jungle-related and even took us down to visit his family’s longhouse today, where we were obliged to partake in rounds of tuak (although please note that this not the same vile palm stuff that Ron and I were forced to down in Sumartra, but indeed a quite quaffable rice wine that goes down relatively well, although it was only just gone ten in the morning) and observed the routine of daily life for the modern Iban.
Oh, and I got down on bended knee and proposed. Thankfully, Jane said yes as it would have been quite an uncomfortable couple of days in a vacant resort 400km from anywhere if she hadn’t…
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