Monday, September 15, 2008

Into the Heart of Borneo*

An Expedition on the Mighty Rajang River on the new RV Orient Pandaw

Borneo, the second largest island in the world after Greenland, has one of the most diverse eco systems on the planet, its primary rain forest home to a vast number of species of flora and fauna.

Now part of Eastern Malaysia, Sarawak was ruled for exactly one hundred years by the Brooke family, known as the Raja Brookes, and only joined the British Empire after the war, gaining independence in 1966.

The Rajang River, at 640km is the longest river in Malaysia, flows across Borneo from Sarawak into Indonesian Kalimantan. Though well know to many from Redmon O’Hanlon’s classic Into the Heart of Borneo, there is very little tourism here due to the river’s remoteness and lack of facilities. The scenery is magnificent – a total jungle experience with the rainforest tumbling into the fast flowing river.

The Rajang is navigable on a ship of Pandaw’s size for at least 250km until the Pelagus Rapids, and further on its main tributary the Baleh River. The river is peopled with the Iban, headhunters till the 1950s, whose unique long house culture survives well to this day, blending well animist tradition with modernity.

There is much to do and see upriver, whether just gazing at the amazing scenery or visiting long houses traditional and modern. In these river towns we can explore the architectural vestiges of the Brooke Raj. Jungle treks, for all levels, are a must as are long boat trips to the Pelagus rapids. Wildlife is in abundance and crocodiles, monitor lizards and the hornbill (national bird of Sarawak) common sights.Downriver, the prosperous Chinese city of Sibu with its old shop houses, markets and friendly inhabitants, is a calm reflection of an old China that probably no longer exists in mainland China. Sibu with its rich surrounding farmlands and tropical climate is an important agricultural area.

Sibu is the world’s biggest producer of pepper and at Sareiki we will visit pepper farms, fruit plantations that boast seven kilogram pineapples and a host of other exotic fruits. The sea port of Thanjung Manis is a centre of traditional songkat textile production and we will visit weaving workshops.

Sibu is well served with several daily flights to Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Brunei and Kuching (Air Asia and MAS) thus connecting with international flights to Europe or other Asian cities.

The most delightful city in South-East Asia, Kuching offers a glimpse of what Singapore or Bangkok must have been like half a century ago. Laid back, yet full of hip caf├ęs and bars, the traditional Chinese shop houses as yet untrammelled by greedy developers. The serene Sarawak River flows through the city centre, flanked by gorgeous Brooke Raj palaces, courts and a glistening white fort that marks the first White Raja’s landing.

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