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Sarawak Blues

Approximately 600 kilometers from Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, among the vast equatorial rainforests of Borneo in the state of Sarawak, lies the capital of Kuching. The Sarawak River flows through the city where I traveled to visit an old friend years and test its waters.

Speaking swiftly, Kenny Lin suggested, “I got a hold of my younger brother’s Jet-ski and, since you’re leaving the day after tomorrow, why don’t we take a cruise down river tomorrow to check conditions? What do you think?”

I had already begun to regret the decision I was being forced to make. “Why did I bring this up?” I thought. “And how am I going to get out of it?”

I mentioned wanting to kayak down river, but leaving the small village to head to the river mouth on an obnoxiously loud, gas spewing, oil dripping Jet-ski was not what I had planned. My mind raced as I considered my reply. Why doesn’t he understand? If he wants to really go through with this, then perhaps I should just drop the whole idea.

I had contacted an old friend, Kelvin Tam, living in Kuching right in the heart of Borneo’s equatorial rainforests. My plan was to bring a folding kayak from Japan and paddle the length of the Sarawak, which flows through the middle of the city but starts in the village of Panenpat near the border with Indonesia.

According to Kelvin, the road to the village was more than his Honda could handle, but he suggested asking his friend Kenny, who worked at a car factory and had a four-wheel drive vehicle, to take me there.

“There’s not a car like this in Sarawak, maybe in all of Borneo,” bragged Kenny as he cut the engine on his Toyota jeep with waist-high tires. Even though he said “four-wheel drive,” I wasn’t expecting this monster.

“Is this really necessary?” I thought. When in Rome, right? I figured I might as well trust him, although this was before he started in with his Jet-ski plan.

Fortunately, though, things changed the next day as Kenny told me his brother informed him the upstream areas were too shallow for Jet-skis. I was happy to hear my desire to leisurely enjoy the sights along the river wouldn’t be ruined by a sneak peak on a Jet-ski.

I put together the kayak on one of Panenpat’s sandbars, packing my sleeping bag, stove and assorted camping gear along with food and a considerable amount of drinking water. Kenny had to get back to work, and so he and two of his fellow Kuching Jeep Club members hit the road, leaving me alone on the quiet banks of the Sarawak. After some effort, I finished packing the canoe and made final preparations.

I floated the kayak into the water and began my paddle from Panenpat’s small sandbar with playful excitement and a pleasantly cool wind. The clear water revealed the grains of sand sparkling in hues of gold as they floated with the stream. From the trees masking the sky, I heard the calls of tropical birds and, after I passed several rapids, the next village came into view.

Through the center of this unmapped village a large wooden bridge extended high above the water and crossed to the other side. Along the riverside children played in the water. Adults riding in longboats looked curiously at my kayak and kindly asked from where I was paddling.

According to the map, there were 15 villages I would pass on the way to Kuching, each echoing with the sounds of children playing along the river’s banks. As I was leaving each village those sounds faded, and I made my way deeper into the forest where only the trickling of water and screeches of birds could be heard. As the sun began to set, I brought my kayak up onto the banks just downstream from Cambon (village) Boyan and set up my tent.

I was preparing dinner on the dry riverbed and had just placed the pot on the portable stove when two dark-skinned men wearing T-shirts paddled in from upstream without a sound. They bobbed up and down as they worked their oars and, although no pleasantries were exchanged, I thought I noticed the man in front turn his squinted white eyes toward me. The forest was already dark and, as I looked down to check if the water was boiling, the two men disappeared into the darkness. Was it was a dream or reality? I still don’t know.

That night I would also face some adversity. I was fast asleep contently wrapped in my sleeping bag, when I awoke to the sound of water lapping at the sides of the tent. The river tide had risen, and water was coming in under the tent. My first reaction was, “What the @!#&!” I unzipped the tent and made my way outside in my underwear.

Perhaps as a result of an afternoon squall, the tent was now in the water and the small riverbank grew even smaller. I pulled the tent and kayak up to what little dry ground was left and spent the next half-hour simply staring at the river flowing by.

A long afternoon on the languid weekend

The next morning I made my way back into the jungle’s mist. The rising water the night before had quickly subdued, and I was fortunately able to fall back asleep.

“Hey! Where are you going? Better watch out for alligators!” yelled a kid standing on the shoreline near a small settlement, his words making me slightly uncomfortable.

“Stupid kid, quit fooling around. I already know there are no gators around here,” I thought to myself, though wondering that maybe what I had heard from the park official wasn’t right.

After I passed through several more rapids, the waters of the Sarawak began to grow cloudy and the current slowed. At this point I began to take note of the unusual features along the tropical river, such as the bamboo fences along the river at Cambon Danoo.

Then there was Cambon Boyan, nestled in the forest, and Cambon Git where people busily worked gathering raw materials for building new homes.

After making my way past the many young children playing in the river near Cambon Batun, I found sets of thrilling rapids awaited. Halfway through I made camp for the second night, then passed on he third day through Bakitan, a town where loud speakers blasting an Islamic call to prayer sent ripples through the placid water.

The river passed under the steel bridge connecting Kuching’s airport, outside the city center, to Bau. It eventually met up with large tributaries and became wider and cloudier. With no riverbanks on which to rest, I was forced to paddle the rest of the way to Kuching. The humidity and heat as well as the slowing of the current and expanding river width forced me to put some effort into paddling, and I quickly finished the remaining drinking water.

I passed under a first, then a second bridge strangely absent of the sounds of children playing. By 4 in the afternoon I had come to the Kuching waterfront with its walls of concrete, uncomplimentary to the river’s beauty.

The next day I met up with my old friend Kelvin as well as Kenny, who had taken me to Panenpat, and Jimmy who was studying Japanese. We headed for a recently popular Mexican restaurant where I recapped my stories from the trip over some beers and thanked them all for making my trip a success as we shared a hearty, “Cheers!”

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