Thursday 30 May 2013

A Jungle experience - 11

An Iban maiden.
It was almost midday, dense rainforests and the thick humid air of Borneo surrounded us. We had slept the previous night with descendants of headhunters in the traditional longhouse at the village of Nanga Kamalee and were now squatting on a sandbar jutting into the Rajang River.
     For almost four hours, we had roasted in the tropical sun in the hope of hitching a lift from a passing canoe or other small craft. We needed to return down river to the trading post of Kapit and thence to the coast of Sarawak for our onward journey to mainland Malaysia.
     To pass the time, Jean had washed our sweat-stained clothes in the sand-coloured river and dried them to a fine peach colour on a wash-line rigged between two sticks. 
Wash day on the Rajang River
     We had protected our head and shoulders from the scorching sun with our most useful item of clothing: a lungi (sarong). This thin compact cotton wrap of cloth is an Indian garment used throughout south-east Asia in place of trousers. It is so multi-purpose; we use it as a towel, a blanket, a turban, shade shelter, a beach changing tent, pyjamas, shopping bag, scarf, and anything else that comes to mind. It’s our second most essential piece of equipment after the mosquito net.
River hitch hiking
     The first boat to happen along was a powered launch going up river. It was heading the wrong way for us but we accepted their offer of a lift anyway. The uncertainties of life can often have its benefits.
Preparing logs to float down river
     We were taken upriver, and dropped off at a logging camp at the junction of the Baleh and Gaat rivers. The camp was a clearing yard used for rafting logs together prior to floating downriver and to load sinker-logs on to shallow-draft landing barges.
     We watched in amazement as an Iban worker deftly hand-cut four by two inch timber planks with a chainsaw – a Health and Safety officer would have had a field day here.
Cutting 4x2s by chainsaw - mind your toes
     A lone Yorkshire man called Ross ran the logging operation on behalf of the Malaysian company, Sime Darby Forest Management. His workforce of 350 Malay, Chinese and Iban workers were spread out at a number of nearby logging camps.
          As serendipity would have it, he and his partner made us welcome, and invited us to join them for a few days at their ‘company house’. It was perched atop a hill overlooking the two rivers and an endless horizon of jungle. 
Roy and Ross
    It was an eight-bedroom bungalow with a large central living space, which he had built on his arrival four years previously; tastefully furnished and decorated by his partner Suchin. It reminded us a little of the homesteads found on remote Australian cattle ranches, or perhaps the tea and sugar plantation houses found in Ceylon or Jamaica, or even the colonial homes found in the hill stations of India; it belonged to another era when punkah wallahs fanned memsahibs enjoying a Juniper fillip, in the afternoon shade of a wide sunporch.

A great place to write notes at the end of a day's of travel
     Here, however, in the remoteness of Borneo, it was an incongruous oasis, quite unexpected of a logging camp, but very much in keeping with one’s traditional vision of an Englishman abroad. 
     We pondered this as we sat at sundown on the wide veranda, a cold beer in hand, frogs croaking in the undergrowth, enjoying the view of dramatic storm clouds building up over the jungle, and the prospect of a curry supper about to be served. We didn’t like to mention it, but some aspects of the Empire seem to linger on in far-flung corners of the world.
Log Workers Camp
     During our sojourn, our host and his manager took us to view at first-hand every aspect of their logging operation. We went by rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle on a hair-raising expedition along muddy jungle tracks and cliff-hanging mountainous trails to visit logging camps.
debarking of logs
     Men worked in appallingly humid, dank, and dangerous conditions; surveyors hand cut their way through the jungle, bulldozers cut access tracks and men built wooden bridges, all in their quest to find and fell selected giant trees, debark and transport them to rivers, then finally raft them together to float downriver, where they were to be processed into thin veneers for export to the world.
loading logs for hauling to river
     It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, which involved a lot of heavy machinery to cut and forge safe jungle trails along which to haul the logs to the rivers. Giant trees were felled not by Rambo-type lumberjacks in checked shirts, but by small Iban men in torn khaki vests, tattered trousers and rubber flip-flops, confidently wielding hefty chainsaws with deadly 80cm long blades.
loading logs
     Despite the negative images portrayed on TV of wholesale plundering of rainforests and jungles, the logging process at this camp was one of a controlled renewable harvest programme. Trees were selectively cut and extracted, thus allowing the dense canopy of foliage to open up and make way for the next generation to grow in an eco-friendly manner.
Kapit - time to walk the plank to our waiting boat.
As with all things, there is a downside in that some of the land disturbance causes a certain amount of erosion to run off into the rivers. I guess even the best omelettes need eggs to be broken, or should we give up eating omelettes?
     What are your views on the matter?
     I am reminded that, ‘A wise traveller should see all, hear all, and eat all, but say nothing.’ 
Written by Roy Romsey
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1 comment:

  1. Hi Roy,
    Another interesting and descriptive account of the nature not found in travel guides. I could almost imagine myself there with you. Well done! I was particularly interested in your comments on the renewable harvest program as such measures are often overlooked by many conservationists both here in Australia and abroad. I guess much the same applies to a small number of animal welfare activists decrying the work of so many.


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