Taking advantage of the Chinese New year celebrations here in Sarawak I went off on a trip to the interior of the state. This time the destination was Batang Ai dam and the near by Town of Lubok Antu.
We started from Kuching at 4 am, used to the usual relaxed pace of any trip preparations with Malaysian I was amazed to find that my relatives here actually intended to be on the road at 4, and with no breakfast! An absolute first for any trip I was on here in Malaysia.
Thanks to the ridiculously early start we were well clear of Kuching by the time the sun came up, and it was time for “breakfast” 😉 , we stopped near Simanggang. This town was originally named after a well known warrior, years later the name was changed to Sri Aman (aman= peace) after a big victory which led to the ending of the communist insurgency in the area in the 70ties. On this occasion we did not venture in to the town itself but stopped at the junction outside. Because of the early hour there was a distinct lack of food at the stop and a whole bunch of zombie like travellers shambling to and fro in the grey light of the early morning, we had some drinks (coffee, tea, and other varieties of caffeine) and were off again.
By 10 we were in Lubok Antu, a nice little town surrounded largely by forest/rubber plantation and padi fields. The town has a classic look, a row of old wooden shop houses, a small market and more modern food court in the middle. Because of the Chinese new year most of the shops were closed, but the market still had some local produce to offer. Tilapia and other fish from the near by lake (fresh and dried), local vegetables, mushrooms, chickens etc.
To one side of the market a few stalls were offering…water? Wrong, on closer inspection the “water” was cloudy and it turned out to be tuak, palm tuak. I have heard about this drink before, it is juice tapped from a palm flower, and it becomes alcoholic naturally in just an hour or so. I was looking forward to trying it for some time now. Here it was being sold by local Iban villagers by cup/pitcher. I was very surprised to discover it tasted like…Cider, not a little bit, not something like, it tasted exactly like cider. An unfortunate quality of this drink however is that within a couple more hours it starts to turn more and more sour, eventually the taste is more like vinegar, hence it can not be bottled or stored and is rare in more urban areas of Sarawak.
By now the sun was up and it was getting quite hot, as usual I forgot to bring any sort of sun screen so I bought a hat at another stall, taking some time to look between the New York Yankees, Nike and Che Guevara hats, I finally managed to find one which was plain neutral brown.
Before we left the market we bought some vegetables for later, among them the pig-eye mushrooms (kulat mata babi) , if you are curious about the name just look at the picture below.
From the market we headed off to the food court in the centre of the town (about 50 meters from the market), there we had a proper breakfast I also had the local variety of Teh Tarik. This may not be the biggest discovery ever, but I found that here it is made to have 3 distinct layers, an interesting variant on the usually muddy brown one colour variety found in other parts of Malaysia.
From Lubok Antu we headed straight to the jetty at Batang Ai, there we talked over the details of getting a canoe and guides to go further up river. First however we had to leave the cars, unnecessary bags etc at the near by hostel. It is inside the compound of a local electricity company running the near by dam. The compound seemed completely abandoned, apart from the guard at the gate there was no one to see, grass was knee high and all the shrubs were very overgrown, there was also a pool but it stood empty now. I was told that in its earlier days when the dam was still in construction this compound was teaming with people and was very well maintained. Not so these days 😦
Some of our group were not planning to go all the way up the river so they stayed here with the kids who were too small to go into the canoes. Then we finally headed back to the jetty.
Soon we were off on our way up the river, of course the first you have to get TO the river, the lake as it turns out is quite big. The sides are very steep and in many places dead branches of trees which grew here when this was still a valley beak the surface. It could be an interesting site for diving or kayaking in the future.
After an hour or so we were getting into the narrow part of the valley, here you can visit the Batang Ai national park head quarters located on the right bank of the water. Personally I found the other bank more interesting, there you can see shifting cultivation in all it’s stages, from forest through padi growing in freshly burned hillsides to new forest regrowth. The local guide explained which patches were farmed when, it seemed that it took about 20 years for the forest to get back close to the original state.
Further up we finally reached the beginning of the actual river, the section of water where the river current meets the lake is quite easy to recognize because a lot driftwood from the forest gets stuck here. On this day it was quite easy to navigate through, much easier than on the way back, but more about that later.
Because of heavy rain the water soon turned green and a few minutes later brown, now at this point I would like to make a small note: if you wrap your staff in plastic for the journey in the canoe (which is normally done) please do remember to keep your waterproof coat out of the package. It’ these obvious little details which are easy to forget which can make your journey quite unpleasant later, well wet at least.
The wet weather made it more difficult to take pictures, it also made the current much stronger and several times the engine on our canoe stalled. This is a bad thing because without the engine the canoe is very difficult to control and can quite easily turn sideways in the river, at which point you will almost certainly get a free bath. Luckily we managed to get through the difficult sections of the river without major problems. Only once having to stop, get out and push the canoe past a set of rapids.
Soon after that we have reached our destination, not far from another outpost of the Batang Ai national park, by the look of it still being built. The river was too rough to continue on far upstream so we decided to camp here for the night. Luckily the rain slowed a bit by now. We tried to fish a bit, however the rough water current kept nagging the hooks on the river bottom or sides. We cooked food we brought with us on a “grill” from Lubok Antu. By the time food was ready it was dark and quite late already.
During the night the local guides went a bit further up the river hunting, unfortunately the weather was far too wet for them to catch anything, they did however manage to see a large deer (but it was much bigger then our meat needs).
In the morning we set off back down the river to do some fishing. The river was still rough and even the octopus bait didn’t help with the fish…next time I guess. On our way back down the river we run into this:
The logs which were spread out a bit the previous day were now locked and completely blocking the river. People who live upriver from here use lighter canoes and find it fairly easy to go over the top of the blockage, however the bigger heavier canoes used on the main lake have quite a task getting through. It took us more than half an our to cross the barricade.
Later on after arriving back at the dam site, we did manage to catch quite a few fish (not me 😦 ), and most were cooked for dinner that night. On the way back to Kuching we stopped at a couple of longhouses but I will keep those pictures for some other time. Thge trip was fun, however in the future I will choose a better (drier) time of the year to visit Batang Ai.
Ps: here are some more pictures of the fish found at the lake.