Some things, simply, look too big, too plentiful to ever be used up. The herds of bison that clouded the American plains; the trees of Easter Island; the ice sheets of the Arctic; the world’s great rainforests…
But a trip up the Batang Rejang, the Amazon of Borneo, which runs from its estuary on the South China Sea through hundreds of miles of ancient forests, is not only one of the world’s last great river journeys, but an insight into deforestation in action.
From there, long, low steel express boats run upriver to Kanowit, Song, Kapit, Belaga, fighting the current of the swollen stream, ploughing their way through clusters of logs, and stopping at a myriad logging camps, settlements and longhouses in between.
The best way to see the river? From the roof of the boat.
There you’ll have everything from floor tiles for a bungalow to a new seat for a logging camp manager’s 4×4 to boxes full of live chickens for company. They’re picked up, or dropped off, during 30-second pauses at tiny jetties which peek out from the banks.
Heading out of Sibu terminal, with its optimistic sign boasting of clean, safe rivers, the Rejang is a lurid mustard. Logging plants clog the banks.
Further upriver, you see the logging camps, timber settlements perched on bright orange soil, naked to the rains, logging tracks carved out of the scarred hillside, taking lorries deep into the interior. And the source of the river’s turbid colour is all too obvious.
And it’s these that the logging companies are using to replace the centuries-old trees they’re carving out of the hilltops. The longhouse communities are into the game too, many of their paddy fields now replaced with oil plantations.
The Balui River, a tributary of the Batang Rejang, leads further into the interior from Belaga, a community of 2500-odd souls plus a myriad fighting cocks, where the express boats terminate their two-day journey, some way after the Pelagus Rapids turn the water to latte foam.
It looks, at first sight, untouched. Yet at the Kejaman and Lanahan longhouses we visit, almost everyone is out in the fields planting oil palms. And most of the men who work outside the community are based in the logging camps.
Most of the people we meet are under six, over sixty, or mothers looking after their children. Like this elderly Lanahan lady, chewing betel between her toothless gums, wearing gold around her lobes, native batik, woven head-dress and her forearms blue with tattoos, just as her own grandmother might have done.
Yet, the strange thing is, the jungle is so vast that all this activity barely seems to touch it. Fifteen minutes or so up the Belaga River we follow a stream through pristine forest to a waterfall where twin streams of crystal water pour down sheer, cross-hatched rock into a cool green pool.
I’m reminded, oddly, of a poster I saw in a bar named Soho (of all things!) in Kuching, the state capital, quoting the Cree Indian prophecy.
“Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
*Do It Yourself
Express boats run from Pending jetty, outside Kuching, to Sibu, every morning at 9am. Be there by 8.30 to buy tickets. Connecting boats run from Sibu to Kapit’s main jetty at 1.30 and 2.30. To progress beyond Kapit, foreigners need permits, available free from the resident’s office out of town (take a yellow minibus from the market), although these are not always checked. Boats originating in Sibu leave Kapit for Belaga from the left-hand jetty at 9.10 each morning. Be there early.
From Belaga, we explored upriver with Asun, who is based out of Worldwide Exploration B&B on the main strip. We paid 400 ringgit ($130/£80) for a custom-made two-day, one-night river trip for three people, visiting three different longhouse communities, staying the night in one, and taking a trip to the waterfall.