Friday, 9 September 2011

river running, running river

I'm in Kuching, Sarawak, with the first day of workshops behind us. Mostly today was participants getting used to each other, figuring out what we're all about, but also a bit of dance training for us in the traditional Iban nyajat.

But before workshops started we had a fascinating 24 hours in the jungle. It started early, as all journeys do, with coffee and boiled eggs and words of travel advice with the director's father on the veranda. Then a 4 hour drive out of Kuching to a place called Batang Ai, site of a huge dam. We arrived at the hottest time of the day, just the worst time to get into small open boats on a large open lake - and that's just what we did. A wide open lake, aqua blue with steep banks of red dirt. Dead trees, the memory of the drowned valley beneath us, jutting out of the lake. Our boatman's technique was to aim at the trees, gun the engine, and then slip through the gap that would suddenly appear just as I was clutching the gunwales and bracing for impact.

It was so hard to stay awake; the drone of the outboard motor, the heat, jetlag, all conspiring to make me fall asleep. But I didn't want to miss a thing.

From the lake we entered a river. Evidence of the community that lived a stretched out life along the river appeared - a clinic above the bend of the river, a school on the next. Small patches of jungle cleared for farming, fishing huts dotted along the shore. The river got narrower and narrower, and the water was so low. We reached a weir and had to walk round it to change to boats waiting on the other side. Our boatman had a technique with rapids similar to his approach to the dead trees, gunning the engine in an apparent attempt to leap, leap like a salmon - luggage, two passengers, two crew be damned... When we got stuck, as get stuck we would, the man in the stern would push away at rocks with a large pole and all his weight.

I thought of my Uncle Douglas, and how he loved "jungle-bashing". He often said on my visits home in my university holidays that he'd take me, knowing I'd love it with my love of canoeing. But we never went, and then he died. And there I was, finally doing it. I thought of him, and cried a little for all the things we promise and never get to follow through.

Late afternoon we arrived at Nanga Sumpa longhouse, a little community astride a tiny estuary, where a narrow tributary joins the larger river we were travelling. On the one side of a narrow bridge is the guesthouse lodge, on the other, the longhouse proper. We went straight to the lodge for tea, to settle in our rooms, and then a late swim in the river below the jutting veranda. The river was shallow, no higher than our knees, and the late sun came through a gap in the trees in a single spotlight.

After a shower, a taste of local rice whiskey, then dinner, it was time to go visiting. With our guide Freda in the lead, we crossed the bridge to the longhouse. Long, dark and tranquil, dotted with oil lamps and faces in the gloom. We visited a group of women, gossiping around a 8-month old baby girl. We were invited to a small party in a house adjoining the longhouse itself; a fare-well party for a man going to work on an off-shore oil rig. Many Iban men do, prized for their skill as riggers. A North sea oil rig might as well have been Mars, sitting where we were, drinking the local rice wine tuak. Back in the longhouse, more tuak in the light of an oil lamp, my head nodding as I tried to stay awake. Outside it was starting to rain.

And how it rained. All night, almost without pause. Rain like a high pressure fire-hose aimed at the steel roof of the lodge. Lying on a mattress inside a near-opaque mosquito netting I felt as though I was floating on the noise, drifting in a restless sleep and shaken by the occasional roll of thunder.

By morning the river we had travelled up was gone, replaced by a boiling, muddy torrent. Entire trees floated by the veranda as we drank our morning coffee. And it was still raining. There was little chance of continuing upriver to see a waterfall as we had hoped. We stuck it out until after lunch before the decision was made that we should return down river before conditions worsened.

A entirely different journey, shooting over rapids. I was glad we weren't trying to travel in the other direction. The weir where we'd changed boats the day before was no longer an inconvenience but entirely impassable. One of our boatmen had lost one of his boats there earlier in the day, washed away by the flood waters.

But the lake at the end was large, and easily swallowed the flood. Even the muddy waters disappeared under the cloudy aqua. I'd like to think there is a small muddy river still running along the floor of the lake, following its old course between the long-dead stands of trees on its watery shores...

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