The lure of the river

My fascination for rivers will never end and I have enjoyed being on the Congo, and the Ubangi, and on the Niger in Africa, but I have also been happy to be on the rivers in Borneo.

Yet there is an element of danger each time I am near the water.

It was my good luck that I could work in Sabah and for three years I lived by the Labuk River which was fed partly by the Tungud, which has clear streams at the foothills, and I have also been on the Klagan, and the Sugut.

Later when I lived another three years in Kota Kinabalu, I used to visit estates which were planting cocoa, and enjoyed speeding across the Sandakan Bay, on to Mamiang Bay, and through a maze of mangrove islands along the Kretam river going past Abai village.

Sometimes you could go by road and on a ferry to cross the Kinabatangan at Sukau, landing close to Morisem estate.

In Sarawak however I was able to visit it early in 1961 when I went up the Rajang to Kanowit and Julau and recently had the chance to visit every two months to travel along the roads from Kuching to Miri.

I stopped at estates and stayed in their rest-houses, and listened to the stories on the rivers of Sarawak.

The stories can be sobering, for despite the lure of the river and its calm waters there is always more than a trace of danger.

The fun side is that you can enjoy the cruise for example on the Rajang to Sibu, or crossing the Beladin River near Pusa, and watching the fishermen in their small boats fishing for terubok.

On the Batang Lupar there may not be any terubok but it has the ‘benak’ or tidal bore, which I got to hear about from my friend Johan Radin for he grew up near Sri Aman.

He said the waves would roll upriver with a roar on certain times in the month.

Tourists would come to watch and some brave surfers would ride the waves as they came up.

I had also heard that similar tidal bores could happen in other countries, and Indonesia had one in Riau at Kampar River, which could be very fierce and I heard that even boats could disappear with the passengers.

Both Sabah and Sarawak have very high rainfall, about twice the amount that we see in Peninsular, and that is why in some days the storms can cause a raging flood that can tear down houses, and set adrift chunks of land and banana plants with it.

But for most months in these rivers the water is calm, and we do not know what may lurk there – big fish or crocodiles that might lie in wait.

The locals know the danger signs, and as a boy I was told how to stay safe on the rivers.

Apart from the fear of drowning, we had to look out for crocodiles.

I was told never to speak its name, and use nicknames if necessary or not to say anything at all.

But my friend Matthew Lau a city dweller from Kuching did not know this.

We were on a shallow boat on the river at Pantu some way away from Serian, and we were looking at land for a plantation.

It was in the area of deep peat.

Looking at the wine coloured water fringed by tall reeds, we saw the bubbles rising to the surface.

A kampong boy like me would know that it could signal the presence of big crocodiles clinging to the river bottom.

It was best to follow what the Iban boatman was doing, which was to keep looking ahead and remain silent.

The river was rich in fish and we have seen large ikan tapah the size of boat paddles lying on the floor of the plank shop of the old Chinese couple who must have lived there for many years.

But Matthew did not know the rule, and he asked from his end of the narrow boat:“Are there many crocodiles in this river?”I looked at him in silence, and so did my two friends on board.

The boatman only smiled, and I did not say anything.

Mathew asked a second time, and then he stopped asking.

When we stepped back on the bank, I had to talk to him.


When on the river you do not want to mention anything about a crocodile.” He asked, “Why is that?” and I replied, “It just isn’t done.

It’s just too risky.

”I could not hide a smile as his face changed as he understood what I meant.

It seemed to be funny at the time, but I did not forget that there was a real threat in the water.

I had seen the size of the crocodiles that basked on the bank of the Labuk when I was in Sabah.

Yet I did not hear of any attacks while I lived there, although some people had been telling me there were reports in the past.

The horror of the situation however came clear in the stories of the attacks in the rivers in Sarawak when some unwary people got pulled underwater.

Usually it took a few days of searching and calling the bomoh to put a spell that the crocodile would return and get caught.

On the YouTube you could see the gory details as the gut was cut and bits of limbs fell out.

The tragedy is real.

Across the border in Kalimantan the rivers are no less majestic and I have been on the Barito, and Kapuas, and the Mahakam.

The scenery I saw was different as by the banks the houses were close together, and many houseboats were tied to the shore.

The skyline showed house roofs and domes of mosques.

In the water no one knows what would lie there, it could be wrecks of junks from China probably with gold artifacts and jars.

Or it could be fish, like colourful eels, and large udang galah prawns with big heads, a sure sign in my mind that crocodiles would thrive with so much food.

Like everywhere else these rivers hide stories of grief and tragedy over the ages.

They were the highways to get anywhere, and people travelled with a purpose.

In my case, it was enough just to be on the boat and gaze ahead, and feel the spray, while my mind would be wondering what the next bend would bring.

It could be crocodiles on the banks, or proboscis monkeys on the trees that overhang the water, or just storks which stood still and checked if you posed a danger.

Like the storks the people view the river as their source of food, and at the same time they  have to be wary.

So it is a message that where there is a river, be always mindful of the risks.

We do not want to lose any people to the deep, or its inhabitants, for it would be tragic.

Let the river keep its mystery, give it the highest respect, and enjoy its view so that when you leave its banks,  you will have only pleasant memories.

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