OCTOBER last was full of news, of the depressing variety.
The gods in the Balleh were angry again, for the third time.
The humans had accused them of causing the rain, and the rain caused the erosion, and the erosion caused the landslides slides, and the slides swept down the hills bringing with them the mud and pieces of timber to the river. For good measure, two precious human lives reportedly went down as well.
And the boats of humans could not pass through the logjam and the jam floated spectacularly down the mighty Rajang via Sibu on the way to the open sea.
Remember Noah and the Great Flood; he and his cronies, as well as pairs of animals of every species, were safe in his ark but those on land perished.
Back to earth, how humans handled the gods with two innocent pigs, heaps of rice wine and how the owners of human invention, the bulldozers and the trucks on the ridges and around the sides of those hills at Melatai were exonerated was out of this world. By the blood of the piggies, the real culprits saved their own necks.
The low water level on the Rajang itself was blamed on the god of the weather again, aided and abetted by El Nino; the impoundment of the Bakun Hydroelectric dam had a fair share of the blame.
A break came when the Deputy Federal Minister of Tourism announced that funds would be sought from the government to develop the Serambu Mountain, more specifically the rocky lookout spot called Peninjau. This was followed by news that some people had panned gold pieces at Gunung Tabai in Bau; just how much of the stuff was found, we don’t know.
James Brooke had bought some durian trees from the natives, believed to be Jagoi-speaking Land Dayaks, and built a small bungalow on the site of an old village of Sirambau.
To the history enthusiasts, this project up that mountain and indeed the whole surrounding area including Siniawan is a gold mine, that part of the state full of historical importance. The tour operators are also happy because this is a good product; if smartly promoted, it would attract local visitors as well as those from overseas. The local economy would benefit.
However, the environmentalists are concerned that the valuable granite on the mountain might be given away to the building contractors. Remember Bukit Sekunyit? The right to quarry stone was given away to outsiders, while the locals got a raw deal.
Community must benefit
Their hope is that both the federal ministry and the state’s counterpart will implement this tourism scheme fast before smart entrepreneurs get other ideas and frustrate the project. This project can be assured of the support of the local villagers at Peninjau Baru and Lama, if their rights are protected. The environmentalists and history buffs are looking forward to the implementation of the project.
The intention to make it into a community scheme is admirable: the locals get direct benefit from it. However, the sale of handicrafts, bottled water, local fruits or jungle produce is not what I mean. This activity comes naturally. It’s not just the odd jobs — the clearing of the bush or the construction of bridges and footpaths. Not just the collection of parking fees, there is more: the financial stake of the villagers in the project itself on a long-term basis by means of some organisation like a cooperative or such like.
That’s what I mean by direct benefit, for the villagers at Peninjau Baru and Lama and the Siniawan residents.
Back on the trail and bank on history
The name of Brooke may sell, so may the name of Wallace in the context of Mount Serambu.
So much has been written about the Brookes, only some about Wallace’s exploits in Sarawak.
Wallace Trail has some appeal to sentimentality. The famous naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, arrived in Sarawak (old name of Kuching) on Nov 1, 1854. Most of his time was spent in Simunjan studying the habits of orangutan and shooting many of them in the process. Some of their skulls were sent to museums in Britain. He collected insect specimens and orchids for the Kew Gardens.
Whenever he had enough of jungle bashing, he came to town and stayed at the Astana. One day he was invited by the Rajah to spend time with him at Peninjau on the Serambau.
Read how Wallace describes the place in his book ‘The Malay Archipelago’, published by Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd, Singapore 1983.
“This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it. And on the little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air.
“It’s only 20 miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks as big as houses.
“A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with fresh baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of mangusteens and the Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits.”
Wallace deserves the trail to Peninjau named after him, but as he had murdered orangutans in Simunjan, no place should be named after him there.
Many people believe that it was Wallace who first thought of the theory of evolution — that man descended from apes — because their DNA is 97 per cent similar, but it was Charles Darwin in London who published that theory in ‘The Origin of the Species’, while Wallace was still away in this part of the world.
Could Wallace have jotted down his theory of evolution, while he was at Peninjau?
His conscience must have been severely pricked that later he had a true and contrite heart for having caused the deaths of a number of his Simunjan cousins.
For the adventurous tourists, tour operators should suggest that they start their journey from Kuching by a slow boat up the Sarawak River. That’s the route taken by government officers, foreign visitors, traders and miners those days before the road to Bau was constructed.
For instance, to get to James Brooke’s bungalow, Spenser St John, the Rajah’s secretary, had to take a boat via Ledah Tanah to Siniawan.
In his book ‘Life In The Forests Of The Far East’, volume 1, first published in 1862, he describes Siniawan as a Chinese village with a population of about “300 Celestials, engaged in shopkeeping.” The girls he saw there were “half breeds”, whom he described as “better looking than any others in this part of the world”.
James Brooke’s officers and cronies converted this cottage into their centre for rest and recreation. The rarefied air was a welcome change from the heat and humidity at ground level.
Here’s how St John describes the view from the mountain:
“I have spent many months at this cottage, and rarely an evening passed without my witnessing the sunset from this favourite rock. The peak of Santubong is the centre of the picture, and the undulating ground between and the winding of the river may be seen clearly in all its varied detail. The calm sea – from this distance it seems always calm — bounds the horizon.
“At night, looking south, the prospect appeared quite lively with fires and flashing lights; these came from the villages of Chinese gold-workers occupying the valleys below.”
Now what better advertisement for Peninjau is there than those interesting descriptions of it by a famous naturalist and the Rajah’s secretary!
Given the choice, I prefer the river route that St John and Madame Pfeiffer had taken via Siniawan. That bazaar should also be made part of the project so that its owners would directly benefit from it.
It would be interesting if someone in the tourism industry would also consider Lidah Tanah as part of the travel package. Lidah Tanah or Berlidah has a long history of its own before and after the arrival of James Brooke to Sarawak.
For now let’s concentrate on that trail up the mountain, while the modern Montrado dig away at Gunung Tabai for gold.