Love thy river


HISTORICAL SITE: Mount Serambu as seen from the river near Sinawan.

WE must keep our rivers clean not just for the tourist dollar; they are the economic arteries of our body politic. People who live by the navigable ones rely almost entirely on them not only as their highway, if there is no road connection, but also as sources of livelihood. The tributaries are the equivalent of our side roads and lanes in the city.

When the water level in the mighty Rajang dropped unusually low at the time of the impoundment of the Bakun Dam last year, the lives of the river people were adversely affected.

That’s why there is so much concern over news about building more mega dams in Sarawak. The one proposed for Baram has compounded the worries among the Baram folk. They are asking what if the water level of their river would drastically drop like that in the Rajang.

Unless and until some convincing explanation is forthcoming soon from the authorities concerned, the dam will develop into a hot political potato; already it is getting hotter by the day as the election is coming around the corner.

While the Baram folk and the proponents of the dam sort out the power problem, let us turn to the Sarawak River. There is already a dam for water storage in the upper reaches of the Sarawak Kiri. What the water level of that Sarawak Kiri will be when the Bengoh Dam is filled up, not many people know. Perhaps, someone up there in the corridors of power would be kind enough to assure us that nothing untoward will happen. Don’t ask the Rajang folk; they will have some idea what Sarawak Kirians will experience.

While the Sarawak Kiri will face an uncertain future, Kuchingites should be thankful for its role in supplying them with treated water from the reservoir at Bengoh.

That leaves us with the Sarawak Kanan.

There has been no news about building a hydropower dam there so far. Touch wood.

While it lasts, let’s enjoy this branch of the Sarawak River. Last weekend, I assembled a team of four men and an old lady on a boat ride to the Wind Cave.

That was the destination anyway. In the event, however, Gua Lobang Angin was reached by road – the next day! The expedition had to be aborted because one huge tree had fallen across the river the night before.

The boat driver told us that a school, SMK Bau, would be within a few kilometres from where we were. But as self-appointed leader of the great expedition, I decided to abort the trip as it would be dangerous to pass through the branches on the way back when the water level dropped in the afternoon.

As there was still time and the weather was beautiful, a sudden change of plan was reluctantly agreed to – in the opposite direction – to Siniawan bazaar downriver.

We had a brief enjoyment of that part of the river above Tondong and would have thoroughly enjoyed the whole journey to the Wind Cave had it not been for the sabotage of the stupid log. Our driver Matthew Ngau insisted we carry the boat over the log but I put my foot down. This Kayan, who calls Tondong Long Linau home, may be a good boat driver but the Sea Dayak was in command of this particular expedition.

We passed by Tondong, soon reaching Buso and about 40 minutes later we were in Siniawan bazaar. This little town will be a popular destination for visitors on their way up the Serambu mountain on the Wallace Trail to James Brooke fs cottage, if the project currently being undertaken by the government is successful.

Back to Tondong

We motored back to Tondong under the hot sun. I had earlier suggested to Daniel Koch, member of the excursion, to wear a hat but he refused, telling me that in Africa and Brazil he never wore a hat and survived. I saw he was slowly turning into a boiled prawn as we sat for lunch at the popular Golden Dragon restaurant at Sebuloh.

Tondong is an old bazaar struggling to survive in this century. If only my guests knew about the role that the town played in the history of Sarawak, they would have asked many questions during the trip. They were ignorantly blissful.

Little did they know that Tondong was the starting point from which the 600-strong Chinese miners in little boats launched their attack on Kuching on the night of Feb 18, 1857 to kill James Brooke. That river was the same route followed by the Rajah’s men in hot pursuit of the Kongsi’s men a few days later.

Read the full account of the Chinese Insurrection 1857 if you are interested in the gory details of that war.

This ancient town was the place where four trainee teachers at Batu Lintang – Hipni Adi, Abdul Hakim Bujang, Hamid Abu Bakar and Majeran – and me, former teacher at St Thomas, had landed in late December 1959 (forgot exact date) after a long walk from Stenggang. The previous day we had left Lundu town by boat via the Kayan River to Pangkalan Stungkor, before we proceeded on foot to Stenggang, staying at Ajab’s house. The next day we walked to Tondong. We hired a boat to take us to Buso and from Buso a mini bus (STC?) whisked us to Kuching safely.

The trainees were in a hurry to get back to Kuching for the next classes at Batu Lintang, while I was preparing to fly away across the sea to NZ. There was no road from Lundu to Kuching then and the sea was so choppy in December 1959 that no boat would be prepared to take us to Kuching. So the only alternative was the river and the overland route.

Without those rivers we could not have reached Kuching in an emergency. The teacher trainees would have been late for classes and I would have missed my flight.

Do you now see the importance of rivers? You may also appreciate why I am passionate about them. Dam the Sarawak Kanan and you will be damned.