Jungle Journey

Malaysian trip succeeds despite leaky boat, stubborn drivers, and more

HERE were the directions:

Leave Bintulu by river launch for Kastima Kem (should take about three hours). Upon reaching Kastima Kem, look for a Land Cruiser from either the Maping Seng or Balui/Tubau Transport Company. Meet the manager and request a ride to Rhuma Lasa and then Balui. Upon reaching Balui, get a longboat to Long Geng.

Well, there we were at Kastima Kem, a logging hamlet not three but almost five hours upriver into the heart of Malaysia's rain forest, and there wasn't a Land Cruiser or manager in sight.

Back in Bintulu, a modern town on the Sarawak coast boasting a mammoth oil and natural gas complex, our guide, a government official moonlighting as an antilogging activist, had reassured us that all would be well.

We, Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, my husband Rajiv Chandra, and I had thought so, too, until our guide broke the last-minute news that we would be going alone.

We should have known. From the start, our trip to chronicle the disappearing forest and tribal cultures in one of Borneo's most heavily logged areas had been a disorganized, furtive affair.

Through mysterious international faxes sent by timber opponents using assumed names, we learned that the villagers of Long Geng, two days up the Kemana and Balui Rivers, were throwing a festival to welcome home recently jailed foes of Sarawak's powerful logging interests.

We had informed the state government, which frowns on unsanctioned visits by journalists to devastated forests, that we would be visiting Sarawak. But to avoid police, who would prevent us from traveling to an off-bounds area like Long Geng, we avoided the major river route and entered through Borneo's back door.

The five-hour trip to Kastima Kem was a snapshot of changing life in Borneo's dense forests. Above the drone of the air-conditioned motor launch, scratchy videos of Hong Kong kung-fu flicks and a karaoke shampoo advertisement grated on our nerves but enraptured those around us.

The signs and scars of logging were everywhere. As the early morning mist lifted from surrounding hills, barges crammed with felled trees floated by. On naked, eroded river banks, timber was stacked for shipment. Near a jungle thicket, the water's edge was strewn with forgotten logs. On one denuded patch, a single tree stood starkly alone.

After tottering up a rickety gangplank at the Kastima Kem pier, we nervously waited for that expected Land Cruiser as a tractor pushed logs to the bank.

At last, a dingy brown pickup truck with a dusty crew in back pulled up, and the driver informed us that he was our contact. Away we roared, careening up and down red-clay corridors carved by road graders from the thick forest cover.

Unfortunately, the driver made several stops for food and chats. (He'd probably been paid off by logging companies to delay our arrival at Long Geng, antitimber activists said later.) At one point, the crew piled out to track and kill an enormous wild boar that was then proudly deposited in the back of the truck and served as my husband's seat for the remainder of the trip.

By the time we reached Rhuma Lasa (or was that Balui?) we were hours late and our boat was long gone. Angry about the possibility of missing the festival, we engaged in tortuous negotiations with an operator of a leaky longboat, who finally agreed to take us upriver for an enormous sum.

As the dusky light faded and the forest disappeared into a deep blackness, the driver steered the motorized canoe to a timber camp, where we survived a night of mosquitoes and nosy loggers.

After inexplicable delays the next morning, we got underway, only to be confronted with a rapids impassable in our loaded longboat. We clambered aboard the bow of a passing barge and rode through the turbulence as the driver of the slender boat and his sidekick dodged the boulders strewn about the river.

We had been warned about a major portage upriver. However, we were unprepared to scramble - toting heavy backpacks and camera bags - up and down a rocky hillside high above the roaring river.

Back in the crowded longboat, exhausted and sweaty, we finally had respite to savor the deep beauty of the tropical jungle. Broken only by the steady drone of our boat, the lush quiet swathed us. Sitting up front, the driver's sidekick and Rajiv took turns languidly bailing out the boat with a plastic bowl.

Lulled to near sleep, the boatman jolted us with a raspy, "Long Geng." A community of longhouses stretched out before us on either bank, linked by a swaying wooden bridge.

Children splashed alongside in the water as others raced excitedly along the bank. Ahead, several men waded into the river to steer our longboat to the plank that served as a pier.

Welcomed ashore, we were instantly swept up steps to a longhouse as the villagers, dressed in tribal finery, their mouths stained red with betel, chanted an enthusiastic greeting.

Down the longhouse's endless gallery we paraded, passing under wild palm leaves shredded like ribbons, grasping hands of young and old every step of the way.

We may have arrived late for the festival. But like the returning logging foes of Long Geng, we felt like long-lost heroes who had come home.

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