Cruising Log 2007 - Borneo - Part 2.


Iban couple at Sibu Cultural Festival.

29 June 2007 - Goodbye Kuching

We finally left Kuching after 26 days anchored off the village of Santubong - a little more than the week we intended to spend. Kuching is a very hard place to go away from.

The first 15 m of our anchor chain was so fouled with barnacles and mud it took us two hours to lift it as we scraped and scrubbed every individual link with screwdriver and brush, to avoid getting too much life (and its smell) into the anchor locker. After catching the making tide over the Santubong River bar, we inched along at only just over 5 kn, our engine labouring under a 10 degree (C) increase in temperature. Luckily we had only 16nm to travel to our anchorage at Lakei Island, just off Bako National Park where Philip dived and I snorkelled for a look. (There are crocs in the Santubong - even croc-watching tours - so we weren't going diving there.)

30 June 2007 - Up the Rajang River

Before we hit the water the next day we had a pretty fair idea what the problem was: crap all over the bottom of the boat. We hoped it was just the prop and rudder - the keel cooling is a terrible job when it's fouled. Lucky again! The prop was a ball of barnacles and the rudder had a pretty good coating but the keel cooling and the timber were all clean. Even so, it looks like we'll be searching for somewhere to antifoul again soon. And it's not even 6 months!

The trip to the mouth of the Rajang River (Batang Rajang) is just over 45nm. Because Borneo has few roads, the rivers are the main arteries of transportation. And the Batang Rajang is the mightiest of them all.

Log ship The Rajang River is full of ships and barges carrying logs.

Log bunker Borneo's jungles! The scale of logging is beyond belief until you see the millions of logs stacked by the side of the Rajang ready to be collected and shipped somewhere else.

Log barge

This tow emerged from further up the tiny river we anchored in and proceeded between us and the town of Sarikei.

4 July 2007 - Sarikei

After a 7am start on July 1 we managed to arrive at the mouth with a few hours of incoming tide still to run and so were able to get 20nm up the Rajang in daylight.

Sarikei town is right on the river, from its rabble of stick houses as you approach, to its front street dominated by the fast ferries which come and go and congregate with the trawlers and tugs at its main wharf. Luckily we were able to avoid most of the main current and traffic by anchoring just inside the Sarikei River across from the Police, Customs and floating Shell garage.

Approaching Sarikei. A fast ferry filling up at the floating Shell garage opposite our anchorage in a side stream at Sarikei.


Sarikei looks like a no-frills Chinese town with its shophouses and characters. But you quickly find out that it is a real mix of Chinese, Iban and Melanau with some Malays. It was a puzzle to us why it exists - a bit frontierlike, but no evidence of industry, warehousing, manufacturing, logging storage etc .....But lots of restaurants, a couple of decent internet cafes and a great fresh market all within walking distance of the boat, because we are right on the edge of town.

From the enthusiastic reception we were given everywhere we walked, we can only assume Sarikei doesn't get a lot of tourists. Unlike most parts of Malaysia we have visited, not many people speak English and the town has a very "real", going-about-its-own-business feel to it. We saw baskets - but not for tourists - in a banana and produce store; we found a man fabricating folded and welded metal products, including a stainless steel headlamp fueled by gasoline for rubber tappers who start work before daylight; another man sewing new soles on shoes. We tried jellyfish for the first time and corn with sweetened (and dyed) corn juice over crushed ice as an aperitif. We also bought some "Pak ting" at a Chinese herbal store - apparently we should boil it with chicken and eat the chicken and stock for good health.

(I just wish I'd had the the nerve to photograph the sign INSIDE the internet cafe we went into. "No spitting" in English and Malay, but, in case you didn't understand, there was a graphic drawing in that style that signs always use, showing a profile with pursed lips, a couple of lines indicating motion and a carefully crafted dollop.)

It turns out Sarikei is not a logging or agricultural town, but a government administration centre. Police, Customs, Education, incredibly huge and resort-like 2 year old hospital and all the residences and compounds for their large staffs. That partly explains why there is such a high proportion of restaurants among the shops.

ASIDE** Philip is reading things to me out of the Borneo Post as I type. An article about officials reminding commercial developers that they have to reserve at least 30% of space for Bumiputra (ie Malay) businessmen - and that the space must be strategically located in the centres. In response to developers who say they cannot fill such space, they reply that Malay businessmen are now much better with financial management and business. Another about Bumiputra organisations whinging that credit risk assessment companies get their data "the easy way" by checking bankruptcy notices in the papers and bankruptcy orders. And yet another by Malaysian officials deploring begging on the streets by children dressed as Malays because tourists would see Malaysia in a bad light. (And stating that they are probably not real Malays because Malay parents would not allow their children to beg.)

At the same time the national government runs a constant line that "all the races live in harmony" in Malaysia. Hmmm. Something's got to give. The Malays (Bumiputra - sons of the soil) are the majority "race" (about 60%) in Malaysia as a whole, yet they are treated with incredible affirmative action as though an impoverished minority. The things we know about are: Bumiputra-only land in many places (eg Langkawi land can only be owned by Malays. Chinese Malaysians who live there are not allowed to buy land); Bumiputra-only business startup funds; and preferential employment treatment in private companies (a certain % must be employed). In Sarawak the Malays are a sizeable minority (about 30% of the population) as are the Ibans (about 30%) and the Chinese (about 30%).

And then there's the slap in the face to non-Malay Malaysians of being the recipients of huge mosques in their towns.We have also heard that a proportion of government jobs are available only to Bumiputras.

Dissatisfaction was only hinted at in Peninsula Malaysia. People are a little more open about it here. We've noticed many boats and buildings fly the Sarawak flag as well as the Malaysian one, or often, instead of it. It's not hard to imagine Borneoians being a little pissed off by Britain giving them to Malaysia when they wanted to be rid of their pesky colonies after WWII.

5 July 2007 - Sibu

It's now 35 degrees (C). The tide has turned and we've not long dropped anchor to wait till this afternoon for the next incoming tide. We are a little past the Leba-An corner of the Batang Rajang, on our way to Sibu. At 6.30 this morning, in fog, we upanchored to catch the last of the rising tide as far as we could get in a couple of hours. With a 5 metre tidal range today, we sped along at up to 9.6 knots past corrugated iron longhouses, rafts of logs pushed into the bank by tugs and women washing in the discoloured water.

At anchor in fog we were sitting ducks for the express ferries that come hurtling up and down river.

The river is wide and brown, lined with Nipa palms or padi fields and punctuated at intervals with logs stacked on the riverside. Traffic travels in only one direction - the way the tide is flowing: tugs towing lighters, aft wheelhouse freighters and 16 ft skiffs with 40hp outboards going like the clappers, noses in the air with only the last 12" actually touching the water. We wonder what happens when they accidentally come in close contact with some of the palm fronds, sawn timber and logs that liberally garnish the river surface in places.

Just after we anchored, we had a friendly visit from the harbours board speedboat. (Our Customs friends in Sarikei told us there is a lot of smuggling happens on the river, despite being so far from the coast.) They said we could anchor outside their place at Sibu and use their jetty and, in passing, mentioned that there is another yacht currently in Sibu. (This turned out to be Crystal Blues - Lee and Neil gave us a yell as they passed us on their way down river.)

Part of the Sibu waterfront - floating warehouse/shops. The fronts have iron shop grilles pulled across when closed.

Takeaway Chooks - at the Sibu market.


In what must be one of the great marketing victories/swindles, Nescafe has managed to position itself as not just a quick and easy alternative to the thick and wonderful Malaysian and Indonesian coffees so abundant here, but as a status symbol. Kedai kopi (traditional coffee shops) are often festooned in Nescafe flags and banners and a cup of Nescafe is more expensive than real kopi. If you're a westerner you have to be vigilant to make sure you get the real thing. It's assumed you're more hip and rich and so therefore more likely to prefer statusy Nescafe.

There's no tradition of dairy foods in South East Asia, so white coffee (kopi) is served with a half inch of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass. When stirred into really strong coffee, it's like drinking bitter chocolate. For us chocoholics it's delectable. Having said all that, we've settled on teh limau ais (iced lemon tea) as our regular drink.

I guess it's because Malaysia is an Islamic country and therefore, ostensibly, a non-alcohol-drinking culture, there is a huge variety of drinks available with meals. Every restaurant serves the tea and coffees above (hot or iced) as well as teh tariq (like a tea capuccino with frothy condensed milk), Milo (hot or iced) and Horlicks. Other drinks vary. One evening we saw an adult soccer team getting together after training for icy cold milos. Do you reckon it'd catch on in Oz?

Part of the drinks menu on the wall of a local cafe.

There is also a huge range of western products available, often with a local interpretation. Ask for brown bread around Sarikei or Sibu for instance and you'll get it - dyed brown. (Or, if you'd prefer, dyed green.)


Few roads plus many huge rivers leads to all sorts of river transport. The usual ones of course, like tugs and barges and freighters and speedboats. Even canoes are not uncommon. Most noticeable on the rivers, though, are the many high speed ferries, powered by 1,000HP engines and travelling at 40-60knots. The tourist brochures describe them as aerodynamic, plane-like but without wings. We think they look like speeding moray eels.

Unfortunately the designers forgot that the driver needs to be able to see where he's going. It's a sight to behold this purpose built speed machine racing along - with the driver under a rough awning poking his head through the front window. Must really bugger up the aerodynamics!

Dredging, Sibu-style. This barge/crane dug tons of soil out of the river at a (private?) jetty, only to dump it back into the water a few hundred yards downstream.

Ship towing a speedboat. Is that his tender?


10 July 2007 - The Only Visitors Ever Rejected by a Longhouse

We're anchored for the night at Kuala Muara, one of the mouths to the rivers in the Rajang delta. Tomorrow we'll head north up the Sarawak coast en route to Bintulu and Miri. We plan to anchor against the coast if the conditions are OK. As we sit here we can hear our 38" prop turning swiftly in the incredible current. For the past few days coming downriver from Sibu we've sped along at 9 knots when the current was with us (and anchored when the current ran in.)

The smaller rivers of the delta are more picturesque than the Rajang, and dotted with Iban longhouses.

And there lies a tale...

In a previous log I mentioned that being invited to and visiting a longhouse is hailed as the highlight of a trip to Borneo - Iban hospitality is legendary. So we were chuffed when we got an email from fellow cruisers who'd spent a lot of time at one, referring us. They'd told "Justin" at the longhouse they'd visited that we were travelling nearby and he'd told them to ask us to drop in. Sure enough, when we anchored nearby, a man from the longhouse (not "Justin") came aboard and invited us at 7.30pm that night. His English was patchy and of course we don't speak Iban and I didn't catch his name first time so asked him to spell it. "B-O-N-F-A-C-E" See you tonight then, Bon Face.

At 7.30 it was pitch black. It was also low tide so we had to ram the mud bank at the bottom of the ladder to their jetty to get close enough to the steps. Fortunately, Philip had thought to bring a torch as we negotiated the boardwalk over the mud and along the front of the longhouse in the dark. Along one side was the longhouse. On the other were some small sheds running generators, supplying electricity to the lucky ones.

This sure was a long house! (We found out later that this is a community of 80 families. The people at one end of the longhouse don't necessarily know those at the other). Halfway along the length of the longhouse, as we bumbled in the blackness past lots of doorways (but none that looked as though they were waiting for us), we finally thought "Better ask directions to Bon Face's place". So we knocked and stuck our heads around a doorway to the communal verandah.

The enormous wooden corridor was dimly lit with a few oil lamps along its length where women were socialising or weaving mats. Some of the doors to the individual families' spaces were open, revealing a neon light, music or TV. The reaction to us was shock, some fear perhaps. (I know how I'd feel if strangers suddenly invaded my living space.) Then confusion. No English. A flurry. More people. A few angry voices among those on the verandah now - and a few shook our hands.

When an English speaker was summoned, he asked if Justin had invited us (although he wasn't home). We explained our invitation - but no-one knew Bon Face. We described him, tried pronouncing his name differently, but to no avail. Embarassed, we said we'd leave and were politely, gently and clearly escorted off the premises and back to our dinghy.

Later we saw torches on the jetty and heard talking. Bon Face looking for us?...But by then we didn't want to go back. Clearly there was some communication mix up: we went to the wrong jetty? We had the guy's name wrong? Or maybe there's some jealousy/protocol in the longhouse about who gets visitors? Whatever it was, we didn't handle it well. We feel dreadful about Bon Face getting his family ready, preparing for guests and then having them not show. Too late we learned that if we ever get an invitation again we should go ashore, check where to come and confirm all arrangements.

14 July 2007 - Bintulu

We're planning to head off to Miri first thing (4.00am!) tomorrow morning from our snug anchorage here at Bintulu Port. We arrived outside the port about 10.30 pm on the 11th after an afternoon of rough seas brought on by a 30-40 kn blow for a couple of hours earlier in the afternoon. I found it scary not knowing what the weather was going to do - was it going to get worse and worse? Would it last for days? On the Australian Queensland coast the weather is mostly the result of the movement of large high pressure systems over central Australia and is almost always predicted. It blows in, stays at that strength for a few days then gradually eases. Here we are travelling without weather forecasts and, in any case, weather is very localised and not consistent.

Luckily our "bit of weather" had been from the southwest, behind us, which is our best angle. Lifeline was built for crossing bars so steers beautifully in following seas. We even picked up a couple of knots.

From the sea on a dark night, amongst the twinkling oil rigs, Bintulu port is a maze of white and yellow lights, with red and green ones winking at different heights against the ambient light. Which are channel markers? Which are ships? The first thing we had seen from about 15 miles out looked like a fire on the water but it turned out to be an oil flare, one of several. We crossed a channel (apparently, looking at the depth sounder) but the lights we could see in no way resembled the new chart we had bought in Kuching. No answer on the radio from the port authorities as we requested permission to enter. (We should have been calling on VHF channel 12).

Blundering about on radar (cluttered with dots) and depth sounder, with me on the bow, we eventually followed our electronic chart, which led us to the small ship anchorage, where the harbour police, tugs and pilot boats are moored. The space allotted to the few cruising boats who travel this way is way too small to swing on anchor. It's also way scary, surrounded by jagged rocks to the stern and huge steel ship docks ahead. And just to add a little excitement, the whole inner harbour is open to the sea through the entrance in the breakwater and easily gets itself into a nasty surge..

And there we encountered the legendary hospitality of the officials here. At every moment we expected to be told to get out of the port - just like they do in Mackay or probably most commercial ports in the world. Instead, the harbour police got into their boat, came right alongside, told us where to drop anchor and took fore and aft lines to ensure we couldn't swing. This involved taking off their shoes and scrambling over the rocks to tie us to a tree on shore as well as waiting for us to get the kinks out of our unprepared lines as a forward tie line! By this time it was nearly midnight. "Welcome to Bintulu port" they called and handed over a visitors' book for us to sign. An incredible experience and a very welcome one after a 17 hour day.

Lifeline tied to a handrail and a sapling at Bintulu port.

We were glad of all our lines and anchor about 5pm the next evening as a 40kn (gusting 50kn) blow came in from WNW, fortunately the protected side. After a couple of hours we had surf on the rocks behind us 30 ft away. But all was calm by bedtime. Apparently there is a bad typhoon in the north of the Philippines - don't know if this had anything to do with it.

Bintulu itself is a compact, bustling town apparently living on the oil and fishing industries. People here are as outstandingly friendly as everywhere else we have been in Sarawak. Apparently it is known for having the closest airport to town. Some wit in the yachty visitors' book had added that it could also be known as the town with the furthest busstop from the port. We've spent an interesting few days closely watching the tugs and pilot boats berth the container ships.

15 July 2007 - En Route to Miri

We're chewing up miles nicely since our 4.30am start this morning. 28nm to go, but we're constantly looking over our shoulders for cloud buildup, indicating a storm. So far so good. And the water has become clear too - we've even put out the trolling lines.

19 July 2007

In their quest to turn every Malaysian region into some sort of tourist destination, the Malaysian government has come up with "the resort city" as Miri's tag and seahorses as Miri's symbol. Miri is right on the border with Brunei and has some beaches as well as some wicked western ways from its history as an oil town full of expats. Ipso facto rich Bruneians are going to hop over the border for some fun ....get it?

There are some resorts in Miri and even more modern mansions. When it comes to mansion-building the Miri tycoons have got it licked. Set on giant blocks (maybe multiple hectares some of them), these several storey palaces manage to combine Mediterranean, ancient Greek and Westfield styles in one. Perfect for the tropical lifestyle (not).

Miri itself is quite a nice town with western amenities we normally only associate with tourist places. The marina here, as yet the only one in Sarawak, is unfinished - power, water and garbage bins but no facilities or landscaping. But it is very protected - the only all weather stop in the 200 miles since the Rajang delta. That alone would guarantee that every boat cruising the coast would come here. But it's also very cheap at $8AU per day.

The next stop is the tiny and mysterious Sultanate of Brunei, wedged between Sarawak and Sabah of Malaysian Borneo.....


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