Travel Features > Getting Around

Self-Drive Sarawak - Roads, Rivers and Rainforests

Mike Reed hits the road for a Borneo adventure on four wheels

Day One - Kuching to the Iban Heartland

All journeys have to start somewhere, and Kuching is the ideal place. Once you can tear yourself away from the former seat of the White Rajahs, all you need is a rental car and a few changes of clothes for the journey. You don't even need a map, as there is only one major road between Kuching and Miri and it's almost impossible to get lost on it, though you can probably scrounge a free copy of the excellent Periplus map from the Visitors Information Centre in Padang Merdeka. While you're there, make sure you grab a copy of the Sarawak Hotel and Tour Operator Directory, for details of accommodation in out-of-the-way places.

Kuching - The start of the journey.
Wayne Tarman ©Adventure Images Sdn Bhd
The first part of the journey is actually the hardest. If you are setting out from anywhere within the city centre, you will immediately encounter Kuching's extensive network of one-way systems. Once you manage to break out, head for the airport and just before you get there, follow the signs for Serian. Keep going straight ahead at every roundabout, until the city and its suburbs gradually thin out to farmland and small industrial and commercial estates. Once past Kota Padawan (16 km) the landscape changes, and the countryside is dotted with jungle-covered limestone outcrops, with small villages sheltering in between.

Serian, the first stop on the route, is an hour's leisurely drive from Kuching. It's a small country town, an eccentric mix of old wooden houses, modern civic architecture and Chinese shophouses, dominated by the mist-enshrouded presence of Gunung Ampungan (755 m). The town is at its liveliest mid-morning, with a bustling farmers' market (behind the bus station) where traders sell such delicacies as live snakes and sago worms, as well as the usual array of colourful tropical fruits and vegetables. The ladies selling their produce are friendly, chatty, and very generous with free samples of fruits, preserves and candies.

If you've forgotten to bring film, video tapes or camera batteries, the photo shops across the road from the market are your last chance to stock up before you get to Sibu. Serian's also a great place for a late breakfast. There are some good food stalls on the upper floor of the market building, and the coffee shop next to the Shell filling station does excellent curry noodles. Just past Serian is a turnoff to the Ranchan Pools, a cascade of small waterfalls. It's no Niagara, by any stretch of the imagination, but a nice place to relax and swim in the cool mountain water.

After Serian the landscape changes again. The road picks its way across gently rolling hill country, flanked on both sides by farms and forest. It's well worth stopping at one of the occasional roadside stalls, to stock up on tiny delicious golden bananas, and succulent green (yes, green) oranges. After about half an hour the road passes parallel to the foothills of the Klingkang Range, a series of limestone peaks rising to almost 1500 m that form a natural barrier between Sarawak and Indonesia. The steep, forest covered slopes look almost impassable, but nobody seems to have told the Iban people from just over the border, as they walk over every day to barter their produce and handicrafts in the small bazaars along the road. One of these bazaars, Lachau, is the ideal place to stop for lunch.

Lachau's greatest claim to fame is that it has probably the best-kept public toilets in the whole of Malaysia. A cleaning team from the district council drives 60 km from Sri Aman every day in an unremitting crusade for public hygiene. But then Lachau - all sixteen shophouses of it - is probably the busiest truck-stop in the whole of Borneo. About half-a-dozen Chinese and Malay restaurants serve up simple and tasty local food to a remarkable cross section of patrons. This is one of the few places in Sarawak where large concentrations of tourists can be spotted (if two or three busloads can be called large), but that's hardly surprising as there's only one road from South to North, and the call of nature has to be answered somewhere.

From Lachau, the road becomes steeper, with a slow climb to the top of Bukit Begunan. You won't have seen a timber truck or oil tanker all day, but suddenly there's ten of them slogging up the hill at walking pace, and overtaking is strictly forbidden (and moderately suicidal!). At the top of the hill a spectacular view is revealed - the whole of Sarawak's Second Division lies before you, the Iban Heartland, and on a clear day you can see as far as the distant purple peaks of the Boyen Kapuas mountains, almost 100 km away.

Just before Sri Aman, the main road turns right and heads through rolling countryside dotted with pepper gardens and padi fields, and there is a longhouse to be seen on almost every bend. After about an hour you come to a turn-off, with a signpost indicating 'Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort.' A 40-minute drive along a narrow, winding road brings you to the foot of the massive Batang Ai Hydro Dam, 120 metres high and holding back 24 square kilometres of water. Follow the signs for the resort and you arrive at a building that looks like an Iban-style summer house, overlooking a vast stretch of water surrounded by rugged hills, rubber gardens and secondary rainforest. This doesn't look like much of a place to stop for the night (spotless toilets though), but don't panic; it's only the car park. The friendly attendant will summon a boat on his walkie-talkie, and within a few minutes you're whisked across the surface of the lake to what is probably the world's most unusual Hilton.

If you're just stopping for the night, make sure you arrange a one hour jungle trek with the legendary Winston Marshall for the next morning. What Winston doesn't know about the rainforest isn't worth knowing, and after an hour with him most city slickers feel like jungle survival experts. If you plan to stay for a few days, fascinating trips to local longhouses can be arranged, and you may even spot a wild orang utan in Batang Ai National Park.

Day 1 Alternatives

View from the longhouse door.
Wayne Tarman
©Adventure Images Sdn Bhd
The Hilton at Batang Ai isn't the only place for an overnight stop. Instead of turning off for Batang Ai, carry on for another 15 minutes until you reach Nanga Enteban, a sprawling Iban longhouse on the right hand side of the road. This is the jumping-off-point for the longhouses of the Skrang River, home of the pirates that plagued the reign of the first White Rajah. There's a small jetty here with longboats available to transport you upriver.

A pleasant boat ride past bamboo groves and pepper gardens will deliver you to some of the best-preserved Iban longhouses in Sarawak, but don't expect a primitive backwater - every longhouse has electricity and TV, and there's not a loin cloth or bark waistcoat to be seen unless you attend one of the dance performances laid on for tourists. Accommodation can be in a lodge built next to the longhouse, or traditional style on the ruai (covered verandah). However, even though most of the longhouses here welcome visitors, this doesn't mean they're overrun with foreigners; just that the locals are familiar with outsiders and skilled at interpreting their culture and lifestyle for their guests. A small fee (RM 20-30) is charged for food and accommodation, but dance performances and suchlike are usually extra. The Skrang area is a good place to buy handicrafts, particularly pua kumbu, an exquisite hand-woven textile unique to the Ibans.

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