Travel Features > Up the Ulu

The Pleasures of Upriver Travel

I've visited Borneo Adventure's award-winning community based tourism project at Ulu Ai on a number of occasions and its one of my favourites places in Sarawak. The combination of a superb natural setting and a visit to an Iban longhouse is an unbeatable travel experience. The river journey, across the hydro lake, up the Ulu Ai and then the narrow Delok River, allows you to experience the pure pleasures of upriver travel, Sarawak-style. This journey is very much part of the whole Ulu Ai experience; travel at its best where 'getting there' is half the fun.

©1998 Wayne Tarman

The real journey to Nanga Sumpa starts at the boat jetty on the Batang Ai Hydro lake where you board your longboat after a 4 hour drive from Kuching. The longboats generally take 4 passengers plus a two man crew consisting of the driver who takes charge of the outboard engine and a point-man who sits on the front of the boat, eyes ahead on the lookout for obstructions in the river such as fallen trees, pebbles and boulders.

The first leg of the trip is a rather pleasant cruise across the calm waters of the lake created by the Batang Ai hydro dam. After cruising for 20 minutes or so the boat turns into the Batang Ai river itself. From then onwards you are in for the unforgettable experience of an upriver journey deep into the heart of Borneo.

For the next half and hour or so the boat passes through what was a small valley before it was flooded upon completion of the dam in 1984. This stretch has an eerie feel as the boatman negotiates his way through the mini-forests of semi-submerged trees which protrude from the surface of the lake. It is also an excellent place for birdwatching. The semi-submerged trees provide a multitude of resting stops for the bird life that thrives on the rich fisheries resources of the lake. Brahminy kites soar overhead, floating in the wind currents before diving into the waters to grab a meal. One of the most beautiful birds in all of Borneo is also commonly seen here. The stork-billed kingfisher is the largest of the kingfishers found in Borneo. They are unmistakable with their large bills and vivid blue coats. They sit perched on pole-like trees and as the boat approaches, flashes of blue are seen as they fly off to another tree.

©1998 Wayne Tarman

Over the last few years the number of kingfishers and brahminy kites seen in this stretch of the river has increased markedly as birds have migrated to the area taking advantage of the rich source of food found in the newly formed lake. On my last trip I counted eight stork-billed kingfishers and four brahminy kites, two souring above and two perched on a convenient semi-submerged tree, beadily watching our boat pass by. And that was in the space of 30 minutes.

As the river journey continues the semi-submerged trees disappear, the river narrows and the scenery changes. Gone are the pepper farms that lined the hills earlier on. Here the river is surrounded by thick rainforest with slanted trees and vines hanging over the water. The river becomes fast moving and winds its way around pebble beaches and rocky outcrops. This is where you realise how skilled the boatman are as they work together in order to navigate the fast flowing waters of what is now a narrow river surrounding by thick jungle on either bank. The point-man constantly indicates which route to take to avoid shallow areas, fallen trees, rocks and boulders. The scenery here is simply breath-taking. It's pure Borneo - forest and fast flowing jungle streams.

The berrier-like 'Waterfall'.
©1998 Wayne Tarman

If there has been a prolonged dry period the river level drops and there are more obstacles to navigate. The biggest of these obstacles lies about midway through the journey. If you hear the roar of white water an hour or so into your journey you'll know you're near. The obstacle has been dubbed 'The Waterfall'. It's a rocky, barrier-like waterfall-cum-rapid blocking the river. As you round a bend and approach this barrier, the boatman guns his engine and you speed towards the wall of white water. At the last second the boat shoots to right and the boatman cuts the engine whilst his partner jumps out to tie the boat up. It all seems to happen so fast as this is a daily routine for the skilled boat crews.

If you are travelling in a in mini flotilla of longboats the Waterfall area soon becomes a hive of activity as the other boats arrive and tie up downstream from the obstacle. Upstream another set of boats waits; waiting for their passengers and waiting for their engines. In what is an all too familiar exercise for the guides and the boatman - and an exciting part of the adventure for most travellers - an upriver Borneo-style transfer takes place. For the next 15 minutes or so, backpacks, lifejackets, boxes of provisions and the outboard engines are carried across the rocks and round the waterfall to the upriver boats.

A Borneo-style transfer.
©1998 Wayne Tarman

After a quick stretch of the legs, it's back in the boat for the final stretch of the journey.
The stretch of river after the Waterfall meanders its way through the forest. Flashes of blue are occasionally seen as kingfishers hear the boat engine and fly off, racing across the surface of the water in front of the boat. When you are least expecting it you round a bend and the longhouse comes into view, perched on the riverbank adjacent to a small pebble beach where children are often found playing in the river. The boatman cuts the engine and you drift towards a narrow stream and the small boat jetty. Journey`s end.

When you check into to Borneo Adventure's Lodge, adjacent to the longhouse, you get the feeling that a unique experience lies ahead. A combination of nature and adventure-based activities, and the chance of interacting with a thriving Iban community. And of course when all that is over there's another thing to look forward to - the pleasure of the return river journey, running with the flow of river, the perfect end to a Sarawak river and longhouse expedition.


Outboard Engines also have to be transferred to the waiting upriver boats.
©1998 Wayne Tarman

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