Life, by a swift river in Sarawak

The river was wide and fast-flowing, its colour like teh tarik (milk tea). And some Sarawakians told me, in all seriousness, that if I were to fall into the water, I would be eaten by the giant arapaima fish.

This was my introduction in May 2004 to the Balui River. which is located in the heart of Sarawak and close to the Bakun Dam.

The Balui is in the news this week after a ferry with more than 200 people, three times the number of passengers it was supposed to carry, turned upside down after hitting a boulder.

About a dozen people are missing.

I was in Sarawak in 2004 with a group of reporters to see the construction of the Bakun Dam, whose cost of RM5.8 billion (then S$2.6 billion) made it South-east Asia's costliest project.

A day earlier, we had flown from Kuala Lumpur into Sarawak's Bintulu town, where a big bus ferried us on a three-hour ride to the construction site via a remote road.

Forests and huge hills had been dug up to build the dam, which could generate up to 2,400 megawatt (MW) of electricity - part of Malaysia's total installed capacity of about 24,000 MW.

The dam, which faced numerous construction delays and environmental controversies, began to be filled up with water from the Balui in October 2010 to ready itself for power generation. The sharp drop in water levels forced ferry services to be halted.

After touring the dam site for a day, the organisers took us to the bank of the river the next day for the second part of the trip. This was to be a sleepover in tiny Belaga town for us to witness a small festival where the Iban and Bidayuh tribes would perform their dances and display their homemade wares.

With no tarred roads linking Belaga to the rest of the country, the only way to get there was via shallow boats.

Or to wait for the few ferries, called express boats, that travel up and down the rivers.
So into four narrow boats we went, with each one able to take about six people, excluding the boatman.

The Belaga is a tributary of the Rajang, Malaysia's longest river at more than 500km long.
Bakun dam is located upstream of the Balui.

The swift waters flowing downstream would bring us into Belaga after about an hour in the small-engined boats.

Being a non-swimmer, the thought of floating down the river in a shallow boat - with the arapaima eyeing me as fresh meat - gave me the shivers.

Imagine, if you will, a river as wide as an eight-lane highway, with its water flowing at easily 50kmh on the surface. Sarawakians say the water below the surface flows even faster as there is less resistance.

About halfway through the ride, I had a fright when the boatman said some of us would have to get off the boat as we were reaching the rapids with rocks and boulders jutting out because the water was shallow. This way, he could then ferry the remaining passengers to Belaga and then come back for the rest of us.

Gingerly, four of us stepped onto the river bank. We waited for about 20 minutes, hoping that the water wouldn't suddenly rise and drown us.

Thankfully, we all reached Belaga safely.

After depositing my belongings in the hotel - a two-storey building with perhaps 10 small rooms - I decided to explore the town. I walked along the sole tarred road but that took the whole of two minutes because it ended just 50m away from the jetty! And a muddy jungle road began.

After enjoying the cultural dances the next day, and buying colourful bead necklaces, it was time to depart for KL.

We had to catch a plane about four hours later in Bintulu, about three hours away by boat and bus.

Guess what? My roommate and I were late and missed the ferry! Everyone else had boarded the express boat.

The organisers called us several times - the phone reception was very poor - to tell us that we must now ask the villagers about renting four-wheel drives to get to the airport.

We hired two Toyota trucks for about RM200 each to drive us out to Bintulu. The ferry ride would have cost about RM10 a person.

The drive through the jungle road was bone-jarring and scary, because at several places I thought the vehicle would topple over. At other times, I thought we wouldn't be able to pass because the tracks were very muddy and half-filled with water.
We made it to the airport with about half an hour to spare.

Today, looking at pictures of the familiar brown waters of the Balui while writing up the ferry accident story, I couldn't help feeling I was there once again.

Sipping teh tarik at a rickety cafe by the banks of the swift river.

And, of course, the nice people there, eight years ago, unhurried by e-mails and other electronic garbage.

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