in North BorneoComments Off on Sarawak




We approached the entrance to the Santubong River in the early hours of the morning, and the hills arose out of the morning mist; we had spent a night sailing slowly across the wide bay to ensure that we would arrive after daylight.


The Santubong River is a typical North Borneo River, slow, muddy, strewn with logs and other debris. Under the distinctive peak of Mt Santubong is a good anchorage immediately alongside a small township, so there is road access and a conveniently placed jetty which the owner generously allows visiting yachts to use for dinghy tie-up. His staff on his property there are also very helpful with instructions on clearing customs,doing laundry and getting to town.
‘Town’ is Kuching, the principle city of Sarawak, about 35 kilometres inland by road. It was possible to sail up the river to anchor in the town, but the way is now blocked by a low bridge, however there is a regular bus service along the road past the anchorage.

We took a bus to town, but while there, hired a small car in order to complete our entry formalities, -that required visiting government offices at various locations well out of the city at the port, we found the vehicle to be essential.
It was an opportunity to explore the town, find it very confusing, and to get lost in it!

Kuching is however, a beautiful city, despite its being on a muddy river.


The central area is extremely clean,


colourful, and with a long history.


The Main Bazaar is the major waterfront shopping street and is a row of old, but well preserved Chinese shop houses.


and around the corner, the Hong San Chinese Temple, evidence of the importance of that culture in the commercial district.

The most populous of shops in the Main Bazaar sell ethnic art, craft and furnishings, they are a feature of Kuching and sell the greatest range, -the finest, (and probably also the worst!) of all of Borneo.
Most of the better quality works are from the Iban people, the longhouse dwellers of inland Sarawak, whose distinctive culture provides the decorative symbols in use through the whole region. Mostly it is new product, but there is also a large trade in their antiques and ‘faux-antiques’. However, there is also an enormous mass produced proportion of dirt-cheap carvings, basketry and weavings that you might find anywhere in SE Asia, -made in Indonesia and elsewhere.
Bypassing those shops which sell the cheap ‘junk’ and just visiting the more expensive galleries and furnishing stores is a truly mouth-watering experience, -of a home decorating kind! 


The paintings, carvings, weavings and furnishings are so exciting to look at, they match the best displays we found in Vietnam, once again, what a pity we live on a small boat! Oh to be able to ship some of this stuff home, -and to have a home to put it in once it was there! -but as it is, we could only look…or buy very small…

Kuching City history goes back some time, it was a centre well before the first Europeans arrived to take residence in the 1840s. James Brooke fortuitously arrived to save the local viceroy,who happened to be losing in a battle with some local tribes, so as a debt of gratitude, he gave the Englishman the town and installed him as the Raja of Sarawak. The country stayed in the ownership of the Brooke family until the Japanese occupation during WW II.
Along the river front are old buildings of the time of the Brooke ownership,



the Istana, the palace built on the river bank in 1870 for the Brookes,


the Square Tower, built in 1879, as a prison (and with an example of modern Malaysian building style being erected in the background, -more on that later),


the old Courthouse, now the visitors centre


the main Post Office


and the Sarawak Craft Council building.
There are various museums in an attractively European architectural style;


the Museum of Sarawak,


the Natural History Museum


and the Textile Museum.

An unfortunate legacy of the Brookes period is perhaps the name Kuching which Charles gave to the city in 1872; it means ‘cat’ in Malay, the city has taken the animal on as its  symbol -with alacrity!
There are numerous awful cat-statues about the town,


enormous cats everywhere



and even to the extent of building this -apparently space capsule inspired, -building a little out of town


being a ‘Cat Museum’ -entirely dedicated to cats! Needless to say, despite having the time, we didn’t visit it!

The architecture of the building is striking, although perhaps of questionable taste, but not nearly as much so as some of the other modern buildings around town…



as 2 examples; one can only wonder, but as yet reserve judgement, on how that one under construction behind the Istana above will turn out to be!
Architects throughout Malaysia, but particularly in Sarawak apparently, are not afraid of making a bold statement; sometimes successfully, but often, to our European eye perhaps, creating unfortunate mistakes!
I suppose it is their modern interpretation of the Muslim or Eastern theme, but the old forms are preferable



the city mosque, -surrounded by its graveyard orchard of frangipanis


and the small, golden-domed Sikh Temple… 


Sarawak, like the rest of North Borneo is a wet place and growth is prolific. The gardens around Kuching are lush, -as here at the heroes monument. There are often similar colourful, leafy plantings and topiary separating the lanes of dual carriageway roads and it’s all meticulously cared for.


With the prolific tropical growth come colourful markets, the ranks of orchids,


and displays of beautiful fruit and vegetables sheltered from the rain under coloured awnings.
There are several small, local National Parks around the area.
Immediately by the anchorage, Mt Santubong is a reserve, it has an interesting track to its 810m summit. It is one of those places where we realise that public safety standards in Asia are vastly different from the ‘nannying’ that we are accustomed to!
The steeply conical shape of the mountain means it has to be a near vertical climb, many of the surfaces are bare rock, or tree roots, there are fixed ropes and ladders to make it possible.



On a dry day, it was acceptable, but after rain, with mud, the climb must be both near impossible and treacherous!


It was interesting to find a string of genuine Tibetan prayer flags at the summit, -perhaps a reflection of how some-one felt about the climb!


The views from the mountain are fleeting, -because of passing clouds and limited opportunity between trees




but from a half way viewpoint, the serpentine Santubong River is in full view, with shrimp farms in the distance and Quo Vadis just a light dot at anchor off the buildings below.




Kubah National Park is a cluster of jungle covered hills just a few kilometres west of the city. There are several short walking trails, but the main walk is to the summit with the radio antennas at 900 metres altitude. It’s a steep climb up a sealed 4WD access track, with views from the top across to distant Mt Santubong.


The trackside ferns rival those at home…



but the ants are clear winners!


We also visited Bako National Park as we exited Kuching, spending a night anchored in a small cove.



It was a delightful spot, very reminiscent of Abel Tasman Park in New Zealand, we really felt at home and safe, -until in the late evening when a squall came through with strong winds, rain and wind-against-tide seas…although we were ready to and had prepared our escape route between the rocks, we were able to stay, the squall passed, and as always, it was all quiet once more!
We had found the walking tracks from the anchorage to be closed, so there was no reason to stay longer, -early in the morning we moved out and on up the coast to Bintulu. 

We motored all through a long, hot, windless day and night dodging fishing boats and nets in the dark, by the time of our arrival off Bintulu the following morning we were very pleased to have the opportunity to anchor and turn off the engine.


Bintulu is not visited by many yachts, but it has the reputation (rightly) of being a place with  extremely friendly people. It is a major container and oil port, after radioing the control, we were met by a pilot boat and escorted in to our ‘berth’ in a small basin immediately beneath the container wharf with the police dock on the other side. Nothing could seem more secure once we were anchored and with our stern lines onto the dock behind.
The area is well protected from weather, but also with the very attentive police at the base right there, from any unwelcome elements of the human kind…Around the port there are oil and gas installations, it’s also a busy freight terminal. Among them are more examples of bold Malaysian Architecture!
the ship-like container wharf office building


and the Port Authority up the road, these WE judged to be more in keeping with their environment and were really quite striking.




The town is a 20 km taxi ride away, quite a pleasant little place, but functional, servicing the timber and oil industries locally.


It is another town up a muddy river however, and although possible to take a boat upstream to it, because of the massive tree felling and timber milling going on up stream, there are many floating hazards, the banks are strewn with logs; it would be a brave yachtsman who did so!

The town is potentially a good provisioning stop with reasonable supermarkets, but an especially good fruit and vegetable market where the local villagers bring their produce for sale.
We considered staying another day or 2, but were put off by the events of the second night at anchor…

Again late in the evening, when it so often happens, a squall came through, we had rain and wind to 30 knots. Unfortunately it was blowing across our vulnerable broadside, it blew the bow, we dragged anchor and were very quickly in a somewhat precarious situation, secured by sternline to the dock, but blowing around towards it with rocks and dock on 3 of 4 sides; the clear side was where the wind was coming from! To release ourselves and try to lift anchor would have meant we immediately went forward onto the rocks ahead, our only option was to radio for the help of the authority!
As usual at Bintulu, they were immediately helpful, the pilot launch was there within minutes, they took a towline on our bow, held it while we raised anchor, then as we cut the stern line, dragged us out of danger.
It happened to be of course just as a container vessel was coming into port, but we moved well away and anchored elsewhere until they had completed their manouvres.
Unfortunately the authority could not allow us to stay where we were until morning, we had to return to our previous anchorage, but as the wind had now dropped, it was easier and safer to do so, -though clearly we had a restless few hours until daylight!
We realised that the anchorage had not been as secure as we had thought, the bottom was very soft mud so the holding poor, and the limited room prevented us from putting out enough scope to ensure that the anchor had taken a good bight.
It was alarming to us when we realised that was so, as other people, thinking they had a secure anchorage often left their boats there for days on end unattended…perhaps they have been lucky? -or just we unlucky?
We were not taking any more chances however and at first light removed ourselves once more, left the port and headed further up the coast to Miri…It was just a day trip, we started with good breeze, but the wind died, leaving us motoring in  a long lazy swell, we knew there was ‘some weather’ out there.
As we neared Miri, the wind came in, we sailed well for the final 2 hours, we were happy as we would be getting there just after dark and should be able to enter safely.
However, we had twice in the past few days been on the wrong side of bad weather and this proved to be the third.
Just as we were dropping the sails a few hundred metres from the marina entrance there was a sudden rush of wind, -more than 30 knots -and with very rough seas. We were in only about 4 metres of water, with a 2 metre swell and rough sea brought on by wind suddenly we were among big breaking waves!
Unfortunately we didn’t have an up to date chart of the channel into the Miri Marina, we had not been there before, it was now very dark and to go on in would be taking an unacceptable risk. Alternatively, to get into deeper water would have meant motoring out about 5 miles among the oil platforms, directly into the wind, so unpleasant as we knew it would be, we had no choice but to anchor and sit it out… -well, that is figuratively speaking, sitting proved impossible!
It proved to be the most uncomfortable night we have ever spent anywhere on the boat, either at anchor or at sea. We were thrown about as the breaking waves hissed alongside us, the noise of wind in the rigging and everything being tossed around in the lockers was horrifying!
Then as the weather passed and the wind slowly dropped several hours later, we were no longer being held bow into the waves but went beam on, the motion was even worse, unpredictable, tossing and rolling, gunwale to gunwale, as we wedged ourselves in our bunks below trying to sleep…
In the morning the conditions were no better, but at least we could see, and as soon as possible we raised anchor and motored into the sanctuary of the marina…no more waves, no wind…
Miri proved to be a good place to stop off, not just to get out of the awful seas, but we met up with people we hadn’t seen for some time, a reunion with friends from several boats  
-and for us, -becoming an unusually social time! 


The marina is quite new and only partially developed, intended to become, like most marinas here, a small part of a grand plan of canal housing, resorts and country-club. As yet however, it has no facilities and is used by just a handful of boats. But it is secure and a handy location to town, -and, it must be a first, the management provide bikes for yachties! There is also free internet, as Wi-fi is readily available through the whole town, -take your computer anywhere and open up your favourite web-page!


A downside of the marina is the approach, the water at the entrance is shallow, and as we found, frequently there is a large swell and waves breaking across the passage in, as even here, it still is several days later.


Miri town has the seahorse as its official symbol, and at the marina entrance one (affectionately known as Miriam) stands as guardian. She is also supposed to bear a leading light, although on the night we tried to enter, as is so often the case, it was extinguished…


Alongside her is a function centre, part of the development, -but already unused, being renovated, however in the  breeze out on the seawall, what a perfect situation!


Miri town is in the thick of the oil industry, there are several drilling platforms and wells just off shore and the major oil companies are based there. As a result it is mostly a relatively new town and justing by the standard of housing and cars, visibly wealthier than most.


On the top of the small Canada Hill is the first oil well in Malaysia, a wooden structure built in 1910 and now preserved as a monument with a museum alongside.


The town is built on a river; the small port is busy as it services the tugs and other boats which ferry the supplies out to the rigs; helicopters are constantly buzzing back and forth with personnel.
Like other Malaysian towns, it is tidy, -even if apparently unplanned!, -with a major civic centre comprising library,


open air theatre


Olympic swimming pool and gardens


and grand monuments to various causes…


Along with the seahorse, the hornbill is frequently about as a symbol of Sarawak


Together on the outskirts of the town centre are two cemeteries, the more humble Muslim graveyard attractively planted, in the usual way, with frangipanis


and alongside it, the Chinese cemetery with its austentatious stonework,


-probably a reflection of which culture is more successful money maker in the the community…

Most of the land around Miri is flat, but to the south, an easy cycle ride away, is the Lambir Hills National Park. There are tracks to walk, waterfalls to swim under


and hills to climb…


The track to the topmost peak here rivals that up Mount Santubong for difficulty, it’s a real scramble up rocks and tree root ladders, there are ropes to help, -but there could easily be more! It’s another great climb, -though not for those morbidly afraid of heights, -and the view from the summit back over Miri makes it all worthwhile…


Further south is the Niah Caves National Park, one of the cave systems where Swift nests are collected for the making of the classic ‘bird-nest soup’.
A group of us took a car and made a day trip there…

There’s a boat ride over a very muddy river,


then a walk of a few kilometres up a track and along an unfinished boardwalk to the first of the caves,


the ‘Trader’s Cave’, known by that as it is where the birds nest collectors sold to the traders.


Further on is the ‘Great Cave’, -an enormous cavern, said to be 250m across and 60 metres high at the opening! -and it only slowly diminishes in size as you go deeper underground. Torchlight and camera flash light are lost in the vast blackness




There are stalactites from the roof, but few stalagmites from the floor as it is largely earthen rather than rocky, they are comparatively dry, and unlike the colourful, but small and sterile, marble caves we are accustomed to, there are millions of inhabitants!


Most prolific however, are the bats, they are everywhere, but more importantly there are the Swifts, several species of them, they nest in pockets on the walls and ceilings, their nests are collected from precarious scaffolds


or bamboo poles rising many metres straight up from the floor.


The track through the Great Cave goes many hundreds of metres  through a narrower part


and various large chambers, some with small openings letting you see through to the trees and sky high above,


it then emerges at the top entrance.


From there it’s another short walk along track and rickety wooden boardwalk to the top cave, the ‘Painted Cave’


It too is large, though not as so, but is known for the cave paintings on its walls,


depicting, among other things, boats -deathships, -carrying people off to the afterlife. It has been used as a cemetery in the past, many relics of ancient people have been collected from here.


It is a very impressive cave system, one of the largest in the world they say, it is easily accessible, but to our amazement, given the number of tourists passing through the area, remarkably unvisited! We were some of only a handful there that day.  

We were in no hurry to leave Miri, we enjoyed the town and the company, in many ways it suited us fine. However, the time came eventually to move on, Brunei was just about 25 kilometres up the road, it was an easy day trip to cross that border!

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