"Arctracer" Letters

Sarawak, July-August 2008

"Arctracer" was in Sarawak from July 8 to August 19, 2008. Most of that time we were anchored in the Santubong River. We attended the Rainforest World Music Festival (see previous letter), made land excursions, visited several National Parks, and became well-acquainted with Kuching. Our granddaughter Sara was with us from July 15 to August 10, and her friend Will was with us from July 15 to July 25. We tried to see a good sample of Sarawak's attractions with our guests, and had a delightfully busy time. This letter covers some of the highlights of this visit to Sarawak.


Kuching is not only the largest city in Sarawak but also its capital. It has an interesting history as the home of the "White Rajahs" who were given Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei. Today it is a fast-growing but still relatively small city with a diverse population. We liked its friendly, tolerant atmosphere immediately, and enjoyed getting to know it. While it started as a seaport, bridges now keep sailboats from reaching the city and the nearby town of Pending handles the area's commercial shipping. The waterfront on the Kuching River was developing into a tourist destination, with a lovely promenade and large hotels and shopping malls rising up among the old streets of shophouses. The most prominent building under construction was the spectacular new home of the Sarawak Assembly, just across the river from the downtown waterfront.

Kuching Day and Regatta

On August 1st Kuching celebrated the 45th anniversary of Sarawak joining Malaysia. Vendors set up stalls along the waterfront and adjacent streets to sell food, drink, souvenirs and handicrafts. There was a parade in the evening which had a wonderful "small town" feeling with groups of school kids, bicyclists, scooters, dogs, bands, etc. The parade ended on a large green where each group performed at a VIP tent. There was a good fireworks show too. This was also the first day of the annual Kuching Regatta races on the river. There were races for many sorts of watercraft, but most were canoes, some large enough to hold 50 paddlers. The competition was fierce, with groups from Brunei competing with many from Sarawak. On the second day, Sara competed in a boat paddled primarily by tourists. Her boat finished last in their race, but everybody had fun.

Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary

Nina and Sara visited the Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary just outside Kuching. A couple dozen of these endangered Borneo natives (most rescued from illegal pet operations) were protected and fed in this relatively natural environment. A large crowd of people were there at feeding time, and were so loud that they interfered with feeding animals. Some females with babies were obviously frightened off by the mob. As Sarawak continues to cut jungles and increase palm oil plantations, the outlook for survival of wild orangutans (and many other species) is bleak.

(view Kuching photos)

Rafflesia Flower at Guning Gading National Park

We took an bus from Kuching's Express Bus Terminal to Lundu, and then a taxi to Guning Gading National Park. The park officials told us where to find the Rafflesia flower which was in bloom, and we set off to hike up the trail. We took the "wrong" trail, so hiked further than necessary in the hot sun, but we eventually got up to the flower. The Rafflesia is the world's largest flower, and this one was approximately a yard in diameter. A bud takes nine months to develop, and then the flower lasts for only four days. These are said to have an unpleasant smell, but we did not notice any. We hiked further to "Waterfall Number 7" where Sara swam and sat for a while behind the falls, having a wonderful time. We returned down the "Waterfall Trail." Back at Park Headquarters we showered and changed, then walked to town for supper. We ate at outdoor food stalls, and Will tried an "ABC" crushed ice drink with a strange assortment of ingredients including corn, fruit and candy noodles. We slept in a Park Hostel room with four bunks (42RM) and returned to Kuching by bus the next day.

(view Guning Gading National Park photos)

Bako National Park

We sailed "Arctracer" from Santubong to Bako National Park, which is on the next peninsula north. The wind was very light, so we motored most of the way but did sail for an hour. We anchored near the Park Headquarters [1 degree 43.3'N, 110 degrees 26.4'E] in 10 feet of water, but swung around in the night and grounded gently on the mud. The first afternoon we paid our park fees (5RM each for "seniors" and "students") and walked the hilly Lintang loop trail, seeing several varieties of pitcher plants. The next day Will went kayaking, and Sara and Nina walked the Telok Delima trail where they saw Bearded Pigs and Proboscis Monkeys. On our third day, Will went ashore early and walked the long trail all the way across the peninsula. This was a real adventure because it rained heavily and the seldom-used trail was not only difficult to follow but required wading knee-deep in tropical swamps for significant distances. The rest of us walked to a waterfall, which was a raging torrent we feared to cross, and then returned to take the boat around to pick up Will just south of Pulau Lakei. We saw Bearded Pigs, Proboscis Monkeys, and more pitcher plants. We reanchored in surprisingly deep water (45 feeet)at [1 degree 44.8'N, 110 dgrees 30'E] off Tabor Beach where Will was waiting, and spent the night there.

(view Bako National Park photos)

Satang Island Turtle Sanctuary

We sailed for one good hour from Bako Peninsula, then were forced to motor to Pulau Satang [1 degree 46.7'N, 110 degrees 10'E]. Green and Hawksbill Turtles (and even an occasional rare Olive Ridley) nested on this beach, and three Park Rangers watched over them. Two or three turtles came ashore on a typical night. Their eggs were collected and reburied in an area relatively protected from predators. When eggs hatched during daylight hours, the wardens caught the hatchlings and held them until nightfall, hoping more would survive their first few hours. We were allowed to release a few hatchlings. We saw tracks of big Monitor Lizards on the beach. One climbed onto the veranda of the ranger station and ate several hatchlings from a plastic pan on the night we were there. We snorkeled a little, since the island was too far from the mainland for crocodiles, but the water was murky. The next day we sailed (mostly motored) back to Santubong.

Annah Rais Longhouse

We took a minibus tour to the village of Annah Rais in the beautiful hilly countryside south of Kuching. This old village had two "longhouses," each of which consisted of two rows of attached houses facing each other across a central walkway. This is a traditional Dyak arrangement, and there are many longhouse communities in Sarawak. In addition to the family houses, the longhouses had some communal spaces including "head houses" where skulls of slaughtered enemies were displayed. Headhunting was apparently abolished, but some skulls were still visible. We were greeted by traditionally dressed women who gave each of us a drink of "tuak" rice wine. One of the family dwellings was a guesthouse, and the owner was delighted to talk with us and let us try his blowgun. We bought some of his home-made rice wine and honey liquor too. The tour was supposed to show us pepper gardens, and we saw many along the road but the driver didn't stop even for a photo. He took us to a pottery factory too late to see any manufacturing, but probably he hoped for a kickback from the shop if we bought anything.

(view Annah Rais Longhouse photos)

Climbing Mt. Santubong

Mt. Santubong was a spectacular mountain, practically beckoning climbers to test themselves on its heights. Trails started about a mile up the road towards the Cultural Village. Sara walked out there by herself one afternoon, but didn't get far up the trail before wind and rain drove her back. On another day, Nina and Sara left the boat about noon and climbed far up the mountain. The trail was all uphill and rough, with roots and rocks providing most of the footholds. The day was hot (as usual) so this was a sweaty and tiring expedition. The top portion was so steep it had many rope ladders. Sara reached "F12" just before the final summit pitch but started too late in the day to go all the way to the top.

Fast Ferry to Sibu

We took a fast ferry ride from Kuching to Sibu (45RM). The ferry ran quickly down the Kuching River and then about two hours across part of the South China Sea before entering the Rejang River. This is Sarawak's longest and largest river, carrying enormous amounts of water and mud. It is also a very important pathway for Sarawak's forest products. In our two hour passage upriver to Sibu we saw rainforest logs piled on shore and headed for sea aboard barges and ships of all kinds. In addition to raw logs, there were ships and barges carrying sawn lumber and plywood. The numbers were amazing, and we cannot believe that this tremendous timber harvest is sustainable. Before this trip we had considered taking "Arctracer" on a romantic cruise to visit longhouses upriver in the jungle. Seeing the commercial nature of the river and its muddy fast currents convinced us that motoring slowly upstream through fleets of big wood-carriers would certainly not be romantic, but would be unpleasant and somewhat dangerous.

(view Rejang River and Sibu photos)

Niah Caves National Park

This park is in northern Sarawak, only an hour's drive from Miri. The park had almost no visitors, and we had a hostel (42RM for a room) building to ourselves. We crossed the little river in the park on the small ferry at 5:00 and walked the easy boardwalk through beautiful rainforest to the entrance of the big cave in about an hour. We expected to see clouds of swifts going in and clouds of bats coming out at sunset, but saw trickles instead. In the entrance of the big cave is the archeological site where a 40,000 years old skull was found, making this the earliest proven site of modern humans in Southeast Asia. It is a spectacular place, used in recent times for guano mining and birds nest gathering. We walked back as night fell, hearing and finally seeing frogs which croaked "What? What?" We dined at the park's "Caferia," the only place to eat, and found the food mediocre and expensive for Sarawak. The next morning we barely managed to get breakfast since the family running the Caferia had to take their sick daughter to a doctor. Then we set off over the river and through the woods again. This time we went through the big cave on the boardwalk, using our big flashlight (a necessity) in the dark "Moon Cave" section. Out on the far side of the cave we walked through more rainforest to the "Painted Cave." Here a wall has red-figure paintings from 3000-4000 years ago, but a fence kept us from getting a good look at the faint drawings. An archeological dig in this cave has recently turned up burials in boat-shaped coffins corresponding to the paintings. We had to return the same way, with just a slight alternate route through a different passage in the big cave. Local longhouse women had souvenirs displayed at one point on the boardwalk, but many of the items seemed to be the cheap Chinese-made stuff available everywhere. The only interesting animals we saw were squirrels of more than one type. Nina and Sara walked along the river to the small town and bought food there for supper. We left the next morning. We traveled to Niah from Sibu and then back to Kuching by bus. These long bus rides were a very economical way to get around Sarawak, and enabled us to see quite a lot of the countryside. We had to hire a driver to get from the Niah bus station 10 miles to the park, and that cost as much (30RM) as one of our tickets for the six-hour ride from Sibu to Niah.

(view Niah Caves photos)

Cat Museum

Sara and Jerry spent a couple hours at the cat museum. "Kuching" is the Malay word for cat, so this was an appropriate place to have such a thing. It was inside the large modern North Kuching City Hall - quite an interesting building atop a hill. The museum had an enormous collection of almost everything imaginable to do with cats. (We saw nothing about catamarans.) There were cat figurines, paintings, poems, photographs, stuffed wild cats, etc. filling several rooms. The word "kitch" can properly be applied, but cat-lovers may be delighted to visit.

Santubong Anchorage

We anchored near the village of Santubong in the mouth of the Santubong River. There is a shallow bar at the river entrance. We used waypoints [1 degree 49.85' N, 110 degrees 15.75' E] [1 degree 47.09' N, 110 degrees 16.55' E] to enter up the long channel, and then turned east to use two white triangular markers on posts to cross the inner bar. It seemed best to stay slightly to the north of the line indicated by these leading markers, since a keelboat following us hit coral when the current and wind probably pushed it slightly off-line to the south. In four crossings we found at least seven feet of water over the inner bar when the tide was fairly low. After crossing the bar, there was fairly deep water in the center of the river, up to our anchorage [1 degree 42.9' N, 110 degrees 19.6' E]. When we arrived there were twenty-one yachts at anchor near the floating dock just west of the large Maritime Police Dock. Holding was not particularly good, and boats often dragged anchors in strong squalls. The floating aquaculture operations had multiple anchors set in all directions, and there was said to be a wreck near the floating dock too. It is a beautiful anchorage, practically in the shadow of spectacular Mt. Santubong, and the locals were friendly. The village of Santubong has a few small shops where dry foods and a few local fruit and vegetables can be purchased. The owner of the floating dock was very kind. He allowed us to use it as a dnghy dock and to walk up to the main road through his estate. We saw a few small crocodiles in the river, and were told about large ones, so we did no swimming. Nina saw dolphins once near our boat which were probably Irawaddy Dolphins. Sea Eagles and an occcasional Kingfisher were seen, but there seemed to be no Hornbills left in this area.

(view Santubong photos)

Transportation from Santubong

To catch a ride to Kuching, walk up to the main road past the Santubng Police Station and turn right. There is a wide spot in the road near the Mausoleum of Sarawak's only Sultan. Stand at that wide spot and wait. There is a regularly scheduled shuttle (van) service from the Damai Resort near the tip of the Santubong Peninsula to the Holiday Inn on the Kuching waterfront. You can wave down this shuttle (12RM per person) or you can wave down a "Zone 1" minibus (only 4RM per person). The minibuses are all independently owned and operated so there is considerable flexibility in their scheduling. We found that at 9 am there was a good chance of catching a minibus without waiting too long, but it became more difficult later in the day. The return from Kuching by minibus was inexpensive before 4:30, though we usually had to wait until the driver had a full load of passengers. After 5:00 the minibuses did not like to go to Santubong because they were unlikely to find returning passengers. The Holiday Inn shuttle did run later, and tickets could be purchased in their lobby. There were also taxi drivers who could be hired, but an evening taxi to Santubong could cost as much as 60RM. Another possibility was getting picked up by a local who was going to Kuching anyhow. We always tried to pay these friendly locals to offset the high price of fuel, but sometimes they refused payment. Sometimes we called a driver and made arrangements in advance, which was useful when timing was critical, a large group was involved or our destination was unusual. There are no buses or vans running between Kuching and the airport, so taxis have a monopoly on that traffic.

Clearing In and Out with Immigration

Although Sarawak is part of Malaysia, passport stamping of visas is required for all visitors including Malaysians from other states. This allows control over immigration from the mainland. Since many yachts arrived at about the same time for the Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak Immigration officials came to the Santubong Police Station one morning and processed all our passports and forms for checking in. This was very convenient. Most yachts proceeded up the coast to Miri, and checked out there to go to Sabah. "Arctracer" sailed back from Santubong to mainland Malaysia, so we had to check out in Kuching. This was very difficult. The Santubong police and almost everyone else we spoke to said we could check out at the main Immigration building in Kuching, but that was not the case. They directed us to the officials in Pending. Jerry went to Pending, and had to travel from building to building by taxi for several hours before getting all our paperwork completed. Almost none of the officials he talked to had any idea of the proper procedure or where to go. The taxi driver was amazed at the ordeal, though he was delighted with his 80RM fare.