PART 1: Semenggoh Orang Utan
I was looking forward for the trip on the first day with Joey, my friendly tour guide and two tourists from Madrid, Spain called Danni and Ann.
As I looked up the skies, I could see that the weather was good even though it was little bit cloudy. We started off our journey at 8 am from Singgah Sana Lodge in downtown Kuching. While waiting for Joey, we made preparations and checked to see whether we have everything in our backpack.
When we were inside the van, Joe gave us a briefing regarding the rehabilitation centre since it was important for us to know about the rules and regulations when looking at the Orang-utans. He gave us this list of DO’s and DON’T’s once we arrived.
1) Do not bring food or drink during the trip as they are sensitive to smell
2) Do not use a stick or your fingers to point at the Orang-utans as they will consider it as a challenge
3) Do not use flash while taking pictures as they will be shocked and would possibly attack you.
4) Do not attempt to touch the Orang-utan younglings as their mother is very protective.
5) Do not stare directly into their eyes as it will provoke them.
6) Do not stand too near the Orang-utans for safety reasons.
7) Do not bring a camera tripod. They will think that it is a weapon.
1) Do be careful when walking. Orang-utans might perch on the treetops doing their business.
2) Always look up as some young naughty Orang-utans tend to throw stones or tree branches
3) Do RUN if the shelter ranger told you to do so!
It took us at least an hour’s journey from Singgah Sana Lodge to the rehabilitation centre took us. The journey time can be extended to a further 15-30 minutes if the traffic is busy. We arrived at our designated destination by 9 am. We walked down the trail and followed our guide. We had our first sight of the Orang-utans at our first pit stop.
We were fortunate to see a mother Orang-utan and her child coming out from bushes. Although it was their feeding time, they do not seem to be eating at all. As we walked along the trail, we could see a signboard with all the Orang-utans’ name written on it. It somehow reminded me of the old Western style ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ poster.
When I interviewed one of the rangers named Mr. Mustadza, he told us that the Orang-utans’ names were given after the staff who worked in the rehab centre. Some were named after famous people. One of the Orang-utans here is called Ritchie. The 35 year old Ritchie weighs around 150 to 160 kg. He got his name from James Ritchie, who was a famous photographer as well as a journalist. Somehow, Ritchie did not make his debut appearance on that day. However, we were happy enough to see a female orang-utan called Seduku and her child along the way. Seduku was initially nervous when she encounters a large number of tourists. She tends to carry her child behind her back as if she is trying to prevent humans to take her child away.
Some of the rangers advised us to keep our distance at least 5-6 feet away from them. Her child was just 5 months old. One hour later, Seduku’s husband, called Anwar, came out. Anwar is lazier and is less protective over his child since he prefers the attention from the photographers. However, we still needed to be cautious and alert just in case anything goes wrong.
According to the rangers, there have been cases where rangers were attacked by the Orang-utans last year. One of the trails where this incident happened was closed for safety reasons. They might look cute and fragile but they can be very aggressive. A ranger told us that the orang-utans are just like humans with their own mood swings. We even learnt some amazing facts about Orang-utans. Do you know that their DNA resembles human DNA by at least 90 to 95 percent? I guess that explains their mood swings. One of the wildlife centre rangers was attacked last year by a female Orang-utan called Hot Mama. This fiery Orang-utan is legendary for her short temper and aggressivenes.
Mustadza explained that the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was meant to be a rehabilitation centre for Orang-utans and other wildlife. The Semenggoh Wildlife was finally open to the public after receiving enthusiastic public interest and enquiries. Mustadza goes on to explain that the general public wanted to see the wildlife roaming around in a natural setting rather than being caged. I can’t help but agree with him on that point. Seeing these marvellous Orang-utans and other wildlife moving freely in this beautiful wildlife centre is indeed a breath taking and awe-inspiring moment!
After spending an hour in the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre we followed our guide and headed off to the pepper farm where the famous Sarawak black pepper is produced. As we looked forward to this next part of our trip, we were glad that we had the chance to see the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and its colourful inhabitants.
PART 2: Sarawak Pepper Farm
Our next stop was the pepper farm, which is about one hour's trip from the Semenggoh Wild Life Centre. During our short trip to this wonderful farm, we had the privilege of discovering the secret behind Sarawak’s well known black pepper farm. I have heard of both locals and tourists giving wonderful feedback on the world famous Sarawak Black Pepper.
We also saw some grinding machines that are used to produce the wonderful Sarawak Pepper that we have grown to love, especially here in Sarawak. These grinding machines were designed with two sections, namely the right and left section. The right section of the grinding machine is used to produce low quality pepper. The left section on the other hand is reserved for making premium quality pepper.
The old machine, which was put up for display purpose, also functions the same way as the new machine apart from the fact that it was made out of wood and needed to be operated manually. The old-fashioned grinding machine that we saw in the pepper farm works by the operator to turning the hand-operated round lever. The new machine on the other hand only requires the operator to pour in the pepper seed and let it do the grinding on its own.
After we had our fill of observing the fascinating method on how pepper is produced in this farm, we embarked on our three hours journey to Nanga Ukom longhouse. On our way to Nanga Ukom, we made a quick stop at a small town called Lachau to buy some gifts and a few necessities that would be useful for the longhouse community we were planning to visit. I bought some small packets of food for the children of the longhouse. The Spanish couples settled for some bags of salt since our tour guide mentioned that these things are much needed the residents who would otherwise have to travel some distance to town in other to get them.
We began to notice that the clouds were getting darker so we proceeded with much haste. We hope that that it will not rain until we reached our destination. We finally arrived at Nanga Ukom at around 4.30pm. From here, we will continue on to the longhouse by boat. Our tour guide was fortunately sensible enough to arrange transportation with the boatmen in advance. We will spend 45 minutes on the boat before finally reaching Nanga Ukom longhouse. The boatmen had to make several stops along the river, turned off the boat engine and navigated by oar through some narrow parts.
We were lucky that our journey down the river to Nanga Ukom longhouse was pleasant. In fact, the dark cloudy skies eventually receded and gave way to sunny weather. We were initially very afraid that it would rain and we might end up having to delay our trip. The unspoilt view along the river was very breath taking indeed. After 45 minutes on the boat, we finally reached the vicinity of Nanga Ukom longhouse. From here, it’ll just be a 10 minutes walk towards the hills of Nanga Ukom before we reached the longhouse. We just simply can’t wait to meet the residents of Nanga Ukom longhouse and get to know more about the traditional Iban living. I’m sure that’ll be something to write about!
PART 3: Nanga Ukom Longhouse
The moment we arrived at Nanga Ukom longhouse Sarawak Jared, the assistant to the tuai rumah, warmly greeted us. Jared functions as a secretary to the longhouse chief, tuai rumah by recording the names of any visitor that visits Nanga Ukom longhouse.
We took a deep breath, settled down for a while and had a little chat with the longhouse residents. As I walked around, I noticed several peculiar objects that were hung all over the long house area. These objects were present in every corner of the longhouse. I asked Jared about these curious objects. He then proceeded to tell me an interesting tale about the object.
The Iban people of Sarawak called these objects Piring Ampun. The Piring Ampun serves as a memorial for those who have recently departed. The Piring Ampun is hung on every corner of the long house as a sign for the departed spirits to ask them to go to the next world in peace as their time in this world has ended. The Piring Ampun is hung for a duration of 100 days starting from the date of the deceased’s time of death as the Iban believe that it’ll take the recently departed 100 days to reach his final destination. Food is put on the Piring Ampun as a sign of offering for the departed spirits. I was fascinated by this tale since although I’m an Iban boy I grew up in the city and have never heard of Piring Ampun.
The longhouse chief, tuai rumah returned to the longhouse at around 5.30pm. He greeted us warmly and sat down with us. The relatively young tuai rumah, at the age of 28, gave us a tour of the longhouse. He invited the Spanish couple to watch the cock-fighting event or locally known as Sabung Ayam, which they politely refused! As for me, I took the opportunity to watch this traditional longhouse past time. I can see some residents bringing up their best roosters for the event. In this event, the participants from either the same longhouse or another longhouse would pit their roosters against each other to win the bets that are placed on the winning rooster. However, I didn’t manage to catch the exciting part of the cock-fighting event, as both of the roosters in this cockfight were reluctant to fight each other, which was then considered as a draw.
Our dinner at 7.30pm consisted of mouth-watering traditional Iban cuisine such as chicken cooked with ginger, green vegetables and jungle ferns. I also managed to observe an interesting thing that evening. The tuai rumah’s father was treating his grandson who was down with fever. He smeared a twenty-cent coin with a white sap powder, put in on his grandson’s stomach and recited some prayers. This was the first time that I have even seen a traditional Iban medicine at work.
Later, we all gathered at the hallway and were treated to an enchanting Ngajat dance performance accompanied by the sound of a beating gong. The tuai rumah’s father started the dance and two young ladies then joined him in. The beauty of the Ngajat dance is something that you must experience within the traditional longhouse setting.
After the dance, the longhouse chief, tuai rumah served us Tuak, a traditional wine made from either rice or sugarcane, to us. The taste is uniquely different from the typical beer or liquor. We are then entertained with some stories.
We were told of the significance of an Iban tattoo that decorated most of the resident’s bodies. Tattoo is like a marker for a person’s rite of passage. When a young man is newly married, a tattoo will be carved on his body before he leaves the community. It is a sign that the boy has reached maturity. Even until today, when a person is about to leave his longhouse, before he travelled, a tattoo will be carved on his body as a reminder on his roots. In the distant headhunting past, a tattoo on an Iban warrior’s knuckle signifies the number of enemies that he has slain.
We also learnt about that evening was on how the next longhouse chief, tuai rumah is selected. The newtuai rumah is a male selected from the previous tuai rumah’s own bloodline based on his capabilities and maturity. If the tuai rumah has no sons, he will have to marry of his daughter and pass down the title to his future grandson. The tuai rumah may only decline appointment by resigning once he took office. The office of the tuai rumah is for the duration of five years.
We then had a history lesson about Nanga Ukom longhouse Sarawak. It was founded 29 years ago by the tuai rumah’sgrandfather who moved from the jungles of Batang Ai to be close to the river. Several families subsequently joined him and settled here up to this day. The Nanga Ukom residents worked as farmers and fishermen. They would travel downriver toLubok Antu to sell their produce at the market.
The tuai rumah then explained to us about customary Iban marriage in Sarawak. In the past girls were married off at the age of 15 or 16. Nowadays, they would be given the choice of getting married at 18 after finishing school to go on to look for employment. The couple wishing to get married must first seek out the tuai rumah and request for a marriage. The tuai rumah would normally consent. If a couple wishes to divorce, they will bring the matter up to the tuai rumah. They would have to explain to the tuai rumahabout the reason for the divorce.
After the long story session, our first day ended. We kept ourselves warm by wearing long sleeved clothing as we slept in the cold longhouse.
On the second day of our trip, we woke up at 7 am, had breakfast and readied ourselves for our journey back. We then walked back up the same trail that led us to Nanga Ukom to see how the locals make blowpipes.
Dani and Ann, the Spanish couple, bought some beautifully made handicrafts. The intricately made and beautifully carved blowpipes and wooden shields on display here really fascinated me. The price was even cheaper here compared to downtown Kuching.
The blowpipe that we saw was made out of high-grade quality ironwood. It can last for more than a hundred year. The blowpipe was around 10 inches long, about the same length as a British Musket. If you want to use the blowpipe, you would have to insert one or two bamboo darts inside it. You will then blow through it to hit the target in front of you.
These bamboo darts were lethal as they were usually coated with poison that can cause the victim to fall unconscious. In the past, the headhunters use the blowpipes before decapitating their target.
When James Brooke landed in Borneo, he encouraged the locals to use guns. The blowpipe was supposed to be passed down from one generation to another. It is not meant be given away or sold.
Our tour guide and the Spanish tourists went in for a walk into the jungle for the next 45 minutes. They wanted to see various types of plantations and crops. As my sports shoes were in a bad condition, I had to wait for them from inside the boat. I took more pictures of the dangerous trail that the residents of NangaUkom have to go through daily.
We learnt that what makes the Nanga Ukom culture so beautiful was than the unity that the Nanga Ukomresidents have as one family under one roof. They treated us with great warmth and welcomed us like family member. It felt really good and refreshing despite of the short time we spent there.
You definitely must spend some time with the people of Nanga Ukom longhouse and get to know them better. They were eager for us to learn of their culture as well. It was an extremely amazing and fulfilling experience. Although we were tired and exhausted from the long journey, we all agreed that it was worth it. The visit to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, the pepper farm and the sharing of our time with the Nanga Ukom longhouse residents will leave us a long-lasting memory of the wonders and beauty of this land I call home.