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Full Circle

Day 110: Nanga Sumpa, Sarawak

Michael Palin - Full CircleAs the morning fires are lit, smoke pours from inside and outside the longhouse. I can hear what sounds like a radio news broadcast, reminding me that, though we may be at the end of the settled world, we are not outside it.

Today Denis has promised to take us about as far up-stream as it is possible to go. We are quite an expedition as the river is so shallow and the rapids so steep that the praus must be as lightly loaded as possible. This is wild orchid country and in March, the flowering season, collectors from all over the world will come out here. It's also leech country and we're advised to cover up when we walk into the forest. I'm told there are two kinds of leech. The black leech goes for the ankle and the brown leech for the privates. You will likely not feel the black one attach itself but if a brown one takes a fancy to you, you will know about it instantly, and so, I should imagine, will anyone within screaming distance.

The long low canoes are negotiated over the bed of this narrow, difficult stream by a mixture of machine and muscle. Up front the pole-man continually tests the depth, indicating to the man in the stern when it is safe to use the outboard. A full throttle charge may get us halfway up a rapid, but then the outboard has to be raised to avoid jarring the propeller, and the pole man must use his own strength above to push against the boulders and lever us up to the next patch of deep water. Occasionally both of them have to leap out and push, leaving me sitting there feeling about as useful as the Queen of Sheba.

Between these testing rapids are limpid pools of great beauty, where the sun occasionally pierces the tree-cover turning the dark, bottle-green water into a milky jade. Here we find fishermen, or more accurately fisher boys, wading in, slinging out a weighted net then diving in after it, sometimes pulling out fish in their bare hands. The damming of these rivers has not been good for the local fishermen. Variety has declined as tilapia fish, introduced artificially to boost production, have driven off many indigenous species. Others cannot survive in waters rendered increasingly murky by the slower flow and the erosion of deforested slopes.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 110
  • Country/sea: Malaysia
  • Place: Nanga Sumpa
  • Book page no: 156

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