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Full Circle

Day 109: Kuching to Nanga Sumpa

Nanga Sumpa, Malaysia 
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Iban children near Nanga Sumpa longhouse.
Michael Palin - Full CircleFrom here on in you are in the hands of the local tribespeople, in our case the Iban (formerly the Dayaks), who comprise one-third of Sarawak's population, and who still live largely in communal longhouses. We are picked up at a jetty beside the dam by Denis (whose Iban name is Luart), a compact older man with a shining smile and an air-force blue pork-pie hat, which he seems to wear at all times. With him is a quick, intelligent young man called Emong Tinsang. They will take us up the river network, into the jungle and almost to the Kalimantan border.

I clamber into a prau - a low, narrow, twenty foot-long wooden canoe, its hull painted bright green with a sky-blue strip - and, gunning the outboard, Andat, my driver, races us across the shining glass surface of the reservoir. Once into the river system the going gets harder. The water turns a deep metallic green, reflecting the rain forest. Lianas brush the water, wild-boar tracks scuff the muddy banks and entrail-like root systems, in weird and wonderful shapes, spread out from the jungle. Giant cicadas can be heard like small sirens going off and, although this isn't the best time of year for birds, as most of the trees will not bear fruit for two or three months, we can hear the high-pitched cry of the stork-billed kingfisher and the rising and falling cadence of a bulbul.

Twenty-five miles into the interior we reach the settlement of Nanga Sumpa. The river is so shallow up here that our boatmen have to get out and push. In this ungainly way we approach a small creek from whose mud banks knots of small children watch us curiously.

This is so far from anywhere that, as I scramble out onto the bank, I jokingly question Jonathan about when the last film crew was here.

'November the fourteenth,' he says, without hesitation. 'But they were only interested in the life of the pigs.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 109
  • Country/sea: Malaysia
  • Place: Batang Ai Reservoir
  • Book page no: 155

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