January 22nd 1984

posted in: The way back | 1

It seemed to be some impossible hour that we were scrambling out of bed + getting ready to move off.  That it wasn’t, soon became obvious.  We said our thanks + goodbyes, then hailed a water-taxi to take us to the town centre proper.  This proved to be larger + busier than we had anticipated, especially for a Sunday.  I minded the bags while Val went off to fetch the shopping provisions for our stay at Niah.  As with every other place we’ve been to since we left Australia, there was a shortage of public benches, so I plonked myself down on a hand-trolley, padlocked to a pillar of the shopping arcade, + that proved an acceptable alternative.  Val soon returned with a small carton of UHT milk tp pour over our last remaining corn flakes.  Not a bad breakfast, except the locals stopping + staring intensely, + for the fact that I have developed a strong dislike form preserved milk.

It took Val a little while to get everything together to take, with the bustling crowds making any sort of movement difficult, then we shouldered our incredibly heavy packs, the result of a large vegetable bag, as well as a collection of tins, lugged them to the bus station, pausing only to buy 3 grotty cakes, + then discovered there was  no bus to Miri, passing the turn-off to Niah – the next would be at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.  We had contemplated hitching before, but had abandoned the idea because I wasn’t feeling so good, but now it seemed as tho’ it were being forced upon us.

We had difficulties finding the right road to make our way to – the people in the bus station didn’t understand, + kept repeating that we must wait till tomorrow.  But Val asked at the Post Office after posting some letters, + really there weren’t all that many roads it could be, so off we plodded.  There was a big roundabout on the edge of town, so we plonked ourselves down a few yards along the appropriate exit, + waggled the old thumb.  A couple of cars pulled up, or slowed, but hearing that we were going to Niah, they drove on, without us being able to make them understand that we didn’t necessarily expect to get there in one trip.  One guy frankly counselled us to try the bus tomorrow, reckoning it was far too late to make it today.  So, with these Job’s comforters around, we weren’t very hopeful.  However, before too long, a girl in a mini stopped, + took us a couple of miles.  A short ride, but a pleasant one, + useful too – she took us past a couple of roundabouts – they go in for them here, the British legacy – before setting us down.  And the very next car which came along stopped for us, another short ride.  Once again, a very nice man.  A chicken farmer, with 10,000 laying birds, he told us.  Even so, they weren’t enough to supply Bintulu’s needs – there had been a lot of eggs brought in on the boat.

This time we were dropped actually on the road to Niah, beyond any turn-offs, so any car that passed would be heading in the right direction.  The only problem was, there weren’t many cars.   Not too long a wait, however, before our 3rd ride, + our longest yet, tho- it still only took us to the 15 mile mark.  (Tho Niah itself was only at about 60.)  This was a modern 4-wheel drive, along the lines of a Land Cruiser, tho’ it probably wasn’t actually a Toyota, + had 2 reasonably high-up (I imagine) employees of a timber company, or construction company, or something.  They too were extremely dubious about the likelihood of reaching Niah today – they even offered to take us back to Bintulu later, when they returned!  Not if we could help it – Bintulu had struck us as a particularly ugly + expensive boom town.  It had post-cards on sale saying such things as “Fastest growing town in Sarawak”, + “Longest bridge in Sarawak”.  They were charging 60c for them, which must make them “Most expensive post cards in Sarawak!”  When we made our intentions clear, one of the guys did tell us there was a longhouse a few hundred metres further along the road.  This reassured us somewhat, I’ll confess – we were at a desolate spot, with only a small side-track leading off to the timber yard (or whatever.) 

Again, traffic was light, but it is often the case that that only serves to increase motorists’ awareness of hitch-hikers, + so it proved again.  It was a very strange ride tho’, our next one – a guy who looked Chinese, + spoke Iban (he spoke to a local on the way), but no Malay or English, so far as we could tell.  In other words, no communication between us at all.  He stopped, but seemed to have no clear idea as to what we wanted, tho’ he did eventually clear a space for us, + in we piled.  It wasn’t a long ride, however, which was probably just as well, since it wasn’t comfortable – neither physically nor psychologically.

The place we were dropped was even more desolate than the last place had been, but every mile helps.  We had also now gone beyond the sealed road surface, just when I was beginning to think that the road was not as bad as we had thought.  At our new post I wandered down the road to check on possible accommodation, should we be able to progress no further, but while I was away another car had stopped – I hurried back as fast as my legs + current disability would allow me.  Once again, it was a nice modern 4-wheel drive pick-up.  I hadn’t had time to discover how far we were going with the new bloke, so nearly jumped for joy – internally – when he told us he was on his way to Miri.  A ride all the way to the turn-off.  Our driver spoke very good English, but we didn’t attempt much conversation, mainly because the road condition worsened dramatically as we progressed, + he clearly needed all his concentration to keep it on the smoothest path.  So it was a quiet ride, + a long one too, a couple of hours or so.  So long that we both felt we must have missed the turning.  We hadn’t, of course – it was virtually unmissable, with a big clear road-sign – unusual for Sarawak.

Val + I were both surprised when, on reaching the turn-off, we headed down it – our guy was making a 22 km detour to take us all the way down to Batu Niah itself.  We made some noises of polite protest, but were both overjoyed.  What was more, on arriving in Batu Niah, he tried to arrange a boat to take us upriver to the Park (tho’ this proved too expensive), + altho’ we invited him to have a Coke with us, he insisted on paying for it.  He also gave us his phone no in Miri.  All in all, an excellent ride – a fine end to a day’s hitching.  We hadn’t done so badly after all, despite the Bintulu prophets of doom – even without a boat, we were just 40 mins away from the Park, taking a trail along the river bank.

We bought a very few last provisions, then set out on the final stage.  Unfortunately, it now began to rain very heavily, + the track was already muddy, but we didn’t feel we had the right to complain at our fortune.  And the trail was only about 30 mins before we reached the Park HQ + hostel.  It was fortunate that a couple of white guys were hanging over the veranda of the hostel – otherwise we wouldn’t have recognised it  – it was unmarked.  But we were soon booked in, + issued with sheets; dry + comfortable + relaxed.  We didn’t venture out any more today – just chatted a little with the other 2 occupants, Norbert + Klaus, both German, drank tea, had a meal, went to bed.

A travel day, but generally a more than positive one, with hitching proving successful, and, despite all the negative info we received, successfully getting us to our final destination.

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