On the vanishing Lugat trail

We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.

– R. D. Laing, Scottish psychiatrist

In the past 40 years I have travelled the length and breadth of Sarawak and believe it had the potential to be a major attraction for not only anthropologists but also the inquisitive tourist.

As a CAN or Culture, Adventure and Nature buff, Sarawak has excited me the very first day I ‘swam’ from a police boat to the shores of Santubong village, for a wager in 1967.

Never mind the fact that Santubong welcomed me with a baptism of fire when I was badly stung by a jelly fish, but as they say ‘no pain no gain’ because I had fallen in love with this great state, or shall I say country?

Even though I have transversed the Rajang and its tributaries many times, it was an opportunity to journey up the Baleh to Long Singgut — on the famous Lugat trail!

It was Brooke officer Hugh Brooke Low who first reported the presence of the Lugat along the Rajang (Sarawak Gazette, July 1, 1882:52-54).

Studies showed the Lugat were culturally related to ‘Kajang’ group of Melanau which includes the Bhuket, Baketan, Seru, Bliun, Segalang, and Lisum (Sarawak Gazette September 1901:175).

Long Singut, a remote Kenyah village on the Baleh River, is located 240km away from Kapit and a stone’s throw from Kalimantan.

It was a chance of a lifetime when Wilson Ugak Kumbong, political secretary to Tourism Minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Jemut Masing, an anthropologist, invited me to join his entourage.

Vinson Sutlive in ‘The Iban of Sarawak; Chronicle of a Vanishing World’ wrote: “Originaly, the Rajang was home primarily to scattered populations of Melanaus and Sengalangs, Kanowits, Beliuns and Tanjongs, Kayans, Bukitans and Lugat.”

Temenggong Jinggit Atan said his ancestor, the famous warrior Matahari, was one of the first migrants from Kalimantan to meet the Lugat in the 1840s.

“When our ancestor met the Lugat they were truly primitive and, like the Penan, survived on wild sago. After Matahari, other aggressive Iban from Ulu Kapuas in Kalimantan took over the land of the Lugat, forcing them to flee,” he said.

To prevent the incursion and frequent ‘head-hunting’ expeditions, Rajah Charles built the Kapit fort on July 5, 1875,

In 1881, Charles outlawed the establishment of settlements beyond Nanga Gaat, a tributary of the Baleh.

On November 16, 1924, the 3rd Rajah Vyner organised the Great Kapit Peace-Making between the Iban of Kapit and the ‘Orang Ulu’ up-river tribes of Belaga and Apo Kayan in East Kalimantan.

At the peace-making, Vyner named Temenggong Koh Jubang as Sarawak’s first paramount chief who built a cluster of five longhouses at Entawau, the last Iban settlement on the Baleh 90km from Kapit.

Now MP for Hulu Rajang Dato Uggak Kumbong spoke of the changes that were taking place and the latest development being the Baleh hydroelectric dam in the Entawau vicinity.

Our journey in 1997 was the beginning of the changes that were taking place with three dams — Bakun, Murum in 2018 and Baleh which will be ready in 2005.

On the first day we stopped at Karangan Seranai, a rocky enclave where the most expensive freshwater ikan ‘Tengadak’ (now costing RM800 per kilo) spawn.

From Seranai it was open country with pristine jungle comprising unique flora and fauna and last of the Borneo Rhinoceros.
In 1956, the Fauna Preservation Society reported that the ungulate was being hunted out of existence and that Sarawak has not more than two of the animals.

But a member of our Long Singgut expedition claimed in the 1980s that he saw a large rhino wallowing on the riverbank of the Baleh, though highly unlikely, given the fact that logging had destroyed much of the forest by then.

At the turn of the 1800s, thousands of rhinoceros roamed the forests, especially in the remote highlands of Southeast Asia.

During the era of the last white Rajah Vyner Brooke (1918-1945), at least a 100 rhinoceros fell to the guns, spears, and traps of the natives due to the great demand for rhino parts.

In reality, Borneo’s Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), the world’s smallest rhino species is extinct; the last rhino in captivity in Sabah died in 2019.

Our trip continued through the upper reaches of the Baleh; a journey of poling, getting off the boat and pulling, passing dangerous rocky outcrops and some stretches which could promote ‘white-water’ rafting.

After the second day, we reached the 480-strong Long Singgut village ‘gateway’ to Bukit Batu Tibang, last bastion of the last Sarawak rhinoceros.

Like the Borneo Rhino, the Lugat population has diminished to 133 inhabitants living Tatau in Bintulu.

The Long Singgut headman was overjoyed to see us because the last trip to his village was 20 years ago!

Today, Sarawak is still a treasure trove of stories in a country of adventure and unique people with diverse cultures which we must promote before it is too late!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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