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Friday, 27 June 2008

A River Clean Up Leads To Wasp Attack

Afternoons on Crystal Blues are usually busy with "boat school" (English & Mathematics) for the local children. However after the jungle around the plankwalk was cleared (see the story here), we noticed that quite a lot of plastic and other trash had accumulated along the boardwalk.

So the following day we cancelled school and asked the children to help with a big clean up of the river bank. This went very well, with lots of enthusiastic helpers, and we planned to burn what could not be recycled. As I was lighting the fire I noticed the clean up team suddenly slapping at their limbs, yelling and screaming, and then running flat out to the river .... they'd disturbed a wasp nest under the plank walk. This wasn't funny - the wasps pursued them to the water before returning to the nest, and many children were bitten (Ley scored a few bites as well).

Of course now it was retribution time - young Jabu said we must burn the nest, it is the Iban way ! With newspaper from Crystal Blues, he and Beretin lit torches of rolled paper and placed them under the nest. Thats them sprinting away from the burning nest in the photo at right. The last few wasps were subdued with spray from Crystal Blues, and the plankwalk was then safe for the children to return home.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A Boatyard In Borneo

A rickety elevated plank-walk connects the nearby longhouse to the river, crossing wet padi fields and pushing through a jungle margin at the river bank. That jungle is constantly trying to claim back the plank-walk, along with the weeds and grasses in the fallow padi fields. One afternoon last week the entire male population of the longhouse appeared, all armed with long knives. They slashed their way from the longhouse to the river, clearing a wide swathe through the undergrowth.

Next day the job continued, and only then did we discover what was really happening. It seems that many of the local long-boats have not been out of the water for some time (some for more than twelve months), so they need to be dried out and re-painted.

Our friends were busy clearing a hard stand area, though on this flood prone river bank you'd have to call it a "soft" stand. The boats will be floated up on a high tide, and then lifted clear of the mud onto simple wooden supports. After several days drying they'll be scraped, painted and launched again. The river tides here are rarely less than 2.5 metres, and often run to more than 5.0 metres, so finding a really dry spot is difficult - even the long houses are built on stilts to allow for the periodic flooding.

These Iban river craft are a curious mix of modern and traditional design. Long and narrow, with natural "grown" knees re-inforcing the chines, they are easy to paddle and fast under power. Our good friend Jampie has a nice little single cylinder (4 stroke) Honda engine powering his boat, complete with a 1/4" stainless shaft and 6.5"dia. alloy propeller. However when he set out to build the boat he headed up river to a virgin jungle area - there he selected and felled a suitable tree and sawed the planks in the field, whilst living rough. After a couple of weeks he was able to head back down river with an almost completed boat .... traditional skills survive.

Thats Jampie in his boat at right (above), showing the dinner he'd caught for us - a giant freshwater prawn. As the jungle was cleared, we noticed that the felled "Rasau" palms were being collected. Everyone was energetically extracting the heart of the central stalk, which is sliced and cooked in a light curry.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Borneo Cruising Update

The south-west monsoon "cruising season" has been unusually wet so far - not that we mind, the rain fills our tanks, the clouds keep the temperature down and its good for the crops as well. Rain up-stream means the Rajang River is carrying a bigger silt load than normal for June - we can see the difference here on the Tulai, where the incoming tide brings silty water from the big river.

Traffic On The River

A few days ago we were delighted to see another yacht on the Tulai River - SV LaBarque had come to visit. Patrick & Elizabeth were only able to stay one night, but the locals put on quite a show for them ..... that's Elizabeth with her new Padi hat at right. If you're planning to come up here in the next couple of weeks, be aware that a special celebration for the end of Gawai will probably occur on June 29 or June 30. Call us on 017-425-6960 for pilotage from Bintangor, or email us at the address above. Check out the happy little group at left (click to enlarge). Anyone would think they'd been drinking tuak ...

Borneo International Yachting Challenge, 2008

Today I spoke with Bruce Chai, a member of the BIYC organising committee in Miri. Bruce confirmed that final planning is underway, but that the event dates have changed again (!). They are now finalised as :

23/8/08 Assemble in Labuan, Opening Dinner
24/8/08 Labuan Harbour Race
25/8/08 Passage race to Miri

Just a day earlier than before. Details for Miri races and functions I don't have, but the event now finishes on August 28th. The race website is up and running again after a recent technical blackout. Check it out here.

New Sarawak / Rajang River Charts

Patrick on LaBarque showed me new charts of the Rajang, just published by the Sarawak Hydrographic Office. I had a quick look at them and they do seem more up to date than the old British charts we're using. From the comprehensive offering you'll probably get by with the following :

SAR1440 Rajang Entrance to Bintangor, SAR1441 Bintangor to Sibu, SAR15 Sibu to Kuala Paloh

That last chart is an overview of the ship route, that is also covered as a series of close-scale charts that are probably not necessary for a sailboat. However it doesn't cover the Lassa River entrance to the north of the delta - best coverage on that is the Malasysian chart MAL7257. The Sarawak charts are available at MR35.00 each from :

Sarawak Hydrographic Office
Lot 683, Section 66, Jalan Utama, Tanah Puteh, 93619 Kuching.
Tel: +60 82 484159 Extension 167.

Kuching Check-In Procedures

Dennis & Pat on SV Harrier were in Kuching, and commented that the Kuching check-in procedures take half a day, even with a car, and they're absolutely right. Without a car it would take all day. It helps to have the paperwork ready - download all the forms from this website (right hand column) and you can print as many as you need.

First stop is the port captain, Jabatan Laut. Its a decent drive out to the new "Senari" deepwater container port at Sejingkat. Drive towards Bako National Park - its over 20km from town, on the right. You'll see the container cranes on the right hand side of the highway. On the ground floor of the main administration building is a little office (hard to find, right-hand back corner) where you can check in. Here you need crew lists and Sarawak MSS.1 arrival forms. You could check out at the same time (they'll let you if your departure is within 24 hours) and for that you'll need the MSS.2 departure forms.

Next is the Immigration office at Pending. You must go to the Pending wharf area, and in through the security gate at the traffic circle. Ask for directions to the Immigration office. There you'll need the usual crew lists, passports etc. Depending on who is working that day you may be asked to complete other Sarawak specific forms, but the service is always friendly. You can download a map, showing the location in Pending.

Lastly you must go to customs, as you depart the Pending port complex. The customs man is located in the main security gate building, between the truck entry and exit lanes. Here the reaction varies, depending on the staff rostered. Many aren't sure what to do. I give them a copy of the MSS.1 check in form, crew list and my clearance form from the last port. Walk away, you're done.

To make this process easier, Ian Robertson (SV Kumang / Kuching) has prepared a thorough guide on the topic, complete with photo's and maps, like those at right. You can download it here. Thanks Ian !

Sea East Asia / Maritime Mobile Net

If you were a fan of Richard's safety net each morning, the good news is that he's back .... same time and same frequency, according to the latest Noonsite story. Propagation on the 20 metre band has apparently improved to the point where Richard is stirring up the airwaves again. Catch him on 14.323Mhz at UTC 0025 for position reports, and UTC 0055 for weather.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Internet Afloat - An Alternative To WiFi

In previous entries we reviewed a long range wi-fi transceiver - read the stories here, & here. That system works very well, however in many parts of the world wi-fi just doesn't exist. After two previous seasons in Borneo without internet on board, we decided that this year we'd lash out and try the new 3G cellular networks. These offer very fast connection speeds where the network is 3G capable, principally in the major cities. Outside the cities the system winds back to GPRS speeds, still useful. The really good part is that a connection can be purchased for not much more than 2 Ringit per day in Malaysia, with unlimited download access. We understand that its also affordable in Thailand.

We've used GPRS before, but found it prohibitively expensive in Australia and Singapore. This time we purchased a Sierra Wireless Aircard 875u 3G modem, which connects via USB. We fixed on this unit when we realised it was useable worldwide, and that it could be used with an external antenna in areas of marginal signal strength (note that the 875u has now been superceded by the 880u - now with GPS(!) onboard). Click for product data sheet. The external antenna capability is of course very useful on metal boats. Selecting a service provider proved more difficult. Celcom offers a 3G network with very wide regional coverage, whilst DiGi offers a 2G (Edge) service with less regional penetration. Whilst locals in Kuching believed Celcom was sure to be better, we'd heard from data specialists in West Malaysia that the DiGi service was far more reliable. With this in mind we signed up for both - a side-by-side test was sure to be revealing, and so it turned out.

DiGi was the first tested, at the anchorage in Santubong. To our delight we had access speeds superior to many wi-fi networks, and rock solid reliable performance. The Celcom card arrived the next day, but wouldn't work...that would require dealer intervention we were told on the helpline. By then we had departed Santubong for the Rajang, so we continued using the DiGi service. We had reliable internet access for almost one third of the ocean journey to Kampung Rajang, and once in the Rajang River we never lost signal all the way to Bintangor. Leaving the Rajang we headed up the Binatang and then the Tulai Rivers, carefully watching the signal strength drop as distance increased. Anchored at Rumah Lidam it fluctuated between one and three bars, averaging 2 bars. Despite this we have a perfectly reliable (though sometimes slow) GPRS connection, and are delighted with the DiGi service.

After some prodding the Celcom dealer in Kuching advised they'd forgotten to activate the card - duh - and said it would start working soon. Testing the Celcom SIM card the next day gave a different error message (incorrect profile). I figured the APN was wrong in the profile, easily edited if I could find out what it should be. There followed a week of hopeless telephone traffic with Celcom "careline". Eventually an engineer did call, but it took a week. By then we'd got it working with the help of Ghuftrade, a dealer in West Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Celcom service is virtually un-useable up here. Great signal strength (as expected) and great coverage (the 900Mhz Celcom network spreads better than the 1.8ghz DiGi system). However the internet provisioning on the Celcom network (in GPRS areas) we've found to be extremely unreliable and inadequate. When it works the speed is no better than DiGi, but it resets frequently. Earlier today I gave it one last try, and could not get it to hold up a service for more than 2 minutes. DiGi will work solidly all day long - we've even downloaded software updates that take hours to transfer.

Click here for the Celcom GSM coverage map in the Rajang delta - it may work for voice, but I wouldn't trust it for data. Click here for the DiGi coverage map of the lower Rajang delta - these guys really are too modest - it works in most places along the river, and will work in much of coastal Malaysia, I'm quite sure.

Conclusion ? Go for the DiGi service - it is solid, reliable and works whenever you can get a signal, which is a whole lot better than not working when ever you can get a signal (sorry Celcom). Click here for links to Ghufran's 3G business - he can supply everything you need via mail order and he is, in our experience, absolutely trustworthy (you just need to visit a MayBank to deposit the funds). He's the only person we know with external antenna's in stock. The specialist DiGi dealer we used is identified in the displayed card image (click the card to enlarge) - they'll install the software for you and make sure its working, unlike Celcom. As a foreigner DiGi will insist that you sign up and pre-pay for six months - but do the maths - it's still a good deal, as it will work all over Malaysia. Thanks to Ian & Mona in Kuching, for lots of support and encouragement with this story.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Fire At Longhouse Rumah Suring

Yesterday afternoon we visited Rumah Suring, the longhouse that burned down earlier this year. It was very sad to see the ruins of this once beautiful longhouse. All the large heirloom pots, beautiful pottery, were sitting among the burned ruins - apparently if moved they simply collapse. All 43 families have built small shacks around the remains of the old building and they're waiting to build a new longhouse once suitable land can be found nearby.

For the past two months we've been collecting donations for these people - clothing, books, games, utensils, tools etc - and our aft cabin was full when we departed Singapore. Late this afternoon Tuai Rumah Suring (the longhouse chief) came to visit Crystal Blues in his longboat, and collected the donations. He was extremely gracious and grateful, and headed back downstream to distribute the goods among his people (a task I'm glad is his). Within days we noticed a large number of people in the district wearing sailing regatta shirts and carrying Raymarine shopping bags - the goods were in use. Thanks to all the boats that donated - your generosity is appreciated here.

Soon after the fire we sent a cash donation to the emergency appeal that had been setup. Tuai Rumah has held these funds, and wanted our permission to spend a portion of them on replacing the traditional musical instruments lost in the fire. Knowing our love for the local music it was a perceptive and appropriate request and we were delighted to approve. The balance will go to the re-building fund. If you're heading up river this season please think about what you can donate to these unfortunate families, who lost absolutely everything in the fire. Donations can also be deposited with Ian & Mona Robertson at Mona Medical Supplies in Kuching - if you've anchored at Santubong you'll know Ian and Mona as the people who own "Kumang", the yellow yacht moored in the river near Datuk Lingi's dock.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Its A Girl !

We're thrilled to announce that Peter & Maria Langford (see their wedding blog here) have a daughter. Nadia Grace Eve Langford was born on Friday May 23rd, weighing 7lb.6oz.

Peter says the the arrival has been "absolutely life changing", and we can tell he's a different man ! Both Maria and Nadia are healthy and (we're told) very relaxed, and the family is getting regular sleep. Long may it last.

In true Langford family style, the just-born Nadia has already received her first life jacket, a miniature device provided by friends who really understand her family - she's ready for the sailing life. She's also a fully paid-up member of the Sydney Swans football club - yes the Langford's are just a bit fanatical.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

55 Passengers On Board - Gawai Dayak Is Here

Gawai Dayak is the major festival of the year for Iban people - imagine Thanks Giving and New Year rolled into one. They celebrate the success of the rice harvest and the continuation of life, whilst looking ahead to the new planting season. Its joyful, exciting and in some cases a little bit drunken. Distant family members come home by ferry and long boat, as both school and public holidays are planned to coincide with Gawai.
Preparations go on for days - all the long house women were involved in plaiting decorations, making tuak, and preparing food. The last days before Gawai are busy, with major expeditions to the nearest towns, laying in supplies for a festival that can last for weeks.

On May 30 at 9.00am we loaded 55 people - men , women and children - and proceeded downstream to Bintangor town. It was raining quite heavily, so more than 35 were crammed down below, with all the hatches shut. It was like a sauna down there. Fortunately the skipper had to steer the boat, while the admiral stood watch on the foredeck and spotted for logs. The passenger load submerged the waterline, and the Cummins was working quite a bit harder than normal to achieve hull speed.

Anchored just off the town dock, we added to the festival atmosphere as our passengers spread out through the shops and markets, returning with boxes, bags and traditional woven baskets full of produce and supplies. For the return jouney we loaded goods on the foredeck - sacks of rice, corn, vegetables, 12 boxes with live chickens and several freshly slaughtered sections of pig. After 4 hours we chugged back upstream against the current, after being photographed for the local Chinese language newspaper. Anchored back on Sungai Tulai, many long boats came out from shore to carry the load back home. I watched an 84 year old woman leap nimbly into a long boat and paddle out to Crystal Blues on her own, eager to help in the unloading. Hope I can still do that when I'm her age.

Salamat Hari Gawai

Gawai happened on May 31. Invited to the small Rumah Malaya longhouse (13 doors) that afternoon, we visited with families and were hosted by the Tuai Rumah Malaya (chief). Many of the people there are quite old fashioned and lead a very simple life. We were the first white people ever to visit this long house. Of course we had to drink, dance and then eat. The chief paraded up and down the verandah with a very good looking chicken under his arm. Finally it was waved in circles over Neil's head and then taken outside for a quick kill (big knife). They prepared 4 plates of traditional foods, beautifully dressed with bloodied feathers from the sacrificial bird. Thankfully it was a traditional ritual, and we didn't have to eat it - in fact no one did, the plates were simply acknowledged then removed.

Back at Jampie's long house, Rumah Lidam, we shared a meal with our friends, taking two bottles of wine and some beer as a contribution. Dinner started at 7.00pm and by 8.00pm we were sitting cross legged on matts outside, on the communal verandah, listening and dancing to the gong and drums. Many people got up to ngajat (dance) - including Neil. We had to dance around a "palm" tree. Hanging from the tree and around the base were symbolic harvest decorations and food and drink. This was eventually all chopped down by Neil, with an Iban parang (long knife) after much dancing. Neil then had to "chop" the tree down with the parang, just before midnight, symbolising the end of one season and the start of another. At midnight the chief of the long house banged the gong and we all called out to welcome in the New Year.

Then something fantastic happened - almost immediately 37 individual parties were set up. Each door (family) in the long house put food and drink outside there bilik (home). As guests we were expected to eat and drink at each door. Neil and I bagi (shared) our glass of tuak and nibbled here and there, 37 times, down the length of the long house. The residents then started a procession of house visiting that went on for hours. We left just after 2am, but there was no rest for the wicked as we were expected at church at 8.30am that morning.