Some of the durian in Miri is sourced from Marudi, a small town in the interior of northern Sarawak on the Baram River. When I looked it up on wikipedia, (the most accurate source of information), it mentioned that Marudi is considered the heartland of the Orang Ulu, the people of the river. We had hopes of learning about native customs and traditions concerning durian, and wondered if Marudi might be a place we could meet someone knowledgeable about the old native ways of life.
When we returned to the Mandi Guesthouse after our not-so-successful durian trek in Niah National Forest, I asked the manager about going to Marudi. It turned out that he was from Marudi, and was a member of the Terong tribe. His tribe has joined other river tribes in a fight against the government's planned construction of 13 hydro-electric mega dams, including one which would effect the Baram River. If the dam is constructed, it will flood an area half the size of Singapore, forcing almost 20,000 people to vacate their traditional lands. We're Oregonians, and like most people from our state protecting the forest resonates with us. When he mentioned that the area has a lot of ancient durian trees planted by indigenous people long ago, he had us hooked.
|Docks at Marudi|
We were the only foreigners on the express boat leaving Kuala Baram, the port located about 10 kilometers north of Miri. We caught the 3 PM boat, which was perfect because the sun was low enough that we could sit on the roof of the low, torpedo shaped boat without being fried to a crisp and enjoy the warm breeze, the passing palm oil plantations, and waving at people on gravel barges.
|Enjoying the river|
|Jok Eng and his son, Thomas|
The Uma Bawang Resident's Association (UBRA) was the brainchild of Jok Jao Evong, created in 1988 to defend the community from logging companies. UBRA has remained active ever since, encouraging other communities to form their own associations, map their lands, demonstrate ownership by putting up signs around boundaries and planting fruit trees, and replanting desolated areas with native tree species that can also be used for lumber. So far, the group has planted around 20,000 trees including 200 fruit trees per family.
From Marudi, we took another torpedo-style boat to Long Lama, about 3 hours upriver, and then transferred our belongings into Jok Eng's narrow longboat. I noticed that on this stretch of the river, we saw a lot more timber barges carrying their old-growth victims downriver. The little longboat darted this way and that against the current, dodging logs and bits of debris, making the boat lurch sickeningly with each turn. I kept having nightmares of my laptop, safely buried inside my backpack, sizzingly to its death inside the brown water and then being swallowed by a crocodile. It was dark when at last we arrived in Uma Bawang, soaked from a heavy rainstorm that forced Jok Eng to stop the boat and wait until he could see clearly enough to dodge the logs still plunging down river.
We stayed with his family in his longhouse, a series of one story apartments set in rows like townhouses connected by a wide porch. Jok Eng estimated that around 80 families live in Uma Bawang, which has no access roads and no motor vehicles, other than the long boats. Jok Eng told us that if the rained stopped, we could go into the jungle to wait for durians to drop. The rain didn't stop, and we all fell asleep.
In the morning, Jok Eng took us on a short walk behind the long house to look for durian with one auntie, an older woman who planned to camp out in the durian grove for the next few days to protect the fallen fruit from thieving tribes. Durian trees are considered private property, and each family knows exactly which durian trees belong to them. Many trees have been passed down through generations, and Jok Eng could point out trees planted by his mother, his father, his grandfather, and himself.
|waiting for durians|
Falling durians is a serious business. While we waited, four durians fell, pounding the earth like missiles and breaking branches above. People who camp in the orchards always erect small huts, like the one below, to protect themselves. The huts are dismantled at the end of the season. While we waited, we watched a man further down the path erect his own hut. In an hour, he had finished.
|Ubong Jao Evong, 90 years old|
She sent us away with two Mawangs the size of coconuts, and tummies full of one of the most amazing durian we've had on this trip. Durian in Uma Bawang is truly something special. It's all kampung durian, but most durians were impressively fleshy and made for thick, sticky mouthfuls of bitter cream. Jok Eng told us that Baram is known for having the best durians in the area, but he didn't know if it was because his ancestors had selected the best durians to plant, or because the trees were so ancient.
We rode with the durians about one hour up the silent, misty river. It was picturesque and a little eery, and we passed many many durian trees on both sides of the river. When Billie saw us pointing at the fruits dotting the skeletal branches, he told us that villagers downstream of the completed Bakun Dam had sent messages saying that since the water level had decreased, they were no longer able to use the river for transportation and their fruit trees had died. It was a sobering aspect of the morning.
To read more about the Sarawak mega-dams project, or to donate to the cause, visit the following websites: