Beluru — then and now

A Chinese primary school in Beluru.

THE Baram is most famous for birds’ nests and caves since the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, according to some Asian historians.

Ill-fated Chinese junks were known to have sunk in the Baram River and the sailors who survived probably became part of the Baram people.

A Kenyah man told thesundaypost: “We often wonder how we got the surnames Ding and Ngo. Probably, two Chinese men by those surnames survived their disastrous sea trip to collect birds’ nests in the Baram.

Ali Zunaidi and Borhan Tahir in this class photo with C S Jiram.

“We were meeting recently at Beluru town to do some research about the caves, economy and history of the area. But we couldn’t find anyone to help us locate the old cave called Lobang Kudi. In any case, it was a small matter of interest.”

Beluru is situated in Baram District, the largest in the whole of Malaysia, and drained by the river of the same name, all 400km of it. The river which has its source in the Kelabit Highlands, is the second longest in Sarawak.

During the Brooke rule, a lot of internecine wars were fought and the Baram hosted a number of peace-making ceremonies. The famous Baram Regatta is one of the cultural legacies of this colourful period of Sarawak history.

Cowboy Town

This small town, known for a long time as a Cowboy Town, is about 80km from Miri by road and fairly near the Bakun Dam.

Mrs Woodfield (seated second left) with the staff of Tanjong Lobang School in 1966.
Mr M Wilson is in the back row (third left).

It takes about one and half hours to reach Beluru from Miri by a fairly good surfaced road. The population of the District is about 14,000, made up of different races such as Malays, Ibans, Kayans and Chinese who live in the town proper and the surrounding areas.

The Chinese set up their own primary school not long after settling in the area. Originally, they were farmers who came to cultivate fruit trees, vegetables and paddy and do a bit of trading upriver from Marudi.

The primary school served all the different races in and around the Beluru town.

Like all upriver towns in Sarawak, Beluru was once under the care of an Upriver Agent or Officer, appointed by the Brookes and later, by the British colonial government.

By 1970, government services under Malaysia became more organised but the role of the Wakil Ulu Sungai or Upriver Agent continued for a while until realignment of administrative boundaries.

In 1976 Joanis Godfrey Pandik became the first SAO (Sarawak Administrative Officer) of Beluru. And In 2015, Beluru was elevated to a district and the DO (District Officer) was Mataip Sayu.

Since the Bakun mega project started, Beluru has attracted some attention in terms of development due to the construction of a road to the Bakun. Travellers can stop at Beluru for a short break before continuing a “dusty ride” to the Bakun area.

The road to Beluru passes by the industrial area.

Flooding woes

The 40km road from Beluru to Lapok has been improved under SCORE. However, despite all the recent development, Beluru continues to be flooded during the rainy season, turning roads into small rivers, and the primary schools are often closed when flooding occurs.

The drainage system has to be improved to reduce the incidence of flooding. Dangers lurk in the flood waters as crocodiles have often been sighted.

Cave excavations

A local resident and former student of Tanjong Lobong College, C S Jiram remembers sailing upriver to Beluru in 1966 with the Sarawak Museum archeological team, headed by Mrs Tom Harrison, wife of then Sarawak Museum curator Tom Harrison, and her niece, Sylvia, to do some “holiday work.”

“The College arranged our selection as volunteers for the assignment, describing us as mature, hard-working and able to survive the Sarawak jungles. Our teachers, Mrs Woodfield and Mr Wilson, were also in the team.

“Ali Zunaidi, Robert Madang, now retired Lieutenant Colonel Haji Rizal Abdullah, Borhan Tahir and I were selected for the voluntary work,” Jiram recalled.

According to him, Mr Sim, owner of the quarry above Beluru, gave the team a motor launch ride from Miri. It took the whole day from Kuala Baram to reach Sungai Terus, which connects the Baram to the Bakong.

Mr Sim’s motor launch towed the government Museum’s longboat with its 18 horse-power engine all the way from Miri. From a distance, the longboat looked like a piece of cork tossing in the choppy waters.

Along the way, the longhouse provided accommodation for the team, and the local people were hospitable.

There was also a government house half way between the longhouse in Sungei Terus and Lobang Kudi, slightly above Beluru.

This wooden government house was well built with a kitchen. The team, therefore, did not have to live in the caves throughout the excavation.

Before work started, there was a small problem when the Penans refused to let the team excavate the caves.

Safri Awang, then District Officer of Marudi, came all the way to negotiate with the Penans, reached an understanding with them and work was able to proceed.

Jiram continued: “We carried out excavations at Lobang Kudi and learned a great deal about archeology.

“In fact, Mrs Woodfield, our English teacher at Tanjong Lobang College, was a qualified anthropologist. But in those days, we pretty much minded our own business and never asked many questions about personal life.

“Mr Martin Wilson, a friendly and fatherly teacher from New Zealand, was very proud of getting his first Iban tattoo in the longhouse.

“Later, he was to bring Madang and I on a climbing expedition up Mt Kinabalu in Sabah. Without his generosity, both of us would never have reached the summit of the highest mountain in Southeast Asia in those early years as students.”

He and his children became life-long friends with most of the students at Tanjong Lobang.

For example, one of the students, Law Vun Ngee, went to study in New Zealand and met up with the Wilsons.

Half way through the work, Ali Junaidi had to leave to attend to some urgent matters and had to walk all the way from Bakong, exiting in Bukit Song near Miri.

A kind Iban man showed him the way. That was the lifestyle in those days. Everyone was helpful in time of need. It must have been a difficult time for Ali.

Today, he is well established as the first UK-trained valuer in Sarawak. He actually met up with Sylvia when he studied in London.

Frightening incident

Once, a very frightening incident almost took all their lives when they were travelling by river.

Pak Cik Daud, the boat driver, had to leave on an urgent family matter mid-way through the project. So Jiram took over as he had experience from his days as a young boat driver in Limbang.

“A huge motor launch was sailing up the river and the big waves it churned up started to reach our small longboat.

“But I managed to speed up and overtake the motor launch. This could have been the decision that saved all our lives,” Jiram related.

Incidentally, the name Lobang Kudi (or Kudit) could be taken to mean a stone cave. In Iban folklore, Kudi is a word which refers to an upheaval or a bad incident which turns someone or a place into stone because the gods are angry.

Oil palms are commercially grown to boost the economy of Beluru.

No longer pristine

A local driver who works for an oil palm company told thesundaypost: “The river is no longer that pristine. It’s full of waste like plastic drinking bottles, plastic bags, wood debris and animal carcasses.

“People continue to make the river their ‘dumping drain.’ So that makes the riverbanks very unsightly. I wish there is a big campaign to clean up the river. Eventually all this rubbish will end up on the beaches of Miri.”

There are about 40 shophouses in Beluru, about half operated by the Chinese and the rest by bumiputras from the Sarawak United National Youth Organisation or Saberkas.

There are around 70 longhouses in the area whose residents arrived just before the Second World War as Miri Division was opening up with paddy becoming an essential commodity.

The Iban planters depend on the river for water supply as piped water has not reached most of them. Probably fewer than 10 longhouses have water supply. As you move around, you can see the longhouse dwellers using rainwater for a lot of things.

The longest longhouse in the area has more than 80 families.

An oil palm mill near Beluru.

Oil palms and Beluru

If Mrs Weekfield and Mr Martin could see Beluru again, they would be very surprised by development in terms of commercial crop cultivation, good roads and heavy vehicles in the area.

Beluru continues perch on a steep valley and the river seems smaller after 100 to 150 feet drop from the Beluru road.

Today, the Ibans are productive oil palm growers who send their harvests to the mills, operated by Sarawak Oil Palm Berhad and other companies. They also have a choice to sell their harvests to the ramps or collection centres.

There is a Malay kampung and a mixed kampung or Kampung Muhibah.

Beluru is served by a District Office, a police station, the Public Works Department, the Agriculture Department, one Klinik Desa, the Forest Department, one secondary School and 14 primary schools.

Less than 50 per cent of the people enjoy electricity supply. Interestingly, solar power panels are installed for 24 hour service at an oil palm mill.

Pekan Beluru has a civic centre, a small park and a football field (under Marudi District Office). There are heavy vehicles on the road, oil palms growing by the roadside and primary schools amidst the tropical jungle.

The secondary school says a lot about the development over the past 50 years in the area. A visit to the high-tech palm oil mills might even be out of sync with the once serene jungle scenario. Life has changed so much in Beluru.