Don’t wear red to Loagan Bunut National Park

Loagan Bunut National Park entrance.

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By Ling Hui

If you wish to leave Loagan Bunut alive and unhurt, don’t wear red. You’ve been warned.

For centuries, the local Berawan people, who reside in the vicinity of the Loagan Bunut National Park until today, have believed wearing the colour red when by or at the Loagan Bunut lake would anger the gods or guardians and bring misfortune.


In 2016, two foreign university students drowned in the lake when the boat ferrying them and their fellow researchers capsized after being battered by big waves. The two were wearing red shirts when the tragedy happened.

A few years ago, a group of visitors was said to have wanted to take a boat ride around the lake, with one of them was also wearing a red shirt. Before the journey even began, black clouds appeared above the lake and a thunderstorm followed. The group had to cancel the ride.

A similar situation was encountered by another group of employees who were on a day trip to the national park, wearing red company shirts.

All of them had no other clothes to change into, so they chose to go on the boat ride anyway. It is said that their boats didn’t even manage to venture out into the lake when a heavy downpour began with a howling gale.

Taboo is taboo. It is better to be followed than to be sorry, as the saying goes. Locals and national park employees shun any red-coloured clothing or possessions, because they would rather not take the implied risk that the colour could bring.

In fact, for safety reasons, all child visitors would be strongly advised against wearing any red clothes or belongings, but foreign tourists who know nothing about this taboo would not be specially informed.

Boat ride to see lejeng, lanting, selambau

There was no way the D’Drift Team would miss out on a boat ride that everyone’s talking about.

We went out into the lake at about 2pm with local Berawan boatman Jalin Luta and Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) park warden Anthony Chong. The three of us were sandwiched between Jalin who was at the very back steering the longboat and Chong right in front clearing away any obstructing branches.

Chong (left) and Jalin giving the D’drift Team a tour around Loagan Bunut lake.

Travelling slowly along Sungai Bunan among huge stilted tree roots where monkeys and squirrels can often be seen, it took about 10 minutes to reach our very first stop — the ancient Berawan burial platform known as ‘lejeng’.

These lejeng poles which are over 200-years-old are used in pairs to support the coffin placed above them and are made from ‘belian’ trees. This burial practice was only for the elite of the Berawan community in ancient days. The one we visited was for a general named ‘Panglima Lejau’.

Remnants of the lejeng poles at an ancient Berawan burial site near Sungai Bunan.

Similar burial sites can also be found near Sungai Bunut and Bukit Tengah where the latter is still being used for the burial of high caste Berawans. For commoners, there is a graveyard near Sungai Bunut which is also still active, with tomb sweeping normally carried out in November.

Cruising into Sungai Teru, we started seeing little floating huts or ‘lanting’ that are built with some sort of fishing apparatus which we later learned to be a unique fishing method developed by the Berawan and can only be found at Loagan Bunut.

‘Selambau’ as locals call it, is a fishing technique where huge scoop nets are mounted from floating huts to catch migrating fish during specific seasons. Catches are then stored in bamboo cages before being transported to the fresh food market in Lapok or as far as Miri.

At other times of the year, one is likely to see local fishermen using more conventional fishing methods, such as casting nets and pole nets, to harvest the lake’s abundant supply of fish. Main fish species found here include tilapia, bawan, baung, batutu and kaloi.

One of the floating huts called ‘lanting’.

We had the privilege of stopping by at one of Jalin’s floating huts which was quite well furnished despite its size and location. It had a room with a mattress and television. Outside, there was a mini kitchen equipped with all the necessary cooking and eating appurtenances.

Seeing the selambau in action, we were absolutely astounded by how ingenious yet simple the fishing method is. With their nets down, fishermen can simply lay back and wait for the fish to swim into the nets by themselves.

 

The selambau we saw up close was slightly different from what the Berawan traditionally used. The traditional selambau way is to mount the nets on boats, but this can easily cause the boat to overturn if catches are too heavy or the water current is too fast.

But with floating huts, the nets can be operated for much longer periods of time and withstand the heavier weight of bigger catches.

Illustration of the traditional selambau method found at the Loagan Bunut canteen.

 

Half-a-decade old fishing ‘law’ honoured by Berawans

Though commercial fishing at Loagan Bunut is strictly only for the Berawans, recreational fishing is allowed.

Visitors who would like to experience fishing the way the Berawans practise it are welcome, but of course with consent, and any catches must be compensated for to the local people depending on which territory you’re fishing in.

The Berawan peolple have absolute privilege to collect fish and forest products, as well as hunt in Loagan Bunut under native customary rights.

Loagan Bunut is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna, as well as to the Berawan people who can trace back their presence here to at least five generations.

Thus, the Berawans in Long Teru, Tinjar agreed through a pact which outlines the do’s and don’t’s of fishing in the area, to preserve order and sustainability of the local ecosystem.

The pact was signed by Long Teru village head Kajan Sigeh and representative of the Loagan Bunut community Gumbang Lawai 54 years ago.

Based on the written law, only selambau, cast net, and pole net fishing are allowed. Trawling is banned entirely along Sungai Bunut, for two reasons, Chong explained.

When the water level of the lake drops, fish won’t be able to venture out into the sea because of the trawl nets in between and they will die in the lake. When the water level rises, fish will migrate back to the lake to lay eggs. Any trawl nets would prevent this from happening.

Written law by the Berawans about the do’s and don’t’s of fishing in Loagan Bunut.

 

Much-fabled lake vanishes twice a year

Twice a year, Loagan Bunut’s 650-hectare natural lake dries up completely. The lake literally disappears for two to three weeks each time with not a single drop of water to be found on the lakebed during dry seasons.

This phenomenon usually occurs in February, or in late May or early June as the depth of the lake depends on three rivers, namely Sungai Bunut, Sungai Tinjar and Sungai Baram, where water levels are subject to seasonal fluctuations.

When the dry season hits, one can easily walk, ride or even drive over the cracked, hardened mud surface of the lakebed where fishing boats crisscrossed just days before. Walking from the national park’s headquarters to the opposite side of the lake would take about two hours.

For these tiring trips on foot, locals said they would bring along little stools and water so that they can sit down and take breathers while crossing the lakebed. Just imagine that!

Sarawak’s largest natural lake shrinking to nothing that rapidly sounds like a tall tale one is more likely to hear at a story-telling contest, unless one has been there to see the dry lakebed themselves.

But a dried up lake doesn’t mean that Loagan Bunut is bereft of wildlife. During the dry season, lucky visitors may catch glimpses of barking deer, bearded pigs, tiny mousedeer, Langur monkeys, long-tailed macaques and flying foxes that inhabit the surrounding peat swamp forests.

As the water level subsides, huge flocks of wading birds gorge themselves on fish and other aquatic creatures trapped in the mud and vanished pools of water. When the lake is dry, plants sprout from the mud and are eaten by insect larvae.

When the rains come and the lake fills up, returning fish feed on the larvae, breed in the lake, and the whole cycle starts again.

Scenery on the lake.

One must now wonder how this peculiar lake came about. Legend has it that Loagan Bunut lake was formed out of a wild animal stampede.

It all started when two brothers were at war against each other. They needed help building ships to cross rivers, so they got help from animals in the forest.

When it was time for the two brothers to set out to fight, hordes of the animals ran around in circles, eager to join the war. The two brothers did not allow it, so the animals continued their “tantrums” until finally, a lake was formed.

This was one version of many fables explaining how the mysterious Loagan Bunut lake came to be.

Another said the increased movements of wild boar sounders searching for food across the area had over time created the lake.

 

Jungle trails, chalets, camping sites — much more to offer

Other than boat rides and intriguing tales, Loagan Bunut National Park also offers two other easy trails for visitors eager to spend time in the great outdoors to take, one by boat and another through the forest. They are, respectively, the two-kilometre (one to two hours’ walk) Hydrology Trail and 260-metre (30 to 40 minutes’ walk) Tapang Trail.

The Hydrology Trail cuts through the peat swamp forest and provides a unique close-up view of the local ecosystem while the shorter Tapang Trail showcases the towering tapang trees, one of the giant tree species of Borneo which has heavy, dense wood popular for making the very best blowpipes.

In fact, local craftsmen only use tapang trees that have fallen through natural causes as there is a strongly held taboo in Sarawak against felling tapang trees, which is also a valuable source of wild honey and home for hornbills.

Jungle hiking newbies, there’s no need to fret. The Hydrology and Tapang Trails are anything but hardcore, as they are mainly for casual walks and flora and fauna watching.

The best hour to take to these trails would be at dawn when the weather is not scorching hot. So, it’s best for visitors to plan for the treks ahead of time.

For the full experience, it is recommended to stay overnight at Loagan Bunut National Park where presently there is adequate accommodation from six up to 36 persons.

The air-conditioned chalet has two rooms with each holding a three-person capacity while the forest hotel is equipped with 36 beds. There is a campsite capable of hosting 30 people, but camping equipment will not be provided.

Air-conditioned chalet with two rooms and a lakeview.

For first-timers, note that electricity supply at Loagan Bunut National Park is only available from 6.30am to 1pm and 5pm to 11pm every day. So, be sure to pack batteries, torchlights, camping lanterns or any other sort of light source because—trust us—you won’t be able to see a single thing when the lights go out at night. The last thing you want is to be feeling and squinting your way in the darkness to the nearest loo.

Visitors should also bear in mind that the water supply at Loagan Bunut is pumped from the lake and filtered using traditional methods, so the water is untreated. There is no issue with water pressure, but do bring lots of bottled water for drinking purposes.

Food-wise, a canteen operated by Jalin and his family is available at the park. Only dinner and breakfast are provided and must be pre-booked, so it is advisable to also pack some convenience food to keep yourselves filled and fed, just in case.

The canteen at Loagan Bunut National Park managed by local Berawan family.

For guided boat rides around the lake, the charter rate is RM70 per boat per hour for up to four passengers, with additional charges for extra hours or passengers. Boating fees for extra hours are open for negotiation with the boat operator.

Loagan Bunut National Park, gazetted on July 1, 1990 covering an area of 10,736 hectares with 80 per cent peat swamp forest, 10 per cent lowland mixed dipterocarp forest and another 10 per cent secondary forest, is approximately 120km or a three-hour drive from Miri.

A number of travel agents in Miri operate tours to the park. If you wish to travel independently, 4WD services are also available to pick you up from Miri. For reservations, call the park headquarters at 085-775119 or 019-8610994.

Boat rides and food will have to be booked separately with Jalin at 013-9478519. — DayakDaily