Part 1 of a three-part series.
By Lian Cheng and Ling Hui
ON OCT 4, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg led a motorcycle convoy from Sibu to Kapit. It was made possible following the partial completion of the Ngemah-Temalat road, the missing link between Sibu and Kapit.
Needless to say, the partial completion of the long-awaited road connecting Sibu and Kapit brought pure joy and relief to the people of Kapit as well as the longhouse folks residing further upstream in Baleh, Pelagus, right up to Belaga town, the last major upriver settlement along the mighty Batang Rajang.
For the first time in history, Kapit, a vibrant upriver timber town that previously was only physically linked to the outside world through riverine transport, is now physically connected by road to Sibu, the largest and busiest commercial hub in the Rajang Basin.
Following the theatric 100-motorcycle convoy to Kapit, Sarawak Public Works Department (Sarawak JKR) on Oct 8, 2020 announced that the Kanowit-Kapit Road would be opened fully to the public except for the Ngemah-Temalat stretch, which would only be opened later on a specific schedule as parts of it are still under construction. Officially, this stretch will only be completed by December 2020.
Once all the stretches are linked, however, it will be hard to stop people from using the road. A substantial number of travellers are already using the road despite being forced to wait at a blockade set up by the contractor along the Ngemah-Temalat stretch when they miss the road opening hours.
No one can blame these travellers who may have embarked on their trips due to sheer enthusiasm and pleasure while others took to the road for work purposes. The linking of the two most vibrant towns along the Batang Rajang—Sibu and Kapit—is something that means a great deal to those residing in the riverine towns of Song, Ngemah and Kapit, as well as the Iban settlements along the river.
Prior to the road’s construction, towns like Kapit and Song used to depend very much on the operating hours of what was the the only form of public transportation — express boats that have been plying the Batang Rajang since the 60s.
To understand and witness the impact of the road in person, we decided to travel on the road itself on Oct 14, merging with the crowd of enthusiastic travellers. Our drive started at 10.30am from Sibu and by 1pm, we reached Kapit town.
The journey consisted of four main stretches, namely the Sibu-Durin Road, Durin-Kanowit Road, Kanowit-Song Road and Song-Kapit Road which sums up to approximately 160km.
It was a fairly different experience compared to the good old days’ of traveling on express boats which offered comfortable seats in an air-conditioned cabin, a big-screen television showing the latest blockbuster movie, and riverine scenery comprising the milk-coffee-coloured river waters and endless stretch of green jungle punctuated by the occasional longhouse, school or sawmill.
What we saw throughout the two-and-a-half-hour journey on the road was more or less the same—a whole stretch of lush green adorned with settlements. The biggest difference perhaps, is that instead of a long stretch of ‘kopi-c’-coloured river waters running past outside our windows, there were miles and miles of dark grey tar sealed road.
The entire drive was fairly pleasant due to the decent road condition, but there were a couple of sections of the road where drivers had to reenact the children’s bedtime story of the black goat and white goat meeting each other in the middle of the bridge, as only one lane was ready for use and there was no one to coordinate the traffic. The experience was a true test of patience and road courtesy.
Somewhere near Song, the perfectly carpeted greenish slopes on both sides of the road caught our eye. We were in awe at first, thinking that what we saw was wild grass growing on them. However, a closer look exposed the illusion — it was grass planted by man or slope planting, used as a landslide prevention method.
Undeniably, the new link road is a game-changer. It has brought about a big change — just the air itself smelt different. It is like Kapit had overnight, been transformed from a slumbering town into a vibrant business hub.
There was much excitement in the faces and voices of the locals whom we came across. They had smiles they could not hide. Obviously, there were heightened activity and energy. What had us most amazed was the stark increase in traffic, resulting in rampant illegal parking and thus, traffic jams. The staple transport workhorse of the masses, the van sapu, was ubiquitous at the market area near the famous Kapit wharf.
Businesses here are definitely thriving compared to before when one could roughly guess the amount of turnover for the day. However, Tan Hie Hiong, the owner of Ung Tong Bakery which was established in 1988 and is the most popular bakery in Kapit, is taking things in her stride.
When we met her, Tan’s pastries and buns which are well known throughout the Rajang Basin, or for that matter, the whole of Sarawak, were already sold out much earlier that day. What was left were just cupcakes fresh from the ovens and loaves of bread still baking.
“Yes, there has been a sudden increase in the number of customers since the opening of the road. Suddenly, the town is seeing a stark increase in the number of people. There are many outsiders. We know they are outsiders because they are new faces, not the familiar ones that we see every day in Kapit,” Tan told DayakDaily.
Despite selling out her products earlier than before, Tan is determined that her bakery will not increase production to cater to the daily surge of newcomers.
“We want to keep things the way it is. We are not greedy. As long as we can sell out what we produce for the day, it is good enough for us. We have yet to look into operating for longer hours even though there are still many more people hanging around town in the afternoon now.”
This uptick in visitors to this hilly scenic upriver town which was previously only accessible by express boats is a stark contrast to the somewhat meandering pace of life here before the road’s construction, where the whole town would gradually came to a standstill daily at about 2pm with most visitors preferring earlier departures than the last express boat leaving the wharf at 3.15pm, unless it was necessary.
The town people were accustomed to the visitors’ habits. So most shops closed at about 2pm except for a few coffee shops or restaurants which offered dinner service.
Yet, on Oct 14 when we visited the town, by 3.30pm, the town was still very much alive and busy. Not only was it humming with activity, but we also experienced bad traffic jam when trying to leave the town.
For the first time, we experienced a traffic jam in Kapit!