In the shadow of the volcano: Living, farming, fishing and weaving in Lusong Laku

An aerial view overlooking the Lusong Laku Waterfall and its settlement. Photo courtesy of Amit Ului

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By Ling Hui

IN Lusong Laku, deep in the interior of Belaga, lies a dormant volcano now overgrown with tropical forest and vegetation.

According to locals, there might have been a volcanic eruption in Lusong Laku centuries or a millennia ago, but no one is sure. Only the igneous rocks formed from the former lava bear silent witness to the incident.

If you notice, the riverbed of the great Linau River approaching the Lusong Laku Waterfall and some streams in the vicinity are blanketed with dark-coloured rocks which could be basalt, a common type of igneous rock made from lava.

Coming second to the Meritam volcanic mud pools in Limbang, Lusong Laku could be another undiscovered site with historical volcanic activities in Sarawak. It definitely demands the attention of geologists and volcanologists.

Another piece of evidence that could perhaps prove the existence of volcanic activity is the soil fertility in Lusong Laku. Volcanic deposits are enriched in elements while thin layers of coal or ash can act as natural fertilisers.

Other than soil quality, the fact that there are plenty of flatlands that are well-supplied by rivers and streams also make Lusong Laku an ideal place for farming.

The potential is so much so that farmers from Sungai Asap, Belaga town, Bintulu and even Miri do not mind travelling long hours to reach Lusong Laku to develop lands for plantation with vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, brinjals, and corn.

Lusong Laku’s agricultural conundrum: Fertile land without farmers

Surprisingly, most of the plantation owners in Lusong Laku are not the local Penans, who are probably still accustomed to hunting and collecting forest produce for survival since the olden days.

Munan, 60, from Belaga seen selling his crops at SK Lusong Laku.

This is Munan, 60, a Kayan from Belaga, who was peddling his crops when met in front of SK Lusong Laku. He had wrapped up in a gunny sack some sweet potato leaves and a kind of leafy vegetable he called ‘sayur laja’.

During the conversation with DayakDaily, Munan said he owned two pieces of land in Lusong Laku, and that he has to travel to Lusong Laku every now and then, about two to three times a month to tend to his crops. In his fields, he said he also plants pepper, bananas and corn.

When asked about his mode of transportation all the way from Belaga to Lusong Laku, he pointed in the direction of a worn-out motorcycle, and said: “I use that motorcycle to travel everywhere. I’ve been riding it for almost 10 years now.”

The 10-year-old motorcycle used by Munan to travel from Belaga town to Lusong Laku.

Munan was not the only one there selling his produce. That morning alone, there were two others, one from Bintulu, and another also from Belaga town, who were selling corn.

Apparently, it is good business because the teachers of SK Lusong Laku and staff of the Lusong Laku Health Clinic who were dispatched from other places around the country would buy from sellers like Munan for their daily consumption.

To those residing in Lusong Laku who are practically isolated from the rest of the world, peddlers like Munan could just save them hours-long trips to civilization for food supplies.

On a related topic, Murum assemblyman Kennedy Chukpai Ugan said there used to be an agriculture station built here in Lusong Laku, but it has since been abandoned for the last three years.

“Officers were placed there to train the local people (about farming), but sometimes in the rural areas (here in Lusong Laku), the road accessibility is not good.

“You teach them how to plant pepper, they do it, but it’s difficult to bring the inputs (such as expertise and equipment) in and the produce out. That’s why roads is very important.

“If there is no market, people don’t want to plant anymore,” he told DayakDaily when in Bakun with the D’Drift 2022 team.

D’Drift Team met Chukpai in Bakun on July 8.

Oh, but they love fishing!

Farming may not be the Penans’ favourite pastime, but oh boy – do they love to fish, especially when the Lusong Laku Waterfall is teeming with Sarawak’s two most valuable fishes: empurau and semah in its fast-flowing waters.

As early as 7am, Nyawai Igang and Anthony Pengerang were found by the waterfall, waiting for their prospective catch to take the bait. They said if patient enough, one would be able to catch more than three empuraus per trip.

“Beneath the Lusong Laku Waterfall, there is a pit with a lot of empurau fish. I’ve seen anglers catching empurau from 1kg up to 6kgs each. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch one that is 5 to 6kgs, but it depends on the weather and river condition,” said Nyawai.

He also said that their catch would be sold to wholesalers in Belaga, Bintulu, Miri and Sibu, or random visitors to Lusong Laku, with prices ranging from RM45 to RM250 per kilogramme, according to sizes of fish.

Those below 1kg are priced at RM45 per kilogramme; between 1 to 2kgs will be sold for RM150 per kilogramme; and those above 2kgs is priced at RM250 per kilogramme. For the record, empuraus are usually sold for RM700 to RM1,200 per kilogramme in the market.

Empurau, also known as the ‘King of the River’, is precious due to its rarity in the wild, but the much sought-after fish isn’t so rare in Lusong Laku. Fishing enthusiasts are welcome to try their skill and luck at the majestic cascade of Lusong Laku, and of course, better with the consent of the locals.

Nyawai (left) and Anthony fishing for empurau at the Lusong Laku Waterfall as early as 7am in the morning.

Weave away!

Within walking distance from the Lusong Laku Waterfall, passing through a cement walkway over a kilometre long, is the Penan resettlement village with 78 houses and over 500 residents in four blocks of longhouses that form a U-shape, when viewed from above.

In the middle of the U is a football field, and right next to it, in a red wooden structure is where the Penans display their unique and intricate handicraft in the forms of purses, handbags, hats, baskets, and many more.

The prices are affordable, ranging from RM15 to RM50 per piece, depending on sizes and designs. But don’t be surprised that most of the products on the shelves already belong to someone, usually buyers from nearby towns or districts.

Some of the local handicraft made by the local Penans in Lusong Laku.

The products are often made in batches and passed to their buyers through the teachers of SK Lusong Laku who would occasionally travel out of Lusong Laku to replenish daily supplies. Due to limited internet coverage, the weavers are currently only accepting orders through friends’ recommendations on messaging platform WhatsApp.

An online boutique or sales platform would definitely ease the trading process, but the Penans don’t mind taking things slow.

Now that they have a proper handicraft centre to showcase their quality-assured handiwork to physical visitors, they are looking into setting up a social media platform, probably on Facebook to garner more sales, should the internet coverage permit.

The handicraft centre was set up by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. In October last year, the ministry also worked with the Sarawak Craft Council in Kuching to educate locals including those in Lusong Laku on how to monetise their skills to generate income.

Lusong Laku Village that houses 78 families with over 500 Penans. Photo courtesy to Amit Ului

A mini Niagara Falls in Sarawak

It was my first encounter with the Lusong Laku Waterfall.

Our car finally came to a stop. I remember putting on my freakishly-white ‘kampung adidas’ and stepping out of the four-wheel-drive vehicle, onto orange muddy ground. There were pins and needles all over my limbs, from having to endure treacherous logging roads for four tormenting hours.

Gradually, the tension in the muscles and adrenaline in the system began to dissipate. As the drumming in my ears faded, I started to hear it – the thunderous roar of the Lusong Laku Waterfall, or locally known as ‘Wong Pejik’ which means ‘waterfall’ in the Penan language.

I thought we would have had to trek a certain distance in the jungle to see the waterfall, but no. It was just right there, a stone’s throw away from where we parked. I stood rooted to the ground beside the car, and I turned my head to look around.

Our homestay was on the left, and to the right, there were some more houses and a school field just beside the river leading to the waterfall. I heard myself exclaiming inwardly, “What? They have the Niagara Falls of Malaysia in their backyard?!”

I treaded slowly as I approached the waterfall, drawn towards the rhythmic pounding and thrashing sounds of water slamming against rocks. Because of the rain earlier, the air was saturated with water vapour and the smell was a mixture of wet grass and mud.

Finally, I arrived at the edge of the rocky perch, overlooking the majestic cascade of water that wasn’t exactly crystal clear. Sarawakians would call it ‘teh c’ coloured as most of the rivers here in Sarawak are.

My colleagues were standing in a group just a few steps away, in a conversation – but I couldn’t hear what they were discussing because of the waterfall’s booming outcry. I didn’t join them. I stood and just watched the fast-flowing water churn and rumble as it thundered down the rapids.

Because of how difficult our journey had been, the sight of the Lusong Laku Waterfall became ever more precious. Perhaps a whole 10 minutes had gone by, I didn’t notice. Then, I flipped out my phone and started taking pictures.

The advice for photographers and visitors was not to stay near the edge of the waterfall for too long. Take as much footage as you can and leave because according to locals, a few people had been fatally swept away by the flowing currents.

Praying for a better Lusong Laku

Lusong Laku’s almost unheard of, even by Sarawakians. For those who have been there, some named it the ‘Lost World of Borneo’, while some have called it a hidden gem of Sarawak.

To me, everything from the hilly roads to Lusong Laku and its potential for agriculture development, made me think of Cameron Highlands. Like Cameron, Lusong Laku is exactly a place where you could indulge in surreal surroundings and escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

For the entirety of my two-day trip there, a lot of ‘only-ifs’ went through my mind. Only if the roads weren’t so bad, Lusong Laku would be more widely known and visited by more people. Only if connectivity were better, Lusong Laku would not be so cut off from the rest of the world.

I look forward to the day when I step back onto the grounds of Lusong Laku again, for whatever reasons there may be, only after a laid-back ride.

For those interested to visit Lusong Laku, contact Dennis Lani (0198065597), Amit Ului (01125023551) or Yudep Apoi (0166405488). — DayakDaily