Current Issue - 2007, Volume 2 Number 2


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FZ Zainal MMed (FamMed, UKM)
Family Medicine Specialist, Klinik Kesihatan Putrajaya

Address for correspondence: Dr Zainal Fitri Zakaria, Klinik Kesihatan Putrajaya, No 1 Jalan P9E Presint 9, 62250 Putrajaya, Malaysia.
Tel: 03-88883057, Fax: 03-88883054, Email:

Zainal FZ. Into the heart of Sarawak. Malaysian Family Physician. 2007;2(2):90-92

I was elated when my name was short-listed to accompany Dato Dr. Shafei Ooyub for his pre-retirement pan-Malaysian tour to Kapit and Belaga. It was always my dream to go deep into the heart of Borneo, a place where even most Sarawakians have never been.

The only way to reach Kapit and Belaga is by the express boat via the mighty Rejang River. The elongated twin-engine express boat measured approximately 15 meters long offered 3 different categories of seats: the first, second and third class. A fully air-conditioned cabin with a large screen TV at the front provides a comfortable and relaxing journey. It takes 3-4 hours from Sibu to Kapit and another 5-6 hours from Kapit to Belaga, the exact time depends on how frequent the express boat stop to disembark people at the longhouses along the river.

Kapit TownAlong the way I saw traditional longhouses made of wood and bamboo. Some of the modern longhouses looked almost like the terrace houses we see in the town. Occasionally we encountered tugboats hauling massive log from the interior to the timber mill downstream. Then, I caught sight of a timber log loading station by the riverbank. I couldn’t help but feeling upset to see the bulldozers and huge lumber trucks moved back and forth over the large clearing, arranging the huge logs. The barren ground was soaked with sump oil to keep the dust down, and raw, red earth logging tracks radiated further into the denuded hillsides. It is little wonder that the water of Rejang River is murky yellow in colour!

Three hours later we reached the Kapit town. [Fig. 1] As the deafening roar of the engine petered out, the express boat nestled adjacent to half a dozen boats. We had to walk gingerly along the edges of these boats to reach the concrete wharf. [Fig. 2]

At the wharfKapit is the largest division of nine Divisions in Sarawak. It consists of three districts: Kapit, Song and Belaga. Kapit town is the Division’s administrative centre. Most of the lands are covered by dense primary forests. The mighty Rejang River and it tributaries (Batang Baleh, Batang Katibas and Batang Balui) is the only means of transportation for the people travelling into the heart of Sarawak. Due to its mountainous terrain and small population, the Malaysian Airlines had decided to stop the air service to Kapit a long time ago.

There are two versions of story how Kapit got its name. The first was that the word Kapit evolved from Kepit (meaning the bamboo longhouse). When people go to the longhouse they would say: “Kami ngagai rumah panjai kepit” (which means “we are going to kepit longhouse”). The second version claimed that the word Kapit came from the English word “keep it” during the Brooke’s era.

Kapit is the homeland of the Ibans, they being the largest ethnic group here, followed by the Orang Ulu, Chinese and Malay. The Orang Ulu (“the upriver people”) refers to a number of smaller ethnic groups that settle upstream from Nanga Merit area up to Belaga. They are further divided into small groups such as Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan and Tanjong. (Please note that Punan and Penan are two different ethnic groups.)

Kapit Health CentreThat evening I have a separate agenda at the Kapit Health Clinic [Fig. 3] while Dato Shafei and the rest of the team went straight to the Sri Balleh government rest house on top of the hill overlooking the Kapit town. At the Kapit Health Clinic, I had a meeting with all the staff regarding the on-going Teleprimary Care (TPC) project. TPC is a method of delivering health care service through the integration of ICT using the satellite communications system. Kapit Health Clinic as well as 57 pilot clinics in Sarawak , Johor and Perlis are interconnected through the TPC network. The system provides centralised, up-to-date and comprehensive patients Electronic Medical Record information throughout Malaysia.

After dinner we had an interesting chit-chat. We were talking about the famous yet the most dangerous Pelagus rapids that we were going to pass through on our way to Belaga the next morning. Travelling upstream depends very much on the rain and water level. If there is too much rain, the logs and branch debris make river trip unsafe. Too little rain, the low water level will expose long stretches of dangerous rapids. Even when the river conditions were ideal, accidents could happen as a result of a moment’s inattention. The former Kapit Divisional Health Officer, Dr Rais Abdullah (Krishnan) told us that he only trust one boat driver from Belaga if he were to make a trip there. That is because not everybody has enough skill to cruise through the rapids. The boat driver must have a precise knowledge of every single submerged rock of the rapid. A single mistake may result in catastrophe.