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Saturday, October 23, 2010

A morning with the Singai Expedition

                                                            HUGE: A giant gita tree.
By Valerie Mashman
The purpose of the Singai expedition led by Professor Dr Andrew Alek Tuen from UNIMAS is to document the biodiversity of flora and fauna and history and the culture of the people who come from Mount Singai with a view to further developing the area for ecotourism. We were pre-empting this by taking a morning to see for ourselves, as visitors, what there was to see.
Mount Singai with its unique flat summit is an icon on the skyline from Kuching; and for the Bidayuh, it is original home of the eight Bidayuh Kampongs who speak the Singai dialect. Over the last eighty years these villages, now called Sagah, Bobak Tengah, Browing, Daun, Sinibung, Tanjong Bowang, Tanjong Poting, Atas, Sudoh, Apar, Barieng, Segong have resettled around the base of the mountain.
 At the base camp at Kampong Tanjong Bowang students were measuring and collecting data on the fruit bats they had collected. There was talk about the squirrels and tarsiers that had been collected and later released the night before. We were shown photos of the colourful array of birds - from sleek dark shamas to brightly coloured-rufous backed kingfishers and emerald green broadbills - that had been recorded. 
As we were led up the trail to the Catholic Memorial Pilgrimage Centre we heard tailor birds in the trees. In the past, their call would have affected decisions on our journey, as these were important omen birds.  At the beginning of the trail we noticed a tall bamboo marker that had been set by members of the local community to demarcate the perimeter of their land. The process of marking boundaries is in anticipation of an official survey of land.
The main trail up to the Pilgrimage Centre is an ancient track as old as the sites of the settlements at the top – perhaps even 300-400 years. Today many pilgrims come to the site of the first Catholic Church outside of Kuching and recite the Stations of the Cross on the way. The local community together with the Catholic Church fundraise every year to maintain and extend the hardwood plank walk and to provide facilities at the centre.
We were led off the main path to see a stream, which feeds the gravity water system of the village below, which flowed off a fifty-foot outcrop of rock.  During the monsoon season it is a dramatic waterfall called “ribuan kada”, ribuan means waterfall and kada means bat). All along the path the expedition members had placed traps for butterflies suspended from the trees and rodent traps on the ground and nets at intervals to catch bats and small birds. 

Almost three quarters of the way up we were shown the site of the bori tugal where in times before Christianity, rites of protection and fertility were performed prior to clearing land for farming – these rites ensured a successful burning and clearing of the land before padi planting. We had passed this area on the main path many times on our way up, as we prayed the Stations of the Cross without realizing that the land was also used in the past for this ritual purpose for the people settled at the top of the mountain.  Cremations took place towards the eastern side of the mountain. The last cremation specialist we were told did not always do a thorough job as he was as scared of the spirits in the forest as much as anyone else and always crept away back to the village before finishing.
We were taken off the main trail at the top near the Pilgrimage Centre to see the old sites of some of the original longhouse settlements on the mountain. These were to be mapped using GPS equipment. Off the main paths in the fruit groves, surrounded by clumps of bamboos and wild gingers we were shown the belian posts (taas) that had been the main supports of the old longhouse and the three supports for the baruk, the head house. We saw the foundations of the old settlements at Kampong Daun and Kampong Giang and heard stories from our friends of the childhood journeys to streams to collect water in bamboo cylinders as their grandparents had still lived up the mountain some fifty years ago. These settlements had been built relatively close to each other and often consisted of two or three or more longhouses and a baruk
The forest was rich in resources for the original eight settlements: fruit trees of durian,  langsat, rambutan,  ancient tapang trees and other huge hardwoods, bamboo for flooring and walls for houses  and rattan for baskets and mats . There were tall “nyuok” ( Arenga sp. ) palms that were used to extract effervescent toddy from the flower, the “tuak nyuok”, which was consumed in the evenings while the men folk socialized. It was believed that the “nyuok” palm could bring prosperity to a community .We were also thrilled to see a giant yam flower bunga teboug( Amorphaphallus sp.) in bud. The teboug plant features in local legends.
The most significant site, for Dr Andrew Alek Tuen, was the home or rather the palace of his great grandfather Orang Kaya Kasag who was the Raja or chief of the Bisingai. The site is called Tipa’an.  It was on the flank of the mountain by a bamboo grove and unmarked – all significant traces of the original house dwelling had been conserved  offsite by his descendants  for safekeeping . Doors and even belian shingles had been safely kept. These testified that this dwelling was special as most houses had simple sago palm thatch roofs. It was a great thrill for Dr Andrew to be able to trace his ancestry to this place.
For the Bidayuh the oyak where the stream water was channeled in to a bamboo pipe was an important place for collecting water and bathing. ‘Oyak Moning’ was used by Kampong Daun and also by Father Westerwoudt, the first Catholic missionary to Singai, who stayed close to the village. He would call out “good morning” to the villagers and the story goes the bathing place took its name after his greeting – Oyak Moning.
After this we were taken further into the forest to see a very tall and great “gitie” tree (pelai, Alstonia sp.). This tree was the centre of important warrior rituals (katang) for the men folk of the whole Bisingai tribe  that mustered courage before a headhunting expedition. The rituals would continue for a couple of days.  One can imagine the tree's powerful size could encourage the men to be courageous in warfare. It was also said that this tree grew straight to the sky so that God could use it as a ladder to come down to earth.
FOR RESEARCH: A trap for butterflies is seen suspended
from a tree.
The walk had given us a great insight into the history of this magnificient mountain. The stories of the original settlements, the places linked with rites and rituals, enriched our understanding of its importance. The wealth of forest resources, the diversity of bird and animal life are very much valued by the local communities. We look forward to learning about the findings of the expedition that is covering 18 aspects of the mountain with a view to conservation and ecotourism.
LEGENDARY: The teboug plant (Amorphaphallus sp)
features in local legends.

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