Belaga-bound boats make frequent stops upriver from Kapit, and some passengers decamp to the roof for views of longhouses as the Rejang narrows. Forty minutes from Kapit, the Pelagus Rapids is an 800m-long, deceptively shallow stretch of the river where large, submerged stones make the through passage treacherous. According to local belief, the rapids’ seven sections represent the seven segments of an enormous serpent that was chopped up and floated downriver by villagers to the north. Further upriver, the population shifts from being largely Iban to featuring a mix of other tribes, including the Kayan and Kenyah.
Five hours on from Kapit, the boat finally reaches tiny BELAGA, 40km west of the confluence of the Rejang and the Balui. The town started life as a small bazaar, and by 1900 pioneering Chinese towkays were supplying the tribespeople – both the Kayan and the then-nomadic Punan and Penan – with kerosene, cooking oil and cartridges, in exchange for beadwork and mats, beeswax, ebony and tree gums. The British presence in this region was nominal; Belaga has no crumbling fort to serve as a museum, as no fort was built this far upriver.
The first sight that confronts new arrivals climbing the steps from the riverbank is the town’s slightly shabby tennis and basketball court. Next door a small garden serves as the town square, containing a hornbill statue atop a traditional-style round pillar bearing tribal motifs. There are only half a dozen streets and alleys in the centre, and while quite a few shops sell provisions, there’s no market, though Orang Ulu traders may arrive at weekends to sell jungle produce in the streets.
Having made it all the way here, the best thing you can do is luxuriate in Belaga’s tranquillity, a welcome contrast from Kapit. Short walks lead through the Malay kampung just downriver or along the start of the logging road at the back of town (head away from the river till you hit the street with the town’s bank, turn left – south – and keep going), head out this way and you’ll spot quite a few surprisingly smart modern houses. In the morning, picturesque mists settle on the Rejang, while in the evening you can play pool with the local youths (there’s a small venue on the main street, Jalan Teo Tia Kheng, facing the square).