A lone oil well sits atop Bukit Telaga Minyak in Miri, Sarawak, an icon of the city's present-day tourist attraction and an important landmark that sparked Malaysia's entire history in oil and gas. Ironically, it almost never got built if not for the perseverance of a young college dropout from England.
Choosing cadetship over completing his studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, had brought Charles Hose to Borneo in 1886, where he subsequently played an instrumental role in shaping the geographical landscape and history of Miri.
Apparently, it took some 20 years – with many obstacles in between – for Hose to convince various parties of the treasures that lay beneath their feet. Hose, who became Resident of Baram (a district near Miri) in 1890, when he was only 27, had even put up a proposal for oil explorations in Miri; it was, however, rejected by a British consultant geologist on the grounds of rural Miri's poor logistics at the time.
Even upon retirement, he continued thinking about the oil seepages that he had mapped out in Miri. As many as 18 hand-dug oils were recorded at one time many of which had been found by the locals long before Hose even set foot on Borneo. They called it minyak tanah, or kerosene, and used it mainly to light lamps and for waterproofing their boats. Hose's predecessor, Claude Champion de Crespigny, had made these observations and envisioned the value of the oil. His two recommendations, however, one in 1882 and another in 1884, for the Brooke administration governing Sarawak at the time to explore the lead further, also fell upon deaf ears.
Eventually, in 1907 in fact, while he was in England that Hose finally managed to pique the curiosity of those in power – a previously uninterested Rajah of Sarawak and the oil explorers at Shell (known as the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company at the time). He also won over the locals who previously feared that onshore drilling works would invoke the wrath of evil tigers lurking underground.
Finally, on 10 August 1910, proper drilling works began. The chosen site was on a crest of a hill some 150 metres above sea level. Just days before Christmas of that year, the well struck oil and Malaysia was on the way to filling its first barrel in Miri.
Intrepid explorer or opportunist, Hose is partially credited for the rapid change and development that has since elevated Miri from a sleepy fishing village to the city that oil built.
Today, the first well to strike oil still stands atop Canada Hill – a name given in honour of the Canadian, Mr. McAlpine, who had engineered the oil rig (The hill was later renamed Bukit Telaga Minyak in 2005). Affectionately called the Grand Old Lady, the 30-metre high Miri Well No. 1, faithfully produced 660,000 barrels of oil over a period of 62 years, outlasting many of the other 624 oil wells in the Miri Division. While its days of oil production are over – it was shut down on 31 October 1972 due to urbanization rather than dwindling oil supply – Miri continues its oil explorations offshore.
Almost a century after the oil boom in Miri, the little town experienced a second boom, this time in tourism. Attractions like the site of the Grand Old Lady, with its historic significance (now documented in the nearby Petroleum Museum) and pretty scenery, as well as newly discovered diving locations off its coast, made Miri a destination to be re-explored, this time in the interest of culture, history and adventure.
The Miri-Sibuti Reef Marine Park has dive sites of various depths and attractions – wrecks worthy of exploration, carpets of soft coral such as leather corals, elephant's ears and dead man's fingers, and exciting drop-off reefs with vertical walls where schools of jacks, barracudas and napoleon wrasses often play.
Around town, one can explore the old Miri quarters with its beautiful architecture. A visit to Tamu Muhibbah is a sensorial experience for the eyes, nose and ears as local traders ply their wares for business at the bustling market – fragrant rice from the highlands of Bario, wild fruits and honey straight from the jungles, forest ferns and other unusual but edible plants, and home-made concoctions of rice wine and other less dizzying potions.
In recent years, Miri has been attracting a new wave of foreign interest to its shores with the annual Miri Jazz Festival, recently rebranded as Borneo Jazz. It may not be black gold, but judging from the increasing crowd it pulls yearly – in terms of audience numbers and heavyweight performers – the music has an allure as strong as the oil deposits found here over a century ago. Over four days in the second week of May, Miri is transformed into a fever pitch of syncopated, improvised, rhythmic arena for the convergence of some of the world's most talented and experimental musicians, and their sweaty, gyrating fans.
Besides its fascinating history and newly-branded blues and jazz appeal, Miri has always been an important jump-off point to the northeast region, sometimes to its own detriment! Here, the scenic Kelabit Highlands, a series of mountains and valleys, is home to the peaceful Kelabit and Lun Bawang people, famed wet-rice farmers in Borneo. Some say that the best way to truly appreciate the beauty of Borneo is by doing a four-day trek through this remote region, that takes you from the expanse of green rice fields through various traditional longhouse settlements, virgin rainforest, over ridges and valleys before emerging into a an idyllic village in Ba Kelalan.
The Gunung Mulu National Park, which is Malaysia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site and Sarawak's largest national park, is also a main item on the traveller's itinerary. Its spectacular show caves, longboat river travels, and the mass exodus of wrinkled-lip bats (about three million at last count) in the evenings have lured witnesses from all corners of the world. If the synchronized flight performance by the bats doesn't thrill you enough, then braving the daunting Pinnacles trail will leave you literally breathless.
Another important park on this side of Sarawak is the Niah National Park where previous excavations have revealed artifacts and paintings believed to be more than 40,000 years old. Pre-historic man once lived here, as evidenced by the tools, earthenware and cemetery found in the Great Cave. Today, the caves at Niah provide an important source of income for the locals who gather bird's nests from the swiftlet population here. Valued for their medicinal properties, these nests are found in the high crevices of the cave roof where it is infinitely dark. Nest gatherers risk life and limb to scale seemingly flimsy ironwood poles in a display of fine acrobatic skill to collect these highly prized treasures.
Miri may have started off with inland oil explorations in the past, but now, this little town, and the surrounding area, has certainly struck something with tourism as well.
Frequent flights by Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are available, connecting Miri and Peninsular Malaysia, as well as all major destinations in Malaysian Borneo, including Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
About Borneo Jazz:
This annual event sees jazz groups from around the world converging in Miri. Around 7,000 spectators and participants, comprising of locals, expatriates and visitors, are expected to turn up for this year's edition, which is from 12 to 15 May. The event is organized by Sarawak Tourism Board. For more details, visit www.jazzborneo.com.
For more details about Sarawak, visit the Sarawak Tourism Board website at www.sarawaktourism.com