£1 = 7.20 Malaysian Dollars (Ringit).
(US$1 = M$3).
Malaysian, Singapore and Brunei dollars were pegged at the same exchange rate. Coins and banknotes in any of these currencies were almost identical in appearance and all three currencies were accepted everywhere in the three countries.
Monday 17th February 1969
We were not due to arrive in Kutching until Wednesday morning, so we had the next two days at sea and very little do. Lunch was served at exactly 12 noon and we all went to the dining room where we met two more passengers who were travelling first class. They were on honeymoon, having been married in Penang the previous weekend they had travelled down to Singapore by train the day before. They were going to Kuching to take up a new job.
The food served was awful. There was a menu on the wall saying exactly what we would be receiving for each meal and the whole thing looked awful. We were getting the same food as the first class passengers and they agreed with us that it was not at all appetising. Fortunately we had anticipated this and had brought some bread, peanut butter and jam on board with us, enough for the four of us to last out the voyage. It wasn't much but it was a lot better than what we were being given.
After lunch I went down to the cabin. It was like a furnace in there with very little air and even though the porthole was open, the air didn't circulate around very well. There were plenty of empty cabins around and one of them had some sort of scoop that could be placed in the porthole to collect the air from the ship's slipstream. We "borrowed" it for our cabin and it made a small improvement, but not much. I was so tired from lack of sleep the previous night that I slept for a few hours despite the heat. That was the only time that any of us slept in the cabin. For the rest of the journey we all slept on deck where it was much cooler.
In the morning the breakfast was the only decent meal of the day. According to the menu we should have received eggs, but the cook didn't put any out. We complained and eventually he cooked us some eggs. Doug and I spent the day copying each other's audio tapes. I also showed him how to play battleships, a game where two players draw a grid of 100 numbered squares and place 'ships' around the grid. The players have to guess where each other's ships are placed in the grid and try to sink them. Over the next few days we played a lot of battleships.
That evening we sat on the deck and managed to tune into the BBC world service news on the radio. We also managed to find Radio Peking and their distorted view of the news was quite a laugh. Their report on a strike at the Ford car factory in Liverpool made it sound as though the revolution had arrived and the communists had taken over the British Government. Sleeping under the stars was really beautiful. There were no city lights around and I had never seen so many stars. Nor were there any insects around that would have undoubtedly driven us mad on land.
Wednesday 19th February 1969.
Land came into sight mid morning, but it wasn't until just after 1 o'clock before we entered the river. There was a visible line on the surface where the river water met the seawater and once into the river mouth we anchored and waited for the pilot to come on board. We were all asked to come up to the first class lounge where the Malaysian immigration officer was waiting for us. He stamped our passports with a visitor's pass valid until 3rd March, giving us no hassle whatsoever. Obviously they didn't get too many backpackers around these parts. We were allowed to stay in the first class lounge for the rest of the journey down the river into Kuching, which was just as well, because it was pouring with rain and it wouldn't have been any fun sitting out on the deck in that.
It was after 4 when we docked and disembarked, then we all caught a bus into Kuching town centre. We started looking for a hotel, but we soon found that Kuching was an expensive place to sleep. After wandering around together for a while we were getting nowhere, so we left Louis and Yvonne in a café with the luggage, while Doug and I went off in search of somewhere cheap to stay. We eventually found a hotel where Doug and Yvonne had a room for M$4 while Louis and I had a dormitory bed for M$1 each. It worked out well, because nobody else was in the dormitory and we effectively had a 4 bedded room to ourselves for the three nights we stayed in Kuching.
We dumped our bags in the hotel and went out for an early supper. After the last few days of peanut butter and bread plus the garbage like offerings from the ship's cook, we were all looking forward to a good meal and we weren't disappointed. While we were having our meal a dragon dance came through the restaurant, complete with accompanying cymbals drums music. This was all part of the ritual following Chinese New Year and we loved it.
Even though we it was nice and cool sleeping under the stars on board ship, we had to sleep on the hard deck. That night I was back to sleeping in a bed and it was wonderful. I went to bed early and slept like a log, waking early the next morning feeling fully refreshed and ready for the day.
Our first stop was to the local tourist office. When we explained what we wanted to do they were at first unwilling to help at all. It was obvious that they were not happy with tourists doing what we wanted to do, but when we asked them where we could get some detailed maps of the area, they directed us to the Land Survey Office which was nearby. At the survey office we were shown some really good detailed maps of the border area, clearly showing a route through from the border to a village on the Indonesian side called Siluas. There were no roads crossing the border at all, but there was a footpath, so at least we knew that it was possible to get across.
We tried to buy one of these maps, but they were not allowed to sell them to members of the public until we had obtained security clearance from the chief police officer at the local constabulary, which was situated well out of town about 2 miles away. We started to walk out that way and were given directions by a friendly local lad who came along with us to show us the way.
At the constabulary they wanted to know just why we needed the map. The man in the survey office had warned us that if we said we wanted to try to cross over the border, we would be refused permission. He advised us to say that we wanted to go to the border area to observe the cross border traders and interview them for a study project we were doing. It was a downright lie, but that was what we put on the application form and it worked. We were given a permit to buy any map that we wanted.
By the time we got back to the survey office they had closed for lunch, so we went down to the river side where we bought a coconut. The trader expertly cut it open and we drank the milk from it. Once we had drunk the milk we gave him the coconut back and he chopped it open so we could all eat the flesh. It was delicious and it was different. The flesh in fresh coconuts is much softer than the ones we get back home. Not only that, they taste much creamier. We also watched a cockfight, but it was all over so quickly that I didn't manage to get a photograph of it. To speed thing up they tie metal barbs to one of the cock's legs, which means that the winner is able to stab the loser. Without these barbs the fights would go on for ages, but this way it is usually over within a few seconds. The spectators gamble heavily on the results of these cockfights, so the more fights there is the more money changes hands.
When we went back to the survey office lunch was over and we were able to buy the map we wanted. We even managed to discuss our proposed route with one of the surveyors who knew the area. He advised us to find some traders to take us across the border to an Indonesian village called Siluas, because they would know the route well. If we tried to go on our own we would more than likely get because the paths are not always well defined. He told us that we should be able to get transport from there down the river to the coast, but he didn't know how regular the transport was. Although the distance to Siluas from the border was about 16 miles, we were obviously in for a hard walk through the jungle, but at leastthe possibility of getting through was looking ever more hopeful.
That afternoon we had a look around Kuching and visited the local Mosque. We sat by a beautiful fountain in the town centre for about half an hour and just watched people go by. We also saw a lion dance where the lion seemed to be teased by a boy holding out a ball to him. All this was to the noisy accompaniment of loud drums and cymbals.
When we went out that evening for our meal we met some British Royal Navy seamen. A Navy ship had docked in Kuching that afternoon and we spent the evening chatting and drinking with them. Later when we got back to the hotel we were pleasantly surprised to find that the owner had put up a shower in the bathroom especially for us. Prior to that in order to shower we had to fill up bowls with water and pour them over our heads. As it was so hot and humid in Kuching, the shower was wonderful. Not only that, but the hotel owner had noticed that we had experienced difficulty putting up our mosquito nets the night before and he gave us a hammer and some nails so we could bash some nails into the wall to tie our nets to. You wouldn't get that sort of service at the Hilton.
The next day we became tourist and looked around Kuching. The tourist office had advised us to visit the fort on the other side of the river. (I think it is called Fort Margarita.) The ferry over the river is just a small covered motor boat that chugs back and forth across the river to no particular timetable. It poured with rain on and off all day and after we had seen the fort we wandered along the river bank for about a mile getting soaked, before returning to catch the ferry back again. In the afternoon we went to look around the museum, but we were kicked out when they closed early. We went to the British Council offices to read some English newspapers and stayed there for a few hours. I was not feeling to well that afternoon and when I got back to the hotel I just felt like sleeping. I decided to skip the evening meal that night and stayed in the hotel and started to read 'The Cain Mutiny'. I read and slept until about 10 o'clock when Doug and Yvonne returned to the hotel and looked in on me to see if I was OK. By then I was feeling a bit better, so we all went out for a drink in a local café and watched the dragon dance go by one last time. Things in Kuching don't stay open very late and within half an hour the café wanted to close, so we left and walked back to the hotel through deserted streets.
In the morning we all walked out of town and started to hitch hike to Bau. Doug and Yvonne were the first to get a lift in a car almost immediately. Louis and I got a lift about 15 minutes later from some boys who said they would take us 7 miles to the junction with the Bau Road. Before dropping us off they turned around to face back into Kuching. It turns out that they had deliberately gone out of their way to give us a lift. This was typical of the sort of hospitality we would find during our short stay in Sarawak.
In no time at all we got another lift for the rest of the way to Bau in a Land Rover belonging to the Department of Agriculture. As he was dropping us off, Doug and Yvonne arrived in the same car that had picked them up 15 minutes before we had got our first lift. On the way their driver diverted via his home to introduce them to his family, before continuing his journey on to Bau. He was delighted to have met us and bought us all drinks before taking us to the Town Office to try to find some accommodation for us.
There were no hotels in Bau and the only accommodation available was in private houses. We were taken around to a large wooden house and introduced to the owner, a boy called Mike, who lived there with his friend Allan. They were more than happy for us all to sleep on their floor. Louis and I were put in their main living room and Doug and Yvonne had their own room next door in what looked like a study. That afternoon they took us to a local lake and we spent the rest of the afternoon swimming there.
While we were there I went to take a photograph and couldn't get a reading. Doug and Louis both managed to get a good reading with their cameras and after comparing my camera with the other two I discovered that my light meter reading was wildly out. With a bit of trial and error I found that to get the camera to work properly with the 25 ASA film I had in it, I had to set it to 200 ASA. Not a good start for a new camera, but at least I could get it to work.
That evening we took the two boys out for a meal in a local café and afterwards we went back to the house where we sat around and read. Louis and Yvonne went with Alan to the local market to buy some food, while Doug and I relaxed 'at home'.
The next day Doug, Lou and I went with Allan to visit some caves. We caught a bus to what looked like a quarry, which was in fact a gold mine. The rocks that were being mined contained minute quantities of gold. They would crush tons of the rock, then they dissolve it in acid. The acid didn't dissolve the gold and all that would be left out of a ton of rock would be about an ounce of gold.
We walked past the gold mine and into the undergrowth for about a mile to the foot of a cliff, where we had to climb up to the entrance of a cave. Lou didn't fancy the climb and so he decided to wait at the bottom for us to come down again. Doug, Allan and I climbed up and went into the cave. It was only a small entrance, but it opened out into a massive cavern. The whole of the cliff must have been hollow and as we climbed up we came into an even more beautiful cavern where somebody had put a small altar at one end. Allan kept leaving candles to mark our way back out again as we climbed. After about an hour and a half of climbing we came out on top of the cliff where there was a great view of the surrounding countryside.
We started to go back down again, but at one point I lost my footing and slid on my bottom down a mud bank, getting myself covered in mud and slime in the process. When we got back to the cave entrance we found Louis sitting waiting for us. While we had been away he had managed to climb up to the cave entrance but he didn't want to venture in by himself in case he got lost. We all climbed down again, but Louis was very slow because he was very inexperienced at rock climbing and was not too sure of his step. Eventually he made it and we walked back to catch the bus back home. In the afternoon we went swimming in the lake again and I took the opportunity to wash my muddy clothes.
That evening we all went out for a meal and then went on to a local funfair. The funfair may have been great for the locals, but we all found it a bit of a yawn, so Doug and I made our own way back to the house and had an early night.
By now we were starting to run out of local currency and tried to find somewhere to change money. There were no banks in Bau and although we tried all the local government offices and businesses, we just couldn't find anywhere that would do foreign exchange. We even went to visit a local Peace Corps guy, but he didn't have very much money available in cash, and so couldn't help. The only thing for it was for somebody to go back to Kuching to visit a bank. We all drew straws and Louis drew the short one. Before he left, Mike made us all a great lunch, then about an hour later Louis caught the bus into Kuching for which we had all agreed to pay the fare between us. The rest of us went off to the lake for a swim where there was a group of boys skinny-dipping. They didn't have a stitch of clothing on.
Louis returned shortly after 4 o'clock and at 5 we all went out for an early supper. Having missed out on the swimming that afternoon, Louis decided that he wanted to go for an evening swim and headed off on his own. When he hadn't returned by 10 o'clock we all started to get worried and went down to the lake to look for him. We found him sitting on the bank under a lamp where he was reading his book. He never thought that we would be worried about him.
Tuesday 25th February 1969. We got up early and Allan made us a great breakfast. We said goodbye to the boys and went down to the bridge by the lake where the stop for the bus to Pejiru was. As each car slowed down to go over the bridge, we asked if they could give us a lift and eventually we got a lift. Louis and I took the first lift this time and when we got to Pejiru we waited for Doug and Yvonne who eventually arrived on the bus.
We wanted to get to the frontier post at Serikin but we had now run out of road and the only way from there was to walk. We found a group of traders who were going through to Siluas and they agreed to take us with them. After a short break we headed off with the traders in the direction of the border. At first we did well, covering 5 miles to the first village in a little over an hour and a half. Considering how much we were carrying, that was good going. As we set out on the final walk to Serikin the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. The path soon became more like a river and Louis fell way behind. Even though it was only a little more than a mile to Serekin, it was slow going and the pace must have slowed down to less than one mile per hour because after about 30 minutes we still hadn't reached Serekin. A Land Rover came down the path with Louis in the back and as it passed we all put our bags in and left Louis to look after them while we walked the rest of the way to the frontier.
When we arrived at the Serikin immigration and customs post we handed our passports to the immigration officer to be stamped out of Sarawak, but it wasn't going to be that simple. The immigration officer told us that he couldn't allow us to leave the country on foot because we didn't have the appropriate permit. Nobody had told us we needed a permit, so obviously we didn't have one and so we had to remain behind at the customs post while the traders went on without us. At that point we were feeling pretty dejected and were convinced that we would end up having to go back to Singapore to catch the plane to Djakarta.
It was only once the traders had gone the immigration officer explained to us that he had only made up the bit about the permit because he didn't want us to go with those particular traders. He went on to explain that they were non-too savoury characters and there was a strong probability that once we were well into the jungle they would have robbed us and left us behind. We were welcome to stay at the border station until they found some more reliable traders that they knew and could trust. Hearing that we all felt a lot happier and thanked them very much and accepted their generous offer to stay with them until a more suitable guide could be found.
We slept on the floor at the customs post that night and although some traders did go through early the next morning, the immigration officer still wouldn't let us go with them. As traders only go through in the morning, but lunchtime it became obvious that we would have to spend another night here. Lou and I decided to walk back to the last village about a mile away to buy some food and general supplies for the journey as well as to eat while we stayed at the customs post. We bought a number of cans of mackerel and some tins of corned beef that were quite cheap and later proved to be delicious. I also bought a lacquered paper umbrella for M$1.20.
The customs officers had a set of Monopoly, which we all played together until the breeze from an approaching rainstorm started to blow all the bits of paper all over the place. We all moved into the kitchen to finish the game. When it got dark the air became thick with mosquitoes, so it was just as well that we had our nets. There was nothing to do out there at night and we were in bed by 8 o'clock, which was just as well because the traders started coming through shortly after 6 the next morning.
Shortly after 7 the immigration officer told us he had found some suitable traders to take us through to Siluas. They had just gone back to the village to collect their things and would be returning soon and so we were ready to go with them they stamped our passports and checked us out ready to go. Soon after they came past and the immigration officer gave us a letter to sign and hand to the traders when we got to Siluas so they would know that we had arrived safely.
We set off along the footpath and soon came across a snake that had been cut into pieces by the army, who must have come through during the night. The bridges over the rivers were just a couple of logs with a handrail nailed on to one side. We came to one river about 3 meters wide that didn't have any bridge over it and we had to remove our shoes and socks and wade over to the other side. That was the Indonesian border