Frightful encounter with Sepilok elephants and giant centipede
Published on: Saturday, May 22, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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NOVEMBER 16, 1938

If my knowledge of the Malay tongue six years ago was like it is today, the laughters and joys of this jungle experience of mine, might not have happened. But I love to do all the work to be done, because it is part of the happiness of my profession that it is the source of real jungle adventure. And yet the plot of this story only covers my first field duty on my arrival in North Borneo.

It was a week after I reported for duty to the Forest department when I was instructed to proceed to re-trace the boundary of Kabili-Sepilok Forest reserve. Being new to the country, I took a base map and a blueprint of the forest reserve map as guide. That was in April 1932, the month when elephants are said to begin roaming around the jungle.

My party was composed of six natives and not a single one of them knew the English language. We sailed in a sailing boat that could carry half a ton. The wind was not favourable and the coolies paddled against the waves and wind.

We were overtaken by dinner time at sea and the boatman commanded one man to cook. The cook used sea water to wash the rice, which made me wonder what would become of the taste, I was able to restrain my voice, so I just looked at him in astonishment.

They were able, I think, to understand what I was looking at, and my silence – laughter was in the air. They were pleased to show that it did not matter, and that they cooked the best recipe they knew but without rules from any Recipe Book.

When the cook prepared the dinner, I thought they were going to eat first but no – it was for us all. I was pretending to read when the boatmen said “Krani makan.”

It was a call to eat as I understand now. But because I thought they were talking among themselves I continued reading the book before me. They repeated again and again the call but I hid my face in the book. Because they were not able to call me, the boatman touched me by the arm and put his hand to his mouth, a sign to eat.

Tasting the rice, I thought at first it was salty but it was not. Though the rice was washed in the salty water, the water used in cooking was fresh. It tasted alright and I laughed with them then.

The fried fish had a repulsive odour and I had no appetite to eat. Coconut oil was used in frying the fish. The oil was made from copra that had been pressed with a primitive presser without being cooked after extraction. Trying the vegetables, I found them hot for they put in plenty of pepper. It was a nice dinner to them but to myself the taste of the food was not what I was used to. As I tried again to eat the other eatables I laughed and cried loudly to heaven and earth for the safety of my tongue that seemed to be burning. I watched them swallow the food and not even a drop of water trickled from their eyes though they were very hot chilies.

It was late on the evening as we rowed up the river where we anchored for the night. The next morning, we camped and built a small but. It was a well ventilated little house as there were no walls, only roof made of nipah. I got a nice thick mattress of palm leaves put over the branches of trees which served as a floor. That’s the Forester’s way of living in the jungle.

Walking around nearby I found large piles of waste and foot prints of enormous size. Not knowing what animal was there, I just looked at them and stepped on them as I passed by.

The next day we started work. We found the base stone on the west boundary running northward, there was a thick growth of bushes full of spiny vines which made it hard to cut. We travelled at a speed of 30 to 40 chains a day and after four days we were far from camp.

Sometime around that day we heard a whistle, followed by a louder one, still far away, however. My coolies were silent. Upon hearing the third whistle I said s.s Klias. The coolies understood what I meant. They answered “gajah” which means elephant, but I didn’t understood then.

I signaled to them to go and find where the steamer was but instead they gave me a counter sigh of silence and murmured “gajah”. Having in mind that the sound was made by steamer I looked up the base map and found no sea and river where the sound could come from. It is the middle of the country. But having in mind that I might be discovering a new bay, gulf or river always something worth finding. I insisted that we should go. Then another whistle sounded. My coolies ran away towards the camp calling me to follow.

I took the hearing of the sound and walked towards it alone. After walking 20 chains I heard another whistle, but not really like a steamer’s whistle as I had at first imagined but more like the sound of wild animal. Without fear I went on.

I went on boasting to myself like a real Forest man, thinking that Tarzan became the king of the jungle, a human being as myself. Because I could not find what I was looking for I climbed the tree. When I was at a height of fifteen feet and the first branch was still above my head, i looked around in the distance. I saw 18 head of elephants following each other. What with the sound of the flapping of their ears and their enormous size I fell unconscious to the ground.

After a few minutes, I recovered from my shock, get up on my feet and ran away toward the camp. I ran as fast as I could in truth like the wind, and even Jesse Owens might have been defeated if he had been racing with me.

My speed was still further increased after a half mile for wild bees were flying round my head and biting my face.

Reaching the camp, the coolies, laughing asked me if I had seen the elephants. They laughed and laughed not so much because I had run away from the elephants as at the many swellings over my face.

Then I rested and watched the coolies work at cleaning the camp and hoeing the grass nearby. I can imagine what I looked like, and if it had been another man I might have laughed at him too. An hour later when I was still only half rested, one of the coolies called out to me and shouted, “besar halipan”.

I was still fearful of the elephants I had seen, and upon the word “halipan: being spoken, and as every one of the coolies had got up to move. I ran as fast as I could not towards the coolies but towards the jungle. I hopped, jumped and ran till I was exhausted. Not even knowing that “halipan” in Malay means centipede, I thought that they meant elephants were coming towards the camp. Their actual intention was to call for me to come and see the large centipede but their movement seemed strange and fearful because of their taking off their parangs in preparation for the visitor.

Only those who witnessed the phenomenon will believe that without having shoes on, I ran towards the jungle. The coolies called me back as I ran but the words “halipan, halipan sahaja” (it is only centipede) moved me still faster. After some distance, I heard them running after me and believed it was elephants coming.

As I reached the thicker bushes I fell down, exhausted. Stretched out and breathless, the coolies poured water over my face and carried me back to camp. When I had recovered somewhat they showed a big centipede which they pointed out as being called “halipan”. It was not a practical joke after all as we could not understand each other, and to me “halipan” sounded like “elephant’.

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