Pryer’s trip up the Kinabatangan
Published on: Saturday, July 10, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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William B. Pryer (1845-1899) Founder of Sandakan.
By William Pryer

(Reproduced on 1st Oct, 1938)

Having to go up the Kinabatangan, I thought I should save time by using the Segaliud path to Sebangan; last February I crossed by this track without any difficulty, on the present occasion however, owing to recent heavy rains I was unsuccessful in getting over, but as a few notes of what I experienced during the journey may not be uninterested to your readers, I now send you copy of my diary:-

8th Sept. Left Sandakan at 8am in the growler, having in tow two canoes of Mr White’s, who was going to survey some land at the upper end of the Bay, dropped him at old Sandakan; arrived at the Buludupy Kampong at Seguliud at 2pm, borrowed a canoe from the natives and returned the Growler; which got back to Sandakan the same night.

I proceeded on up the river to the Trading and Company’s estate where I arrived about 3 o’clock, and stopped for the night.

On the estate there was coffee, pepper, Manila Hemp and tobacco, all looking very well. At night, there was a good deal of wind and very heavy rain.

9th Sept. Breakfasted before daylight and started into the forest about half past six. As a preventative to leeches I stepped my socks in strong brine tucking my trousers inside them, this I found fairly effectual during the first part of the day, though not so much as tobacco juice, but by using tobacco juice one runs the risk of poisoning one’s blood with nicotine if there is any wound or sore place.

The forest was sopping wet and every little breeze brought down showers of water from the branches, so that no sooner had we started than we were all wet thought; leeches were plentiful scattered about on the undergrowth, stretching out their inquisitive and keen looking necks, and continually making blind dabs in the air, in the hope that per-adventure, next day they will come down on something nice to suck.

Before reaching the second mile post, a continued and heavy crashing amongst the leaves about 200 yards on our left hand, be-tokened several elephants feeding on rattans which they were pulling down from the trees.

It has always been a source of wonder to me how elephants with their sensitive trunks can so freely pull about rattans, bristling with strong thorns all over their stems, that men, with their two hands, find it almost impossible to handle.

I have never seen the forest so full of animals as it was today, every ten minutes or so we saw a troop of monkeys, long nosed monkeys, cullassees the common macaque apes, and many others; the chevrotain or mouse deer frequently flitted across the path; twice I put up fine sambur, one of them as big as pony stood for some time facing us and then trotted quietly ahead down the path till it was out of sight; once we walked into the middle of the sounder of pigs, which dashed away on all sides with a great noise; argus pheasants were calling on all sides, the fireback pheasant was occasionally sighted for an instant, the hoarse crook of the hornbill or the strong swish of its wings was continually heard, and the load “boom” of the pergaum a large fruit eating pigeon (Carpophaga Aenea) resounded to rough the forest.

I was rather at a loss at first to account for the great quantity of animal life and put it down at first to the number of fruit trees in bearing, and which no doubt did largely tend to attract the birds and monkeys, but for the presence of the other other animals, I was soon to find another cause, whether this part of Borneo in times long past was once all cultivated and these fruit trees are the only remnants of former human industry, or whether the stones from the fruit trees in the orchards along the banks of the river have been carried inland by the monkeys and hornbills and so sprung up in the forests, is hard to say, but meantime their presence was a delightful fact to my boat-boys, who regaled themselves plentifully on tampoys, langsats, and many kinds.

About the seventh mile a sort of mixed grumbling and chortling note rather of enquiry than alarm, not very unlike an elephant’s, was heard in front of us, said the men, I ran forward in time to catch a glimpe of a very large one, going away amongst the branches of the trees; orang utans are rather deliberate in their movements, they have more consideration for their bodily welfare than to pitch themselves cautiously from branch to branch, always taking care to have a good firm hold of the next branch before they let go of the last one, the immense stretch of their arms and continual practice enables them to go along much faster by these means than would seem possible.

I could easily have got a shot at this, one however, but as I regard orang utan shooting as rather poor fun and too much akin to manslaughter, I left him in peace.

He had evidently been keeping about the place for sometime, as three of this “rumahs” or houses were in sight at once, platforms made by breaking a lot of branches, inwards towards a common centre, these they make every evening, preferring to have something firm to sleep upon instead of balancing themselves uncomfortably on a branch like monkeys do.

About this part of our journey we saw several manita lizards, those reptiles known to the Malays as Biawaks and the Sooloos as Bebongs are erroneously called iguanas by Europeans, they grow to a large size, one of those we saw being little of anything less than 8 feet in length, they are easily distinguishable from crocodiles by the shape of their heads.

When we mention roads in Borneo, the reader in England will probably think our roads are not so good as the highway between London and Barnet for instance but something perhaps more like an ill-kept country lane, and no doubt puts it down to the want of energy engendered by a tropical climate that we don’t get over the ground faster than we do.

Very different is the reality!

In the first place, every two hundred yards or so across the path, is an old tree trunk from two feet to four feet or more thick, sometimes you can vault or scramble over these, more often you have to walk around, fifty or eighty feet off the part and as much back again, then every quarter of a mile or thereabouts, the branches of a newly fallen tree block up the path and have to be walked round, occasionally a tangled mass of creepers will have descended encumbering the ground for an indefinite distance, none of your convolvuluses or Wisteries, but creepers with stems as thick as ropes and usually thorny, of rattans they have hundreds of long pliable trailers like whip lashes with coronas of recurved thorns every inch or so of their length; ditches and natural drains intersect the path at short distances with a varying depth of mud in their bottoms and extremely slippery sides to climb up.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is path and which is forest, and everywhere sharp stubs and stumps abound which render it a mystery how the men with their bare feet can walk without spiking themselves every few feet.

Perhaps the most tiresome of all impediments is the number of creeper-roots, sometimes above the ground sometimes under, loops in which your feet are continually catching, and several falls daily may be reckoned upon from this cause alone. Every 20 minutes or so a hault is necessary to pick off the leeches which are wandering about one’s body in search of a place to get at you.

Near the ninth mile post an elephant began squealing and grumbling close to the path, we must have passed within a hundred yards of it, and it got our wind after we went by; we were then 200 yards ahead, and as we were then on the top of a slippery and steep, though small hill, which I should have had to reclimb and I wanted to push on as far as I could  that day, I did not return to look for it.  

 About the tenth mile we had to begin to wade and about half a mile further it being then 4 o’clock, and as we had come to a litter raised land, I stopped for the night and soluppped up. A solup is soon formed by putting in nine upright sticks which support three laterals, pent roof shaped, on which my oiled cloth was thrown as roof, and under this we all sleep, on a raised platform of sticks.

10th September. The water had fallen two feet since last night; and the ground behind us was rapidly being drained, I soon found there was plenty of water in front however, ever irregularity in the ground having two and a half or three feet of water in it, at first there was a strong ebb current but this grew weaker and as we advanced while the water got deeper, this showed that the ground behind us was high enough to give a good drainage slope, which was lost as we got nearer to the Kinabatangan, the water remaining almost still and stagnant. We took advantage of what hills and raised ground we could find but progress was very slow it was impossible to tell where the natural ditches and drains were, until the leading man slipped into them, where floating logs and poles had to be brought up, and held in position as well as possible while we all crossed.

Towards midday we caught a mouse deer; the poor litter thing was on a small dry place, from which it rushed into the water on seeing us, but not being a good swimmer owing to the thinness of its legs it was soon caught.

By 1 o’clock we had only made four miles, the water had got deeper and deeper and I had to swim once or twice, we were then on what I think was the last hill before reaching the Kinabatangan which was still nearly three miles away. Two men sent to explore in front were soon up to their armpits and wading was simply impossible, so we placed our things on the dry ground and tried to find shallower water towards the river, but exploration were unsuccessful. So I solupped up with the hope that the water would fall in the night.

Another awkwardness was that the men had only brought rice enough to last them midday, this was lengthened out to an evening meal together with the mouse deer, which came quite as a godsend but that was the last of their food.

The hill we were on was full of fireback pheasants, the strong and rather curious sounding flutter of their wings being heard nearly every five minutes; while the men were cutting sticks for the solup they found a nest with five eggs in it, which however turned out to be all bad; the eggs were indistinguishable from those of a ordinary fowl.

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