Quarrying at Niah National Park

A couple of months ago I visited Niah Caves near Miri in Sarawak. You can read about my trip on my Malaysia Traveller website.

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This cave complex is one of Malaysia’s most impressive natural wonders and it was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, though it has not yet achieved that honour.

The caves and some 3100 hectares of the surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were gazetted as Niah National Park in 1974, meaning they should be preserved in pristine condition in perpetuity.

The national park is managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation which describes Niah as follows:

Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest criss-crossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life – all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.

Given the importance of the site for tourism you would think that everything possible would be done to protect this valuable, fragile and irreplaceable asset. However, on my recent visit, it was disappointing, but sadly not surprising, to see that the area is under threat from quarrying.

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Quarrying near Niah Caves

This Google Maps image shows extensive quarrying is already encroaching on the edges of the National Park and some of the limestone cliffs have been broken up and trucked away.

Is this area inside or outside the National Park borders? This map shows the approximate borders of the park:

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National Park area shown in green. Compare this with the Google image below and it would appear that the quarrying is nibbling away at the edges of the park.

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Since the National Park was intended to protect all the surrounding limestone hills it is possible that quarrying is already taking place inside the National Park, which would be illegal.

This street level image shows the dirt road turn-off leading towards the quarry, busy with lorries.

Niah is not the only national park in Malaysia under threat. Illegal logging is reported in and around forest reserve areas across the country. Sarawak Forestry and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks should introduce buffer zones surrounding national parks within which certain activities, such as logging and quarrying, are prohibited. Access to these areas by trucks and diggers should be controlled. Strict enforcement and heavy penalties are needed otherwise Malaysia’s natural wonders will not be around for much longer.

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Huis Ten Bosch

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It is the summer holiday season and the family wanted to go somewhere with a European flavour so I opted for this place, Huis Ten Bosch.

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At Huis Ten Bosch’s main entrance is a carbon copy of Kastel Nijenroode (original in Utrecht). Inside is a teddy bear museum.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is in the Netherlands but it is actually a Dutch-themed resort park near Sasebo City on the island of Kyushu, Japan.

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Domtoren tower is 105m high and dominates the park. It is a replica of Domtoren in Utrecht.

Huis Ten Bosch was conceived during the bubble period when Japan’s economy seemed unstoppable. It was a hugely ambitious project built at vast expense, intended to be not just a theme park but the hub of a whole new city to be created on scenic Omura Bay. Timing was poor however and it opened in 1992, just as the Japanese economy was entering its post-bubble recession from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.

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Huis Ten Bosch’s creators intended to attract 5 million visitors annually (13000 per day) but it never reached that level and on our trip the number of visitors probably numbered in the hundreds or low thousands.

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Great attention to detail gives a real Dutch feel to Huis Ten Bosch’s streets.

The park was loss making from the start and by 2003 it filed for bankruptcy with debts exceeding US$2 billion. But somehow it has survived, perhaps too big and too expensive to fail, and new backers have been found to keep it going.

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Cafes and bars sell authentic Dutch beer alongside Japanese beers. Unlike some parts of Amsterdam, there are no legal drugs on sale.

By 2010 the park was starting to look desolate but since then new investment from H.I.S., a travel agency company, has seen a revival of fortunes, and now it appears to be in good repair and most of the attractions are operating, albeit well below capacity.

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This Limited Express train takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to complete the journey from Hakata station in Fukuoka to Huis Ten Bosch station.

The park’s remote location on the western extreme of Japan has been another handicap. It is two hours by train from Fukuoka and a whopping 960km from Tokyo (nearly 8 hours by train). Since the park is closer to Seoul or Shanghai than it is to Tokyo the park’s operators are hoping that Korean and Chinese tourists will help to fill the void. However the recent strong Yen might deter foreign visitors – I paid US$100 per person for two-day admission tickets which includes free access to most attractions.

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In springtime Huis Ten Bosch displays thousands of tulips but this July it was filled with fragrant lilies.

Lack of visitors might be bad for the investors but it was good for us since it felt at times as though we had this huge theme park to ourselves.

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View from the 85m high Domtoren Observatory Platform.

The original concept was to create a theme park for adults, with beautiful gardens, museums, fine food and authentic Dutch architecture. While this is fine for older tourists like me, the lack of thrill rides and amusements did not really draw in the crowds so a lot more attractions have since been added such as a zip line, bungee jumping, a water park, haunted house type exhibits, virtual reality games, hologram theatre and much more.

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We were almost the only people in the Hologram Theatre. Impressive 3D technology made us feel as though the performers were appearing live on stage. J-Pop though is really not my thing!

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Full sized replica of de Liefde, the first Dutch ship to reach Japan in 1600, running aground near Usiki City on the eastern coast of Kyushu, about 250km from Huis Ten Bosch. The ship’s pilot was William Adams, on whom James Clavell’s book Shogun was based.

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The porcelain museum displays 17th – 19th century Imari porcelain and other treasures in a room based on a German palace.

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The level of detail of the architecture is superb, faithfully reproducing typical Dutch townscapes when viewed at street level.

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Only when seen from above is it obvious that the buildings are all modern fakes and that behind their accurate facades they are mostly shells containing the park’s attractions together with shops and restaurants.

What they have created is a Japanese idealised version of Europe, specifically Holland. It is like old Amsterdam minus all the grubby bits. So there are clogs, canals, windmills, cheeses and Dutch gable houses but no traffic, litter or impolite foreigners who can’t speak Japanese.

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These windmills look authentic but their sails are electric powered.

The management wanted some European faces at Huis Ten Bosch to add authenticity to the visitor experience. When the park first opened it employed 100 Dutch staff to entertain and dress up in Dutch costumes. Due to cost constraints they have since been let go but there are still a few western singers and dancers who appear to be from Romania and presumably cost less. They were good musicians.

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There is plenty of scary stuff for thrill lovers. This virtual reality-based horror attraction is supposed to be the world’s first. I didn’t fancy it but my adult son confirmed it was very scary.

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Henn-na Hotel staffed by robots.

There are four hotels within the park, including Palace Huis Ten Bosch which is a copy of a Dutch royal palace. Just outside the park perimeter are another three official hotels, the most recent of which is the Henn-na Hotel, the world’s first robotised hotel where most of the staff are robots. I considered staying there but with my fear of technology I envisaged being locked in my room forever and unable to communicate with Japanese robots. I needn’t have worried, the dinosaur robot speaks English.

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You can even live at HuisTen Bosch. The residential community of Wassenaar (red roof tops in the middle distance of this photo) comprises 130 traditional Dutch style houses and 10 apartment blocks lining the banks of a network of canals. They look very nice and are not too expensive by Japanese standards. They are mostly second homes for weekend use and are popular with boat owners who can moor their yachts in front of their houses. The only problem that I can see is that residents would have to put up with the constant replaying of Huis Ten Bosch’s Disney-like theme tune which would be clearly audible from the houses and would be likely to cause insanity after a few days of residence.

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The Game museum contains consoles and games from the earliest days of computer games. What’s more you can play them for free.

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One of a whole street full of haunted houses. At night a 3D mapping show is illuminated on its facade.

I’ve been to a lot of theme parks over the past few decades. I find them rather tiring with far too much queuing. Huis Ten Bosch is different. There was no queuing at all. It may lack roller coasters and other thrill rides but there is plenty to do for the whole family. I would recommend it.

 

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Islamic State Art?

Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL or Daesh or whatever it is called) is not renowned for its art, though it is infamous for destroying it.

So it was surprising to see this sign at a nearby shopping mall in Malaysia .

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Islamic State Art? Impressive?

Could extremists have taken over our local branch of Pizza Hut?

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This poster explained the mystery. No need to worry.

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Ah Tai, My Hong Kong Chinese Amah

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Ah Tai

In 1980 my former employer, a well known Hong Kong bank, transferred me from Oman to Hong Kong. The day I landed at Kai Tak airport, a driver met me and deposited me at my new home, a low-rise apartment in an old block in Happy Valley, overlooking the racecourse.

Waiting for me in the flat was Ah Tai who was to be my amah for the next two years. Although I paid her salary, (HK$ 1200 per month if I recall correctly), she was informally engaged by the bank to look after the apartment. In theory, I need not have employed her, but after a 30 second interview she decided I was a suitable employer and she agreed to stay on.

She was a live-in helper and had a tiny room off the back of the kitchen. The kitchen was also her territory and I would seldom venture in there. She kept the flat spotless and the ageing furniture  was still in remarkable condition considering that a string of bachelors had lived in the flat over the years.

Ah Tai did the washing and ironing. I don’t even know if we had a washing machine but my shirts were always hanging back in the cupboard clean and crisply ironed a few hours after taking them off.

She ensured I was never late for work despite my many evenings as a young bachelor carousing in the bars of Hong Kong. One breakfast I had a dreadful hangover and was struggling to finish the eggs and bacon that she laid on the table every morning. She tut-tutted  “Master, why you got red eyes?”

She spoke a kind of basic Chinglish. Male employers were always called Master and if there was a female boss she would be Missie. I took Cantonese lessons for a while and though she was amused by my pathetic pronunciation she, in common with most HK Chinese, did not really encourage me to learn her language. The less we gweilos knew what was going on, the better! The British officers in the Royal Hong Kong Police were the only gweilos I knew who really could really get to grips with the language.

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Typical Hong Kong street scene prior to the 1970s. Drawn by Lawrence Wright.

Ah Tai could cook Western and Chinese dishes but was better at the latter. Before leaving for work she would ask if I was coming home for dinner. If yes, she would ask for a small sum to buy groceries. She would take the bus down to Wanchai food market and haggle with the vendors for fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.

I was supposed to pay for her food but she was super-frugal and cost next to nothing. If she cooked me fish, she would eat the fish heads with a bowl of rice and a few vegetables. When I ate an orange, she would keep the peel and dry it on the kitchen window ledge for use as a snack or home remedy. She practiced reduce, reuse and recycle long before it became fashionable.

She would give me a ticking-off if I didn’t come home for dinner after saying I would. And it was no use me trying to phone her. I tried it once:

Me: Hello Ah Tai

Her: Wai?

Me: Ah Tai

Her: Wai?

Me: It’s me, master.

Her: Master not here! (slams down phone).

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Ah Tai probably invested some of her money in HSBC shares. In those days they were a sure winner.

We never discussed her background or personal life. She spent her leisure time in the kitchen listening to her transistor radio. On Saturdays she would sometimes go out and return on Sunday evening, exchanging her usual white top and black silk trousers for a more colourful outfit of the same style. Perhaps she went to see a relative or meet up with other amahs to swap funny stories about their bosses or to exchange investment tips. Chinese amahs were famously good at saving every cent they earned and, investing wisely in shares and property, some became quite wealthy.

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Hong Kong’s black and white amahs (referring to the colour of their attire) were a superior class of domestic helper with roots in Shunde County of Guangdong Province. Being hard working and reliable they were in great demand in Hong Kong among expatriates and wealthy Chinese. The wealthiest families employed a number of amahs, one for cooking, one for cleaning, one for looking after children and so on. Ah Tai was a yat-keok-tak (one leg kick) meaning that she did everything. Black & white amahs had good prospects for life-long employment, leading to financial independence with no need to rely on a drunken, cheating, gambling, wife-beating husband for support. As a result they never married and took a vow of celibacy.

By 1980, Hong Kong’s amahs were a disappearing breed as younger Chinese girls were unwilling to take up this career, with better paid opportunities available in factories and offices. They were replaced by domestic helpers from the Philippines (and later Indonesia and elsewhere) who were less expensive and, not speaking Chinese, less able to interfere and find out all the family secrets.

I don’t know what became of Ah Tai after I was posted back to the Middle East. The above photo was taken 35 years ago. She would be quite old by now but with her healthy diet and ascetic lifestyle, who knows, she could still be going strong. Wherever she may be, I thank her for looking after me.


These are the photos kindly forwarded by Judy Wilkinson to accompany her comment below:

Margaret Rutty with baby Judith and her Amah

Margaret Rutty with baby Judith and her Amah

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Letters From Bencoolen – Stokeham Donston

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One of the oldest marked graves in the  British Cemetery in Bengkulu, Indonesia belongs to a Stokeham Donston  (SD) who died in 1775.

Since it is quite a distinctive name I thought I would Google it and see if anything is known of this individual. The search results revealed a bundle of letters and other documents held by Nottinghamshire Archives pertaining to SD. (Incidentally there is a hamlet called Stokeham about 14 miles from Worksop, Nottinghamshire which might be the origin of the unusual Christian name.)

I contacted Nottinghamshire Archives and they kindly forwarded me copies of two of the more interesting letters. These shed some light on the type of life SD would have endured in Bencoolen in the mid 1700s.

The letters were sent to George Donston (GD) of Worksop who was seemingly a relation, a business partner and well connected with the higher echelons of the English East India Company (EIC), for whom SD worked as a ‘factor’ (someone who received and sold goods on commission).

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SD’s handwriting in these letters was immaculate and you can imagine him sitting in the sweltering heat of Fort Marlborough, dipping his quill into the ink pot and wiping his brow so that his sweat would not blot his penmanship. This copperplate script with ornate flourishes and unfamiliar abbreviations is not so easy to read for modern eyes but I have tried to quote his letters as accurately as I can, including his archaic grammar and spelling.

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The final page of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 28th January 1758.

The first letter dated 28th January 1758 was taken up mostly with matters of business. For example, he mentioned a shipment of pepper to England and having drawn bills of exchange on GD. He also described how he arrived in Bencoolen on the 29th September 1757, after a very good passage of ten weeks.

East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd. Published in London, 1797

East Indiaman sailing from Madras Painted and engraved by R. Dodd.

His first impressions of the place seemed favourable as far as business potential was concerned:

I cannot avoid acquainting you with the fine situation of this place of trade and if the Europeans here had money sufficient to carry on the trade which might be had here they might make as good fortunes as at Madras or Bengal.

He reminds GD that he had earlier indicated he would give SD £500 to invest in trade on GD’s account or as a loan repayable with interest at the rate of 10% a year.

As a factor with the EIC, he was allowed space in EIC ships to import and export goods for his own account and in this high risk, high reward business many factors became fabulously wealthy. Goods mentioned in his correspondence included opium from India to China, tea from China to England, silver and pepper from Sumatra to India and England, and arrack and sugar from Batavia to Sumatra and India.

He was less impressed with some of his colleagues at Fort Marlborough:

Mr Carter our Governor is not yet arrived and we are in daily expectations of seeing him; he is very much wanted here, for the Governor that now supplies his place is no more fit for it than any of us who came out in the last Ship, he is a very indolent man, a man who has seen nothing of the world, but been brought up in this place from the 14th year of his, in short he is a person who troubles himself little about business and if he continues long in the chair, I dare say this place will go to ruin, instead of improving which would be the case twas Mr. Carter or any other clever person at the head of affairs.

He concludes by complaining about the need to avoid office tittle tattle and asks George to put in a good word for him with Mr. Carter. He signs off very formally:

I am Dear Sir with great respect your obliged & very humble servant Stokeham Donston, Fort Marlbro’

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Part of Stokeham Donston’s letter dated 1st March 1759.

A subsequent letter to GD dated March 1st 1759 starts off by saying that he had not received replies to his earlier letters (perhaps George was having cold feet about investing the £500 with his relation)?

Stokeham continues with some happy news:

I fancy you will be surprised when I tell you I am married to a young lady whose name is Braham, her father is surgeon of this place, who having acquired a pretty competency is now making up his affairs in order to return home, which he intends to do next year. I esteem myself especially happy in every respect in the marriage state. She is a good natured, agreeable & sensible girl and very well qualified to make my happiness compleat.

He goes on to reveal a somewhat calculating and mercenary streak to his character:

I have sold my house and live with her Grandmama, a very discreet & housewifely old Lady, who takes a great deal of pains to make her Granddaughter  a good and an obliging wife. Her fortune will be about £1600 which will be the least. I have no money with her at present but have secured that her father has a large family to provide for and cannot put down anything for the present. Her Grandmama is worth about £3000.

I have wrote to my Aunt Donston but have made no mention of my marriage to her the reason is my want of time which I hope will plead my excuse. I shall be oblige to you if you will communicate the contents of this to her.

It seems his early optimism and enthusiasm for Bencoolen as a place to make money had faded by now:

This place is not so advantageous as other parts of India, nor will it ever be so.

He then asks for GD’s assistance and connections in getting him transferred to more a lucrative posting (the first of many such requests):

I should be happy if I could be removed to Bengal or Madras for these are the places where anything is to be had. I don’t know what your interest with my Lord Scarborough may be but I’m certain were some of the great ones to give the hint to the Court of Directors all might be accomplished. If not, I hope you will not be unmindful of me in getting promoted in other respects.

Nottinghamshire Archives also provided me with a summary of the contents of other letters in their possession although I have not obtained copies of the actual letters. One of these, sent to GD on 12th December 1759, just nine months after the marriage letter, announced the death of his wife. I do not know whether it indicated the cause of death – malaria most likely but possibly during childbirth? The letter also complained about the Governor’s intention for the opium trade to China to be taken out of the private hands of factors like SD and assumed by the Company instead. Without seeing the letter it is not possible to gauge which was the bigger blow to SD, the death of his wife or the loss of the lucrative trade.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast.  Belonging to the East India Company of England

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast. Belonging to the East India Company of England. Fort St George By Jan Van Ryne (1712–60); Publisher: Robert Sayer

By October 1760, SD was in Fort St. George (Madras) following the loss of Bencoolen and other Sumatran outposts to the French (during the Seven Years War) which had caused SD a loss of £2500 (equivalent to £440,000 in today’s money).

A letter to GD sent in September 1762 described how Fort Marlborough had been re-established following the defeat of the French at Pondicherry and SD was back in Sumatra. An epidemic in Bencoolen caused the loss of 1/4 of the troops and 2/3 of the civilian population in the town.

By March 1765 he wrote how he was seen as the next in succession for appointment to Fort Marlborough’s Governors Council but he told GD that he would give up this chance to get to Bengal, both for more opportunities to make a fortune and for health reasons.

It seems though that GD was either unwilling or unable to pull strings on behalf of SD to have him transferred out of Bencoolen and he languished there in deteriorating health until his death on 2nd April 1775 at age 41.

There was one bright spot however before his death. In 1772 he informed GD that he had married for a second time, to a Miss Kirkpatrick.

The letters from the Archives were not quite as interesting as I’d hoped, being rather formal and business related, but it was good to unearth something about Bengkulu Cemetery’s oldest British resident.

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In Search Of Wallace – Part 6: Peninjau, Borneo

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After spending 9 months at Simunjan (see last post), Alfred Russel Wallace made a shorter exploration of Bukit Peninjau, a small hill (1,646 feet high) some 20 km, as the bird flies, from Kuching town centre. He was initially accompanied by Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, whom he had met in Singapore and who maintained a small cottage on this hill. ‘Rajah’ was a grand job title, but Brooke had only been granted the role by the Sultan of Brunei some 14 years earlier and Sarawak was still in its rudimentary stage of development. As such, think of the cottage as more of a wooden shack than a palace. Wallace stayed at the cottage from 13–20 December 1855 and between 31 December 1855 and 19 January 1856.

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White Rajahs of Sarawak. James Brooke is the one of the left. He ruled from 1841 until his death in 1868. Two of his successors and descendants were Charles Johnson Brooke (1868 – 1917), right, and Charles Vyner Brooke (1917-1946), centre.

Wallace described the hill as follows:

“On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke’s invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air.”

Wallace would have approached the hill by river, disembarking at the jetty where the village of Siniawan now stands.

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The quaint village of Siniawan, with its single street of old wooden shophouses, holds a night market every weekend drawing tourists and locals from nearby Kuching. The wooden houses look old enough to have been around in Wallace’s time but are apparently only 60 or so years old.

Wallace continues:

“It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits.”

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Langsats are tasty fruit but will make your hands very sticky as I found out once while eating them in a cinema in Hong Kong.

Local government officials announced a few years back an intention to promote Bukit Peninjau  (also known as Bung Muan and Gunung Serumbu) as a tourist destination and at least the place is signposted.

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Sign pointing the way to Bukit Peninjau, the hill in the background, which is considered sacred to the Bidayuh community.

My trip to the hill was unfortunately a bit of a wash-out.

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The sky looked fairly bright as I approached the foot of the hill.

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But as soon as I parked my rental car the heavens opened and the hill disappeared behind the clouds.

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I took shelter under the eaves of the Tourist Information Centre. Here you are supposed to be able to hire a local guide for RM50 to take you up the Wallace Trail but the place was locked and there was nobody around. Visitors are advised not to go alone but having no other choice, I dropped my contribution into the donations box and set off up the hill once the rain had eased off somewhat.

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There is a map with estimated climb times. According to their estimates it should take nearly 4 hours to reach the peak.

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There were quite a lot of arrows pointing the way which was reassuring but the path itself was overgrown with dense foliage which I dislike (I would make a very poor Wallace being scared of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies!).

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Bamboo Bridge. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago.

Wallace was impressed with the versatile qualities of bamboo and the ingenious ways in which the local tribesmen put it to good use. In this chapter of The Malay Archipelago he wrote about bamboo bridges and I was pleased to see this example of one at Bukit Peninjau.

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The wooden hut here is similar to ones I have seen in Peninsular Malaysia used as watch houses to guard over valuable durian trees during the ripening season. It might perform the same purpose here.

He was also fascinated by ladders made by driving bamboo pegs into a tree trunk:

“I was exceedingly struck by the ingenuity of this mode of climbing, and the admirable manner in which the peculiar properties of the bamboo were made available. The ladder itself was perfectly safe, since if any one peg were loose or faulty, and gave way, the strain would be thrown on several others above and below it. I now understood the use of the line of bamboo pegs sticking in trees, which I had often seen, and wondered for what purpose they could have been put there.”

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I was amazed to see a similar ladder in almost the same location 160 years after Wallace’s time, the only difference being that they now use blue plastic twine to secure the pegs instead of strips of wood bark.

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By the time I reached Batu Tikopog, a rock with an unusually smooth cleft, the rain started to intensify with thunder and lightning in the air. I decided to abandon my trek to the peak since visibility would have been zero. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to see the site of Brooke’s cottage either. Nothing remains of the cottage now except an indistinct clearing in the jungle. Plans to rebuild the cottage were announced a few years ago but nothing yet seems to have happened. Perhaps I’ll revisit one day once the cottage has been rebuilt.

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My faithful Malay boy Ali. Source: Wallace Autobiography 1905 Vol.1

After Christmas in Kuching, Wallace returned to Bukit Peninjau, this time accompanied by his English assistant and a Malay servant.

“A few days afterwards I returned to the mountain with Charles and a Malay boy named Ali and stayed there three weeks for the purpose of making a collection of land-shells, butterflies and moths, ferns and orchids. On the hill itself ferns were tolerably plentiful, and I made a collection of about forty species. But what occupied me most was the great abundance of moths which on certain occasions I was able to capture. …during the whole of my eight years’ wanderings in the East I never found another spot where these insects were at all plentiful,…It thus appears that on twenty-six nights I collected 1,386 moths.”

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The hill is still teeming with insects. Most of Wallace’s moth collecting took place at night but even during the daytime this place has some of the noisiest bugs I’ve ever heard as this ten-second video attempts to show.

“When I returned to Singapore I took with me the Malay lad named Ali, who subsequently accompanied me all over the Archipelago. Charles Allen preferred staying at the Mission-house, and afterwards obtained employment in Sarawak and in Singapore, until he again joined me four years later at Amboyna in the Moluccas.”

Writing in his autobiography many years later, Wallace wrote about Ali:

When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language by the necessity of constant communication with him. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him. He accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.

He was less glowing about Charles Martin Allen who was just a teenager when Wallace took him to South East Asia as his collecting assistant. In his letters , Wallace complained about Allen’s carelessness and inability to learn.

Of all the Wallace trails I have visited so far this one is perhaps the most interesting and is fairly easy to access from Kuching. Pity about the weather though! Try to go on a dry day and see if you can get hold of a guide.

A map showing the location of Bukit Peninjau appears on my previous post about Wallace.

To read about another trip up Bukit Serumbu in Wallace’s footsteps, this one in 1912, see here.

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In Search Of Wallace – Part 5: Simunjan, Borneo

In-Search-Of-Wallace-Simunjan

Alfred Russel Wallace spent 15 months in Borneo from November 1854 to January 1856. After exploring in the vicinity of Sarawak town (Kuching) he made a journey into ‘a part of the interior seldom visited by Europeans’.

This is how he described the area in The Malay Archipelago:

“In March 1865 I determined to go to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjon River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang- Lupar. The Simunjon enters the Sadong River about twenty miles up. It is very narrow and very winding, and much overshadowed by the lofty forest, which sometimes almost meets over it. The whole country between it and the sea is a perfectly level forest-covered swamp, out of which rise a few isolated hills, at the foot of one of which the works are situated. On the slope of the hill near its foot a patch of forest had been cleared away, and several rule houses erected, in which were residing Mr. Coulson the engineer, and a number of Chinese workmen. I was at first kindly accommodated in Mr. Coulson’s house, but finding the spot very suitable for me and offering great facilities for collecting, I had a small house of two rooms and a verandah built for myself. Here I remained nearly nine months, and made an immense collection of insects.”

Click on the expand map symbol in the top right corner to view a larger map.

I thought I would have little chance of tracing this location based on such a scanty description but I found on the map the small town of Simunjan where the Simunjan River meets the Sadong River. A couple of miles from the town is the only hill for miles around which is today known as Gunung Ngeli (though it is more of a Bukit than a Gunung given its modest height).

Further internet searches revealed that this hill was once a coal mining area and this was indeed the place where Wallace spent nine months in 1865.

It is a 170km drive (each way) from Kuching and it took me about 3 hours to get there in my Perodua hire car. But the trip was worth it as Gunung Ngeli was, a few years back, converted into a recreational park with a trail and steps all the way to the top, so I was able to have a good look around.

I made this short video to show how Gunung Ngeli looks today.

Wallace stayed such a long time here because it was so rich in insect life. He adopted the practice of paying locals one cent for each insect brought to him and this yielded great results:

“I obtained from the Dyaks and the Chinamen many fine locusts and Phasmidae (stick insects) as well as numbers of handsome beetles.”

Phasmatodea

Stick Insects On Display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“When I arrived at the mines, on the 14th of March, I had collected in the four preceding months, 320 different kinds of beetles. In less than a fortnight I had doubled this number, an average of about 24 new species every day. On one day I collected 76 different kinds, of which 34 were new to me. By the end of April I had more than a thousand species, and they then went on increasing at a slower rate, so that I obtained altogether in Borneo about two thousand distinct kinds, of which all but about a hundred were collected at this place, and on scarcely more than a square mile of ground. The most numerous and most interesting groups of beetles were the Longicorns and Rhynchophora, both pre- eminently wood-feeders.”

REMARKABLE BEETLES FOUND AT SIMUNJON, BORNEO

Remarkable Beetles Found At Simunjon, Borneo. Image from The Malay Archipelago.

Coleoptera

Beetles in Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“My collection of butterflies was not large; but I obtained some rare and very handsome insects, the most remarkable being the Ornithoptera Brookeana, one of the most elegant species known. This beautiful creature has very long and pointed wings, almost resembling a sphinx moth in shape. It is deep velvety black, with a curved band of spots of a brilliant metallic-green colour extending across the wings from tip to tip, each spot being shaped exactly like a small triangular feather, and having very much the effect of a row of the wing coverts of the Mexican trogon, laid upon black velvet. The only other marks are a broad neck-collar of vivid crimson, and a few delicate white touches on the outer margins of the hind wings. This species, which was then quite new and which I named after Sir James Brooke, was very rare. It was seen occasionally flying swiftly in the clearings, and now and then settling for an instant at puddles and muddy places, so that I only succeeded in capturing two or three specimens.”

Brookeana

It was while Wallace was at Gunung Ngeli that he hunted and killed more than a dozen orang-utans, which nowadays would be a despicable thing to do but in his era would have been the only way to study the species in detail and besides, he financed his trip by selling skins and specimens to museums and collectors.

FEMALE ORANG-UTAN copy

FEMALE ORANG-UTAN The Malay Archipelago

He describes these encounters in considerable detail. Here is one such excerpt:

“On the 12th of May I found another, which behaved in a very similar manner, howling and hooting with rage, and throwing down branches. I shot at it five times, and it remained dead on the top of the tree, supported in a fork in such a manner that it would evidently not fall. I therefore returned home, and luckily found some Dyaks, who came back with me, and climbed up the tree for the animal. This was the first full-grown specimen I had obtained; but it was a female, and not nearly so large or remarkable as the full-grown males. It was, however, 3 ft. 6 in. high, and its arms stretched out to a width of 6 ft. 6 in. I preserved the skin of this specimen in a cask of arrack, and prepared a perfect skeleton, which was afterwards purchased for the Derby Museum.”

I enquired with Derby Museum to see whether they still held any of Wallace’s specimens as I though it would be interesting to visit next time I am in UK. This  was their response:

“Derby Museums do not hold any orang-utan specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. This is despite his book, ‘The Malay Archipelago’ (1869), clearly referring to material being killed and collected for Derby Museum. We now know these specimens are in the World Museum Liverpool which was then known as the Derby Museum, named after the main donor, the 13th Earl of Derby (resident of the nearby Knowsley Hall), whose bequeathed natural history collection formed the basis of their collections.”

Orangutan

Once stuffed and mounted at the museum, Wallace’s orang-utan skins might have looked something like this sorry specimen on display at Putrajaya National History Museum.

After my climb up and down Gunung Ngeli, which took about 90 minutes, I drove on to the small town of Simunjan. which was probably non-existent or just getting established in Wallace’s time. No old buildings survive as the town is situated on a bend in the river and is prone to erosion. The earliest structures were washed away and the present town of around 60 shophouses dates mainly from the 1960s.

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Simunjan Town Centre, May 2016

There are various theories as to how Simunjan got its name. The most plausible, and the one which Wallace might have found interesting, is that it was named after a bird called the Munjan as shown on this billboard.

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There was not a lot to see in the town but I had a light lunch and was warmly greeted by the friendly inhabitants.

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School kids playing in a beached boat at Simunjan.

Next Instalment: Bukit Peninjau

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