Read CHAPTER I of On the Equator , free online book, by Harry de Windt, on ReadCentral.com.

It was on the 13th of April, 1880, that, accompanied by an old College friend (whom throughout these pages I shall call L.), I left London for the Eastern Archipelago, via Marseilles and Singapore, our destination being Sarawak, the seat of government of Raja Brooke in the island of Bornéo. Our expedition had been a long-projected one, but it was not until the latter end of March, 1880, that we finally decided to start.

Thanks to the small experience gained from a former voyage to these parts we successfully resisted the efforts of our outfitters to supply us with, in addition to what was really necessary, almost every useless thing ever heard of, from a cholera-belt to a velvet smoking suit. We were, however, resolved to take nothing more than was absolutely necessary, as on a journey of this kind nothing is more embarrassing than a large amount of luggage. A small but complete outfit was therefore got together, which was easily carried in one small overland trunk, one small portmanteau for cabin use on board ship, and a gun-case each. This we afterwards found ample to contain all the necessaries required.

On the evening, then, of the 13th of April, we stood on the platform of the Charing Cross Station, awaiting the departure of the mail train for Dover, and our luggage duly registered for Paris we ensconced ourselves in a smoking-carriage, and lit up the fragrant weed, not sorry that we were really off at last.

Our journey to Paris was pleasant enough a quick run to Dover, a smooth moonlit passage to Calais, a sound sleep in a comfortable coupe lit, and we awoke to find Paris around us, white and cheerful in the bright spring sunshine. Putting up at Meurice’s Hotel, three days were enjoyably spent here, and on the 17th we left for Marseilles, which was reached at 6.30 a.m. on the 18th, after a tedious journey of twenty hours. We at once drove to the ship, on alighting at the railway station, not forgetting to purchase on our way through the town those essentials on a long sea voyage, a couple of cane easy-chairs.

On arrival at the quay we found active preparations for departure going on, as the ship was to sail at 10 o’clock a.m.; and, being Sunday, she was thronged with holiday-makers, who had come to see her off. Having got on board, we dived below and installed ourselves in a comfortable and roomy cabin (which we were lucky enough to get to ourselves the entire voyage), and returned on deck to watch the busy scene. The hubbub and the noise were deafening, for the squeakings of some sixty or seventy pigs, which were being hoisted on board a vessel alongside bound for Barcelona, added to the din, and combined to make what the French would call “un vacarme infernal.”

By 9.30, however, decks were cleared of all but passengers, and at 10 precisely hawsers were cast off, and we steamed out of harbour.

Our vessel, the Sindh, was a very fine one of over 3,000 tons burthen, and our fellow-passengers chiefly Dutch and Spanish bound for the Eastern Archipelago and Manilla, a few French, and but seven English including ourselves. Among the latter was an individual who is usually to be met with on the ships of the P. & O. Company and those of the Messageries Maritimes, though more frequently on the former. L. and I christened him “The Inevitable,” as a voyage to India or China can rarely be made without coming across him. He is invariably an Englishman, and my Indian readers will readily recognise him when I say that he is always (in his own estimation!) perfectly au fait on every subject whatever, be it political, social, or otherwise, that he always knows how many knots the ship has run during the night, and is continually having what he calls “a chat” with the captain and officers of the vessel he is on, returning to tell the first unlucky passenger he may succeed in button-holing the result of his conversation. He is also a great hand at organising dances and theatricals on board, and constitutes himself master of ceremonies or stage-manager at either of these entertainments. Our specimen of the genus, however, subsided soon after leaving Naples, finding all his lectures in vain, and confided to us his intention of “never coming out again by this infernal line” a consummation most devoutly to be wished for the sake of the Messageries Maritimes.

Among our number was also an amusing Yankee, fresh from the States, and bound for Singapore, who announced his intention of “getting to windward of those ‘Maylays’ before he’d been long in the clearin’.”

The arrangements on board the Sindh for the comfort of passengers were simply perfect a roomy cabin (cool even during the severe heat in the Red Sea), good bath-rooms, and, above all, civility from every one connected with the ship, was the order of the day on board. The food and cooking were excellent, fresh meat and fish, and a good French salad, being provided for dinner daily even during the run from Point de Galle (Ceylon) to Singapore, in which no land is touched at for nine days and a good sound claret, iced, supplied at every meal free of charge. When it is considered that the first-class fare from London to Singapore (including the journey through France) is only L70 5s., it is to be wondered how the passenger fares of this line can even be made to cover the outlay.

It would scarcely interest the reader to be told how we beguiled the long tedious days at sea with ship’s quoits, “Bull,” and other mild amusements of a similar nature, or the still longer evenings with whist; how we went ashore at dirty glary Port Said, and drank bad coffee, while a brass band of German girls discoursed anything but “sweet music”; how “the inevitable” made a desperate effort to get up a dance in the Red Sea on one of the hottest nights, but was instantly suppressed by force of numbers, determined, though well-nigh prostrate from the heat; or how we went to the Wakwalla Gardens at Galle, to drink cocoa-nut milk and admire the first glimpse of tropical scenery. Suffice it to say, that on the 15th of May we arrived at Singapore, after a singularly quick passage from Marseilles. Bidding adieu to our fellow-passengers, including “the inevitable,” who of course recommended us to the best hotel in the place (though I very much doubted his ever having been there before), we entered a little red box on wheels drawn by a Java pony, which is designated a “gharry,” and drove to Emmerson’s Hotel, near the Esplanade. This was reached after a drive of four miles under a blazing sun, and we were not sorry to find ourselves located in two good bed-rooms, which felt delightfully cool and airy after our comparatively close cabin on board. After a cold bath, doubly enjoyable by its contrast with the lukewarm sea-water we had been accustomed to during the voyage, it was not long ere we were doing justice to an excellent breakfast under the cool swing of the punkah.

Singapore is an island 27 miles long by 14 broad, and is divided from the main land, or Malay peninsula, by a narrow strait of three-quarters of a mile broad. The town consists of about 70,000 inhabitants, comprising Europeans, Indians, Chinese, and Malays, the two latter forming the bulk of the population. It is well laid out, and from the sea presents a very picturesque appearance. The neighbourhood is slightly undulating and well wooded, and the country around studded with well-built and substantial houses, belonging to the European merchants and other officials in Singapore. No Europeans live in the town, as the heat there during the south-west and even north-east monsoon is insupportable. The Esplanade, which faces the sea, and near to which our hotel stood, is the fashionable drive, and where the inhabitants enjoy the sea-breezes when the heat of the day is over. The horses and carriages here, however, were a sorry sight, the former being nearly without exception cast-offs from Australia, and sent here as a last resource. The carriages, too, were fearfully and wonderfully made contrivances, and would have caused the inhabitants of Long Acre to shudder, could they have seen them.

The view of the roadstead from the Esplanade is very striking, and is generally alive with shipping of all kinds and nations, from the smart and trim British man-of-war to the grimy collier, and from the rakish Malay prahu to the clumsy junk laden with produce from China. These latter are, however, fast dying out, and most of the larger Chinese firms have now steamers.

We were anxious to make as short a stay in Singapore as possible, and therefore made inquiry the day after our arrival as to the best means of getting over to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and a journey of forty-eight hours by sea. What was our dismay to find that the Raja Brooke, the only steamer running between Kuching and Singapore, had left the day before, and would not be back for a week at the very least. As she made a stay of five days at either place every trip, this was anything but pleasant news, as nearly a fortnight must elapse ere we could leave Singapore. Luckily, however, the Sarawak Government gunboat Aline, which had been into dock at Singapore, was then lying in the roads, and sailing for Kuching in two days’ time, and through the kindness of the Sarawak agents we were offered a passage in her. This we gladly accepted, agreeing to be on board the following Thursday at 10.30 p.m., the Aline sailing at 11.

On the evening appointed, accordingly, we set out from our comfortable hotel to embark. The weather, which had all day been oppressively hot, had suddenly changed, and the rain was now pouring down in torrents. To make matters worse it was as dark as pitch, and it was some time ere, after shouting ourselves hoarse, we could procure a sampan to take us on board. The Aline was luckily lying close in-shore, and we stood on her deck, after a short pull in the sampan, wringing wet. A pleasant welcome from her captain, however, dry clothes, and a glass of grog in her cheerful and well-lit cabin, soon set things right, and we turned in and slept soundly, undisturbed by the bustle and noise that always attends the departure of a ship.

We were awoke at six next morning, and, swallowing a cup of most excellent coffee, Sarawak grown, went on deck. The sun shone brightly, and the air felt cool and fresh after the rain of yesterday. No land was in sight, and with a fair wind and sail set we were making good way through the water.

The Aline is the largest of the gunboats (of which there are four) belonging to the Sarawak Government. She is about 200 tons, schooner rigged, and carries two 32-pounders, fore and aft. Her accommodation, state rooms and saloon, are forward, a good plan in the tropics, as the smell of steam and hot oil from the engine-room are thus avoided, and it is also cooler than aft when the vessel is under weigh. The quarters of the crew are aft; and I was surprised to see how clean and neat everything on board was kept, the more so that the ship’s company consisted entirely of Malays, who are proverbially careless and dirty in these matters. She had but two European officers, the captain and engineer. The former, Captain K., who had been in these seas for many years, had some interesting tales to tell of the old pirate days, when Sir James Brooke first visited Bornéo in his yacht the Royalist.

Our voyage across was very enjoyable, and our host a very agreeable companion. It seemed but a short time, then, since our departure from Singapore, that on the 25th of May at 4.30 p.m. we sighted the high lands of the island of Bornéo; the mountain of Gunong Poe, in Dutch territory, towering high above the rest. By eight o’clock we were abreast of Cape Datu, a long spit of land running far out to sea, and the southernmost point of Sarawak territory. Rounding this we passed Sleepy Bay, in which a boat in search of pirates, commanded by an officer of H.M.S. Dido, was nearly captured by them some years ago. The whole crew, including the watch, had fallen asleep one night while at anchor in the bay, but one of their number happening to wake just in time, gave the alarm, just as the pirate prahus, which had pulled out from the land, were within about thirty yards of them. A sharp skirmish ensued, and the Illanuns were at length driven off, but had they not been warned in time the English must have perished to a man, as these ruffians made it a rule to spare none but Hajis, or Mahometans who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The bay derives its name from this occurrence.

At daybreak the next morning we were summoned on deck by Captain K. as we were passing Talang-Talang, or Turtle Island, and should shortly be off the mouth of the Sarawak river. Talang-Talang is a small island literally swarming with turtle, whose eggs form a staple article of commerce in the Sarawak market. The mode of procuring them is curious. Turtles lay only at night, and having dug holes in the ground deposit their eggs therein, and cover them over with sand. Natives who have been on the watch then place sticks in the ground to mark the place where they may be found, and they are the next morning dug out in enormous quantities, and exported to various parts of Bornéo and the adjacent islands. The eggs have a stale fishy flavour, are very sandy, and to my mind extremely nasty, although they are considered a great delicacy by the natives, who eat them raw with their curry.

By seven o’clock we were entering the Santubong mouth of the Sarawak river. There are two entrances to this; the other, Moratabas, some few miles farther down the coast, being the larger, is used by men-of-war and other large craft. Vessels of 300 tons and under, however, always use the Santubong entrance, excepting during the north-east monsoon, when it is unsafe for vessels of any size, and Moratabas is always used. The Santubong entrance is far superior to the other as far as scenery is concerned. On the right bank of the river, its base stretching for some way out to sea, stands the Peak of Santubong, rising to a height of over 2,000 feet, and covered with dense forest to a height of nearly 1,700 feet, from which point a perpendicular sandstone precipice rises to the summit. At the foot of the hill, and almost hidden by trees which surround it, lies the little fishing village of Santubong, inhabited by Chinese and Malay fishermen. Kuching is supplied daily with fresh fish from this place. The left-hand bank is a flat, swampy plain of impenetrable jungle, having its river banks lined with mangroves and nipa palms. This extends for about ten miles inland, until the mountain of Matang, which can plainly be seen from the mouth, is reached, and on the near side of which lies the capital, Kuching.

The journey up river from the mouth is flat and uninteresting, and little is to be seen but nipa and other palms on either side, and although Kuching is but seven miles from Santubong as the crow flies, it is quite twenty by river. It was not till ten o’clock, therefore, that signs of civilisation commenced, in the shape of a few Malay houses built close to the water’s edge. These are usually built in the same manner on piles of wood of ten to fifteen feet high, the walls and roof being made of “atap,” or the leaf of the nipa-palm dried, and the flooring of “lanties” or split bamboo.

The Chinese brick-yards and potteries of “Tanah Puteh,” a suburb of Kuching, came into view shortly after this, and immediately after this Fort Margaret, which stands on a hill on the left-hand bank of the river, and commands the entrance to Kuching, and, rounding the bend that hides it from our view, we now come to the town itself, so unique and picturesque a place that a far abler pen than mine is needed to do justice to its description.

Lining the right bank of the river, which is here about 400 yards broad, is the Chinese Bazaar extending for nearly a quarter of a mile along the shore, the houses, which are of brick, presenting a very curious appearance, with their red roofs and bright-coloured façades the latter, in the case of some of the wealthier owners, embellished with designs of porcelain and majolica ware. The row of acacia trees which line the street from end to end would give the place rather the look of a boulevard in a small French town were it not for the palms growing at the back of the Bazaar, and the Chinese junks and Malay craft moored alongside the bank. At the end of the Bazaar, and separated from it by a small stream running into the main river, which is crossed by a wooden bridge, is the Chinese joss-house, an imposing edifice erected by the principal Chinese merchants here at a cost of over 10,000 dols.

Next to the “Pangkalan Batoo,” or principal landing-place, is the prison, a large stone building, on the right of which is the Bornéo Company’s (Limited) Wharf; and behind this again stands the Court House, containing all the Government offices, such as Treasury, Post-Office, &c., and wherein the Court of Justice is held.

Stone buildings cease here, and the Malay town extends for half a mile up both banks of the river.

On the left bank, in the midst of beautifully laid-out gardens, is the “Astana,” or Palace of the Raja, a handsome stone building built in three blocks, connected with each other by means of small bridges. The centre building, which is surrounded by a fine broad verandah, supported by massive stone pillars, contains drawing-room, dining-room, library, and billiard-room, and is flanked by a tower which forms the principal entrance. The buildings on either side of this consist of sleeping apartments, while on the right of the house, and standing on somewhat lower ground, is a bungalow set apart for the use of guests. With the exception of the fort and commandant’s house, the “Astana” is the only building on this side of the river. The passage across to the opposite shore, or town side, is made by means of boats built on the model of the Venetian gondola, and propelled by paddles, there being as yet no bridge.

The Aline was anchoring off the town when a message was brought us from the Raja, who kindly offered to place the “Astana” bungalow aforementioned at our disposal during our stay in the country. We gladly availed ourselves of his invitation, and were soon ashore and comfortably installed in our new quarters.