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Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, although smaller than Pontianak and other Dutch settlements on the coast of Bornéo, is generally acknowledged to be the first town in Bornéo so far as civilisation and comfort are concerned, and is renowned for its Bazaar, which is the best-built and cleanest in the island. There are two good roads extending at right angles from the town to a distance of seven miles each, at which point they are united by a third. These form a pleasant drive or ride, an amusement unknown in most Bornean townships, where the jungle and undergrowth are usually so dense as to defy any attempts at walking, to say nothing of riding or driving.

The number of Europeans in Kuching, although limited, and consisting of but some twenty in all (five of whom are ladies), form a pleasant little coterie, and there is a marked absence of the scandal and squabbling which generally seems inseparable from any place wherein a limited number of our countrymen and women are assembled. The occasional presence of an English or Dutch man-of-war, also, breaks the monotony of life, and enlivens matters considerably.

The Club, a comfortable stone building, was founded by the Government a few years ago, and contains bed-rooms for the use of out-station officers when on a visit to Kuching. A lawn-tennis ground and bowling alley are attached to it, and serve to kill the time, which, however, rarely hung heavily on our hands in this cheerful little place.

Riding and driving are but still in their infancy, and Kuching boasted of only some dozen horses and four carriages including a sporting little tandem of Deli (Sumatra) ponies, owned by the Resident. The Deli pony is a rare-shaped little animal, standing from 13 hands to 13.2, with immense strength, and very fast. They would be worth their weight in gold in Europe, and an enterprising Dutch merchant lately shipped a cargo of them to Amsterdam from Singapore, via the Suez Canal, with what result I never ascertained. A new road was being cut when we were there from Kuching to Penrisen, a mountain some thirty miles off, which, when completed, may bring a few more horses here; but Bornéo (except far north) can never become a riding or driving country.

Kuching has its newspaper, which is published fortnightly, in the English language, and brought out under the editorship of the Postmaster. This journal contains, among other subjects, the doings of the law courts, reports from the various Residencies, and arrivals and departures of ships, with occasionally an interesting account of a journey inland made by the Resident of one of the up-coast districts. The Sarawak Gazette was organised in 1871, and will form an interesting history of the country in years to come.

But the most interesting and novel sight in Kuching is its Bazaar, which is built in arcades a la Rue de Rivoli, the shops therein belonging chiefly to Chinamen, excepting three or four held by Indians. Birmingham and Manchester furnish these emporiums to a large extent, the article finding most favour with the natives in the edible line being Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits, which are imported to Kuching in great quantities. All kinds of brass and crockery-ware, cheap cloth (shoddy), Sheffield cutlery, imitation jewellery, gongs, &c., form the greater part of the goods for sale; but I was surprised, my first walk down the Bazaar, at the great number of large china jars exposed for sale, four or five of these standing at nearly every door. I subsequently found that these are held in great esteem by the Dyaks, and I afterwards saw some in their houses that the owners refused 300 dols. (L60) for! The latter were, however, bona fide ones, some 400 years old, and came from China. Worthless imitations have been sent out from England and Holland of late years, but they proved a bad speculation to the importers, for the Dyak is, in his way, as good a judge of jars as the veriest chinamaniac at home of Sèvres or Dresden.

The Chinese are, as I have said, the principal householders in the Bazaar, the richest among them being the Brothers Ken-Wat, a firm trading in gutta, gold-dust, and diamonds, with Singapore and China. Bornéo has ever been famous for its diamonds, and, although scarce in quantity, I have heard good judges affirm that they are the finest in quality of any in the world. Some large stones have been found in Sarawak territory, and, only lately, one was discovered by a Chinaman, and sold to Government, weighing 87 carats.

The silver coinage in use in Sarawak is the Mexican dollar, but the copper coinage of cents and half-cents bear the head of the Raja.

A walk under the arcades of the Bazaar in the busy part of the day (11.30 a.m.) is well repaid by the curious spectacle presented thronged as it is with the quaint dark blue dresses of the Chinese and the gaudy, rainbow-hued garments of the Malays, while now and again a land Dyak from up river may be seen, clad in his “chawat” (waist-band) and turban, evidently quite out of his element, and half-scared at the busy scene around him.

The public health of Kuching, which has a mixed population of 20,000, is good, notwithstanding a severe outbreak of cholera which occurred in 1877 and carried off a great number of the inhabitants; and the climate, for a tropical one, is exceptionally healthy. Although the mid-day heat is during six months in the year excessive, the nights are nearly always cool, for a day seldom passes without a squall of wind and rain during the latter part of the afternoon, which clears the atmosphere. Consumption is unknown in Sarawak; and an English officer who came out to join the government service, afflicted with this complaint, completely recovered after a residence of three years in the country. Indeed, if due attention be paid to diet, and the excessive use of stimulants avoided, a long period may elapse in this climate without returning home to recruit; and there is now an officer living in Kuching who has not been out of the place for eighteen years, and who is in as good health as when he left Europe.

Our days at Kuching slipped pleasantly by. A plunge in the large Astana swimming-bath at dawn began the day; after which, our light breakfast of coffee, eggs, and fruit over, we would go across river for a ride or stroll out with a gun; and during my morning’s walk past the neat town and bungalows, the latter surrounded with their pretty gardens and trim hedges, I often thought of what poor old Muda Hasim would think could he arise from his grave and compare Kuching the modern with the Kuching of forty years ago half a dozen Malay houses on a mud bank!

Dejeunner a la fourchette over, a siesta and cigar would be indulged in till five o’clock, when a ride or rattling set-to at lawn tennis, followed by a refreshing bath, prepared one for dinner the more enjoyable for the violent exercise that had preceded it. Such was our daily life in Kuching, and one that I shall ever look back upon with pleasure.

But the loveliest countries have their little drawbacks, Sarawak not excepted. Mosquitoes and sand-flies are not, although very numerous, the worst evils in the land, for I was startled, my first night in Kuching, while lying half-awake in bed, to feel something cold and slimy run across my chest. Thinking it was a snake, I was out of bed like (to use a Yankee expression) “greased lightning,” and was not a little relieved to find that the cause of the mischief was only a “chik-chak,” or common lizard of the country, which was larger than usual in this case, being nearly a foot long.

But the true curses of Sarawak are the rats. Go where you will, avoid them as you may, there is not a bungalow that is not infested with them, and boots, shirts, and even cigars, suffer in consequence. No sooner in bed, and the lights out, than their gambols commence, and they sometimes make such a noise as to keep one awake for the greater part of the night. I have sometimes gone out to the verandah, thinking I heard men’s footsteps, and found it to be rats, who fled at my approach. These pests occasionally migrate at night in large numbers, several hundred of them on one occasion passing through the Raja’s bed-room at Astana on one of these nocturnal expeditions. Nor are mosquito curtains a guard against them, for an out-station officer at Simanggang, on the Batang Lupar river, woke up one night to find a huge grey rascal sitting on his chest and endeavouring to make a hearty meal off his jersey.

To get rid of rats is, therefore, well-nigh impossible, though a plan adopted by some Europeans of keeping a boa-constrictor between the roofs and ceilings of their bungalows is the most effectual.

There are many snakes in Bornéo, but none, with the exception of the cobra, are deadly. Centipedes and scorpions are common, and the Tarantula spider is also occasionally, though rarely, met with.

After nearly a fortnight’s stay in the capital, we made preparations for an excursion to Matang, of which we wished to make the ascent, and whither we were about to accompany Mr. H., who was formerly agent of the Raja’s coffee estate, half-way up the mountain.