Thursday, 16 October 2008

Canoeing Down Sabah's Second Longest River (Segama River)

Canoeing Down Sabah's Second Longest River
(Segama River)
Rivers had always been a part of my life. It had been a source of fun. We depended on it for our living. Many-a-time, it almost took my life. Because of these, I had great respect for rivers.

Towards the end of 1978, we received the good news from Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade based in Kota Kinabalu. Units were encouraged to carry out “adventure training” within their area of responsibility. Unlike Malaya and Sarawak, Sabah had always enjoyed comparative peace, except for the sporadic raids by pirates along its Eastern coasts and islands.

When the news came, my first thought was on white-water canoeing. Water, somehow, had always been a part of my life. I was no stranger to riverine adventures. I had crossed the mighty Rejang in a makeshift canoe when I was seven years old. I had capsized in the middle of Kamena River. I had conquered the treacherous rapids of Perak River in a dug-out canoe! Today, with the availability of kayaks, it was an unthinkable idea to shoot the rapids in dug-out canoes! After what I had gone through, I was naturally inclined towards yet another riverine adventure.

I made a map reconnaissance. Segama River seemed the most likely river that could offer the challenges I was looking for. However, I needed to have a closer look at the condition and situation along the whole length of the river. A week later I had my request for an air reconnaissance granted. A Royal Malaysian Air Force Allouette helicopter took me and my Second-In-Command, Lieutenant Mohd Saad to have a closer look at the river. The sea and the river mouth were misty. Strong winds were whipping up the waves frenzy. It was the usual rough weather at this time of the year. It was monsoon season - the time of the year when fishermen were forced to stay home and mend their fishing nets. There was little else they could do, anyway.

The sea was too rough for their small boats. As we flew inland, the milky-coloured river twisted and turned through the seemingly flat and thickly forested lowland. This was the sanctuary of the pygmy elephants, monkeys and many other protected species of wildlife. We flew past the town of Lahad Datu and could see the point where the Lahad Datu – Sandakan trunk road was severed by the Segama River. An old-fashioned ferry pulled by steel cables was the only mean of transporting vehicles and people to and from the opposite banks.                                                                                                                                                  

From here on, the terrain rose sharply into the mountainous interior. And for the first time I saw white water as the river went through narrow gorges and steep gradient. That was the sort of river I was looking for. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any motorable tracks that we could use to carry our rubber dinghies and equipment to where the rapids were. Neither could we find any suitable helicopter landing point. It was apparent that our adventure down the Segama River would have to begin from the ferry point, a distance of more than 100 kilometers to the coast.
The Eastern Coast of Sabah

The number of personnel I could take on the adventure training depended on the number of dinghies available in the Battalion Assault Pioneer platoon. There were only five good dinghies – one small, two medium and two large, each could comfortably accommodate two, four and five people respectively. I could only take twenty men. I wanted to be fair and asked for volunteers who could swim and didn’t have any phobia of water.                                                                                                                                                    

We spent the next few days on maintenance. Over years of neglect and never being used, the dinghies were in dire need of maintenance – pin-hole punctures had to be patched, missing ropes replaced and loose screws tightened. The dinghies were mouldy and had to be scrubbed and dried under the sun. We knew the inflatable rubber dinghies would be prone to punctures and ensured we bring enough repair kits, as it would be impossible to find them along the river. We couldn’t take any chances.                                          

December 1, 1978. 
I had given myself ten days to complete the journey to the coast. It was a misjudgment. Despite the slow current and the absence of rapids, we were to complete the journey in only five days.                            

After two weeks of preparations, twenty of us, all volunteers, left for our staging camp in Lahad Datu on December 1, 1978. The whole country was still under the spell of the monsoon season. The main trunk road from Tawau to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu was still under construction. It was dusty in dry weather and muddy and slippery when wet. It took us five hours to reach Lahad Datu camp.                            

December 2, 1978 – Day 1. 
We wanted to start the day early and were at the ferry crossing point at 8.00 a.m. Curious onlookers were beginning to gather around us as we assembled and inflated our dinghies. By 9.00 a.m., we were on our way to discover and unravel the secrets of Segama River.
Inflating our dinghies at the ferry crossing point at Lahad Datu.

We were caught unprepared by what we were about to face. Climax of the monsoon season had passed. The swollen river was subsiding, but still well above its normal level. The water was murky and I realised we would have problem finding clean water for drinking and cooking. Notice the ferry in the background.

At this time the monsoon season was subsiding. But the aftermath and havoc it created is what you see in the picture - murky water and mud on the river banks. However, the problem was not that acute. We could find acceptably clean water in the tributaries of Segama River. It would be perfectly safe for drinking, after boiling. We had gone through worse situation before. A couple of villages along the river were supplied with piped water where we could fill up our water containers. 

The weather was really hot. We tried to erect some form of shades on our dinghies and use whatever head gears we could lay our hands on.

The moment we left the ferry point, the breeze stopped. It made the already unbearable heat even hotter. We were not prepared for this form of challenge. I had thought the trees along the river bank could provide us the much-needed shade from the scorching heat of the sun. I was wrong.                                                    

After about five kilometers and with no sign of let-up, we decided to stop to erect make-shift shelters on our dinghies. They looked undignified but provided us the protection from the sun. We didn’t want to be like over-cooked lobsters too soon as we had a long way to go.

Being the first day, we didn’t want to exert ourselves too much. After all, we didn’t have any dateline to meet and could take all the time in the world. I wanted to enjoy every inch and every minute of the journey. At 3.00 p.m. and after covering thirteen kilometers, we made a night stop by the river bank. That evening, we soaked ourselves in the cool comfort of Segama River. It was like a tonic. I could feel my energy and spirit seeping back into my hot and tired body. Tired after about five hours of rowing and the thought of another full day tomorrow, we hit our hammocks by 8.00 p.m.and lulled into sleep by the cacophonies of the cicadas, crickets and nocturnal birds.

I took a cool bath in a small tributary where the water was less muddy. I didn't want to swim because the bottom of the stream was muddy.

December 3, 1978 – Day 2
The light dawn drizzle kept us a little longer in our hammocks. Breakfast was a speedy affair. We cooked instant noodles and washed it down with tea. It was over within ten minutes
This was a typical scene when we had our meals by the river banks.
I'm in the centre in white T shirt.

At approximately 7.30 a.m., we continued our journey down the Segama. The welcomed drizzles followed us most of the way. It helped to cool us down. It provided a welcome relief from the sweltering heat.
Some of the picturesque scenes we encountered on the way down.
The river was becoming noticeably broader by the hour. Its colour, however, remained milky - indication of logging activities in the interior. Strange though, there were no signs of wildlife – not even monkeys and birds. We had lunch by the river bank and at 4.00 p.m., decided to stop for the night.                                

December 4, 1978 – Day 3.
We woke up to loud croaking of frogs and chirpings of birds as they heralded-in a hot fine day. Spears of sunlight pierced through the thick morning mist. Giant trees towered above us. A number of gibbons were jumping from branches to branches high above us – unperturbed and perhaps unaware of our presence.
This rock was said to have been bombed by the Japanese troops, possibly to allow their patrol vessels to go deeper inland.

As we rounded a bend, we were awed by a huge rock protruding in the middle of the river. The Tidongs further downriver later told us that a Japanese patrol boat had tried to blow it up when they occupied Sabah in the early 40s, presumably to allow them to go further upriver. We passed remnants of two abandoned villages. Perhaps due to frequent flooding, the villagers had moved away from the flood-prone areas. At 5.00 p.m, after covering a distance of 27 km, we decided to make the night stop at a village called Litang.

December 5, 1978 – Day 4.
We had passed the pygmy elephant sanctuary but didn’t have the luck to see the elephant. I noticed two small leaks in my dinghy. However, they were nothing to worry about. As usual, we stopped for lunch at 12 noon and I took the opportunity to patch up the leaks. At 3 p.m, after about 17 km, we reached a village called Tomanggong Kecil. I decided to stop there for the day and carry out checks and maintenance on our dinghies, which had been in the water for four days.

December 6, 1978 – Day 5.
The monsoon rain came down with vengeance at about 3 a.m. when we were still fast asleep. We were awakened by claps of thunder and strong gusts of wind which blew cold drops of rain onto our faces. Despite having an interrupted sleep that night, we kept our schedule and left Tomanggong Kecil at 7.40 a.m. The river was a little swollen after the night’s heavy downpour. We reached Kampong Tidong at 1 p.m. It was the last village along the Segama River and closest to the Sulu Sea on the North Eastern coast of Sabah.

Look at the ankle-deep mud. This was Kg Tidong, our final destination on the Segama River.

We stopped at a jetty, tied our dinghies and climbed up onto dry land. The village was made up of a number of typical, Malay-like houses. This was the home of the Tidong clan. Talking to them was easy as they spoke the Malay language. They were friendly and were quick to offer us any assistance we required. That evening, we invited the village headman, Pak Cik Ahmad and a young man called Ghani to share our dinner of Army ration and some fresh fish we had caught on the way down. They were very pleased to accept our invitation. We were the first group of soldiers that had visited their village since World War 2!

The next day, I and my Company Second-In-Command, Lieutenant Saad, went down to the mouth of Segama River in Ghani’s boat, which was powered by a five horse-power outboard engine. We provided the petrol. Besides looking at the possibility of continuing and ending our journey on the coast, we also wanted to earmark a suitable location for a helicopter landing point where it could pick us up. Looking at the speed of the incoming tide, I knew it was impossible for us to go against it and get down to the coast.

I didn’t want to take the risk of being swept out into the sea by the strong current. Furthermore, the lack of fresh water was another deriding factor that prompted me to decide and end the journey at Kampong Tidong.
Ghani, our boatman, was the son of the village Headman. He wouldn't accept any money I wanted to give him for a whole day's job. He just wanted us to provide the petrol.

It had taken us a good two hours to reach the coast using a six-horse-power outboard engine. We were fascinated by the black-coloured sands that stretched as far as eyes could see. The strong monsoon wind whipped the Sulu Sea raging wild. From where we were, the roars of the huge waves as they rumbled and crashed on the beaches were awesome. White sprays covered the sea like a fog. There was no way boats could go out or come in.

During this time, the Tidongs were prisoners in their own village. On the return journey, we stopped by a deserted logging camp. Logging activities had also been put on hold, waiting for the fury of the monsoon season to tide over. Despite being on a patch of dry land, there was no suitable place that we could use as a helicopter landing point. Both sides of the river were mangroves swamps. We were disappointed and returned to the village. The village didn’t have any open field and the only suitable landing point was an area with several big trees, not far from the village. After obtaining permission from the village headman to use the location and cut down the trees, we set down to clear the area with the help of the villagers. It was hard work and took us several days. It was a good thing we had ample time as we were five days ahead of schedule.

We cleared a jungle patch for our helicopter landing point with the help of the Tidongs

The day finally came for us to say farewell to the Tidongs. As our Nuri helicopter took off vertically to clear the tall surrounding trees, we could see their faces, wearing looks with a thousand messages. We wondered whether we’d cross each other’s path again. We knew it would be very unlikely. Our two years operational tour of duty in Sabah was due to end very soon. We were returning to Peninsula Malaysia. Before we knew it, our two years in Tawau, Sabah drew to a close. At the end of 1979, just when we were getting used to the pace of life there, 3rd Battalion the Malaysian Rangers packed up again. This time we were moving to Terendak Camp in Malacca – a beautiful camp facing the Straits of Malacca.

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