CRUISING DOWN THE RIVER ………. In 1963
by Leonard Wee Cheng Liang (Ex-teacher and senior citizen)
It was not on a proverbial Sunday afternoon and there were no constellations in the sky either and we were definitely not lovers waiting for the moon, but six eager beavers (please read 3 teachers and 3 students of SDAR Tanjong Malim, Perak) embarking on a riverine expedition i.e. canoe to Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island) from Tanjong Malim along the Bernam River (Sungai Bernam) viz. a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer from the US of A); a VSO ( a British Volunteer Service Overseas teacher; a Malaysian PE (Physical Education) teacher and three SDAR (Sekolah Dato Abdul Razak, Tanjong Malim) students.
The American PCV – Robert Bojanowski
The British VSO – Michael Irving
The Malaysian PE teacher – Leonard Wee Cheng Liang
The SDAR students
- Zahid Muhamad – Head Prefect
- Annuar Latif – Deputy Head Prefect
- Murad Ismail – Woodworker extraordinaire
But it was a bright and early morning in April 1963 (cannot recall the actual day but it was the First Day of the First Term school holidays) and the launching platform was the Bernam River (Sungai Bernam) when the team of brave and adventurous canoeists launched three double-seater kayaks made of canvas and wood . These small crafts were fashioned in the school’s Woodwork Room after school hours usually in the afternoons and weekends for well over a period of six months. Grateful thanks and sincere appreciation is extended to the then Woodwork teacher, Mr Lim Teng Choon, who assisted in the project and entrusted his domain (the Woodwork Room) to the Team.
Having acquired the basic skills of canoeing and kayaking as a hobby during his Brinsford Lodge Teacher Training days under ‘cool England skies’ and having experienced and overcome the cold and rough waters off Devon Coast, South England, Leonard was only too happy to share the limited skills he had acquired with the courageous members of the expeditionary Team and join them on that epic quest.
The intrepid Team was waved off by the Principal Encik Amat Miun, Mrs Josephine Wee, fellow teachers and students of the school from the bank of the Bernam river that flowed beside the school on that bright and early morning in April 1963. Beaming with excitement and nonchalance the flotilla of 3 kayaks rowed happily away to embark on a journey that promised plenty of thrills (and hopefully no spills) down a river that had swollen that morning after an unexpected torrential rain overnight. Even the first encounter with misfortune that occurred hardly an hour later, when one of the boats sprung a leak caused by the canvas bottom being pierced by a submerged branch of a tree, did not dampen the esprit de corps of the team but made them more determined to forge ahead. The leak was patched and the canoe made sea-worthy (or river-worthy?) and the expedition continued a little later with renewed vigour and fortitude. We had learnt from the incident which had made us more prudent in navigating the swollen river. It was decided that the lead canoe should provide ample warning of impending hazards like submerged logs, trees and branches, rocks and rapids, crocodiles (as it was rumoured that Sungai Bernam harboured a special species that were always looking out for fresh land-lubbers like us, especially the imported ones to add to their menus) and other impediments. We took turns to perform that manoeuvre and it stood us in good stead for the rest of the journey as it added to the challenges of the adventure and kept us on our toes (quite impossible physically as we were on our bottoms most of the time !). Our immediate objective was to head for Sabak Bernam the coastal township situated at the mouth of the Bernam River estimated to be a couple of hundred of river-miles away from our launching area. The estimated duration to achieve that goal was to be 4 days of paddling and enjoying the riverine scenery as we rowed along the diverging and meandering flow of the water during daylight and to camp at dusk by the riverside. Spending the nights in tents pitched in a clearing by the side of the river in the middle of the jungle and trying to ease our tiredness was not easy when one had to contend with very unfamiliar noises and sounds that one had not been accustomed to, like the screeching sounds of insects, hissing and slithering noise of snakes, grunting of wild boars and roar of tigers (imagined or otherwise) during the first night. (Someone even complained very excitedly the next morning of hearing distant trumpeting of elephants).
Our intrepid pursuit was ameliorated by the hospitality of a very friendly and kind gentleman, Mr Spledewinde, who was the Manager of the Danish palm oil and rubber estates that the Bernam river meandered through , who upon being informed by his workers that there was a group of very ‘strange people’ who had ‘invaded’ their private territory in sampans made of cloth, came out hastily (with a shot-gun et al) to investigate and take any necessary measures to safeguard his assets but instead welcomed us heartily when he saw us and concluded how harmless and hapless we were. He treated us to dinner and allowed us to establish camp on his estate compound. The next day he even pointed out to us the direction to head for and arranged for us to camp at another section of his estate near some living quarters of his workmen who were equally happy to meet us and later helped us to pitch our tents and accommodated us with their modest hospitality.
On the fifth day we knew we were close to our first targeted destination and civilisation when we unexpectedly encountered mass of water that ‘came-at-us’ instead of ‘flowed-with-us’. Actually it was high tide and the waters of the Straits of Malacca were ‘coming out to welcome us!’ So we had to paddle harder and be more vigilant, watching out for the ‘wake’ caused by big boats ladened with their huge and valuable cargoes, which streamed past us. The river had widened beyond expectation and imagination and had become a busy thoroughfare for big boats and barges transporting rubber, palm oil, coconuts and logs from the plantations and jungle we had passed. Whew! We heaved a sigh of relief when we realised that we had reached Sabak Bernam after five gruelling days! We made sure we kept to the right side of the river so that we could just follow the shore-line to the island the next day. After a good night’s rest we resumed our journey following the coast-line towards Pangkor Island which we had hoped to reach in about 5 days. The paddling got harder as we had to battle waves and waist-deep mud when our small boats got stuck in the mangrove swamps along the shore-line and we had to get out of our canoes to push them onto deeper water. We adopted a safe approach by keeping as close to the shore as possible. Large fishing vessels and boats churning up huge wakes as they passed us did not help. But the waving of hands and shouts of encouragement from those on board did rejuvenate our efforts and we acknowledged their waves and ‘thumb-up signs’ happily. Our vision of a leisurely ‘Sunday afternoon cruise’ had become more challenging. There were no more branches of trees that we could go under for relief from the hot and burning sun, for a pow-wow and a swig of water, which incidentally were not simple and easy procedures as we had to hold the 3 canoes and keep them together as they bobbed up and down on the sea whilst we gathered our thoughts and discussed the next strategy and took turns to drink from our water bottles sparingly.
By then most of us had ‘lost’ a couple of layers of skin (like snakes?) through peeling caused by sun-burn. Paddling hard in the morning and then heading for a small fishing kampong (village) later in the mid-day sun was the order of the day so as to get some respite from the burning sun and for some much-needed rest and food before we resumed our journey after having obtained some good advice and directions from the people in the villages we had stopped for rest. The kampong folks were very friendly and kind. Having two ‘orang puteh’ with us certainly helped. They were full of awe and curiosity and questions of our adventure and, of course, the presence of Mr. Robert Bojanowski and Michael Irving Esq. added to their curiosity as Westerners were rarities to some of the villagers!
On day nine of our journey we started out early by following some fishing boats and instead of heading for Lumut we made a beeline for Pangkor Island when we decided that we could manage to get to our destination by the afternoon by foregoing the lunch-stop.
It was gung-ho to Pangkor from then on! With heads bowed and heavy arms on aching shoulders we ploughed on with the mantra “Pangkor here we come! Pangkor here we come!” timed with every stroke of the paddle hitting the water spurring us forward. At long last, hitting the beach of Pangkor Island in the late afternoon was such a tremendous joy that we jumped out of our kayaks and kissed the sandy beach of Pangkor Island with great joy and relief. It was time for the big congratulatory hugs and tears of joy amongst the weary but happy team for quite a while much to the bemusement of the holiday crowd there. At that moment we could just imagine how Christopher Columbus and Francis Drake felt in similar circumstances many many years ago.
We made it! How awesome! Well done guys! It was marvellous!
It was certainly not ‘cruising down the river’ alright! But what an adventure it was! One that was certainly worth writing home about. And the story of the expedition was told and re-told time and again whenever American PCV, Bob Bojanowski and British VSO Michael Irving, Zahid Muhamad, Annuar Latif, Murad Ismail SDAR students and Che Gu Wee took the well-tried and seasoned canoes out to the Bernam River that flowed by the school to introduce to the many enthusiastic students of SDAR, Tanjong Malim the art of “cruising” down the river on most Sundays for a leisurely and rewarding experience !