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An Adventure in the Heart of Malay-land

by Alexander Macdonald, F.R.G.S.

To the world-wanderer the confines of our little planet seem very limited indeed, and to him there are few regions within its boundaries which remain long unknown. Yet to the vast majority of people Old Mother Earth abounds in many a terra incognita.

Away in the East, where the Indian Ocean merges into the China Sea, where the sunny waters of the Malacca Straits are being ceaselessly furrowed by giant steamers and merchantmen, lies a land, which though spoken of glibly by every schoolboy, is to-day one of the least explored countries of the globe. The Malay Peninsula is a familiar enough name, and so it ought to be, for it skirts the ocean highway to the Flowery Kingdom and to some of our most valuable island possessions; still, it is a strange fact that this narrow neck of land is, geographically speaking, one of the world's darkest areas.

Its seaboard is generally flat and overgrown with mangroves to a depth of several miles, but the interior is an extremely mountainous region, containing elevations of over eight thousand feet. An irregular backbone connects all these great heights, and it itself is of no mean dimensions, being throughout well over three thousand feet above sea-level. Between the mountain-peaks, as may be imagined, there is little room for fertile plateaus, and the most settled districts in consequence are those farthest away from the towering ranges; of these Selangor is, perhaps, the most noteworthy. Here vast forests and jungle scrub extend everywhere, though the trees are being rapidly cut down by the numerous Chinese tin-miners in the settlement; and here also is the capital of the Federated Malay States, whose petty rulers within recent years have united their forces under a British Protectorate.

Perak, towards the north-west, and Pahang, stretching over to the sea on the eastern side, are the two most mountainous divisions in the Confederacy, and to the traveller they are also the most interesting because of the immunity of their interior fastnesses from the visits of white men. Numerous rivers reach the coast on both sides of the central watershed, many of those rising in the highlands of Pahang and Kelantan being absolutely untraced and unnamed. The entire country near the coast, on the east as on the west, may be said to be given over to rank jungles, in which the lordly tiger, the one-horned rhinoceros, the wild pig, and tapir have their homes, and monkeys of almost every species are abundant in the wooded slopes.

One-half of the world's tin is produced in the Malay States; it is mined chiefly in Selangor and Malacca, and forms the mainstay of the country's prosperity, though, curiously enough, little or no stanniferous deposits have been found on the eastern side of the dividing range. But though very few people know it, the most valuable of all metals has been discovered on the upper waters of the Pahang River and tributaries. The Chinese swarm in their thousands on the western slopes, and outnumber the Malays by more than three to one. They are surely the bane of the wanderer's existence.

The Malays are not the aboriginal race of the Peninsula, though they have lived on the coast for centuries, and are descended from the bloodthirsty pirates who terrorised the Straits of Malacca. The real owners of the country are the Sakis, a wild race who in appearance vie with their brethren in Central Australia, and are very little different from the chimpanzees which infest the forests. They hold no intercourse with the coast-dwellers, and are rarely seen unless by the adventurous traveller, for their retreat is among the mountains, and as far away from John Chinaman's presence as it is possible to get.

The Sakis are a rude and miserably backward people. Like the Papuans of New Guinea, they build their huts in the branches of trees; but for this they have good reason—the prowling animals of the forest would otherwise soon obliterate the slowly dying tribe. Their only weapons are the sumpitan, or blow-pipe, and a club, which is not unlike the "waddie" of the Australian aboriginal; but with these they can do quite enough damage to deter all but the reckless from visiting their chosen haunts.

The charm of far-off countries has ever had a great power over all Britons; the true traveller's instinct is in their blood, and the noble array of red markings on our maps amply testify to the brilliance of their achievements. Knowing this, I speak with care of a country that I have traversed in my wanderings, so that if others who read these words may feel impelled to take up the pilgrim staff, they may at least rely upon my humble observations.

A few years back, after journeying through Achin in Sumatra—another little-known "corner" jealously guarded by the Dutch—I, with my five companions, found it necessary to betake ourselves to British Dominions, having given offence to the Holland Government by our peregrinations through the hostile Achinese territory. So we embarked on a Malay trader bound for Klang, the port of Selangor, and commenced an expedition which I can recall now as being one of the most interesting of all my travels. The details of our progress across the Peninsula could not be given here, but I will relate one of our first experiences with the tree-dwellers of Kelantan, when we were camped on the head-waters of the Lebah River in that province, where, I believe, no white man had ever been before.

We had systematically prospected the various mountain-streams in the west for gold without result; but here we had discovered unmistakable traces of the precious metal; and our hearts being gladdened accordingly, we prepared to explore still farther into the mountains in search of the mother-lode.

"It's rather a curious thing," said Phil at this time, "that we have met none of the Sakis so far. I should like to see a specimen of the tribe before we leave their confounded country."

"They're like oorsel's," grunted Mac, "they canna abide the smell o' Cheeniemen; but A'm thinkin' we're near their special habitation noo."

There was considerable truth in Mac's observation. All along the Perak River, which we had followed for nearly a hundred miles before branching off across an inviting pass in the dividing ranges, we had met the almond-eyed Celestials in great bands clearing the forest growths and prospecting for tin in the most unlikely places. Perak, I should mention, is the Malay word for silver, it having been supposed that vast lodes of that metal abounded in the river valley; but, as a matter of fact, there has been very little silver located anywhere near its vicinity.

We had managed to shake off the yellow-skinned Mongols immediately we diverged into the mountains, and since that time we had been crossing luxurious upland forests, and struggling through long stretches of jungle country in turn. It was quite possible that the Sakis had seen us, though we had not seen them, for our time had been more occupied in evading reptiles and wild animals than in scanning the tree-tops for their imp-like denizens.

"I vote," said the Captain, who was the dead-shot of our party, "that we leave the Sakis alone. We're in their country now, you know, and there's such a thing as tempting Providence."

Phil smiled; he was young and enthusiastic, and he was also an ardent ethnographist. "We'll take things as we find them, Captain," said he, "but we usually manage to run across some odd specimens of humanity in our travels. Now, what did you think of the Achinese?"

"A thocht them wonderfu' bloodthirsty folk," grumbled Stewart, tenderly patting a slowly healing scar on his cheek. "They vera near feenished me, an' if Mac hadna come along in time A wad hae been cut into sausages——"

I interrupted his ruminations, and saved the company a harrowing description of what had happened in Sumatra. "We've heard that so often now, Stewart," I said, "that we think you might give us a rest."

Mac cackled harshly in agreement, but Skelton, the stalwart Devonian, who was doctor of our outfit, said rather grimly, "If you get a similar smash in this country, Stewart, my boy, I'm afraid you won't live to tell of it, for we don't seem to be getting into a healthier atmosphere, though we are a good few thousand feet above sea-level."

Stewart subsided gloomily, feeling his pulse the while.

"A believe ye're richt," he replied lugubriously, "what wi' malaria an' muskitties, an' Cheeniemen——"

He broke down, and sought sympathy from his compatriot, who was leisurely chewing quinine tabloids with an air of relish.

"Dinna be nervish, ma man," cheerfully spoke that worthy, "an' aye keep in mind that A'll mak' ye a bonnie moniment when A gang hame; a rale bonnie moniment, wi' a maist splendiferous inscreeption. Hoo would this look, for instance?" Here he struck an attitude, and recited solemnly: "Errected tae the memory o' puir auld Stewart——"

At this stage Stewart smote his Job's comforter with a force and fervour that showed him to be possessed of considerable muscular powers; then there was peace.

Our hammocks were swung near the river, on the edge of a dense forest in which areca and apia palms raised their stately heads among ebony and camphor trees, and a plentiful sprinkling of wiry bamboo growths. The foliage was so thick in places as to be almost impenetrable, and amid the clinging underscrub the guttapercha plant and numerous others with names unknown to us struggled for existence.

The river was here a fairly broad and oily stream, with rather a dangerous current; below us it surged and roared over a series of jagged limestone rocks, but higher up its course led across a plateau which extended farther than we could guess, for the mountains faded back into the far distance and reared their gaunt peaks above a bewildering sea of luxurious tropical vegetation. It was these mountains we were anxious to reach now, but how to do it promised to be a question not easily answered.

After some consideration we decided to follow the river-channel as far as possible, and cut off the curves by blazing a way through the thicket with our axes. And so, on the morning following our discovery of gold, we packed a fortnight's stores in our kits and trudged off, first taking the precaution to sling our remaining provisions in an odd hammock from the limb of a tall palm, where we hoped to find them on our return. Travelling is not an easy matter in these latitudes, and we had succeeded so far only with great difficulty and much perseverance. Where the rivers were navigable we had usually progressed by means of hastily constructed rafts, but the stream now flowed too swiftly to allow of that form of transport, and we had therefore to work our passage in the strictest sense of the word.

For three days we forged ahead, now clambering along the banks of the swirling torrent, and again crashing through the darkened forest, using our axes energetically. More than once, in the stiller waters between the curves, huge crocodiles were seen disporting themselves cumbrously, and when we approached they fixed their baleful eyes on us, and came steadily on until the Captain stopped their leader by a well-directed bullet. The crocodiles of this region seemed extremely ferocious, and no sooner had one of their number been rendered hors de combat than the horrible carcass was carried off in triumph by a school of the late saurian's neighbours.

"They appear tae have vera healthy appetites," murmured Stewart thoughtfully, as he gazed at the ravenous monsters, after an exhibition of this sort. "A wunner," he continued, addressing Skelton, "if they bastes are affected by the climate?"

"You've got me there, Stewart," replied Skelton, with a laugh; "but they don't seem to need quinine to aid their digestion, anyhow."

Birds of the most beautiful plumage fluttered among the branches, and I had the good fortune to bring down a gorgeous bird of paradise with my rifle. Mac, like the ancient mariner, insisted on carrying this bird round his neck rather than leave it for the tigers and bisons, though he repented of his resolution before he had gone far. Of the wild animals encountered on this march I could write much. Fortunately the lordly tiger seldom met us in an aggressive mood, but we had several experiences with "Old Stripes," nevertheless—at long range; and we were constantly stumbling over squeaking pigs and venomous reptiles of many kinds. Little brown animals of the bear family were especially ubiquitous, so that our time was kept rather fully employed on our long trail towards the supposed land of El Dorado.

As we neared the shadowy mountains, the river-channel narrowed gradually until it formed a deep gorge, in which the swirling waters dashed like the flood of some gigantic mill-race; and we were forced to keep the shelter of the forest rather than risk stumbling into the apparently bottomless abysses.

"I'm afraid we cannot go much farther, boys," I said, when we were struggling through the thicket, steering by compass, and with the river thundering noisily away to our left.

"The gold in the mountains won't help us much if we have to transport our goods over this sort of country," spoke Phil; and there was much truth in his words.

"I have been noticing," remarked Skelton, "that instead of reaching a finer climate we seem to be coming into a very poisonous atmosphere, judging by the odour of the vegetation."

It was certainly strange that the air should continue so dank and depressing at our high altitude, and several times a most extraordinary stench, as of decaying carcasses, would assail our nostrils and cause us to grow faint and sickly. Soon we began to notice that these poisonous vapours were most pungent in the vicinity of certain enormous cactus-like growths which we encountered here and there; but these huge plants looked so picturesque and beautiful that we found it hard to believe that they could taint the air so frightfully.

"It's rather odd," said Skelton doubtfully, "that where these giant spiky lilies grow there is always an open space clear around, as if nothing could live in their presence."

"Ah, mon!" howled Mac at that moment, sniffing the ether in disgust. "Could onybody believe—— A'll gang an' investeegate this meenit. Come on, Stewart."

They rushed off at once, and we followed hastily, for the evil exhalations were overpowering, and we meant to trace the cause. Sure enough one of the cacti, with wide-spreading leaves which trailed on the ground for several yards, proved to be the seat of the virulent fumes. None of us had ever met such a plant before. A vast bulb was suspended on a thick stem, which rose from the heart of the leathery leaves, and this we prepared to examine intently, though we were all but overcome by the foul gases given off.

"It's a big an' a bonnie flooer," muttered Stewart, extending his hand, and thrusting it into the massive blossom. Then he emitted a yell that would have done credit to a full-grown grizzly bear. "It's living!" he bellowed, "an' it's biting me. Cut its heid aff! Quick! Ough!"

"A carnivorous plant!" cried Skelton, decapitating the stem with one stroke of his axe; and Stewart hurriedly drew back his hand with the clinging flower attached. It was indeed a carnivorous plant, and when we had rescued our companion from its clutches, we held our nostrils and examined the depths of the odoriferous flower.

"No wonder it smells," said Phil, as the carcasses of birds and insects innumerable were tumbled out.

"What a grand thing it would be for Cheeniemen!" commented Mac.

"Let's go on, boys, for mercy's sake," implored the Captain. "I'd rather meet a tiger any day than one of these vile vegetable traps."

Stewart's wrist had been squeezed so tightly that it was some time before he could move it freely. "It would hae nippit ma hand clean off if you hadna beheided it sae quick," said the sufferer gratefully to Skelton as we resumed our march; and I think he was not far wrong.

Our progress now became slower and slower, and our first intention of reaching the mountain-range beyond the forest was in a similar degree growing less definite. I could not see how we were to gain our objective, judging by the myriad obstructions in our track, and on the fourth day after leaving camp we had almost decided to retrace our steps.

"I have given up hope of seeing the natives of this peculiar country," said Phil, as we tied up our hammocks after breakfast, "and if we go much farther we will cross down the Malacca slope, where there is nothing but Chinamen."

"If we do not reach a break in the forest before the day is finished," I said, when we had again got on the move, "we'll turn and get down the river to our old camp."

"What on earth is that?" suddenly cried the Captain, seizing his rifle and gazing into the gently swaying branches overhead. We looked, and saw an ungainly creature huddled among the spreading fronds, glaring at us with eyes that were half-human, half-catlike in expression.

"A chimpanzee, most likely," I said. "Don't shoot, Captain; it is but a sample of what man looked like once."

"I think it is an orang-outang," remarked Phil, "and he would make short work of us if he came down."

Mac gazed dubiously at the animal. "A'll slauchter him," said he, raising his deadly blunderbuss; but the huge ape seemed to understand the action, and with half a dozen bounds he had vanished, swinging from tree to tree like a living pendulum.

Again we went on, but we had not proceeded fifty yards when a harsh howling all around caused us to halt and examine our firearms nervously. Then a shower of needle-like darts whizzed close to our ears, and a renewed commotion among the branches arrested our attention. Looking up, we saw fully a score of wild shaggy heads thrust out from the clustering foliage; but before we had time to collect ourselves, another fusilade of feather-like missiles descended upon us, penetrating our thin clothing, and pricking us most painfully.

"Monkeys!" roared Mac.

"No. Sakis!" corrected Phil, as we hurriedly sought safety in retreat.

"If these arrows are poisoned, we're dead 'uns, sure," groaned the Captain, squirming on the ground, and endeavouring to sight his rifle on the impish creatures.

"They're not poisoned; they are merely pointed reeds blown through bamboo tubes," said Skelton, after a hasty examination. "They won't hurt much; but if they get near us with their clubs——"

Another hail of the pigmy arrows rustled through the branches to rear of us. "Give them the small shot of your gun, Mac, just to scare them," I cried.

"Sma' shot indeed!" retorted that fiery individual, and the boom of his artillery filled my ears as he spoke.

An unearthly yell of terror and surprise broke from the aborigines at the sound of the heavy discharge, followed by a series of piercing shrieks as a few stray pellets touched them.

"Make for the river, boys!" I shouted. "Get clear of the trees!"

The air was now filled with the tiny darts, and my thick pith helmet intercepted so many of them that, as Mac said afterwards, it looked like a miniature reed-plantation. Far on our left the deep rumble of the river was heard, and towards it we rushed blindly, closely followed by a yelling horde who sprang like squirrels from tree to tree.

"Where is the Captain?" roared Stewart suddenly, as we ran; and then I noticed that there were but four of us together. Without a word we turned and dashed back into the midst of the Sakis' camp; and there we saw the Captain lying on his face, with his gun resting loosely at his shoulder. A perfect inferno raged around as we reached his side, and my companions, roused to a pitch of frenzy, fired volley after volley among the yelping band.

"Get back, ye wretches," roared Mac; "A'll carry him masel'."

Skelton calmly picked several darts from the Captain's neck, then felt his pulse. "He has only fainted," he said. "These darts have gone pretty deep."

The Captain was a heavy man, but Mac gathered him in his strong arms like a child. "Tak' ma gun, Stewart," he directed, "and see that ye dae guid work wi' it if driven to it." Then we made a second break for the open by the river. The whole forest seemed to be alive with Sakis now; they yelled at us from every other tree, and shot their irritating arrows from every sheltered clump of brushwood. Luckily the range of their odd weapons was not extensive, and by skilful manœuvring we managed to save ourselves greatly, otherwise we should have been perforated from head to foot.

When we neared the river and could see the welcome light of day shining through the trees, our pursuers, probably deterred by our guns, grew less enthusiastic in the chase; and when the edge of the forest was reached they had apparently drawn off altogether.

"To think that we should hae to run like that, frae—frae monkeys!" snorted Stewart indignantly as we halted. "It's fair disgracefu'."

The Captain slowly opened his eyes, and looked at me reproachfully.

"That chimpanzee that we didn't shoot," said he feebly, "is one of the same family, for the brute must have given the alarm——"

"There he is noo!" cried Mac. "Gie me ma gun, Stewart, an' A'll obleeterate him, nae matter wha's grandfaither he is."

I caught a glimpse of the huge ape swinging backwards into the thicket, then Mac's vengeful weapon spoke, and the Sakis' strange scout came tumbling to the ground. A yell of rage issued from the forest, and instantly a number of our late pursuers appeared and dragged the orang-outang back whence they came.

"I haven't had much opportunity of studying the beggars," said Phil, "but I'm not growling. They are the most apish people I could ever have imagined."

"Instead of gold," commented Skelton grimly, "we've all got a fair-sized dose of malaria——"

"And various other trifles," added Mac, as he extracted the darts from the more fleshy portions of his anatomy.

"We'll leave the gold alone this time, boys," I climaxed; "but we'll have another try when we can get a stronger party together. Meanwhile, we had better make tracks for the coast, and recuperate our energies."