An Adventure in the Heart of Malay-land
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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."