Book - East of Kinabalu

As my house disappeared into the darkness I reflected sadly that although I had often stood on my verandah and waved goodbye to a boat going off down the river, it was the first time I had stood on a boat and waved goodbye to my house going down the river. Even for Borneo, it was an unusual experience.

There was no point in hanging around, however. We set off upstream in the moonlight. The Puyoh battled its way slowly back against the current to the hill site, where we got Mahid and his family settled in. George remained in the Puyoh’s cabin with Tundah and Lai in attendance.

I made my way to the bathroom, which was to become our temporary HQ. Donald Pettit was asleep in one corner. I found a blanket and managed to get an hour’s sleep in the bath which I commandeered as my sleeping quarters until we got some other accommodation fixed up. Before I dozed off, I suddenly remembered that it was now Jan 26. What a way to spend my 32nd birthday!

When daylight emerged, a watery blink of sunshine appeared. Although the planted area was still a lake as far as the eye could see, the flood-water on the Tungud side had dropped another foot or two.

I went down to see George. Although he was having a lucid spell once again, it was clear that he was urgently in need of psychiatric help. I decided to leave Donald in charge of operations for a couple of days, and take George down to Sandakan. We sailed off in the Puyoh across the tops of our palm trees. At the office the water was still halfway up the windows. The torrent from the Labuk continued on unabated.

When we sailed over the place where my house had been, there was not the slightest sign that there had ever been anything there. It had disappeared, as also had the accountant’s house, without trace. The only thing visible between us and Donald’s house far downstream, was the roof of the Rest House which, surprisingly, was still standing. We were to discover later that the reason for this was that it was held down by the heavy billiard table and the solid concrete pillars which Kong Miew had built under each of its legs.

We stopped briefly at Klagan. The government buildings, which had been built at ground level, were deeply submerged and were badly devastated. The Chinese shophouses, on higher ground and built on solid eight foot-high stilts, had not suffered much. Being that much nearer the sea, Klagan was more affected by the tide and the flood was beginning to subside.

With the force of the current behind us, we had a very swift journey to Sandakan. I dropped George off, with much relief, at Sandakan Hospital. The doctors there were very concerned about him. They had him heavily sedated, and they put him on the first plane to Singapore in the care of a medical orderly.

Sadly, I have never heard any news about George to this day and I wonder what became of him. He certainly never returned to Sabah. The doctor told me that George had been confirmed as having a severe case of schizophrenic-paranoia, whatever that was.

“You were very lucky, you know,” he told me. “In that state he really could have been quite dangerous.” He should, I thought, have seen George with the carving knife that night in my bedroom.

While in Sandakan, I took the opportunity to make two phone calls to UK. Olive fortunately had not heard the BBC News programme about the floods. She told me that Catriona had settled well into the boarding school after the Christmas holidays, and she and Fiona were booked to fly back to Borneo in a couple of weeks.

Olive was of course perturbed to learn that our house had been swept away along with many of our belongings. She agreed, however. that she would still come out as planned and stay in the Sandakan flat until our new house was completed.

I also spoke to David Martin and Colin Black. They had of course heard about the floods in the news programme and were very worried. They were relieved to learn that there had been no loss of life. David said that, based on his experience of flooding on Ndian Estate, a few days of inundation would do the palms no harm. Colin was worried about the repercussions on the Unilever Board.

The floods never again reached the intensity that they had on my birthday when the house was washed away, and fortunately, we did not have to evacuate the workers from their houses again. However, we were not finished with the flooding by a long way. The rains continued on and off, week after week.

Each time we tried to get into the fields to start clearing operations, there would be another downpour and the flood-water would rise a foot or two again. It was an immensely frustrating period.

It was not until March 20 that the monsoon blew itself out. The rain ceased suddenly on that day and was immediately followed by a drought. It was not until the silt started to firm up that we were able for the first time to make a full survey of the damage.

Devastation all round
As the water level dropped, the riverbank in places now started to erode away like sugar cubes in a cup of tea. The most dramatic effect was seen at Klagan. The shophouses had not been badly inundated. However, as the water level dropped, the high bank in front of the shophouses slipped away into the water, and one by one the shops collapsed into the river.

The government compound also disappeared. The island was evacuated permanently. All that was left of what had been, for a hundred years or more a thriving trading village, was a low-lying patch of swamp-land. Even the grass, which I had taken such an interest in, ever since the episode of the Seven Sods, had disappeared and was eventually replaced by rank sedges.

The riverbank in front of Donald’s house also fell away into the river, taking the house with it. We had thus lost all three of our first management houses. They had served us well for the first two pioneering years, and their disappearance marked the end of an era for us.

The estate was not a pretty sight for the next few weeks. It was a sea of semi-liquid mud. Movement around the cleared area was almost impossible. Every step you took, you sank up to your thighs in mud.

Our roads had of course disappeared and were impassable until the sun started to dry them out. All the drains we had dug were filled to the brim with silt and our drainage system was no more. The Labuk flood had brought down with it millions of tons of silt and deposited it in deep drifts, which changed the contours of the low-lying areas.

Not one leaf of the thick leguminous cover crop which we had been so proud of, was to be seen. The rich green colour had been replaced by a layer of brown mud. The palms in the areas away from the river were coated with mud and we were able to wash them down Most of them were saved.

In the low areas, however, all we could see of our palms were the tips of the fronds sticking out of the silt. We attempted to dig them out, but it was impossible to save them. They could not survive being submerged in silt for a month or more. When we were able to carry out a census we found that, in all, 92 acres of palms were dead.

There were some good moments. My driver found a corner of the roof of our Land Rover sticking out of the mud. We dug it out, cleaned it up, got the engine serviced, and it was as good as new.

We even found the debris of my house on the riverbank a mile or two down the river, but there was nothing to be salvaged except for our refrigerator which was found half-buried in silt a hundred yards further on. Kong Miew had it cleaned and serviced, and back in working order the following afternoon.

It was a dismal time, but I told myself that the really important thing was that we had survived the very worst monsoon in the history of the Labuk, without the death of a single man woman or child. The workers were in good heart and there was now plenty work for them to get on with.

I shared Colin’s worry however that the loss of our first two years’ work might give Lord Cole’s opponents on the Unilever Board the excuse they had been looking for to scrap the project, and get back to selling their groceries. Was the first oil palm project in the Labuk going to follow the earlier tobacco and rubber estates into oblivion, I wondered?


Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International

The second part will be published in the next issue. This is an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters;  email:


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