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Book - East of Kinabalu

The morning was cool. The tide was low. White wisps of mist rose from the oily surface of Gum Gum Creek and swirled around the exposed mangrove roots. The Land Rover was parked right on the jetty.

I sat in the front seat and closed my eyes. My head throbbed. My bones ached. My throat felt like the inside of a cement mixer. I had, in short, a colossal hangover. Our Sandakan driver, aided by Tundah and Ah Chang, was loading a few boxes of provisions from the Land Rover into the Pekaka.

I caught a whiff of petrol as Tundah poured the contents of several jerry-cans into our fuel tanks. He called to me that all was ready. It was time to board. I climbed stiffly down the ramshackle jetty, and made my way precariously over half a dozen wobbling canoes, to the Pekaka.

I sank thankfully onto the cane chair, which was placed amid-ships. I waved limply to the driver as he took the Land Rover off down the two-mile jungle track which linked the Gum Gum jetty to the main Sandakan road. The noise of the Land Rover dwindled. Silence descended. I draped a large towel over my head and shoulders and closed my red-rimmed eyes once again.

It was Sunday morning. On the previous evening the Scottish community in Sandakan had celebrated St Andrews Nicht, that curious tribal act of collective nostalgia indulged in annually by Scots in almost every country of the globe – except Scotland.

We had started the evening decorously enough with a traditional St Andrews dinner at the Sabah Hotel, to which the Scots had invited the top echelon of Sandakan’s multi-racial society.

The haggis was duly piped-in. The Chieftain had recited the immortal address and plunged his skean-dhu into its “reaking hurdies”. It was served with the traditional neeps and tatties, washed down with vast quantities of Black Label, and it was followed by the traditional toasts and speeches.

And then the Grand March and the Circassion Circle heralded the start of the dancing, to the music of the Ghurka pipe-band. Immaculately groomed Chinese ladies in their sequined cheong-sams watched with astonishment as my old Aberdeen friend Walter Brown, respectable bank manager and pillar of the community for 364 days of the year, shed his thin veneer of civilisation and leapt around shrieking and sweating, in his kilt and sporran, to the skirl of the pipes.

Late, late in the evening, long after our foreign guests had made their farewells; as patient Chinese waiters, stifling their yawns, tried to explain to drunken belligerent Glaswegians that the bar was closed; as the last vestiges of common-sense were urging you that it would be wiser to go home to bed, the hardcore of the Scottish community repaired to Ranallas, the house of my friend Tom Prentice, the chairman of Harrisons and Crosfields (H&C), to continue the party.

As far back as even the oldest inhabitant could remember, the head of the Borneo branch of the great old Eastern trading house H&C, had been a Scotsman. It was traditional that survivors and walking-wounded from the St Andrews Nicht party returned to Ranallas for final refreshments.

The party eventually broke up around 5am. I had pressing matters to deal with on the estate and I had promised to leave at first light. Tundah would be waiting for me at the Gum Gum. I had just enough time to return to our Sandakan house, discard my kilt and Scottish regalia and crawl under a cold shower, to freshen up a little before being driven the 12 miles to the Gum Gum Creek.

On the way we picked up my new cook, one Mr Ah Chang, a Hainanese who had been working in a Sandakan restaurant, and whom I had interviewed and signed on, only the previous day.


 

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