Book - East of Kinabalu

The prediction in my December report, that the 1963 monsoon would be ‘comparatively mild’ was the worst weather forecast since Noah’s wife told him it was only going to be a passing shower! It turned out in fact to be the heaviest and most prolonged monsoon, and the worst flooding in the recorded history of the Labuk.

The north-east winds blew steadily in from the Sulu Sea from the beginning of December. From then on, we had heavy rain on no less than 105 out of the succeeding 110 days. The sun virtually disappeared for the duration and we recorded an average of only 1.8 hours of sunshine per day for the entire period.


The rainfall statistics understated the real figures, because our weather station was actually submerged for a couple of days during the floods, when the rainfall went unrecorded. In spite of this our rain-gauge showed a total of 117 inches of rain for the period of the monsoon.

We had of course, seen heavy rains during the previous monsoons. This was different, however. For the first few days of January, the rain poured down with such intensity that it looked almost as if a giant hand was scooping the water out of the Sulu Sea and emptying it down on us in sheets. The Tungud River, which had been rising steadily throughout December, rose to levels which no one had seen before.

The flooding came in three phases. In the first phase, the storm was centred over the estate. In the second phase, the storm surged on up the Labuk Valley, as far as the eastern foothills of Kinabalu. Although the rainfall on the estate eased off, the Labuk River rose to amazing levels and a wall of water swept down on us with a ferocious and frightening power.

The third phase, when we all thought the worst was over, consisted of a series of smaller storms, sweeping in one after the other from the Sulu Sea. Minor flooding continued on and off until March 20 and these floods, although less dangerous to life and limb, actually caused the most serious damage to our planted areas.

Very fortunately, Olive and the children were still in Devon. Following the departure of Moray Graham and the Wyngartens, the only two expatriates on the estate were myself and Donald Pettit, the new assistant manager.

Donald was a bachelor, a large, typically unflappable Englishman. He had worked with me previously in Africa. I had specifically asked London office to transfer him to us because I knew he would be able to take the vicissitudes of life in Borneo in his stride. Throughout the floods, although he could not as yet speak more than a few words of Malay, he was a tower of strength.

After our experience with the previous monsoon, we had taken as many advance precautions as we could think of. We ensured that the shops were fully stocked and that there was enough rice to feed all our workers for a month. Each headman and overseer had been provided with a canoe and a small Seagull outboard-motor.

We had fortunately managed to complete the workers’ permanent houses in the new Ulu Village by the end of November, and all the married families had been moved up there from the temporary camp downstream.

After the huge deluge in the first two weeks of January, the Tungud River burst its banks and the entire planted area was flooded. Day by day, as the rain poured down without a break, the floodwater continued to rise, until the whole village site was inundated to a depth of a few feet.

We were fortunate in one respect. The Tungud is a comparatively short river, compared to the Labuk. Since the rainstorm was centred on the estate and its immediate surroundings, there was no serious current to contend with. The water spread out over the palms like a placid pond, and there was little chance of anyone being swept away.

However, with the rain still teeming down, the level of the Tungud rose further. Eventually it came up almost to the floors of the houses. The water was now too deep to wade from one house to another and the families were marooned in their homes.

The headmen patrolled the whole village night and day in their canoes, to reassure the wives and families. Donald himself had a little motorboat and he buzzed around his division tirelessly, his pipe clenched in his teeth, exuding an air of calmness and imperturbability.

As the water continued to rise, something had to be done. Donald and I held an emergency meeting with the JCC, the headmen and overseers. We decided that, in the interests of safety, we had to evacuate the whole village to higher ground before the flood rose any higher. There was plenty of hilly land further away from the riverbanks, but of course it was still under jungle and not reachable by boat.

The only accessible patches of dry land within the cleared area were the two hills on which we were currently building the first two management houses. The hills, perhaps 100 feet high and no more than perhaps an acre each in extent, were now like small islands, emerging from a lake. Fortunately the first house was now roofed. Using every inch of the roofed area, it could shelter, in an emergency, most of our married families for a few days.

Hilltop sanctuary
Every boat we owned was pressed into service for the move. All the men, women and children and their possessions and livestock were loaded on the boats. It was like the evacuation of Dunkirk. Our flotilla – consisting of our new scow, our diesel kumpit, the management launch, the catamaran and several assorted canoes – set off, loaded to the gunwales. Sailing right over the top of our submerged palms, they disembarked their passengers on the slopes of our management hill.

There was a lot of building material on the two sites, such as lengths of wood, concrete blocks and roofing sheets. We also raided the central company store for tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets. Kong Miew and his building team, helped by every able-bodied man on the site, swiftly erected dozens of small huts and tents all round the hill.

That afternoon, 20 or 30 of the Kadazans from the upper Tungud came downstream to seek sanctuary. For the first time any of them could remember, their houses had been submerged and Rangga thought they would be safer on our estate. I was pleased to find my old gardener Urut Turut amongst them.

To the consternation of our Muslim workers, they had brought with them a few domestic pigs. We swiftly sorted this situation out by allocating the second hill on its little island to the Kadazans, and to Changai and his group of pagan Dyaks. We erected more temporary huts for them. The two hills began to look like South American shanty towns, but at least everyone was now secure, dry and had a roof over their heads. In all we had over 500 people to look after.

As regards food, we were in good shape. Titi had already transferred all the rice and provisions from his shop up to the hill site. I purchased his entire stock from him and we decided that for the duration of the flood, food would be distributed free of charge. The ever-resourceful Maria commandeered one of the bathrooms and served a continuous supply of hot sweet coffee out of the window. Each headman arranged a central point for his own group.

Some of the wives had brought their precious kerosene cooking-stoves with them, and the distribution and cooking of food proceeded fairly smoothly. Fires were lit in the little huts outside the main house and soon they had clothes hanging up to dry around them. The children thought the whole thing was great fun, and they scampered around naked in the rain

Although food was no problem, I was worried about drinking-water. The only water supply was of course the muddy river, and there was a danger of an outbreak of dysentery or cholera. Fortunately our storekeeper reminded us that he had dozens of water-filters in stock. We distributed them around our emergency camp.

Our dresser, Mr Mathen, patrolled all the huts tirelessly, ensuring that the water was first filtered and then boiled before consumption. It was a miracle that we did not have a single serious case of stomach trouble amongst the workers or families during the period of the floods.

What we did have however, was an outbreak of babies! The records show that Ivy John, our redoubtable midwife, during the lengthy 110 days of the monsoon, delivered no less than 15 healthy babies, often in conditions of extreme discomfort to herself as well as to the mothers.

The first night after the evacuation, the flood reached its peak and the water now came halfway up the walls of the evacuated houses. This meant that it was 10 feet over the ground level at the village. We were relieved that we had managed to get all the inhabitants up to safety in time.

After the community had been living a few days on the two hills, the rain started to ease off. We caught a glimpse of sunshine and blue sky for the first time in ages, and the level of the Tungud River began to recede. Rangga and our Kadazan friends loaded their possessions and their livestock into their canoes and set off back upstream. I was surprised how cheerful they all were.

Ibrahim told us that with their semi-nomadic lifestyle, they were quite used to moving their huts at the drop of a hat. It was their custom to move house whenever they had a death or even sickness in the family, and all the construction materials they needed were readily available in the surrounding jungle. When they got back upstream, they could carry out any repairs needed to their houses in a matter of hours.

One day later, the flood at the new village had dropped to only a foot or so over the ground. The houses emerged undamaged, except that we would have to give them another coat of paint when things dried up. The wives were eager to get back to start the cleaning up operations while there was still water under their houses to use for washing off the mud.

There was an hour or two of sunshine and we took the opportunity to get the Armada loaded up and underway for the return journey.


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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