The storm which for a couple of weeks had been centred over the estate now moved inland, following up the course of the Labuk River to hurtle itself against the rocky face of Mount Kinabalu.
The United Nations Survey Party who had been working near Telupid were washed out. We heard later that they recorded an unbelievable 79 inches of rain in three days, and that the river had risen by 50 feet. They were forced to move to Sandakan until the dry weather arrived.
On their way downstream, they picked up my friend George Lyall who was employed by the mining group Naylor Benson, prospecting for bauxite. George was in a bad way. He had not expected the river to rise to the level it did. His workers, after trying to persuade him to move out, had fled, leaving him on his own for several days. His entire camp had been washed away.
The UN team brought him down to us with nothing more than the wet clothes he stood up in. I could not believe the change in George since I had last seen him. He was emaciated and haggard, but he wanted to get back upstream to sort out his lost equipment. He asked if he could borrow dry clothes and stay in our rest house for a day or two until the flood level dropped.
Since the estate office and the temporary management houses were on the tidal reaches of the Labuk, we did not expect the flood levels to be as dramatic as they had been on the Tungud. However, for the next couple of days, the level of the Labuk continued to rise steadily. Eventually it came over the floor of the office, which we had built only 4 feet above ground.
We organised a team of workers to build a huge raft and transferred our office furniture, files and equipment to it. The rising water swamped our central stores. Lengths of timber and empty oil drums were bobbing around the office padang and sweeping down the river. We rushed round trying to rescue anything we could and transferred it to the management hill.
Our germination shed, with its valuable stock of seeds for future plantings, was at the nursery site on the highest point in the planted area, a few hundred yards back from the river. Eventually even this was submerged. Kenganathan with a team of workers battled manfully to get all the seeds to a place of safety. There was nothing we could do about the nursery palms, but we did not think they would suffer unduly by being submerged for a few days.
In the late afternoon of Jan 25, I was quite exhausted when I got back to my house. My driver’s wife Norlini had just been delivered of a healthy baby girl, and there was much rejoicing amongst the Cocos Islanders in the servants’ quarters. The level of the Labuk River continued to rise inexorably. It was now only a few inches below the floorboards and was creeping higher. I thought it wise to call for the Puyoh to be brought down and tied up near to the house in case it was needed.
The flood had now covered the opposite bank, and the current – cutting off the corner upstream – was hurtling straight at us. This was quite different from the placid flooding from the Tungud River. There was a constant roaring noise. Huge trees and debris were sweeping past, sometimes missing us by a few feet.
Looking out from the verandah, there was now nothing but water except for the tops of a few trees, as far as the eye could see. A small hut bobbed past and was swept off downstream. Wait a minute, I thought, that looked like our garage! I called my driver, Benchiron.
Yes, he confirmed, it was indeed our garage. It seemed there was a counter-current swirling past the back of the house. It must have carried the garage up and round into the main stream and it was now on its way to the Sulu Sea… But hang on! Surely our new Land Rover was still in it!
Benchiron dashed to the back of the house and poked into the murky water with a long pole. “Don’t worry Tuan,” he said reassuringly, “it’s still down here. I can feel it.” Mahid joined us silently. “I think Tuan you had better go across to the rest house. My son Attan is very worried about Tuan Lyall.”