Borneo by steamship

Singapore is an excellent base from which to take a short round voyage by ship. It was there that I booked an eight-day trip to Brunei on the island of Borneo via the 2,300-ton Rajah Brooke operated by the Straits Steamship Company. The fare for a double cabin to myself, sharing bathroom facilities, and with all meals came to a modext $270, or less than $35 a day. These rates are approximately one-third of what the fancy cruise ships charge.

The little vessel was named after the head of the once mighty Brooke family, who owned and ruled a large part of the island of Borneo in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The world's third largest island is now under control of three different governments: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei, an oil-rich British protectorate. One of Britain's last remaining battalions of Gurkhas helps guard the country's oil fields from possible incursion by Brunei's poorer neighbors.

The Rajah Brooke is a wonderful seagoing anachronism completed just after World War II. The ship's most unmistakable characteristic is a curiously split superstructure. The forward section almost resembles a slim tower, and it houses the bridge and living quarters for the captian and navigating officers. The height of the wheelhouse allows the helmsman to see over the tops of the trees and round the bends in the estuaries the ship must travel to reach the inland ports.

Saturday morning saw me on board. From my surprisingly large cabin I had a fine view forward over the midship cargo hold through not one but two windows fitted with louvered shutters for flow-through ventilation. The cabin with its twin bunks, washbasin, narrow closet, dark wood paneling and ceiling fan was not unlike those accommodations I have found on several other British-built and British-owned ships in the Eastern trade.

During the day, I sat on a ledge right up at the bow reading Somerset Maugham's "South Sea Stories" in an atmosphere of dead calm as the ship's forward speed of 11 knots exactly matched the 11-knot prevailing wind. I could gaze down at the still surface of the South China Sea and watch the banded sea snakes try to wriggle out of the way of the oncoming and relentless steel monster.

Tuesday morning brought the Rajah Brooke through a narrow breach in the low coastline and up the beginnings of a muddy river to Muara, a new port that had not yet had the chance to develop into much of a place. The saving grace was a long stretch of sandy beach, devoid of people and not ten-minutes walk from the ship, with gentle surf reportedly free of the deadly sea snakes.

The ship began almost immediately to offload its cargo of machinery, spare parts, Land Rovers, and several unmarked yellow school buses. The lively docside scene was always there when we returned to the ship at any time of the day. Unfortunately, the noisy activity began rather early each morning, just after sunup.

On the first afternoon, we booked, through an Indian travel agent, a half-day excursion into Bandar Serie Begawan, the capital some 17 miles up the river and 9 miles away by road. the city, formerly called Brunei, took its present name from the Sultan's father. A huge newly completed national mosque dominat ed the skyline and even overwhelmed the large white concrete Parliament building next door. From the dome of the mosque, I could look down on arcaded pastel-colored Chinese-owned shops and the elaborate network of waterways that were lined with closely packed wooden houses held up precariously by thin stilts. Most travel, if not on foot, seemed to be by super- high-speed outboards operated on cheap domestic fuel. Beyond the city began the tangle of the interior rain forest.

On Wednesday we had the chance to travel the water route by fast launch to Limbang Town just across the border in Sarawak Territory, a part of East Malaysia. From this back- water port we boarded several aging taxis for an hour's drive into the jungle to visit a 400- foot long house belonging to the Iban tribe. Thirty-six families shared this gracefully constructed grass-roofed structure with the members present being mainly children, women, and elderly people. The older teen-agers and men were engaged elsewhere tending the rice paddies, gathering wild berries, and hunting small creatures.

Late Thursday after a day on the beach, we sailed from Brunei, this time into the wind, and the next night into the teeth of a vicious tropical thunder storm. I had to remind myself after nearly every flash and crash that being on a ship is far safer than being on land, or so I remember being told more than once as a child. The only casualty during the night-long temperst ended up being my laundry, which was sucked from its hangers through the open window and down onto the cargo hold by the wind rushing in from behind and through the louvered door. I waited until dawn before I ventured out to gather up the sodden mass.

Early Sunday morning, the skyline of Singapore appeared on the horizon, and we dropped anchor in the Eastern Roads. A walla walla sputtered out to the Rajah Brooke to take us off before the ship moved to its berth to offload its cargo of full oil drums. The launch brought us to Clifford Pier and we all dispersed to the railway station, the airport, or directly home.

The Straits Steamship Company also operates the 3,200-ton Kimanis on round trips of approximately 13 days to the ports of Tawau, Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia (Borneo). Rates for the round trip, which leave every 18 days are about $380 per person or less than $30 a day. For further information, contact: Mansfield Travel Pte, Ltd., G 8 Ocean Building Shipping Center, Collyer Quay, Singapore 1.

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