CHAPTER X

IN FOG AND DARKNESS - A RAID BY ANTS - DEPARTURE FROM LONG PELABAN - AN EXCITING PASSAGE - RETURN TO TANDJONG SELOR

During April and the first half of May the weather was warm with very little rain, though at times thunder was heard at a distance. But during the second half of May thunder and lightning in the evening was the usual occurrence, with an occasional thunder-clap at close quarters. At night it rained continually though not heavily, but this was accompanied by a dense fog which did not clear away until nine o'clock in the morning. When the dark clouds gathered about sunset, it was not with exactly cheerful feelings that I anticipated the coming night. My tent stood at a little distance from the rest of the camp, for the reason that solitude at times has its charms. When the lamp outside the tent door was extinguished, and all was enveloped in darkness and fog to an overwhelming degree, a feeling of loneliness and desolation stole over me, though it soon left me when I thought of the glories of the coming day, when all the rain would be forgotten.

Shortly after sunset one evening scores of thousands of ants descended upon me while supper was in progress. In the dim light afforded by the lamp I had not perceived their approach until I felt them around my feet. Upon looking about, I discovered to my astonishment that the floor, which had a covering of closely set bamboo stalks, was black with ants and that regiments of them were busily climbing up my bed. Coming in such immense numbers and unannounced, their appearance was startling. Outside the soil seemed to move. Twice before I had received visits from these ants but had prevented their entering the tent by pouring hot water over them. The pain caused by their bite is severe, although of short duration, and they are therefore feared by the Dayaks and Malays.

By liberal application of hot water and burning paper on the ground we finally succeeded in driving the unwelcome visitors out of the tent; but new hordes were constantly arriving, and we battled for two hours before I could retire, carrying many bites as souvenirs. None were then in the tent and next day not a trace of them remained. The Chinese photographer had been there twenty minutes before the raid began and had not noticed even one ant. The attack began as suddenly as it ceased.

My stay on the Kayan River had been interesting as well as profitable. Twice during that period requests had come from the government for Dayaks willing to join a Dutch enterprise operating in northern New Guinea, and the chances of my securing sufficient men on this river for my expedition were evidently gone. However, with the assistance of the government I felt sure there would be no difficulty in securing them from other rivers of Dutch Borneo, but I deemed it wise to begin my return trip.

The river was now so swollen that it was difficult to effect a departure, and current report indicated that if the rain continued it might be necessary to wait a month before the rapids below could be passed. I had all my belongings packed in order to be ready to start whenever it was found advisable to do so. While waiting I went over to the kampong to kinematograph two dancing girls who the day before, owing to their bashfulness, had detained us so long that the light became inadequate. At last the river fell about a metre during the night, and the chief and his brother called on me early in the morning to suggest that our best plan would be to start in the middle of the day.

Only a couple of hours are consumed in going to Long Pangian from here, on account of the downward course of the river, which forms rapids and currents at frequent intervals. As the men appeared disinclined to go, the posthouder of Long Pangian, who then was with me, crossed the river and gave the necessary impetus to action. Soon a big prahu was hauled by many men down the bank to the river; this was followed by others, taken from their storage place under the house, and shortly afterward we had facilities for departure. Most of the boats were medium-sized; mine was the largest, about seven and a half metres long, but so unsteady that the luggage was loaded with difficulty. As usual my prahu carried the most valuable articles, the photographic outfit, scientific instruments, etc., all of which was finally secured by tying rattan over it from side to side. Naturally, fewer men are needed going down a river than coming up, and I had only four.

At two o'clock in the afternoon a start was made and we proceeded rapidly down-stream. The man standing at the bow is the commander, not the one that steers with his paddle at the stern, and it appeared to be their custom always to take the boat where the current was strongest and the water most turbulent. It seemed reckless, but my prahu, heavily laden, acted admirably, shooting through the waves without much exertion. After nearly an hour of refreshing passage we approached the main rapid, Kiham Raja. I kept behind the rest of the fleet, in order, if possible, to get a snap-shot. In the beautiful light of the afternoon the prahus afforded a splendid sight as, at short intervals, they passed along one after another, the first ones already considerably lower than mine. My Kenyahs, all standing, seemed to know exactly where to go and what to do, and we moved along rapidly. Without a moment's hesitation we shot down the kiham. This time they did not choose the place where the waves ran highest, and we quickly slipped down the rapid, turbulent current, while the big waves on our right threatened to engulf our craft.