Jesselton to KK

Charles_Jessel-259x300Sir Charles James Jessel. 1st Baronet (1860 – 1928)

In 1899 the British North Borneo Company decided that the area, opposite Gaya island, on the main island of Borneo, was a good place to create a settlement.

The area was developed and it was called Api-api (which means ‘fire’ in English) and later changed to Jesselton, after Sir Charles Jessel the vice chairman of the British North Borneo Company. The area grew to be a major port and was connected to the North Borneo railways system.

Jesselton was virtually destroyed during WW2. After the war the BNBC did not have the resources to reconstruct the town and the place was ceded to the British Crown.
Jesselton was declared the capital of North Borneo and reconstruction began in 1946.

In 1963 the formation of Malaysia took place, and British North Borneo voted to join the federation and the area of North Borneo was renamed Sabah. It was not until 1967 that Jesselton changed its name to Kota Kinabalu.

The city was named after the nearby Kinabalu mountain – Kota means city or town in Malay, so it is Kinablau city. The name is derived from Aki Nabalu or revered place of the dead.

So of course over time the Kota Kinabalu name has been shortened to just KK, which was our next port of call for Diamond Princess on the way to Japan.

In early 1966 I was 3rd Mate in an LST running troops and supplies to Borneo during the confrontation between the Commonwealth and Indonesia, and one of the ports that we supplied was Jesselton in North Borneo.

Kuching riverLST Frederick Clover

sabah-portThe above picture shows Jesselton port in the 1960’s.

DSC00518rNot a lot of change in the last fifty odd years, except for the size of the ships.
Still the same wharf and pier

I was looking forward to showing Maureen a touch of ‘I remember when’

DSC00501rFloating villages off Gaya island, as we approached the wharf.

DSC00511rSunrise over KK

DSC00505rHmmm, I don’t remember all those tall buildings. . .

jesselton-hotel-history-782x1024I wondered if the Jesselton Hotel was still in business . . .

– but once we entered the town I didn’t recognise anything at all – the whole town had changed and the only thing left from the ‘early’ days was the Atkinson Clock Tower, which is now the oldest standing structure in KK.

220px-AtkinsonClockTower-KotaKinabalu The clock was presented to the town by Francis George Atkinson’s mother in memory of her son who died of malaria in 1902. He had been appointed District Officer of the area in 1901, and was very popular.

220px-FrancisgeorgeatkinsonGeorge Atkinson 1874 – 1902

On arrival in port Princess Cruises were offering a shuttle service to one of the main shopping malls for AUD $8 per person each way, which would be $32 a couple round trip.

Considering that KK was not a major tourist destination compared to Kuala Lumpur, and the cost of living would be lower than KL I thought AUD $32 a bit of a rip off. I expect people to make a profit, but not a ‘super’ profit for such a short distance. The drive in to KK was no more than ten minutes. I refused to use the shuttle bus.

Princess Cruises allowed a money changer to set up shop in the Atrium and when we arrived he was doing a roaring trade, so we queued. We were near the back of the queue, so as a passenger who had just change his money passed, I asked what rate did he get. He replied 2.20 Malaysian Ringgits for an Australian dollar. Daylight robbery I commented, I would expect around 3 Ringgits to the AUD & four to the USD.
Maureen & I left the queue.

I don’t know If Princess Cruises rent a spot to the money changers, or if they share the profits or offer the space free of charge as a customer service, but allowing their passengers to be ripped off does not generate customer loyalty.
In my opinion Princess Cruises should stipulate the exchange rate to give the money changer a fair profit and to protect passengers.

DSC00517rWelcome to KK as we walked to the dock gates.

Maureen and I have a lot of experience of dealing in Malaysia so I was happy to walk the short distance to the dock gates where I knew we would meet a ‘wise guy’.
Which we did, and he had a nice air conditioned taxi and wanted $5 for the trip in to town. I asked Australian or US $ and he said he wasn’t bothered which currency . . . so I asked for a price in Ringgits and he wanted 15 for the trip. We agreed on 15 ringgits and I told him to take me to a money changer. The money changer was in the mall that we wanted and I changed AUD $20 for RM 60 (RM is the two letter code for ringgits), so I was correct in leaving the queue on the ship.

I paid the driver, but I knew that he was over charging because I was off a cruise ship, but he wasn’t over charging as much as Princess Cruises.

On our return trip we took another taxi and I asked for the meter to be used – not a problem, and the cost came to RM 8, so I gave him a ten RM note.

The total cost for two in and out of town cost me just over AUD $8 compared to $32 if we had used the ship’s shuttle.

The available tours offered on the ship were of little interest to Maureen & I, having had two holidays in Kuching in Sarawak.
We’d seen the orangutans in the sanctuary that had been set up to protect them from exploitation by Indonesian natives. The KK zoo didn’t interest us, climbing Mt Kinabalu was not for us, so it was a quick look at a couple of  air-conditioned malls and back to the ship for lunch, to avoid the heat of the day.


A scene inside a shopping mall in KK – or is it KK? – it could be your town.

KK is now a modern city because it is a major port for ocean going ships.
Kuching in Sarawak, is on a river and the town is as much the same as I knew it in the 60’s and still has that old feeling about it, which is why I prefer Kuching to KK.

The Sarawak River that passes Kuching has been dammed at its mouth, so only small deep sea craft can gain access to the river when the gates are opened.
The LST that I sailed in was about 3,000 tons so we were considered large to sail the river, but this was years before the dam had been built.

DSC00524rI did like taking pictures of the old fishing boats in KK.


DSC00535rThe speeding ferry just disturbed the peace – no soul.


For those who can remember the joy of working cargo before containerisation.

DSC00539rc We would be in port for days, if not weeks, depending on how militant the shore side labour was, but some ports were better than others . . . .

Next stop Vietnam and Long Tan!









The White Rajah


James Brooke (29th April 1803 – 11 June 1868)

The picture is from a painting by Sir Francis Grant in 1847

Sarawak, the name brings forth ideas of head hunters and ‘daring do’ from comics that I read in the 1950’s.

Little did I know that one day I would sail up the Sarawak River to the town of Kuching on the island of Borneo.

Sarawak had been James Brooke’s & his descendants fiefdom since about 1841 – until . .

In April 1942 the Japanese captured Sarawak, and for three years they ran the place as part of the Empire of Japan.

The Japanese surrender to the Australians in 1945, and Sarawak became a British Colony.

In May 1961 the PM of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, put forward a plan for a greater Malaysia, which included Singapore, Sarawak,  Sabah & Brunei. In 1962 eighty percent of the population of Sarawak & Sabah voted to join Malaya to create Malaysia, along with Singapore.

Indonesia and the Philippines didn’t like the creation of Malaysia. So Indonesia  encouraged discontent with the communists of Sarawak and trained them in military tactics, and also supplied armed ‘volunteers’ to causes problems for Sarawak and the newly created country of Malaysia.

The fighting began in 1963 with infiltration forces from Indonesia in to Sarawak. By this time the British were involved in support of Malaysia, who had only gained independence from Britain a few years earlier in 1957.

Later Australia & New Zealand became involved in support of Malaysia.

Knowing little of the details that I know now, I flew in to Singapore to join LST (Landing ship tank) Frederick Clover in April 1966. The company, British India Steam Navigation Co, held the contract to man various LSTs based in Singapore, Malta, Aden etc and I’d drawn the straw for Frederick Clover, based in Singapore.

If you wish to see other photographs of the LST and why I fired a machine gun click on the highlighted letters.

CloverFrederick Clover, alongside in Singapore, her bows open to accept military cargo for Borneo. The photo is old and not very clear.

meAs you see she was an old ship, built in 1945. The captain’s chair had to be lashed down to make sure we didn’t lose it in a strong wind. My hair isn’t moving because our top speed was 10 knots . . . .

3rd mateAt least we had a compass. Although we could have found our way to Borneo using the echo sounder by following the empty beer cans from our previous trips. At that time being Green meant you were sea sick, not environmentally aware.

TroopsWhile we were alongside in Kuching the ‘Auby’ moored astern of us. She was to take a Gurkha regiment back to Singapore. The Auby was a cargo ship of about 1700 tons , with facilities for a few passengers in the for’d accommodation. I can only assume the soldiers traveled as ‘deck cargo’. The Auby carried about 31,000 troops in and out of Singapore during the ‘confrontation’. The picture is not all that clear but the troops can be seen formed up on the quay.

In 2011, Maureen & I attended a reunion in Singapore of cadets from HMS Conway Training College, so after the reunion I thought it would be an ideal time to take Maureen to Kuching and a spot of ‘I remember when’ for me.


While in Kuching we did a river cruise in a small boat, which allowed me to photograph the quay, (see above), which I think is the same one in the photographs showing the Gurkha troops.

IMGP3782r  Our boatman and his boat that we used.

We stayed at the Pullman Hotel, which overlooked the town.


IMGP3766rThis one shows the Sarawak River

Kuching is also known as Cat City – there are a number of anecdotes as to why Kuching got its name. It used to be called Sarawak until James Brooke arrived by sea and asked his guide the name of the place, while pointing to the small town. The local guide thinking that James was pointing at a cat, answered ‘Kuching’, which is the Malay word for cat i.e ‘kucing’.  Against this story being true is that the local Malays who live in Kuching call a cat a ‘pusak’

Another story is that the town is named after a river called Sungai Kuching, which means Cat River. Another idea is that it is named after mata kucing, which is a fruit grown in Malaysia, Indonesia and the northern parts of Australia. The name means Cats Eye.


The mata kucing fruit looks like a lychee.

So with a name like ‘Cat’, Kuching turned itself in to a tourist attraction by becoming the Cat City.




OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe above cat statues are outside our favourite restaurant.

IMGP3786rcThe James Brooke on the water front.

IMGP3955rIt is also a bar, and you do not have to order food.



Of course we ordered lunch – Laksa – beautiful, and for me a cold beer helped it down.


The following year we returned to Kuching with two other couples, and it wasn’t a hardship to revisit many places again.
During one evening in the James Brooke restaurant I overheard an accent that I recognised – it was a Liverpool accent. The four men having their evening meal worked as contractors for an aircraft company and flew around the world fixing problems. Because Maureen originated in Liverpool it didn’t take long for us to get chatting.

I asked one fellow where he lived on Merseyside and he told me Birkenhead. I mentioned that I came from Lower Tranmere in Birkenhead, and we then swapped details of the exact area. It turned out that he knew where my childhood street was, because he lived quite close.

The following night we met him again and he said that he had phoned his father in the UK, who was retired and still living in Lower Tranmere, and told him of meeting me. It turns out that his father was our milkman, and he used to deliver milk to my home when I was a child. Talk about a small world.

During my remember when holiday I couldn’t understand why the river never dropped as the tide turned.

FrederickCloverDressed overall for the last voyage to Singapore before the ship would be sold.

Generous meals, as the guest of various army units, helped to break the boredom of being in an out of the way port. We were not there to make a profit through trade, but in support of our own troops, a huge difference.

When we heard that the ship was to be sold on our return to Singapore, we decided to have a farewell dinner along with a number of army officers. Tables were booked at the local Chinese restaurant and all the ship’s officers left the ship, leaving just a watchman. It was a quiet night with little river traffic so we felt a single watchman was enough. The majority of the crew were allowed shore leave, because they would soon be out of work once we reached Singapore.
The evening went well until we returned to the ship and found her lying at a strange angle. What had happened was that the tide had gone out and the river had dropped causing the ship to settle in the mud. Being flat bottomed she would have settled upright if the watchman had slackened off the mooring lines – he’d not done so, and Frederick Clover was lying with a very large list away from the wharf – her mooring lines were bar tight with the strain.
There was little that we could do but wait for the tide to turn and raise her back to normal, which fortunately is what happened.

So during our holiday I asked why I hadn’t seen the river drop as the tide went out – it was all down to a barrage that had been built at the mouth of the river in the late 90’s, which controlled the flow of the river. The gates would be opened each Friday afternoon to flush out any rubbish etc.


They do have the facility to allow small fishing boats to enter the river – which means that they must have a lock system.

At least I wasn’t going mad, because I was sure that the river would drop as the tide changed.

WhiteIf you are interested in Sarawak and the island of Borneo, but don’t wish to read a great tome, try the above book, which is an easy and interesting read.

The wife of the third Rajah, Sylvia Brooke,  who wrote her own autobiography in 1970, also wrote a synopsis of the life of James Brooke, which was bought by Warner Brothers film studio.
Errol Flynn wanted to play James Brooke, but in the script that he wrote, after reading the synopsis, he had James Brooke arriving in Borneo with a young woman dressed as a boy.
Sylvia Brooke refused to allow Flynn’s story to go any further, because there wasn’t any ‘love interest’ when Brooke arrived in Borneo. According to Sylvia Brooke James Brooke was the first white man to set foot in Borneo – which I find hard to believe.

Finally when Somerset Maugham visited Sarawak, it was suggested that James Brooke’s life would make a good film, but Somerset Maugham said, no it wouldn’t, because there wasn’t any love interest.

James Brooke’s life was full of love, he inspired love and felt love, so perhaps it is time for the right actor to take up the challenge and recreate The White Rajah.

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