Silent in Sandakan

Sandakan Bay
Sandakan Bay

Many confuse Sandakan with Samarkand for no other reason than the names sound similar. I knew Sandakan as the Land Below the Wind, thanks to the writings of American author, Agnes Keith in the early part of the last century. Ian knew Sandakan as the location of WWII allied Prisoner of War camps and the start of many forced death marches from Sandakan to Ranau. Marches of POWs that left only the six who managed to escape alive out of more than two thousand is cited to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen at that time. We both knew that this was the place to go to explore both the Orang Utan Sanctuary at Sepilok and the wildlife of the Kinabatangan River and that it was two and a half hours away from KL, in Sabah, back on our beloved Borneo.

The sign
The sign

We flew to Kota Kinabalu and hired a car, driving the five hours or so across the country to Sandakan. Much of our journey took the Sandakan Death March route. Breaking for lunch at Ranau, we visited the tea plantation and discovered the poignant Quailey’s Hill memorial to those who lost their lives and that overlooked the lush landscape.

View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau
View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau

With thoughts of cruelty in our minds we drove the rest of the way in silence, incredulous that such a gentle landscape, peppered with kampong-style houses on stilts, banana, mango, coconut and papaya trees swaying in the breeze beneath a wide blue sky, could have seen such horror.

We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, located slap bang on the waterfront in Sandakan, with a view over the Sulu Sea to a string of islands in one direction and overlooked by Agnes Keith’s house behind.

View up to Agnes Keith's house from Sheraton
View up to Agnes Keith’s house from Sheraton (you can glimpse it behind the trees towards the top)

Sandakan feels stuck in a fifties time warp. Many buildings remain and few, apart from our hotel, rose higher than three or four storeys. Like I said, it’s a gentle landscape and one that feeds my soul. Somehow it feels a couple of degrees cooler and less humid here than KL and though Keith claims it lies ‘beneath the wind’, we enjoyed surprising wafts of cool air that crept up unexpectedly.

Of course our first day had to be spent with the orang utans and we arrived at opening time the next day. As a rehabilitation centre for motherless babies, the wounded and abused, it’s another gentle place and our silence was requested as we wandered the board walks, necks on swivels craning to look closer at any rustle among the leaves. We saw plenty of macacs at feeding time and a lone orang utan swinging calmly on manmade ropes made to resemble liana and that had been strung around the viewing area. But it was in the nursery that we witnessed magic in action as humans taught their young and timid charges to climb, swing, and forage for food just like their mothers would have done. At lunch time the youngsters held out their hands ring-a-roses style to be escorted off for nap time.

It was about now that I was too thirsty to stay and follow the trail, but Ian and our friends, Paul and Helen, were keen and so I bid them goodbye and headed off for a large a/c unit and a big bottle of water in the café. Of course this was the time that the wanderers came upon a lounging female, flopped on her back, chilling against a pile of leaves. Not only that but she soon found herself an entourage and gamely led them off down the track and posed for selfies. Typical.

Ian and his new BFF
Ian and his new BFF

After a quick detour to the canopy walk (yay, no stairs to climb!) at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, we opted to go straight to Agnes Keith’s house and miss out the sunbear centre en route. There is something for the whole family in Sandakan.

English Tea Garden
English Tea Garden

Beside her house, renovated only a few years ago, stands a Cameron Highlands style, black-and-white English Tea House, that serves excellent fish and chips by the way, and cold beer too on terraces that have stonking views across the harbor to the sea. We could not resist.

What expats eat on holiday
What expats eat on holiday

Her house, for me, the highlight of our weekend, did not disappoint. Keith lived here from 1934 to 1952 with her husband, Harry, Conservator of Forests, and a pet orang utan. Only, it was here that Ian’s Sandakan and mine combined. I have also read her second book, Three Came Home, that tells part two of her astounding story. In 1942 Agnes, Harry and their young son, George were captured, along with many of their friends, and interned at the POW camp over on Berhala Island, by the Japanese. And though, against all odds – malaria, typhoid, near-starvation – they survived, and, after the war and few years in Canada, returned to the same spot. The Japanese had commandeered their house and the family returned to find it destroyed. However, at her request, a new one was built on the same spot. Keith found the new house to be haunted by the old. I’d have been haunted by the silence, save for birdsong and the horror of recent painful memories within the reach of my sight.

Agnes and Harry Keith's house
Agnes and Harry Keith’s house

Visiting the Sandakan Memorial Park on the way to Sukau on the Kintabatangan River was a given. We simply had to go, despite only having a spare half hour. It was so worth it. Again, silence seemed to be in order as we wandered the green, meandering park, looking up at the soaring trees where, then, only a few protruded from the devastation. As I searched the air for birdsong, I was reminded of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and how, when life was nothing but bleak, the sight of a bird and the sound of it singing could lift spirits. I hoped those desperate men found moments of brightness in their tragic lives, felled like trees years before their time.


Sandakan War Memorial
Sandakan War Memorial

Agnes’ War

What have they seen,
these soaring trees?
The leaf-litter, heaped
like piles of bones,
pushed to the edge of our rememberering.
Trunks, hacked short,
like the futures
of those
brave young men,
who came to fight
for their Australian homeland and their lives.
Here in Sandakan,
flowers bloom red
as blood.
Sunlight filters gently down
through straight-backed trees,
bathing us in silence, sorrow.
We march forwards,
because we choose,
towards the flat black stone
that is their memorial.
How then, did Agnes feel,
standing on the thick green lawns
of a house haunted by ghosts of people whom she never knew?
Did she look down across the Sulu Sea,
past wide acacias, palms and pines
to Berhala Island, where,
interned, she suffered and was starved?
For her no days of death march
that slaughtered thousands and
left only six alive.
Her journey east to Sarawak’s Kucing
robbed her of the light behind her eyes,
but not the drive
to write this down
for us
Scraps of paper, sewn
into her toddler’s toys,
her fragile hems and soft worn seams,
stitched truth and death
into the corners of her desperate life
so that now we stand
on her beloved hill
and look down
and out
and back.
Lest we forget.

Sandakan May 2016


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