TTGU, Ep. 2, Ch. 20 – Excursions
There were a couple of National Servicemen on our camp who, when they had a week’s leave, would fly back to Blighty on trips paid for by their folks at home! Goodness knows how much such flights cost, but we from ordinary working-families didn’t really envy them.
Our day trips were to Port Dixon where we fooled around on the beach, swam in the clear, clear sea, and got massive sunburn.
Our main leave destination was Penang, an island off the North-West coast of Malaya. It took but a few hours to get there: train from KL, then the ferry across to Georgetown, the island’s capital (and only) city. It was always a most enjoyable journey.
The troops’ leave-centre was outside Georgetown and had basic but comfortable accommodation. We explored the island by bus, and the town by trishaw, a three-wheeled, pedal-powered rickshaw. The little Chinese fellows who pedalled must have been very fit.
Georgetown was a mini-KL, its shops showing that its main custom was among British troops. Indeed, the whole of the Malayan Federation had its economy based on the British services at that time.
I had been told before I went into the Forces – usually by men who’d never been further than Caterick when they served – that “flesh is cheap in the East”. They referred to the local labour employed by the Forces, the near-starvation wages on which they existed (“a bag of rice will last a whole family for a year”), and the preponderance of prostitutes who also eked a living from the British.
There were many prostitutes in Georgetown, always Chinese or Indian for the Malays’ Muslim beliefs forbade such practices. The girls – some of them would still have been at school back in Blighty – did seem to work cheaply. Money was scarce among these locals who lived in theBritish Empire, and whose “freedom” we were supposed to be defending.
Mac Houston had drawn my attention to the fact that the British made more out of Malaya than Malaya made out of Britain. I suppose that was true of every Commonwealth country.
I enjoyed wandering round Georgetownand seeing the mass of religious buildings there. The Malayan Peninsular was the meeting place of so many religions: Muslim, Christian, Jewish (yes, really), Buddhism and many of the Chinese and Japanese belief-systems.
Each of their places of worship had its own personality. They seemed more interesting than our British churches and cathedrals, more flamboyant in their architecture.
Apart from Georgetown, we visited Penang Hill from the top of which the whole island could be seen; a beautiful panorama. We went to see the Iyar Itam Temple, a Buddhist building which impressed us with its simple but wondrous statues and atmosphere. The Snake Temple of the Hindus was fascinating. Live snakes, poisonous and otherwise, lolled about inside, drowsed by the constant smoke of incense. Outside, massive great pythons were fed with whole chickens and we watched transfixed as a snake would open its enormous mouth, take the whole chicken in and let it move down its body, swelling the tube-like frame inch by inch as it passed through.
There was, somewhere on the island, a freshwater pool, fed by a constantly trickling stream, where we swam and splashed and smoked our ciggies, happy in the coolness of the spot.
And the whole island was surrounded by white-sanded beaches. And everywhere across the island, wild monkeys would approach us begging for food.
One day, a soldier called Malcolm Something suggested that a few of us should take an informal walk through the jungle near our camp. He sold us on the idea that we could wear civvie clothes and not have some corporal telling us what to do. We wouldn’t need to carry arms, either. It sounded a giggle.
My Family will have heard me start a pretend war-story with the phrase “There were six of us out on patrol one day . . . “. Well, this informal walk was like that: six of us, specially chosen by Malcolm, set off with a couple of perangs – big knives for cutting one’s way through thick jungle – and no compass, map, food nor water. Malcolm had assured us that we would be back in the camp within a couple of hours.
Four hours later, Malcolm at our head, we knew we were lost. The jungle was far too thick to find the way we had come. A map would have been useless there, of course. But a compass would have been handy. We were sweaty and tired. Perhaps it was our youth which stopped us from realising the danger we were in.
We stopped slogging through the “J” (jungle). We discussed what we should do. Malcolm said that, if we walked in a straight line, we were bound to come to “the road”. We did not know which road nor how far away it was. We did know that Malcolm had not told anyone on the camp where we were going. It was then that my brilliance came to the fore!
I explained something I had learned in the CCF at Wolverhampton Grammar School. It involved bisecting an imaginary angle between the little hand and the 12 on one’s watch while pointing the 12 at the sun. That would give us a North-South line. Rarely could the system be used in Wolverhampton, but here in the Far East, the sun was visible all day.
We now knew which was North and which was South. I told the lads to sit and imagine the last map they’d seen of our camp and its surrounding area. Then I asked them in which direction they thought the road to the camp lay. We all seemed to be agreed that it would be off to our right. So, slogging our way through seemingly impenetrable “ulu” (jungle), we struggled – more or less – on the same bearing.
An hour later, we rejoiced when we heard, somewhere ahead, the sound of a lorry, a Land Rover, or even a car. We urged each other to keep going ‘cos we’d nearly made it. Sure enough, within another few hot, sweaty, thirsty minutes, we were leaping over the monsoon-ditch which ran alongside the solid road to our camp.
My exhaustion must have been apparent, for my comrades lifted me up and carried me over the ditch and onto the road, where they ceremoniously dumped me. It was not long before an Army 3-tonner came along and we flagged it down for a lift back to our camp.
When we got back, we drank and drank and drank. Then all of us crashed out and slept soundly for a very long time until it was time to go on duty.
The other five lads regarded me as a bit of a hero after that, so I explained to them that it was the benefit of having a Grammar School education. That earned me the reward of having several buckets of cold water chucked over me.
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