Going on a mission trip? Be prepared for all eventualities. The Rev Hobart B. Amstutz (later Bishop) recounts his extraordinary experience on such a trip to the Iban heartland of Borneo more than 50 years ago.
ON SUNDAY night we had a wonderful Service of Worship. A cross had been set up on a box and the boys and girls from the Methodist Iban School in Kapit sat nearby. Lacking a church bell, Mr Baughman, in his strong baritone, led the students and others who knew them in one hymn after another, and hearing the singing, most of the two to three hundred residents of the longhouse assembled, making a large group seated around us on the floor.
Following the lead of the Agricultural Missions, Mr Baughman had suggested to the people to get samples of earth from their padi fields and some of the seed, and then to present them for God’s blessing at this Service.
The teacher who was coming to live there, Mr Manoeroeng, preached a very vivid sermon telling the people how they must put away their superstitions and follow the way of Jesus. I was asked to give the benediction, after which Mr Baughman, using a kerosene projector, showed slides and films. It was an evening that the missionaries present will long remember.
Rain was again falling and this time very heavily, so that we began to worry about the possibility of returning home on the morrow, for these jungle rivers rise and fall very rapidly and if the river was too turbulent and high we would not be able to return to Kapit the next morning.
The next morning the river could be heard roaring down below us and we, going down for our morning ablutions, were amazed to find that it had risen between twelve and fifteen feet overnight, and was now a mad, rushing, swirling mass of brown water hurrying to the ocean far away. Our Iban boatmen said we would have to wait to let it subside some, but when, after 8.30, it did not seem to show any sign of doing so, they decided to risk it …
With a roar our motor started, and off we went down that raging current. What a thrill that was! Soon we came to the first rapids, the huge stones of which were far below us, but nevertheless made much commotion on the surface of the rushing river … the motor was run full speed and we went through safely … the same method adopted at each rapid that was dangerous, sometimes using the motor, sometimes just trusting to their paddles to guide us through the safest place.
Half an hour down the Melinau River we saw ahead at a bend a very tumultuous mass of waves and dashing spray several hundred yards long, and one could actually see how the surface of the river went down several feet as it dropped through the rapids.
Our boatmen surveyed the scene … and decided to shoot the rapids on the opposite side. My heart came up to my mouth as we approached the mad waters and I realised that we were going over one of the largest dips. There must have been a huge rock down below, for the water fell away alarmingly as it went over.
About ten feet of the front of our longboat was completely out of the water as we hung over the fall, splash that thoroughly soaked me and threw gallons of water into our boat, we hit the next crest and somehow came through, our motor roaring at high speed and the two boatmen working for dear life with their paddles. To the left of us, as we came into a calm spot on the side, we could hear and see the dashing waves often throwing the water and spray high into the air.
I asked why we were stopping and Penghulu Sibat laconically said, “Many people have been drowned in these rapids and we must wait until the other two boats come through.” My heart sank as I thought of the other six missionaries, besides the Iban men and boys, who had come on this visit at my suggestion. I got my cine camera ready and we waited.
Suddenly, around the bend we saw the large Mission longboat coming full speed, their 22 hp motor roaring above the sound of the dashing river waves, and going right through the longest and, evidently to our boatmen, the most dangerous part of the rapids. I heard our two men groan as they saw them. All I could do was to pray while I ground away with my camera.
I shall never forget the sight of that heavily loaded longboat slashing through those waves and safely riding them out. The river was carrying much debris, and even whole trees, which made navigation by small, light longboats extra dangerous. Had any of our three boats struck a log in those rapids it would have been all over … It was with thankful hearts that we continued down the river. We were all safe, and apart from splashes and wet clothes, we were none the worse for the experience.
Now we know what our missionaries to the Iban people have to face as part of their work among these people, and we know what gallant, brave and loyal men our Iban hosts are …’ – Methodist Message October 1950, p.11-12, slightly edited.
Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.