Castle Camp ( Kem Kotaraya )

>> Sunday, October 12, 2008

Castle Camp

The Image Gallery in this V. I. Web Page has a 1930 photo of Scout Master Mr. Lim Eng Thye seated with V.I. Scouts at Castle Camp. This photo dispelled all my previous conjectures of what had been the origin of the "ruins" as there never had been castles in the history of the Malay peninsula. Was it an architectural project which hardly began because the contractor absconded early with the funds? Or was it aborted because of the Great Depression?

From the 1930 photo, the "ruins" of Castle Camp were concrete arches which looked more like a Roman aqueduct rather than a castle. Try as I did, I could not fit the arches to the local scene: unfinished Istanas (palaces), hospitals and mansions which were built in Malaya before the 1930s. Therefore, I was forced to conclude that the concrete arches were designed for the Boy Scout Association to suggest a castle, just as a few sparse props on stage are sufficient arouse the imagination to fill in the rest.

Castle Camp was located at the elbow bend of Rifle Range Road (now Jalan Padang Tembak), next to the Police Barracks. Our Scouting days were during the early ’50s, the time of the Emergency, when the Police had more than civilian duties. Police patrols issued forth from the Police Barracks in the anti-communist campaigns. Around its premises were warnings: with the words "Protected Area" and a line drawing of a trespasser being felled by a rifle-aiming sentry.

The Technical College (which later became Universiti Teknologi Malaysia) was located opposite to the elbow bend of the road, which changed its name from Rifle Range Road to Jalan Gurney (in honour of the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, who was assassinated at Fraser’s Hill), and most recently to Jalan Semarak. Later in the 1960s when I became a lecturer of Maktab Teknik (Technical College), I noticed that the coffee-shop which stood between the entrances of the Police Barracks and Castle Camp was no longer there. Since the coffee shop held memories of roti kaya which I sneaked out to buy whenever I became hungry because of my camp cooking, I was curious to know what happened to it. I was told that the people of the coffee shop had been arrested as spies for the communists, spies in such a strategic location.

When we first came to Castle Camp, we did not know that we were so excitingly close to espionage. We were just excited to come under the spell of the name "Castle" and to spend a weekend in the "wilderness", away from home. Some fathers, who came to check out for themselves that the environment was safe for their sons, took a cold, adult look.

They would have found, on entering the gate, a collection of shacks under corrugated iron roofs before they reached the aqueduct-looking, castle-ruins. One was the Scout-shop which sold scout hats, scout knives, compasses and books such as "Scouting for Boys" by Baden-Powell and "P.O.R.- Policy, Organization and Rules". Another was a store from which campers received cooking utensils, ground sheets and canvass tents. One large room was for meetings. The training courses for merit badges were conducted here. A large enclosure was sealed water-tight and the space within the four walls was flooded so that it became a swimming pool. Under shady trees and roof, the water was icy cold. Swimmers, who dived underwater, often surfaced with a fallen leaf or two on their heads.

On the other side of the aqueduct-arches was a padang where Scout troops assembled. In the "Jamborette" and the "South-East Asia Patrol Camp", scouts from all over Malaya and neighbouring countries stood in the padang before their national flags. A clump of trees, with thick undergrowth, encircled the padang. Diametrically opposite to the flag poles, a "jungle path" led from the padang through the encirclement to the "Camp Fire Circle".

The fire-place, where a log-fire would burn as we sang scout songs, was the geometric centre of Castle Camp. From this centre, concentric rings reached out to the perimeter fence, outside of which, encroaching suburban habitation was already taking away resemblance of wilderness. The innermost rings were the log seats, on which we sat, as we watched Skipper (Geoffrey Geldard - professionally a Straits Times journalist) muttered some incantation before saying, "I declare the campfire open," upon which the smoldering logs would magically leap into flames. Although reluctant to leave the children world of magic, by the second campfire, our eyes were on the lookout of the sleight of hand which hurled the cup of methylated spirits.

We learned quite a collection of camp-fire songs, many of them brought home from international Jamborees (most recently, a V.I. King Scout was in the Malayan contingent to Austria). Skipper invariably led us through the "Ghost Song".

"A woman to the churchyard went, " he would begin. We were to interleave it with the choral line, "Oo-oo-oh! Ah-aa-ah!" intoned as spookily as we knew how. "Very old and very bent." "Oo-oo-oh! Ah-aa-ah!"

So it went. By the end, we became very aware of the moving, eerie shadows cast by the flickering flame on the waving branches of the ring of trees behind us.

The camp-fire ended "Taps". We stood at attention and sang.

"Day is done,
Gone the sun.
From the hills,
From the sky,
From the sea.
All is well,
Safely rest,
God is nigh."

It would have been better if someone could bugle the tune.

Then we dispersed. We had to remember the layout of the camp in order to find our way back to our encampment in the dark. The camping sites lay in the annular space between the ring of trees around the camp-fire and the fence. The annular space was divided by radial clumps of vegetation into sectors to which visiting troops were individually assigned. Using flashlights, we had first to find the ring footpath which ran through the camp sites. Each sector had an attap-covered "long house", raised on stilts. We lay on ground sheets spread on the raised wooden floor of the "long house". (The possible reasons for the "long houses" were: (1) there were not enough tents to go around and (2) during rainy seasons we would be flooded out of our tents anyway.)

For a good quarter of an hour, there would be talking and laughing in the "long houses". Some sleepy head would shout, "Shut up". There would be more whisperings. With Skipper’s "Ghost Song" very much in our mind, each hoped that he would not be the last to fall asleep.

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