Camps International Borneo Expedition
25th July - 21st August 2013
Thursday 25th July, 1pm in Terminal 4 at Heathrow International Airport had arrived following a year and a half of preparation. Meeting the rest of the team for the first time was daunting but after farewells from families and introductory icebreakers the nervousness had disappeared. Our group was made up of fifteen students from five different schools, two teachers and an expedition leader.
Borneo itself is only an island but is divided among three countries. The north of Borneo consists of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah (our destination). To the north coast is the small but prosperous country of Brunei, and to the south is Indonesian Borneo. Our journey to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (KK), took twenty four hours with stopovers in Dubai and Brunei, eventually arriving 11pm local time (GMT +9) in 35 degree humidity.
Despite arriving late at night, the atmosphere outside our hostel, Step In Lodge, was alive with the street market and the sound of the nearby harbour. The following day, we were taken with a local guide to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park just outside of the city, where we saw some of the native species of wildlife and had a ride on a Pigmy elephant for five Malaysian Ringgit (the equivalent of £1.20). Our city tour took us to many famous buildings including a 10,000 capacity mosque and a beautiful Chinese temple, as well as looking out onto the harbour at sunset. Here, our trip long game of Human Cluedo began.
The next day, we began our nine hour bus ride through the jungle to our first camp of Batu Puteh on the Kinabatangan River towards the east coast. On the way, our initial view of the vibrant rainforest slowly changed into vast lifeless palm tree plantations. Whilst the weather so far had been clear skies, this was the rainforest… and the camp was situated an hour upstream of Batu Puteh village on propelled canoe shaped boats. It was a wet and cold but incredible experience to be surrounded by jungle in the midst of a thunderstorm with pink lightning flashes. Batu Puteh was a basic camp; an open long house with fixed hammocks and a small kitchen, a covered external eating area and a sectioned area by the river for showering, all surrounded by jungle. For the next three days, Team Cluedo (as we called ourselves), with the help of local guides, participated in environmental projects ranging from seed collecting, grass cutting and tree planting to assist in a reforestation programme, but also small treks to bat caves and historical sites. We encountered a large range of (dangerous and harmless) wildlife; such as mosquitos, scorpions, leeches, snakes, centipedes, millipedes, fire ants, bats and heard many more jungle noises; a true experience of the Bornean rainforest.
Leaving at sunrise to travel back to the village and on to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on the north east coast, we stopped at Sandakan Memorial Park for the 6,000 Australian, British and local prisoners of war who died under Japanese occupation. It was a very thought provoking and emotional visit. At Sepilok, we were able to view several orang-utans feeding and building their daily nests. After Batu Puteh, our one night stay at Sepilok was lovely with running showers and flushing toilets, and time for relaxation in the swimming pool.
Another long bus trip took us to Camp Bongkud, near Ranau (central Sabah), where we stayed for seven days and participated in community projects. There was a mixture between physical projects contributing to the development of a new community centre; such as brick making and landscaping, and recreational projects; such as playing with local children, painting chairs, baking banana cake, making bracelets and our sunrise trek to the top of Bongkud hill one morning. Bongkud differed from Batu Puteh as it was easily accessible so village members were free to visit. Bongkud was also was based around a traditional long house made of bamboo and banana leaves and mattress beds, with a large open communal area, real showers and a kitchen. As we stayed here for the longest, we began to feel part of the ‘Bongkud family’, which not only included local helpers but other expedition teams too. As part of this, each team that visited painted a poster board that best represented their time in Borneo and Bongkud. A heart-felt moment for all of Team Cluedo was our traditional Bongkud farewell celebration, where we performed our version of the ‘Mount Kinabalu’ song and a rendition of ‘In the jungle’…
A short bus ride over bumpy terrain was Stable Camp (old converted stables) in an isolated area close to Sabah Tea. Our stay here only lasted two days and the main focus was to prepare our kit (and ourselves) for the four day jungle trek afterwards: learning how to put up a hammock effectively was high priority. However, we also spent time helping to restore an old band stand nearby, swimming in the river a short walk from the camp and sitting round a camp fire in the evening to get rid of midges flying. The day before our trek we sorted our backpacks, which included food (such as baked beans, bread, oats, milk powder, jam, tuna, chocolate and oranges), hammocks and tarpaulins, one spare change of clothes as pyjamas and plenty of mosquito repellent. The morning of the trek, along with finding a pray mantis on my mosquito net, we went back to Bongkud to set off.
Contrasting to the rest of the expedition, the jungle trek affected people very differently. For some it was very physically demanding, and for others psychologically challenging; but everyone supported each other. The land differed each day from flat (ish) to 7km straight up, from steep slides down to a river crossing, and time trekking each day depended on how people coped with this. After waking at 6am to eat breakfast and pack up to set off by 7am, we walked for around five hours with rests for food and water until we arrived at our next camp. First come first served to find the best trees for your hammock, and many people grouped together to form ‘forts’ with their tarpaulins. By dark (7pm), we were advised by our guides to be in our hammocks to escape the fire ants. During the day, we talked with the guides about their experiences of the jungle and they stopped us to point out rubber trees and vines from which you could extract water. Madelen taught us some basic Malay, including ‘summandak’ meaning pretty, young girl. Although for most of the trek we were in dense jungle, when there was a clearing at the top the view was expansive. On the last day, the sense of relief as we crossed the last foot bridge to our final destination around midday was overwhelming but fantastic that we were the first full group to complete the trek and in such a fast time.
Our next day and a half of R and R were spent at Sabah Tea Long House, which felt like absolute luxury, especially for those few who got a hot shower. Traditionally built, the long house looked out over the famous tea plantation. The following morning, several of us woke up around 5am to watch the sunrise over the mountains. We had a tour of Sabah Tea factory and given the opportunity to pick tea leaves in traditional tea picking outfits. We also visited a hot springs for the afternoon and greeted with the surprise a BBQ dinner on our return.
Camp Tinangol was a three hour journey to the north of Sabah and past the spectacular Mount Kinabalu. Although Tinangol’s projects were community based, the village of Tinangol which was a thirty five minute walk from the camp. Our main aim here was to continue work on the kindergarten project that had been started four years ago, to provide local children an opportunity to be educated. Over the three days, our objective was to complete the cement work around the outside of the building, which included mixing and laying the cement evenly. After the day’s project work, we had the opportunity to visit the mini market, where local artisans would sell their carvings and jewellery, but also to play with the local children on the village green and experience local dancing. Although on a traditional set up with long houses and three people to a bedroom, Camp Tinangol also had a volleyball court, which was converted into a dance floor on our last night. Team Cluedo were the last group to visit Camp Tinangol for the summer and as part of our (and their) farewell, we had a party; a a BBQ with pork and chips, music, dancing and karaoke. This was quite a poignant moment in the trip, as it signified the end of project work and the start of our journey back to England.
The bus trip back to KK took around two hours passing mountains and rice fields. We were given time to go souvenir buying and explore the city a little, returning to Step In Lodge afterwards. Many of the group headed to the market at the sea front and others to South East Asia’s largest shopping mall. The team went out for our last meal to a restaurant by the harbour, where we talked about our best and worst experiences of the expedition. The following afternoon, we headed to the airport for our return flight in the rain; all dressed in our colourful trousers and not wanting to leave. As we flew over the Black Sea, on the right hand side of the plane was a multi coloured sunrise, while on the left, the moon was surrounded by darkness. Wednesday 21st August, 6am in Heathrow Arrivals, we said our long and emotional goodbyes, posed for many a photo, and then separated.
Our expedition to Borneo was incredible. Not only did we have the opportunity to see, experience and work in some beautiful landscapes with rare wildlife, we encountered great kindness from local communities and guides and were instantly welcomed with gratitude, knowledge and humour. Team Cluedo were an encouraging, caring, if not, crazy close knit family of friends. Although it challenged us all both physically and psychologically, they were supportive of where you had been and where you intended to go. I have never felt so happy and I am truly grateful for this experience.
See more photgraphs from the trip here
Sixth Form Student 2011-2013