It was an early start on the day of deployment for phase two. As the new members of Alpha 4 rose, it was dark still and the stars were out, pinpricks of light sparkling against a blanket of black velvet, a faint shroud of cloud cloaking the moon. By the time we had packed up the coach with all the supplies we’d need for our time in Imbak Canyon, the sun was rising, apricot and purple clouds drifting through a sky of deep pink. Sunrises in Borneo never fail to take one’s breath away.
As we all began to board the coach, a small crowd of other Raleigh volunteers who had got up early to see us off surged forward to say their last goodbyes until the next changeover. The last thing we saw as we departed from base camp was a ripple of waves from the friends we had already made while on Raleigh. It was a sad moment, yet joyful too, in finding we had such good friends, even after just one phase.
As we wound our way along a quiet meandering road, the views from the window made it easy to believe we were heading towards a ‘lost world’. Forested crests of hills rose up out of a gently swirling mass of pale gold mist before the vision was swiftly obscured by a veil of cloud as the coach descended into a valley. A long coach journey was followed by a long bumpy ride in four by fours down muddy tracks as civilisation thinned and multicoloured villages, perched on hillsides, became seldom. After a relatively luxurious night (in beds!) spent at Tampoi Research Centre, there still remained an hour and half’s trek to our final destination.
We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by a dense canopy of forest, each available space filled with a floral frenzy as plants struggled to occupy even a small patch of scarce sunlight. Only the narrow trail ahead of us was clear, although the forest was starting to claim it back, tendrils of strange exotic plants casually slung across our path. A brief time in the strong morning sunlight as we left the clutches of the forest to cross a dirt track illuminated piles of pygmy elephant dung, evidence of the plethora of wildlife that Imbak Canyon holds. Back underneath the deep shade of the trees, traversing steep muddy faces using rope to steady us, we began to hear the sound of crashing water in the distance. The more we walked, the louder it became until suddenly we emerged blinking into the sunlight, marvelling at the ferocious cascade of water crushing down in front of us, Imbak Falls.
Foaming white in the midday sun against a curtain of leaves of a thousand shades of green: emerald, jade, venom. Above the falls is a viewing platform built by previous generations of Raleigh groups: for a few minutes all we could do is stand and stare at our surroundings, trying in vain to take everything in. Even now, as the phase is well underway, every member of the group has moments when they stop and are struck by the beautiful reality of where we are. It is something that is truly quite special and we are privileged to be here.
Imbak Canyon is known as the ‘lost world’, an area untouched, unchartered and unexplored. It is a pristine area of primary rainforest, something that so rarely exists in this modern world and one of high conservation value that needs our protection. Imbak was only made a Class I Forest Reserve in 2008, yet its status may change to UNESCO World Heritage Site in the coming years. It is the smallest and least known conservation area in the ‘green heart’ of Sabah, but scientists suspect that it may be an important refuge for many animals and plants, which may be as yet unknown to man. In brief, the canyon is brimming with secrets to be discovered, especially in the realm of plant-based medicine.
Raleigh’s work here has been to continue the construction of a suspension bridge which will help scientists to chart the mysteries of what we only know as ‘the other side’. We have carried bags of gravel and wheelbarrowed sacks of cement, all while sweating prolifically in the humid heat of the jungle. We have donned our oh-so-attractive ‘longs’, as if we couldn’t be sweaty enough, and mixed the cement in a huge pile using sub-standard spades and strength we didn’t know we had. It is physically exhausting and we all collapse on the benches under the kitchen tarp during our breaks, cramming peanut brittle into our mouths and trying to drink the water (practically the volume of Imbak Falls) that we have sweated away.
However in the late morning/afternoon, when we have usually completed our day’s work (and it would be too hot to work anyway) we reap the benefits of living in an area of such outstanding natural beauty. Our motivation, every day, is usually partly fuelled by the prospect of swimming underneath the majestic torrent of Imbak Falls. It is refreshing and thrilling and beautiful and fun and indescribable and makes showers seem overrated. It is a wild luxury that makes the physical toil so much easier and one that has deepened our connection with the natural world.