Invigoration and innovation in the jungle

Running was something I missed while on Raleigh. I had only been for one run in Nuluh, which consisted of running laps around the local football pitch (which also acted as the village cow field), dodging piles of cow dung and leaping over puddles from that afternoon’s torrential rain shower. Although the view of the sleepy orange sun setting into the valley was not unimpressive, as runs go it wasn’t a fantastic one. However in Imbak there was a dirt track across the existing suspension bridge from our camp and it had running potential. So, one morning Jill and I rose early so that we could get a run in before the day’s work. The light was pale, blurred by the mist rising from the ever-transpiring rainforest, and the air was cool. We warmed up by jogging up the stairs on the other side (made by previous Raleigh volunteers) and then set off along the track.

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It was extremely muddy, much muddier than we remembered from when we had been up there transporting the bags of gravel. We did not go particularly fast, as that would probably have resulted in a fall and thus our entire bodies being coated in the thick sticky yellowish mud, rather than just our shoes. However, after 10 minutes or so, the ground became firmer and it felt more like a proper run. It was hilly. It was HARD. But I was kinda pleased about that as I wanted to strengthen my legs again, especially to prepare for trek (the next phase). Running underneath the twisted semi-embrace of the forest canopy was ominous as it was alluring. I kept fervently glancing upwards for the possibility of a clouded leopard crouched among the clouds in the highest treetops. Alas, it was not to be although on return to camp we discovered that our honey had been stolen by a civet cat.

This might not sound like a huge deal, but we were living on rations. The vast majority of what we ate came out of a tin, rice and noodles in plastic packages and ‘cheese’* in foil and cardboard. Food was a big part of our lives on Raleigh and when wildlife (whether it be civet cats or local dogs or wild boar) stole things, it was the absolute worst. Food was also something that awakened the innovators, designers and engineers in all of us.

On Raleigh, there’s a team called ‘The Loop’ who visit all the project sites, giving people their mail and offering volunteers the opportunity to buy stuff from the Raleigh shop (again, this mainly consisted of food). In return, they expected to be treated like (I quote) ‘kings and queens’ and there’s a competition in which the various groups compete to give the Loop the best time possible. Unsurprisingly, most people did this by trying to make our rations appear vaguely gourmet. We wanted to push the boundaries. We wanted to do something that no alpha group had done before. We wanted to show the Loop luxury in our lost world. (We also wanted ice cream, which was the prize for the winning group).

We were pretty ambitious, as our plans did not just include a stunning meal, but something that pretty much amounted to a spa (at least in these conditions). The group was split in two. One team was in charge of the spa, which we contructed in the river running below our camp. A lost path down to the river had become overgrown, reclaimed by the jungle, and the team spent a good morning clearing it. We then used parangs (Malaysian machetes) to cut up wood from fallen-down trees so that steps could be constructed down to the river where we had built stone baths. We had planned for a volunteer to be close on hand so that the Loop could have a massage should they desire. Could they really ask for more? But we had more for them.

Part of my menu for the Loop’s evening meal involved a starter of garlic pizza bread, but the army ovens were going to be used for cooking another part of the meal. There was one solution. To build a pizza oven. We went down to the river to find a big flat stone on which the pizzas could be cooked on and we balanced this on smaller stones over a fire pit that we had dug out. For the roof of the oven, we cut up a biscuit tin with garden secateurs and bent it over the top of the flat stone. We used tin foil for the back of the oven. The end result was pretty impressive, if we may say so ourselves. We should have won the Loop competition solely for our ingenuity.

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But there was food. How can I not talk about the food? I spent the entire day of the Loop’s visit in the kitchen. I made dough for the pizzas and left it to rise. I made fresh egg pasta (the rangers had brought us eggs) and left it to rest in a biscuit tin that was probably marginally cooler than the humid jungle air outside. I made a bolognese sauce from corned beef and a béchamel sauce from powdered milk. I panicked when I realised that we would run out of butter. Improvised and used oil instead. I made sponges for ‘tiramisu’. I rolled out the pasta into sheets and layered up my ‘lasagna’. Breaked for lunch (I hadn’t sat down all day). I made scones, which I shaped as nicely as I could and put them in the oven so that the Loop could have afternoon tea when they arrived (one legend had brought Yorkshire tea). I made a kind of chocolatey coffee sauce for my tiramisu and layered that up, topping it with a thick dusting of Milo. I then made gnocci with the help of Lucas who is half Italian.

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And somehow, SOMEHOW, it all came off. I couldn’t quite believe it. Even the scones, which really should not have worked in the ridiculous heat they were made in, tasted pretty good. Four courses later, everybody was stuffed and satisfied. I was quite frankly exhausted. It was definitely one of my favourite moments on Raleigh and something I never ever considered that I would do, especially in that wild place. It is these things, the unexpected, that we keep with us and why we should all get out of our comfort zone, whether that be in Britain or Borneo, and do something spontaneous.

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*I refuse to believe it was truly cheese. No cheese can stay solid in that heat.

Photo credit: Robin Tess Bolland (2nd and featuring image) and Catheline de Slegte (last 3 images).
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