Drifting downstream: the rivers of Northern Laos

Landlocked Laos may not lie adjacent to any ocean but it more than compensates with a twisting network of rivers that crisscross the country like veins. In the rainy season, the rivers rage with wild rapids. However, visit in the drier season (I was there in March) and you’ll be rewarded with one of the jewels in the crown of Northern Laos: a slow boat trip down the Nam Ou.

From travellers I had met in Vietnam, reports of Laos did not tend to be glowing. ‘Just go for a couple of weeks,’ we were advised, with warnings that it was a bit boring. After 24 hours, we utterly disagreed. I cannot deny that Laos is hands down the most laid back place I have ever visited. Everything happens in slow motion; its languid rivers flow lazily through shallow valleys; even the dogs are more chilled out as they lounge in the shade. But I think that this is a huge part of its charm. Relax into its dreamy vibes and you’ll find yourself spending longer there than you planned.

After an exhausting journey from Vietnam, we spent the night in a guesthouse in Muang Khua which clung precariously to the sides of the riverbank, accessible only over a rickety bridge which was only sketchily nailed together. Our landlady didn’t speak a word of English but shyly smiled and showed us to our rooms. The walls were made from woven bamboo and for the first time felt homely; mosquito nets foamed down from the ceiling onto piles of blankets and from the window we could see the gentle flow of the Nam Ou. For less than £2 for a night, it was not a sore deal. Dinner was slow in coming – we would learn that everything in Laos happens in Laos time – but delicious. It was our first experience of Laos sticky rice, which generally is cooked at breakfast time and eaten with every meal.

Sticky rice is made from a specific opaque rice grain called glutinous rice and has been cultivated throughout South East Asia for over a thousand years. About 85% of all rice in Laos is of this type. It is steamed and comes in little wicker baskets with a top attached with string. Eat it with your hands, rolling it into walnut-sized balls, and dip it into whatever you choose to eat it with. Eat it all the time for every meal. It. Is. Incredible. Stay tuned on the blog for my Ode to Sticky Rice. There is an age-old debate as to whether sticky rice is traditionally Thai or Lao. Having travelled round both, I would argue that it is hands-down Lao. Sticky rice for life.

After a comfortable nights sleep, we were up bright and early for the slow boat at 8 which came at 9.30. Papaya and mango  with Lao coffee for breakfast before heading down to the stone ramp that went down to the river. We handed our backpacks down onto the boat, a long wooden riverboat painted blue with a wooden covering held down by bricks. We climbed aboard. Bags went down one end; people on the other. I folded my waterproof over to make a cushion to sit on and folded up my knees slightly to fit into the width of the boat. When everybody was on, ropes were untied and the woman driving the boat pushed off from the river bank with an oar so that we were slowly free-floating down the river.

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The scenery was beautiful as we drifted downstream. Striking karst hills carpeted in a cloak of emerald greenery flanked the Nam Ou as it wound through flat-bottomed valleys. The sky was a pale forget-me-not blue edged with wispy clouds that clung to the limestone peaks climbing upwards into jagged triangulations. The sun shone serenely through a lazy haze, warm and balmy, while a gentle breeze cooled the skin. There was an occasional spray of water as our vessel surged through rougher parts of the river.

We occasionally stopped the boat to pick people up who were waiting by the sides of the river to get a lift downstream. Sometimes they drew up alongside the boat in smaller thinner canoes, jumping nimbly across to us. After a couple of hours, a few of us desperately needed the toilet so we pulled up alongside a sand bank and disappeared into the trees, the sand burning our feet in the sun. I squatted in a bush next to some pigs who looked faintly appalled and wandered away to snuffle elsewhere. We stopped off at a riverside village called Muang Ngoi Neua, a charming place where I would recommend staying if you have the time. Although we didn’t stay here, we heard really good things about it. We grabbed lunch here and said goodbye to the people we’d met on the crossing from ‘Nam and who we’d chilled with for the last few hours on our gentle journey downstream.

It wasn’t long until we arrived in Nong Kiaw, a slightly larger town than Muang Ngoi Neua, but still a village really as it takes less than 10 minutes to walk through the whole thing. It is surrounded by the same limestone scenery that we saw from the river which we planned to explore some more the next day. Meanwhile the sun was starting to set on the river, its pinkish hue contrasting with the deep greens of the forest reflected in the slowly moving water. We ate dinner alongside the river to the last shafts of rosy sunlight which faded to a darkness punctuated by the flickering flames of the lamps on our table. We tried ‘laap’, a Lao speciality of minced meat fried with chilli, herbs, lime juice and toasted rice, accompanied by sticky rice.

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The next day was spent exploring and getting lost in the surrounding countryside, amongst the karst mountains and caves, not straying far from the road due to unexploded ordinance left in the area from the America/Vietnam War. On the way back to Nong Kiaw, we paid a visit to the Tham Pha Tok caves, which is where villagers hid out during the Second Indochina War as American bombs rained on Laos. For a time, the Luang Prabang government was also based in this cave system. Originally accessible by a rickety bamboo ladder, a new wooden staircase now rises to the cave’s entrance. Take a flashlight as you navigate the chambers of the cavern – there are a few signs about but not an awful lot of information on display. However, it is still interesting being in the caves and imagining what happened here not so long ago.

We walked back a couple of kilometres to town where we had a late lunch of Indian dosa with a Dutch girl we’d made the crossing to Vietnam with, who happened to be walking past. Stomachs full, we decided to walk up Phadeng Peak to the town’s viewpoint. In hindsight, doing it on a full stomach wasn’t the best idea. Although no Fansipan, the trek went steeply uphill in the afternoon heat. I had brought a camera rather than a bottle of water – priorities – so was dehydrated in the almost oppressive heat. We were all dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top but the 360° vista which awaited us at the summit was worth the walk. A pinkish sun wreathed in pale clouds was sinking slowly into the embrace of the jagged limestone hills, the light sparkling and enchanting the long loops of the river. We sat by a rice sack ‘flag’ blowing in the wind as the sun set, deciding to make our way down as the light became cloaked in cloud. It got darker as we made our way down and needed a flashlight to navigate the winding path before we reached the bottom.

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After showering off all our sweat, we went out to go eat more Lao food. I ordered Lao sausage, spiced win lemongrass and chill, which came with sticky rice (of course), greens, fried river weed with sesame seeds and a spicy aubergine dip (‘jeow’). It was washed down with a Beerlao, the national rice beer which comes in huge bottles and is actually really good. We went back to the hostel and cuddled with their kittens before heading to bed. We were reluctantly leaving the riverlands, travelling West to Nam Tha National Park,  the next day. We had actually looked to see whether we could travel there by river for it is possibly the most relaxed form of transport in the world. However, being the dry season, there was no chance and so it was that we changed from boat back to bus for the next leg.

 

Hanoi

Take a walk with me. Past the street sellers hawking their wares. Past quiet temples hidden in tiny spaces in the maze of the Old Quarter. Watch out for the motorbikes weaving their chaotic way through the narrow streets, little changed in the last few decades, save for tourist amenities. Don’t look at the map – you’ll only increase your chance of being run over. Besides, you’ll swiftly get lost again. I swear we’ve been here before. Anyway. There’s the cathedral, a majestic and fume-blackened reminder of colonial days. And there: steaming beneath the embrace of a banyan tree, a street-side stall churns out banh goinem cua be and banh ran ngot. The English translations (‘pillow cake’ or ‘fried nem’) on the sign above these snacks don’t elucidate these amazing-smelling mysteries. You just have to order and hope. Welcome to Hanoi.

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We arrived from Halong late-afternoon and plunged into the capital’s tumultuous tide of tuktuks, trays of food and touts. We had a Google Map screenshot of where our hostel was and, after almost a month on the road, were quite confident in our navigation of new places. At least for the first half hour. Then again after what we found what we thought was the right street. And again when, after walking in a circle we were sure it was the right street. It was. But no hostel. We swallowed our sweaty pride and asked for help. Our would-be-rescuers stared at our map, at the maps on their own phones, as perplexed as we were that the hostel didn’t seem to exist at all. The sun, and our hopes, had started to set and we were starting to worry about where to go. We tried asking one last person, a guard at a fancy-looking hotel, who didn’t speak such good English. A well-to-do Vietnamese couple from the hotel came over asking if they could help, looked at the name of our hostel, looked at us and at eachother. ‘Your hostel is several kilometres away from here.’ Facepalm. ‘We’re about to go out. We can drive you if you like.’ And they did, in their fancy SUV, brushing off our offer of money and restoring our faith in the people of Vietnam after the madness of Halong Bay. We couldn’t thank them enough (or apologise for getting their leather seats so sweaty) but they just smiled and wished us a good trip. Random acts of kindness, hey. Beautiful people.

The hostel was appalling. The worst in Vietnam and, looking back, of the entire journey. The dorm was filthy, the bathroom was foul, the shower didn’t work, the toilet was broken, the bathroom door didn’t close, let alone lock, there was a hole in my bed…the list goes on (not to mention someone – not me, surprisingly – contracting some sort of disease after having licked a table in the vicinity). Of course, you are free to choose your own destiny but let me give you some advice: don’t stay at The Drift if you are ever in Hanoi. It is $2.50 a night and there is free beer. It is not worth it. Drift some place else, if you catch my drift.

We drifted (I’ll stop now) into the Old Quarter in search of food, after having showered by crouching naked under a cold tap and trying to forget about it by drinking the free beer hoi provided by our establishment. We were tired, hungry and disorientated in the narrow winding streets of old Hanoi. After having done a few laps of what looked like the same streets, we wearily stopped at a stall, barely lit by a streetlight, run by a little old woman ladling out steaming bowls of pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. We pulled up little plastic stools as, grinning toothlessly, the lady served up our pho, mixing the noodles with the broth and encouraging us to add the chilli pastes, lime and leaves that she’d placed on a tray next to the soup. We tucked in with gusto, slurping up the broth and clumsily stuffing the noodles in our mouth with plastic chopsticks. It was incredible. We’d had pho many times in Vietnam, but this was the best. It was also where we learnt to eat it properly. The only Western patrons at the stall, we were the subject of much amusement for the local regulars due to our unwieldy way of eating. Chuckling, the elderly gentleman opposite me demonstrated how to eat noodle soup, winding the noodles around the spoon with your chopsticks, then dipping the spoon into the broth so you could eat the two together. After a few attempts, I looked up at him for approval, my mouth full of noodles. Still laughing, he gave me a thumbs up.

We ate lots more street food in Hanoi. Any stall with tempting aromas was basically an excuse to have a meal. We ate banh goi (‘pillow cake’) – like Vietnamese  deep-fried cornish pasties – nem cua be (‘sea crab nem’) – similar to spring rolls but flaky, delicate and stubby – banh trang – the amazing salad-like dish we ate in Ben Tre – bun bo nam bo – stir-fried beef with mango and noodles in a tangy sauce – bun cha – barbequed pork with vermicelli noodles – xoi yen – sticky rice topped with fat and other toppings of your choice. Hanoi’s got it all. We also tried ‘egg coffee’, Vietnamese coffee served with whipped egg whites so that the top of the coffee is almost like a coffee-y marshmallow. Ducking under the eaves of a silk shop, we walked down a tiny corridor and up a rickety staircase to a fairy-light-twinkling balcony overlooking a small garden terrace. Here, we had the BEST egg coffee. Super sweet; super strong.

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We explored the network of tiny streets of the Old Quarter, each street specialising in a different trade, as we learnt when we were trying to find someone to fix my backpack (a broken backpacked backpacker is a sad business). When we found the right street, I bartered with a guy who said he could fix it. He ended up doing so for 45,000VND (at the time, about £1.50). We went to Ngoc Son Temple ‘the temple of the jade mountain’, in the centre of Hoan Kiem lake where I befriended (it’s Facebook official) a groovy Vietnamese lady. According to legend, a golden turtle carried the magical sword of the emperor into the watery depths of the lake where, presumably, it still lies. A mummified descendent of this divine being stares, cross-eyed, from a glass case within the temple. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or terrifying.

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We walked around Hoan Kiem lake about a million times during our stay in Hanoi. The first time because we wanted to, a second and third time because we were talking to a Vietnamese student who wanted to practice his English and we didn’t want to be rude, a further time with newly arrived Oscar and numerous other times. The lake was the main thing I used to orientate myself in Hanoi so we kept going back there. Also, it looked beautiful at night, the scarlet bridge arching over to the temple lit up and its reflection glittering in the still, black water.

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Oscar and I headed West of the citadel over the railway line, strolling through Lenin’s park, where a huge statue of Lenin looks out toward Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The monstrous blocks of stone, surrounded by guards stood to attention in pristine white uniform, are in stark contrast to Ho’s wish for a simple burial. We visited Hanoi’s citadel, only discovered recently, rather run-down and filled with seemingly random exhibitions. We wandered deliriously for what seemed like hours through rooms filled with identical-looking bricks. What is the difference between a rectangular and rammed brick? Does anyone know these things? We left half-mad and not sure why we’d entered in the first place.

Hanoi is a city which gleams with golden temples and glasses of beer hoi. Swirling incense mixes with traffic fumes and steam from the food stalls on every corner. Neat rows of foreign embassies stand next to crumbling citadels, eclipsed by new tower blocks. Hanoi is a mix of the old and the new, the revered and the tacky, the sincere and the scams. The beating heart of Vietnam, the ‘river within’, captures the country in a nutshell.

Halong Bay

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks.

The karst peaks of Halong Bay are on the front of every travel brochure on Vietnam. Google places to go in South East Asia and, chances are, Halong Bay will make top three. However, it doesn’t take an experienced traveller to realise that the beauty of the places you visit doesn’t often live up to expectations built on Lonely Planet descriptions. I was dreading fleets of tourist boats and pollution choking the much-photographed (and photoshopped) waters of the bay. Refreshingly, Halong Bay is one of the rare cases in which you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. Even in less-than-optimum weather, Halong Bay was stunning.

That isn’t to say our whole experience was picture-perfect. It was not. The first difficulty was getting there. We mistakenly believed that we would be able to get a direct sleeper bus from Phong Nha – in fact, we had to change in Hanoi. The first forty minutes or so of the journey was spent stopping at every single hostel on Phong Nha’s one street. Why there couldn’t be just one meeting point is beyond me. Vietnam logic. The rest of the ride was uneventful; I slept all the way to Hanoi. Arriving in Hanoi at dawn, we embarked on an unanticipated trek to where we had to catch our next bus; at least it wasn’t as far as several taxi drivers claimed it was, which ranged from seventeen to seventy kilometres (it was about a kilometre). We grabbed a banh mi from a streetside stall while we waited for the second bus which didn’t drop us in Halong City as we’d been told it would.

For those wanting to do a cruise of Halong Bay, book it in Hanoi – the bus and boat will be included and you will be dropped off at the harbour prior to departure. This, I believe, is what most sensible people do. For those that are less sensible book a hostel in Halong City, find yourself at a harbour a good fifteen kilometres away from there and spend a stressful half hour arguing with taxi drivers, all of whom swear blindly that there isn’t a bus and that you must pay an extortionate fare to get to where you want to go. Of course, there is a bus and that’s how we eventually got to the city which is not much to speak of (another reason just to do a cruise).

One positive of being in Halong itself was Bai Tho or Poem Mountain which is in the heart of the city. We shared a taxi there with some French people we had met in our hostel and started the climb together (they had to go back when they realised they’d left a phone in the taxi). Despite the guy in our hostel telling us what a challenging climb the mountain was, it really was more of a hill. We stormed up it, barely breaking a sweat (something to be savoured in South East Asia) and stopped still at the sight that awaited us at the top. The whole bay was spread out beneath us, rocky forest-carpeted crags rising from the ocean, the ones in the distance fading into an ethereal mist. Birds of prey wheeled about the huge limestone mounds, surfing the currents of the winds as they hovered then dove through the rugged valleys of karst seascape. Although the day hadn’t been particularly clear, the clouds parted for a watery sunset, the sun’s pinky light shimmering hazily on the sea. We sat on a rocky outcrop and watched the water turn from green to pink to orange before descending back to the town. Some faith was restored in humanity when we discovered that the French girl had got her phone back from the taxi driver.

 

The next day we commenced our cruise of the bay. My fear of a legion of gridlocked tourist vessels rose again in my chest as we walked through the harbour to find our ship past rows and rows of boats. However, when we got out into the bay, this fear dissipated: although the occasional boat floated past, our only neighbours were the karst cliffs towering above us. We spent the day happily sailing round this mystical landscape, exploring barnacle covered coves of azure water in bamboo boats and climbing up to get to viewpoints of the bay on a couple of islands. It was on these islands that you really realised how many tourists had flocked to the bay, practically having to elbow your way up steep staircases past people who had stopped to rest in the middle of the path only to be assaulted at the top by selfie stick-wielding visitors hell-bent on getting the ‘perfect shot’.  Although the views were good, they weren’t as good as those of Poem Mountain and we were rather relieved to get back on the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other not-so-perfect part of our experience occurred towards the end of the day, when Roza realised she had lost her purse. We had had to change boats halfway through the day and she had assumed she’d left it on the first boat. However, the guy on our boat had radioed back to the first vessel: they had her purse, it was all fine. But then he started to demand money from us alleging that we had not paid for a number of the day’s activities. We had, and gave him the number of our hostel so they could confirm this. He paid no attention and started to blackmail us, stating that he would not give back the purse if we did not pay him. We got back to land, where it transpired the purse was left on the bus we’d caught to the harbour. Two things we learnt from this: firstly to keep valuables on us at all times and secondly that some people won’t hesitate to lie through their teeth if they have something to gain from you. Of course, these people are not in the majority – a number of people helped get the purse back – but it is sadly something to be aware of when travelling. I do not wish to end on this note. Halong Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty with its emerald topped peaks amidst an cerulean ocean topped with a snaking mist. And we didn’t even see it on a sunny day. I’ll leave you with a story.

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks. The story is the bay’s namesake, for ‘Halong’ literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends’. Whether the dragon ascended or will ascend once again may be lost in the mists of myth. That would certainly make an original Instagram. Alas, that wasn’t to be on my own visit. For now, the dragon may slumber submerged beneath the surface of the water, tail spikes mistaken for just another jagged pinnacle.

Another journey: the dawn

Travelling evokes a tremendous sense of satisfaction, yet simultaneously creates a certain restlessness. After Borneo, I was left with many wonderful memories and experiences but also an itch to get back on the road, to take to the skies and seas of the world. They call it the ‘travel bug’ and I, like my mother before me, am well and truly infected.
So, within a month of having returned to England, I found myself poring over maps spread over the kitchen counter, travelling continents with my fingertips, oceans with my eyes. Where to go? Everywhere. But I had to be realistic and I narrowed it down, first to Asia and then to the South East. At the beginning of January I had booked my flights: London to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Singapore to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and Kili back to Blighty. I had also booked a tour around Myanmar (Burma) for May, which started in Thailand, giving me effectively three months to get to Thailand. My vague plan was to travel up North through Vietnam, down through Laos, across Cambodia to Thailand, tour round Myanmar, then travel South through Thailand and across to Malaysia. Since returning from Borneo, my desire to climb Mt Kinabalu, for me an image from trek of perserverence and strength, had only grown and so I planned to include this in my travels. My adventure would be concluded with an eight-day climb of Mt Kilimanjaro with my family – standard family holiday. I would be away approximately six months.

I said goodbye to my family, and to York, on the 29th of January. The sun was shining as the train departed York railway station, reflecting the tears in my mother’s eyes, and in my own, through the open window (which I was politely asked to close). Waving goodbye made all my plans seem solid, less of an exotic fairytale, and I felt equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. Before I left the country, I had a fun weekend in London with a few of my best friends, some of whom would be joining me in a few months for some of my travels. It was the perfect way to spend my last few days in England.
When I left my friend’s flat in Barbican on Tuesday on foot with my huge backpack, the sky was still dark, the stars veiled by London’s shroud of pollution. I took a tube and two trains to the airport, where I met a several friends who would travel with me to Saigon. My first stop was Mumbai, India, where I would spend almost ten hours trying to sleep on cold marble benches in the airport’s ‘garden’ and being bitten by the flies that dwelt among the plants. It was a bit worrying that our flight to HCM wasn’t actually on the departures board and, on investigation, it transpired that we were actually travelling via Bangkok, Thailand. Nice of the airline for telling us.
It was a beautiful flight, although I slept for much of it (surprisingly: I never sleep on flights). Leaving Mumbai was like a scene in a travel documentary. Looking out of the window, I could see where the land met the sea, blurred by a soft blanket of mist. Flying over India, mountains rose gently above a swirl of cloud, which emmenated a golden glow in the morning sun. Watching this elegant landscape pass me by made me rather sad that I wasn’t visiting India, which is probably in my top five of countries that I wish to visit. When we arrived at Bangkok, we didn’t actually leave the plane, but sat, sleepily bemused as a purposeful-looking team of aircraft staff cleaned the plane around us in about ten minutes flat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such cleaning efficiency; I was very impressed. As the plane lifted off again, I fell asleep, briefly waking up to an exquisite view of a shimmering network of rivers meandering like veins across an emerald province.

We touched down in Vietnam to the sight of the setting sun over a patchwork of paddyfields. Leaving the airport, we ran with our heavy bags to catch the bus to take us to our hostel, but it turned out that this was the last one, leaving us with no other option but to take a taxi. After several arguments with various taxi companies trying to charge us extortionate rates, we eventually managed to get ourselves some sort of discount (it still wasn’t a very good price but we were too tired by this point to haggle any more; we got them down by almost half). Half an hour later, we were standing at the mouth of an alleyway in a mostly deserted fruit and vegetable market, while traffic and people streamed by on the road behind us, a cacophony of car horns. The email from the hostel had told us to ‘get in the alley’ and, after a deep breath, we did so. When it came into sight, a few doors down, we gave a great whoop: we had finally arrived!

Good evening Vietnam
Good evening Vietnam

Trek: an uphill climb with beautiful views

Life on trek is like living in a different world.  Although we know that the cogs of everyday life keep turning, we’re so immersed in our little bubble that it seems an odd concept that things like days of the week still exist.  We haven’t seen anyone beyond our team or guides for the last week.  Civilisation seems alien and we have left it behind us.

Our coach dropped us off, literally on the side of the road, with nothing to do except don our walking boots and heavy rucksacks and start our long walk into the waiting arms of the jungle.  It had been sunny back on the road, but underneath the dense canopy of the rainforest and with a sky rapidly clouding over it became darker and more mysterious.  Tendrils of mist snaked around the trees, like something out of a jungle fairy tale.  That very first day, we experienced our first rainstorm on trek.  It started lightly but quickly became torrential and by the time we arrived, slipping and sliding, into our first camp, we were absolutely drenched.  The first evening, after having set up the group kit and our own hammocks, was spent as a whole group, damp and cold, huddled around the fire.  But there was something nice about everyone being together, a tangle of limbs, as everybody vied to get the best spot to dry their feet as the rain hammered down on the tarp overhead.

The camps so far have been pretty variable.  One that stands out, although not necessarily for good reasons, is the infamous ‘mud camp’ which, as its name suggests, was incredibly muddy.  Walking around (if sliding can be called walking) was an absolute nightmare, especially if you were unlucky enough to have your hammock set up on a hill which, by the end of our time there, was more like a mud slide.  My rucksack cover is still covered with the mud from mud camp, lest I forget all the muddy memories.

But for every mud camp, there is a stunning camp with magnificent views or perfect trees or a beautiful river close by.  At ‘mouse deer camp’ there is a place you can walk to where you can find incredible panoramas of the surrounding scenery.  The night we arrived, there was a full moon and we all went down after dinner to have a look.  It was a sight that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.  A perfect full moon hung in the centre of the night sky, bathing all the trees in a pearly glow.  We could see the bold silhouette of Mount Kinabalu standing proudly against a velvet sky, fluffy clouds resting in the valley, glowing softly by the light of the moon.  Other clouds, pale silvery wispy things, skimmed the tops of the ridge and streaks of silver nudged the base of the mountain.  On one side, a huge threatening roll of cloud lit up occasionally with flashes of lightening from a storm, but there was no thunder to break our  semi-stunned silence.  Stars shone out from where the clouds were fewer, signs of a rainless night for our team.  The only evidence of human settlement came from three pinpricks of light; apart from that, there was only soft darkness all around.  We felt so isolated but in a good way.  It kind of felt special that we were the only ones out there in the middle of that massive expanse of Bornean rainforest.

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The rainforest itself has much to offer, which compensates for its slippery paths and huge hills for us to trek up.  We have swam in crystal clear rivers and sat underneath waterfalls, something that is blissful after a long day walking as we let our sore limbs rest in the deliciously cool water.  Rare moments of feeling clean are a definite luxury here in our trek bubble.  Luxury comes also in the form of the food that the jungle provides.  Pretty much all food on trek tastes amazing despite all coming from a can – in our trek delirium, we are all now devoted fans of chicken luncheon meat, something which definitely shows the level of jungle madness that we are all at!  But we have been lucky enough, too, to find fresh food – wild ginger, chillies, long beans – that have elevated our meals to the next level.  Our incredible guides have also cooked us some things, including jungle palm soup and sweet tapioca and milk.  Yesterday we were treated to jungle donuts, which were absolutely phenomenal – the whole team was buzzing, especially after our guide told us that we had achieved the trek record for that particular day.  We had beaten the time taken by all other teams to walk between the two camps by 11 minutes.

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The foreseeable future also looks good, especially on the food front, as we sit in one of the best camps yet alongside a beautiful river waiting for trek resupply (a visit from Fieldbase staff, with our food rations for the rest of the phase). Alpha 5 are feeling positive as we look towards the next nine days, which may be both mentally and physically challenging, but which we hope to cover with long bold strides and a spring in our step.

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Originally published by Raleigh International (02/12/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/trek-an-uphill-climb-with-beautiful-views/

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).

A Journey in the Dark

Darkness had descended into Imbak Canyon by the time we embarked on our first night trek, a snake of red head torches glowing dimly in the gloom. I have never known such darkness; dense, heavy, almost claustrophobic. A faint scatter of stars, partly obscured by gently swirling clouds, glittered down through a gap in the trees, pinpricks of light in a sea of darkness. I hadn’t replaced the batteries in my head torch for a while and my failing light barely illuminated the path in front of me. My chances of seeing any wildlife, except for the spiders’ eyes glinting from the trees, were almost zero.

But what I couldn’t see was more than compensated for by the cacophony assaulting my eardrums. The rainforest never sleeps, an orchestra of biodiversity screaming out from every branch, root and stem. Cicadas sang, frogs croaked, birds crooned, and something…purred? A clouded leopard? Fairly unlikely, yet not impossible here in Imbak, the ‘lost world’, one of the few truly unexplored places on Earth.

Fear was almost tangible in the suffocating blackness, a metallic taste on my palette, unknown terrors lurking in unseen trees. At one point, the girl in front of me stopped, motioned for me to go first. The people at the front were too far ahead, leaving a dark void between us and them. Setting forth into that void was both terrifying and exhilarating.

I tried to gauge where we were, for we had walked this route, the all-but-forgotten ‘Big Belian Trail’, before. By day, the sun had shone brightly through a veil of emerald, casting dappled shadows onto the forest floor. ‘Big Belian Tree’, the focal point of the trail, took seven of us, linked hands, to encircle it. ‘How old?’ we asked our guides. A thoughtful silence. The reply: ‘Very, very old.’

The forests of Sabah are, indeed, very very old, dating back to the age of the last dinosaurs. Another tree on the trail, ‘Kapur Hollow Tree’, you can stand up inside and feel the age pressing in around you, as you look upwards at the patch of blue sky above. This lost path runs through Imbak’s unique and mysterious primary rainforest, a rarity in this destructive modern world. It was a circular route, with decaying footbridges that we were helping repair.

In the dark, I counted. One bridge. A stumble on an entwined tangle of roots. Two bridges. A cold sweat, for once not from the humid heat of Borneo, breaking out on the backs of my arms. Three bridges. A slip on the bridge itself, the final bridge, curses muted by the living symphony of the jungle. Finally, the whirring of the generator and palpable relief as we saw the single light bulb from the guides’ tarpaulin shining out of the darkness. Our camp: a safe haven.