Welcome to our lost world

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFoaming 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.

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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.

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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.

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Take me back to Nuluh

As the morning sun beams down on a winding tarmac road, the members of my team sit in various vehicles gazing out of the windows. Looking back from the train of volunteer laden minibuses, you can see a flash of blue from the other side of the valley, representing the community centre that for three weeks we called a home. The village of Kiau Nuluh clings to the hillside, a patchwork of multi-coloured corrugated iron roofs against the red earth and green fringes of the jungle. Mount Kinabalu stands, as always, protectively in the background, a faint veil of cloud brushing its peak.

It is sad to drive away from this panorama, especially for our group for whom it represented so many memories: happy, sad, frustrating, funny. At the beginning of the phase, we weren’t sure what it was going to be like but we all hoped that we’d be able to integrate into the community of Nuluh. And in the end, we really feel we did, which is what made community phase something special for us. It was a privilege, actually, to become part of the community in the little pocket of time in which we were their guests.

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We learnt a lot from our hosts. In our last few days, we had the opportunity to go on a mini trek into the jungle to the base camp from which the mountain guides of Nuluh take hikers up the steep slopes of Mount Kinabalu. Beside a pebbly mountain river, our two guides showed us how to use a parang to make a floor and cups from the bamboo growing around us. A skill which will surely come in useful for those of us going on trek phase next. We were also shown how to extract latex from rubber trees, one of the main forms of income for the villagers of Nuluh. Standing in the forest clearing, there was something incredibly satisfying about watching Mr George (a senior community member) scrape away the bark in a spiral around the tree and watching the creamy latex flow around the groove and into a metal tin. Mr George was involved in pretty much all stages of our phase and was a fountain of wisdom as well as a bit of a legend. After taking us to see the rubber trees, he took us to a huge langsat tree and told us to fill our pockets and bags, knowing how we’d become addicted to the small orange-like fruits. This was typical of the villagers of Nuluh. They were such a generous people, from sharing their produce to giving us their time.

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We learnt how to make  Dusun food, the food of the mountain people, during a cooking masterclass from the women of the village. We made parcels of rice wrapped in leaves and stir-fries with wild ginger, local spring onions and yellow citrus-y chillies. They taught us their local dances, the bird-like dance of the Dusun people, our arms becoming wings as we strutted our stuff (badly). They taught us how to play local instruments, echo-y gongs which made haunting tunes, melodies of the past reverberating in the air around us.

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Singing was definitely a theme for the team. We sang pretty much all the time, to the great amusement of the villagers, which is probably why they invited us for a singing lesson. A lady called Rita taught us a song in Dusun, the village dialect, called Gunung Kinabalu about the mountain. It stuck in our heads for the rest of the phase and caused us at regular intervals to break into Dusun song. It was a memorable moment for everyone, sitting in a circle sipping Milo and eating banana fritters (the best things ever in the whole world!) to the sound of a guitar and Rita’s voice. We sang our rendition of Gunung Kinabalu at least four times at the karaoke night that the villagers invited us to. After singing all day throughout the phase we rocked that karaoke party and even managed to persuade our project managers Sally and JP to sing ‘Sexyback’ and ‘My Humps’, which can only be described as hilarious. Some other singing highlights involved the children of the village performing a song in Malay for us, during the treasure hunt that we organised for the community event we hosted. Their sweet voices together in song  lifted our spirits and melted our hearts.

The children were a big part of community phase for us. ‘It was interesting how our relationship with the children changed,’ remembers Lucas. When we first arrived, the children were pretty shy, peering out from houses as we walked past. But before too long, they were pretty much wherever we went in the village, smiling and waving and shouting our names and writing them on the road as we walked down from the hill from the work site. ‘It was funny the way they shouted our names,’ says Lucas. ‘Not to say anything in particular, but just to show they knew our names’. You couldn’t walk down to the football pitch without being completely surrounded by children within about five minutes. ‘Their ball was completely deflated but they still had so much fun just running around,’ smiles Lucas.

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It was a different story for the village football team, whom we challenged to four games. Football was a really good way to get in touch with the community, as it meant we recognised them when walking around Nuluh and could stop and chat to them and arrange more games. The first game we lost but Team Raleigh obviously had to have a rematch and we won all subsequent games. Often we didn’t have a complete team, but the villagers always pitched in so that the teams were even, which really made us feel part of the group. The atmosphere was so friendly and games always ended with handshakes all round.

Getting to know the villagers of Nuluh made the phase for Alpha 2. We may have departed but the small village has definitely made its mark on us and left us with countless memories of community life and laughter.

Originally published by Raleigh International (06/11/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/take-me-back-to-nuluh/

Markets, Mountains & Motivation

A small market hums in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. As the sun beams down on the team stepping off a cool, air-conditioned coach, heat and anticipation hang in the air. A gentle breeze makes brightly patterned sarongs hanging from stalls dance with each flurry. Exotic fruits, rambutans and langsats, are piled high, each a mystery as yet undiscovered as storeholders sit in the shade, inviting the volunteers to smell, to taste. As the team waits to be collected by the villagers of Kiau Nuluh, our project site, we buy some fruit, not knowing the next time we’ll have fresh produce to complement our Raleigh rations on community phase. It isn’t long before villagers arrive and a train of cars crunches down a winding gravel track, taking us to our home for the next three weeks.

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‘Coming down the road from the market is breathtaking,’ says project manager Sally and, truly, it is. At an altitude of over a thousand metres, the view from Kiau Nuluh is incredible, with wisps of cloud rolling down a valley that stretches as far as the eye can see. The sunsets here look like something from a painting, with dashes of violet streaked across the sky, the clouds in the valley glowing pink with the light of the setting sun. ‘Sitting watching the sunset, the fields, the mountains, the mist…we don’t get anything like this at home in the Netherlands,’ says Jorrit.

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‘The first thing you see is the scenery but the next thing is the community members and children,’ remembers Oscar on arrival in Kiau Nuluh. We were made to feel welcome as soon as we set foot in the village, children running from the community centre, smiling and waving. ‘We are flattered that the villagers have given us the use of their community centre and clinic,’ says Thomas. The community centre is where the villagers are generously letting us stay and has become a kind of home for us. ‘It’s a bit of a reality check,’ muses Alena, ‘we all come from such a modern world, but it’s only really a small part of the world. You make this a home, sleeping on the floor, settling into a routine…I didn’t think we would become so comfortable!’ ‘It makes us grateful for what we have at home,’ adds Hidde.

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Outside the clinic, a jagged crack cuts through the earth, a reminder of why Raleigh is here. In June, Kiau Nuluh experienced a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest to affect Malaysia since 1976. Although the village has several gravity fed water systems, two of these received structural damage due to the quake. This has limited the flow of water to the village and, with a population of 700, this supply is not adequate for the needs of the community. Making the steep climb out of the village, you can see how many pipes are broken and precious water wasted. Raleigh is here to help the villagers make repairs to existing pipes as well as laying an additional kilometre, thus increasing the flow of water to Kiau Nuluh.

As Raleigh volunteers, we are working alongside the villagers and PACOS (Partnership of Community Organisations Sabah), an organisation that strives to empower indigenous communities, to accomplish this. ‘This is their system,’ says Sally on the villagers of Kiau Nuluh. ‘They are proactive and want to do this in a way that is sustainable for them,’ a standpoint that echoes Raleigh’s own values of sustainable development. Indeed, the villagers have been very motivated, with one member of each household volunteering to work on the project in the coming weeks. Working as one unit, we have already made a level platform for the water tank with a safe path and stairs leading up to it. We have also carried pipes over bubbling streams, up steep banks and fruit-bearing farmland to where they are required above the village.

‘It’s good to feel we’re helping out,’ says Freya on our progress. ‘The villagers are really friendly and appreciate what we’re doing here,’ says Hidde. Even though the villagers have experienced losses, both infrastructural and personal, in the aftermath of the earthquake they are still friendly and upbeat. Setting up the radio as the sun was setting one evening, a woman stopped and gave us a gift of rambutans. Another day, a little boy climbed a tree and picked a bag’s worth of langsats for us to eat as we worked.

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The real challenge of laying the pipe is yet to come, but we are pleased with what we have already achieved. ‘We have built a significant platform which should not only be able to aid our own phase, but on which other phases and locals can base later work,’ reflects Oscar. The work that Raleigh is doing is something the community wants, and needs. With their positivity and motivation, this project is something that will last long beyond the lifespan of this phase.

Originally published by Raleigh International (23/10/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/kiau-nuluh-markets-mountains-and-motivation/

2. The Land Below the Wind

As mentioned in my previous post, Raleigh works primarily in the state of Sabah. Today I’m going to explore Sabah’s origin and some of its history before going on to some of the projects that Raleigh conducts on the community phase of expeditions – only by understanding the past can we begin to make sense of the present.

Sabah was known by seafarers as ‘the land below the wind’ due to its position south of the typhoon belt. There are a number of etymological theories as to where the word ‘sabah’ comes from. Some have mused that it comes from the Bruneian Malay word for ‘upstream’ whereas others have drawn comparisons to the word ‘sabak‘, which is the name for where palm sugar is extracted. ‘Sabah‘ is also Arabic for sunrise and ‘pisang saba‘ is a type of banana which grows on the coasts of the region. Personally I would love it if Sabah was named after a banana but for now it’s a bit of a mystery.

SO, humans appeared in Sabah, North Borneo, about 20,000-30,000 years ago. Their ancestors are thought to be one of the first groups to migrate from Africa along the continental shelf of the Northern shore of the Indian ocean, now submerged in its watery depths. This was the first of a number of waves of migration to North Borneo, all of which have added to its complicated history (which I am struggling to get my head around slightly so please do correct me if I’m wrong). Ancient kingdoms, such as the Vijayapura and the P’o-ni, thrived and then faded back into the past until the Northern and Eastern parts of Borneo were ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in 1658 (although it seems that there is controversy as to whether Sabah specifically was ceded to the Sultanate). Then in 1761 Britain rocked up and, in it’s classic colonial way, found itself holding the rights to North Borneo by 1881; it became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1888. Jumping forward half a century, much of Northern Borneo became occupied by Japanese forces during the second world war leading to a number of air strikes by the allied forces, which completely devastated most of North Borneo’s towns and associated infrastructure. It wasn’t until 1963 that North Borneo attained self government, becoming part of Malaysia along with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore. At this point, Sabah’s population exploded, seeing a 400% increase from 1970 to 2010. Around about this time Sabah saw huge amounts of migration, which has lead to social problems as a result of ethnic tensions. Population expansion has also contributed to poverty, due to the poor conditions in which many migrants live, and environmental destruction as more people called for more resources.

Now, although Malaysia is regarded as an ‘upper-middle-income country’, official figures are not reflected in the states of Sabah and Sarawak where almost 20% of the population live in poverty. Rural indigenous communities here lack access to basic infrastructure and services such as roads, electricity, water and sanitation. Over 40% of Sabah’s population do not have access to safe water and sanitation – this is one of Raleigh’s major focuses in Malaysian Borneo. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are the cause of a plethora of health issues; for example diarrhoea kills more children each year than AIDs, malaria and measles put together. Typically, it is children in rural areas collecting water that restricts access to education and social activities. Raleigh’s water and sanitation projects consist of awareness raising and training (critical in ensuring that any infrastructure is used to its maximum potential) in addition to construction projects which allow communities to lead healthier and more sustainable lives. Although local people are likely to be very capable of building and maintaining their own infrastructure, Raleigh volunteers contribute by offering an extra pair of hands and, more importantly, linking the new facilities with positive behaviour changes.

Another major focus for Raleigh in Sabah is community resilience, something that we take for granted. Community resilience is the ability of a community to adapt or return to normality after sudden changes in their situation. For example, here in Britain if there is severe flooding the health service, police, government and other community organisations are expected to react. And as much as we complain about the efficiency of these reactions in this country, they do react, ensuring people are safe, provided with food and shelter and that damaged infrastructure and buildings are repaired. Thus, a return to a normal way of life is relatively quick. However, many rural communities in Sabah lack the ability to do this, exacerbating the damage caused by sudden environmental and economic changes and making the negative effects much longer lasting. Raleigh hopes to help build resilience in Sabah’s rural communities by encouraging the formation of community groups, improving access to health and education services and introducing alternative ways for individuals to make their living.

Like the environmental projects in the previous post, it is Raleigh’s partnership with other organisations which is important if these ventures are to be sustainable. For example, Raleigh has been working with the Partnership of Community Organisations Sabah (PACOS), which strives to empower indigenous communities through improving their resilience to environmental and social change, for over 12 years. Creating change together is critical if positive effects are to be meaningful, long-lasting and far-reaching in the land below the wind.

1. Sabah, Science & Sun bears

The date of my expedition draws closer and, in the interim, I thought I’d dedicate a few posts to the work I’ll be doing when I’m in Borneo. Raleigh expeditions consist of three phases: an environmental phase, a community phase and an adventure phase so I thought I’d write a bite-sized piece on each, starting with the environmental phase.

Some geography first. Borneo is the third largest island in the world; it is not a country but a land mass divided between the countries of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Raleigh works in the North-East of the island in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The name Borneo is derived from Brunei which itself is thought to be from the Sanskrit word varun, meaning ‘ocean’. It was known by Indonesian natives as Kalamanthana, which translates as ‘burning weather island’ for the island’s hot and humid climate. It is Borneo’s burning weather that provides the conditions for one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. The rainforests of Borneo are estimated to be about 140 million years old. This is many times older than the not-so-humble Homo sapiens, twice as old even than the first primate. In fact 140 million years puts Borneo’s forests right back in the Cretaceous period, along with the last of the dinosaurs and the very first mammals.

In addition to their great age, the forests that cloak the island are one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, a hub of evolution and endemism. Not only does Borneo act as one of the last safehouses for the endangered orang-utan, but as a refuge for a whole host of species, including clouded leopards, Asian elephants and sun bears (the world’s smallest, and my favourite, species of bear). A myriad of plant species also make their home in Borneo’s vast expanses of forest, including a colossal 3000 species of tree and 15,000 flowering plants. As well as their stunning biodiversity, these rainforests also provide livelihoods, food and water for local communities and help sustain the health of our planet as a whole. Rainforests are not known as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ for nought.

However, this abundance of floral diversity proved too much for the greed of humanity. Mass industrialisation in the Sixties brought with it some of the most intensive and most destructive deforestation the world has ever seen. Huge swathes of primary rainforest were logged, burnt and cleared to make space for agricultural land and palm oil plantations. To this day, destructive, and often illegal, activities continue to threaten Borneo’s natural systems, with impacts not only on its flora and fauna but on local communities of indigenous peoples.

Conservation work in these areas is, thus, of paramount importance both for preserving vulnerable ecosystems and enabling local people to continue living in harmony with their environment. Raleigh works both with local conservation organisations and the scientific community in a mutual venture to achieve this. These environmental projects are usually based in Sabah’s major conservation areas, in some of the remotest places on the island and in some of the last stands of true virgin rainforest. Work involves building and maintaining infrastructure that facilitates better management of natural resources. For example Raleigh groups have helped to build a large suspension bridge using trees which had fallen from natural causes, giving scientists access to areas that have never before been surveyed, thus allowing the documentation of new species. This also allows rangers to patrol and combat illegal loggers and poachers more effectively. Projects can also involve helping with biological surveys, including the installation of camera traps, a conservation approach in which I’m reasonably well versed (see previous post).

The mutuality of this venture between Raleigh and a multitude of other organisations is important and something which is going to be essential if we are ever to succeed in protecting beautiful natural habitats and the creatures that reside in them. We are working against forces of greed and desperation, with a different kind of greed and desperation. A greed for life and a desperation for man to live sustainably in harmony with nature. Only together will this be achievable. Hopefully, by going on expedition with Raleigh, I’m making my contribution to this effort. Will you make yours?

#RallyForRaleigh

A sun bear slumbers in the safety, but confinement, of its enclosure in Colchester Zoo.
A sun bear slumbers in the safety, but confinement, of its enclosure in Colchester Zoo.

PETE (aka Pre-Expedition Training Event)

No this post isn’t about a bloke called Pete (although I’m sure it would also make for an interesting entry), but about the Raleigh training event that I attended the other Saturday. The purpose of the event was to further our understanding of the commitment and challenges of going on expedition as well as meeting other venturers who would be going on the same expedition. I learnt a lot and thought I’d take this opportunity to dedicate a post explaining more about what Raleigh is about and, to past and potential sponsors, what your money will be going to.

So, as I mentioned a few posts ago, Raleigh is a sustainable development charity. ‘What is sustainable development?’ you may ask. Although sustainable development can be interpreted in various different ways, the Sustainable Development Commission defines it as ‘development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Something which we, the Western World, didn’t exactly do (climate change, financial crises, etc). And so now we are trying to make sure that those countries that are currently developing don’t make the same mistakes that we did. Along with a host of both governmental and non-governmental organisations, this is where Raleigh comes in.

Raleigh International is a registered charity that aims to harness the passion and energy of young people (of which I will be one!) to effect positive change in sustainable development. They work in remote, rural areas to improve access to safe water and sanitation, build community resilience, to sustainably manage natural resources and to protect vulnerable environments. Their work is delivered through young people who work alongside local communities, partners and volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, nationalities and life stages. They operate in partnership with communities, non-governmental organisations and governments in Borneo, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Nepal and Tanzania. Since their foundation as a charity in 1984, Raleigh volunteers have become a global community of more than 40,000 people committed to building a sustainable future.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I will be joining one of Raleigh’s expeditions in Malaysian Borneo. Previous programmes have included raising awareness of health and sanitation issues, engaging local youth groups, and building projects relating to local schools, libraries and medical centres, sanitation projects, and water supply systems. In addition to this, due to its location in some of the most ancient rainforests in the world, Raleigh also works with both local conservation organisations and the scientific community to help build and maintain vital infrastructure within protected areas to support conservation work and preserve biodiversity. As a zoologist, this is something I am super excited about – I might not be leaving science behind after all!

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All participants are asked to fundraise to support Raleigh’s work. Any donations will help Raleigh to continue to create lasting change and to transform lives in some of the world’s poorest communities. But donations and volunteer fundraising aren’t the only thing going into Raleigh’s pot and going on expedition certainly isn’t the only thing going out. As you can see from the infographic above, the money raised goes to all sorts of different things, from programmes to bursaries to research. Just to bust the common misconception that the money raised will fund my individual placement: it goes much further than that. And to all of those who have sponsored so far, I am truly grateful. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s true – it’s certainly something that’s keeping me going through the sweaty affair that is my half marathon training. If you haven’t and would like to donate, you can do so on my JustGiving page, or post me a cheque written to Raleigh International (message if you need my details). Also, if anyone has any questions whatsoever about Raleigh, please do ask, or you can find out more on their website.

#RallyForRaleigh