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.

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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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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

The first drive, a braii, the fire and the perfect end to the evening

The sun was strong on our first drive – I definitely was glad I had remembered to put sun cream on. I’ve realised I have the best sun cream ever – it has glitter in it. When I’m in the sunlight I am level with Edward Cullen in sparkliness. Score.
So on our drive, we went round checking motion sensor cameras, which Wildlife Act has installed all over Somkhanda and some of its neighbouring reserves. These cameras sense movement, so take a picture whenever an animal passes (it also takes a picture whenever grass moves, as they are quite sensitive, so we end up with a lot of blank photos which is a bit annoying!!) The purpose of them is to collect data on how many leopards are in the area, as this is a reserve which concentrates on leopard conservation. When we think we know how many there are, we can take the data to the hunting authorities to try to get them to issue less leopard hunting permits. The leopards have not shown their gratitude for our efforts to help them, as they have not yet appeared, but we’ve seen evidence of them on the cameras and are still hoping to see one before we leave. The hunting issue also sucks because it makes the animals, especially a lot of antelope species, pretty skittish, which means we see less when we’re out.
We go round checking these cameras every day. There are 66 cameras at 33 sites spread out far and wide, and we have to check every camera once a week to get the photos from them and to replace their batteries. That first drive was the first time I’ve used a hand drill. It was pretty exciting; I felt very manly.
Despite the fact that all I’d really done was sat on the back of a jeep all day, I was pretty wiped when I got back. The roads really are pretty bumpy and it’s a bit of an effort to hold on – checking cameras is more tiring than it first appears!! We went through the photos we collected from the cameras that day; no leopards, but some other interesting animals including genets (which are these cute little cat things with stripy tails), porcupines and giraffes (although you can only see their legs!!) Some of the photos are pretty amusing, as some of the animals are clearly alarmed by the flash of the camera and jump several feet into the air!! I did not know giraffes could jump. Fun fact.

For dinner, we had a braii (a South African BBQ) with impala (type of antelope) sausages and butternut squash. The light was fading as our food cooked over the smouldering hot fire (made with firewood which we had collected ourselves). Just as the food was ready, Brett got a call from his boss saying that there was a fire in Somkhanda and it was spreading towards some of the camera sites. The cameras are expensive, and we didn’t want to risk losing them, so the food was forgotten. We bundled into the truck, with woollen blankets to protect from the raw night wind.
As we reached the main reserve, we first glimpsed the fire. Angry orange lines cut into the a cold black, as the flames devoured their furious way along the hill. The sky glowed scarlet, as flickering red smoke billowed into the night. It almost looked like the sky was burning from the bottom up, like the edge of newspaper held to a flame. It was a sight such as I’ve never seen before: frightening, but beautiful in a wild way. It really took your breath away.
Luckily, we managed to snatch a pair of cameras from the fire’s clutches, but had to leave another pair, as it would have been too dangerous to drive that close.
We’d taken a red spotlight with us, so on the way back we were able to do some night time game watching. Herds of impala watched us from the trees in the gloom, although for once did not run, as they could not see the light of the spotlight. It was quite eery as their eyes glinted crimson in the darkness. We didn’t expect what stepped onto the out of the trees next.
A white rhino, looming huge and silent in the road in front of us took a step in our direction. The engine was hurriedly turned off and we began to roll quietly down the hill away from the rhino. Rhinos can be unpredictably aggressive and we prayed it would not charge us. Tension hung in the air, as it took one last dismissive look at us and disappeared, as quickly as it had come, into the darkness. We waited a few uncertain moments to check for sure that it was gone, then drove on.
Little did we know how much luckier we were about to get. A few minutes later, we saw another rhino. It was not alone. Two females and two babies were walking down the road in the opposite direction to us. We stopped and stared in astonishment at the sight we had stumbled upon. I felt privileged to witness the little family as it hurried away from us down the road. We had been incredibly lucky: Brett has seen 2 rhinos in Somkhanda the 2 months he has been here and we had just seen 5 in one night!!
It really was the perfect end to the evening.