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.

 

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Mount Fansipan

Dawn has not yet broken when our bus rolls into Sapa. I open an eye blearily and only see pitch darkness, a dark chasm of anonymity. We could be anywhere. Somewhere close looms Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. We climb it today. I glance at my watch: it reads 4:20am. I sink back into unconsciousness.

I am woken once again at 5.30am by a flashlight being shone into the bus. I squint out into the darkness and see the bright artificial light reflecting off the windows to make out the outline of a mans face. It is, I think, our mountain guide. ‘Is that our guide?’ whispers Oscar. ‘Hope so.’ I whisper back. We wake up Roza, locate our bags in the darkness of the bus and move to get off the bus. The door is locked. Ah. There is no driver; he must have left when the bus arrived in Sapa. We fumble with the door from the inside and our supposed guide looks to see if he can open it from the outside. We stare helplessly at eachother from opposite sides of the glass. The day is not off to a good start. Why did we decide to climb Fansipan straight from the night bus? Eventually Oscar finds some mechanism of some kind, yanks it down and the cold night air takes us by surprise. We are free.

‘Sapa O’Chau?’ I ask the man. ‘Sapa O’Chau,’ he nods. I shake him by the hand; he looks a bit surprised. I introduce myself and he mumbles something back. His English is very basic. If he ever did tell us his name, I cannot remember it. He points towards a car where another man sits behind the wheel. He waves and grins. We wave back. ‘We need to get our backpacks,’ I say. Our guide looks confused. I mime ‘backpacks’ and point to the bus. Our guide looks hesitantly at his friend. The guy behind the wheel gets out of the car. I repeat myself and he understands; his English is better. Thankfully, the storage part of the bus is not locked and we are able to get our bags after, between the five of us, we work out how to open the compartment. Finally we, and our bags, are inside the vehicle and we are driving to the start of the trek, the damp cold mists parting before the car’s headlights.

Our trek started from the entrance to Hoang Lien National Park. We were given a cold baguette for breakfast (Oscar shared his with a dog; I all but force-fed Roza hers) and some snacks for the walk which we put into day bags with other provisions we had bought. We layered up against the cold and donned our walking boots. When we were ready, we set off into a mizzly dawn. To Oscar’s disappointment, the dog did not come with us.

We walked the first part of the walk pretty quickly, storming up through rocky marsh forests, up twisted tangled staircases of entwined roots, occasionally treading on a carpet of soggy pink blossoms. Although it was rainy and cold, we were working up quite a temperature until we stopped, at which point we became shivery cold. It took us about two hours to get to the first rest stop, where we sat shivering but at least out of the rain. We refuelled, before setting off again into the elements, the mist masking the way forward and any possible views we might have had.

We were going slower now and it took us about another hour to get to the second rest stop. We got chatting to a group of Americans who were on their way down – they had opted for the two-day trek. ‘You’re doing it in a day?’ they asked incredulously, watching us shiver pathetically, our breaths white and misty in the cold air. They took pity on us and gave us a candle which, in our state of desperation, we gathered round with hands outstretched, burning our fingers on the flame. I imagine it was a very sorry sight.

It had stopped raining when we moved on, but there still wasn’t a view to be seen as we clambered up a rocky path, icy droplets on the frozen foliage clacking together like wintry castanets. From there, it was about two hours to get to the top. We scrambled up scree slopes, climbed over craggy outcrops, sank into bog and slipped in thick cloying mud. At last, we found ourselves at the bottom of a set of stairs. This is the measly distance you can climb if you opt to get the cable car up. We should have been relieved at this point, but we felt demoralised as we ascended those stairs. Coming down them were a load of Asian tourists, dry, clean, happy, taking photographs of the wet, dirty, miserable British walkers. Those stairs, pathetic as it sounds, were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were physically exhausted, feeling the altitude, our hearts and heads pounding and our legs weak. But together, step by step, we made it to the top, feeling triumphant and quite frankly knackered. We collapsed on eachother in a group hug. A team effort.

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While we elbowed our way through fresh, selfie-taking cable-car people, our guide prepared our lunch – sandwiches with cream cheese, pork, cucumber, tomato and herbs followed by apple and banana (or dessert sandwiches with oreos and banana, despite doubtful looks from everyone else – would thoroughly recommend).

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Although we sat down to rest our tired legs, it was impossible to stay sat down as it was just too cold, so I walked around eating my sandwich and admiring the views, such as they were. Despite the fact we couldn’t really see much, there was something wonderful and mysterious about the dark peaks rising out of the cloud. The clouds and the sky were the same shade of white-grey, the line between them indistinguishable so that if felt almost like Fansipan was floating in the sky, a rugged rocky ship sailing through an ocean of thick swirling mist.

We began our descent, which seemed to take an age. We were rewarded, however, by the sun finally making an appearance through the clouds, at which point it became quite warm and I had to take off a layer of clothing. At one point we stopped to rest and, it seemed like just for us, a curtain of cloud was drawn aside to reveal the peaks we’d just come from, the sun caramelising the clouds at the edges and revealing patches of blue sky. And as you soar above that cosmic golden valley of mist you think ‘this is why I climb mountains.’ Then the veil of cloud slowly slid down once again, as if that beautiful vision had never been, and we moved on.

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We walked considerably quicker after that point, our guide urging us on. We stumbled down the rocks while he skipped nimbly from rock to rock, carrying a red stool that he’d found on the way down. We realised that we must have blanked out large parts of the walk on the way up (or perhaps we were half asleep) as we kept walking through scraps of forest we didn’t recognise, every ten minutes thinking we were almost there and each time being disappointed. We heard the sounds of a car and thought we must be almost back at the start but it wasn’t until the arch of national park was right in front of us that we realised we were made it.

After eleven hours of walking, we had climbed and descended Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. Our legs were aching but our hearts were light, exhilarated, victorious. You haven’t just conquered the mountain but you have conquered yourself. Your weariness feels worthy somehow – you know you will ‘sleep the sleep of the just’ as my mother says. The views may have been fleeting but friendship was not. You have achieved something. This is why we climb mountains.

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.

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).

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/

18K & Technicolour Toes

The great wheel of time keeps turning, bringing the looming prospect of my half marathon ever closer. A half marathon is just over 21km (13.1 miles) in distance which (fun fact) is over three times the average migration distance of a Galapagos tortoise (although they complete this in 2-3 weeks…a record I shall hopefully beat in my own endeavour). So far in training, I have mainly been doing speed training, hammering out 5Ks and trying to do a longer run at least once a week (although I’ve been slacking slightly in recent days). However, I hadn’t ran further than 15K, over 6K shorter than the full distance, and so I decided to push myself the other weekend to run a longer distance of 18K.

I planned the route the night before. I like to know where I’m running before I set off as firstly all you have to concentrate on is running and secondly you can’t give up and loop back home (well, you can, but you feel a bit guilty). I had filled my groovy water bottle with Lucozade (mango & passionfruit – nice) to replace the carbohydrates and electrolytes I would be losing as I ran. I had also arranged for my sister to meet me with some water at the approximate halfway point, as it was a pretty hot day and dehydration was not on my to-do list. I set off with confidence but to be honest I wasn’t feeling that great – my stomach was churning slightly and I was concerned whether the stewed plums I had made tartlets with the previous night (and which I had spooned a tiny bit of mould off) had been such a good idea. But 5K in, and not feeling hugely better, I couldn’t exactly turn back, so took a swig of Lucozade and plodded on. By kilometre 7, I think the fresh air and sunshine had worked a little magic and I didn’t feel quite so rubbish. Running-wise, all was groovy too and butterflies flitted around brightly coloured wildflowers in the midday sun. I was passed by quite a few cyclists who were also out enjoying the weather (although sweating significantly less than I).

Just before I reached the 10K mark, I turned onto a busier road that looped around back to Haxby, leaving the fields and flowers behind. In hindsight, running on this road wasn’t a particularly good move and I wouldn’t do it again (but I had mapped it out as 18K exactly and wanted to hit this distance milestone). Before then, although I felt a bit churn-y, my legs were still fresh and I wasn’t particularly out of breath, despite the heat. Now my legs were starting to feel the distance but running down that road was SCARY and to be honest the adrenaline kept me going and not wanting to get squashed by a car kept me alert. A couple of kilometres into this bit, Gem came to meet me and I swapped my bottle for a fresh one, rather like handing over the baton in a relay race.  Just after the woman in my headphones informed me that I had run 13K, I arrived back into civilisation and off the B1363. Before I reached the end of my run, however I had to make a detour to run ‘the Moor’ to make up the full 18K before I arrived back home. It was a bit depressing, as this route is my usually 5K jaunt and I was running quite a lot slower than I’d normally run on it. Saying this, it was also reassuring that I knew exactly how much further I had to run and I finished at a decent pace.

After downing  some water at home, I set off on a cool-down walk around the block to try and get rid of some lactic acid so my legs didn’t hurt too much the next day (this is a good habit to get into after running). Even though I was tired, I wasn’t in too much pain, which was good, but there was a throbbing sensation coming from my left big toe as I walked. Lo and behold, when I removed my shoe, blood had started to blossom under my nail, turning it a deep purple to match the adjacent toenail that had already gone black. Unfortunately, your feet often have to suffer for your running. I had to enlist the help of my Aunt Fiona to release the blood from under the nail to ease the pressure that the nail was under (as it was actually quite painful to walk – it didn’t help that I’d worked an 8hr catering shift after my run). She cheerily informed me as she did so (with a sterilised needle I might add) that they used to do this by poking a red hot paperclip through the nail. I count myself lucky.