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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Another journey: the dawn

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

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

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

Good evening Vietnam
Good evening Vietnam

Trek: an uphill climb with beautiful views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invigoration and innovation in the jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/