Expedition Team members.
Leaders. Jane Horobin, Chris Horobin
Teachers. Matt Barnsley, Oliver Nichols, Nick Dumper
Team One. Jamie Allen, Cameron Butler, Ryan Dowley, James Mayer, Sam Mullins
Jack Renwick, Jon Rowson, George Turner
Team Two Jake Botham, Charlie Hudson, Colin Hugget, Harry Langley,
Alex Ridley, Charles Smith, Callum West, Marcia Wiggins, Joe Wood
This expedition had been almost two years in the planning, the school had been raising funds for the community work project ( Building water towers for a remote community in Kudat ) and I had been busy with our in country agents ( Christine and Simon ) planning and sorting the logistics, flights, transport etc etc etc etc etc.
Matt and I had planned a very busy itinerary to take in the best of what north Borneo has to offer and the itinerary called for some careful management.
The UK was basking in almost tropical temperatures as we made our way to Heathrow, many things going through my mind about the complex logistics of this trip, would it work ?, would all the transport turn up ?, would the expedition participants be able to cope with the almost non stop itinerary. It was time to put it all out of my worry box and get on with the job in hand. Purple Parking dropped me off at T4 and there was everyone camped at the Royal Brunei checkin desk waiting for Jane and I to arrive.
Royal Brunei were great, they opened a dedicated check-in desk for our group and deposited us reasonably well fed and entertained in Kota Kinabalu some 19 hours later where our guides for the next three weeks were waiting at the airport to meet us.
Despite the jet lag and tiredness we headed out into KK for something to eat at one of the local ( fast food) restaurants and then we sleeeeeeeeeept.
Up early the next day we headed off for an introductory activity, White Water Rafting before we split the group into two separate teams for the next two and a half weeks. 18 is just way too big a group for an expedition. Restaurants struggle to cope with this number, teams of this size produce too big an environmental impact on delicate eco systems when camped together and team work suffers as individuals can get lost in the size of the group. It was for this reason that Matt and I had decided early on to split the team into two groups with two separate itineraries.
The WWR was not a “death on a stick” grade 5 experience, It was grade two and was designed to provide a wake up from jet lag experience. The guys however had different ideas and there was much splashing, followed by ramming of boats, followed by boarding which produced much falling into the river and rescue from other teams. Thoroughly woken up the teams then split and went on their separate ways. The itinerary was set to give both groups the same experience but at different times from each other. This blog generally follows group One who headed off to the community project first whilst Group 2 tucked socks into trousers and headed into the jungle.
We ( Group One ) arrived at the Rungus Longhouse in remote Kudat some three hours after leaving the river. This is where we were going to sleep for the next five days whilst we got on with the business of installing water tanks for the local villagers who struggled with a barely adequate govt supply prone to failing and running out in times of low rainfall.
The longhouse is the traditional way of village life in Borneo, not too many generations ago the roof space may have been decorated with shrunken heads, thankfully now we were living in rather more peaceful times.
It would have started as one single house and as the family grew additional rooms would be added in a linear fashion, single young men were not granted rooms and had to sleep in a building outside, girls slept with the family and rooms were only added when a couple married and had a family.
I lay in my little rattan room and listened to the Geckos and frogs that lived in the walls and roof chirping and croaking to each other. A big storm blew in and the longhouse swayed and creaked in the wind, I was however quite content to be where I was as my thoughts drifted away to Jane and Group 2 lying in their hammocks in a rain drenched forest, sleep soon ensued.
The next five days were spent digging, mixing concrete, sawing, nailing and painting. The water tanks had to be at a sufficient height to produce a head of water and therefore needed to be on a raised framework, this in turn required a level concrete base of sufficient depth to support some three tons of water. This was hard work in the heat and humidity but the villagers kept us supplied with cold clean water and large jugs of coffee.
We had planned to install two water tanks per team but it soon became evident that we were capable of more.
We bought an additional tank set up for each team and also installed a tank for an old lady who had been given one by the govt but did not have sufficient funds to instal it herself, we also painted the stage in the local community hall, Ryan designing and creating a Ravens Wood mural to commemorate our work at the site.
Soon enough our last day in the community came around and a rest was clearly desrved, so with that in mind we had planned for push bikes to be delivered to the site by Bike Borneo and we set off on a 30K round trip to visit one of the local beaches.
And what a beach, with absolutely no signs of tourism, six foot waves to play in and no one else in sight we had a fantastic day off, oh to be back there now, however the time came to head back to the longhouse and prepare for our trip to the jungle so we swung leg over cross bar and pedalled back through the afternoon heat to the longhouse where group two had just arrived from their jungle trek for the project handover.
They regaled us with tales of much suffering in the leech infested forests and generally wound us all up a bit, the extract below was written by Sam Mehmet for the updates section on my blog, however it was still a bit of a party atmosphere that night as the groups discussed their experiences to date.
“After 4 wet, leech infested days we have re-grouped at the longhouse sharing our stories of the rainforest with the other group. We have experienced leeches on testicles, falls into rivers and wet hammocks but amongst all of that we have experienced four of the most amazing days; discovering new bugs and plants, learning the ways of the local tribe, hunting for frogs in the rainforest at night and cooking them for our breakfast and through this growing as individuals and as a team. Certain people, who have lived off their mummy have had to wash clothes, cook their own food and have in the process realized they can do it for themselves (even in the rainforest) overall an experience we will never forget” …
Next morning we packed our bags and headed south to the foothills of Mnt Kinabalu via a local supermarket for our food purchases and then onto the homestay where we would spend the night before heading off into the jungles the next morning.
A Homestay is exactly that, it is someones home ( It was Lilly’s one of our guides for the jungle trek ) in which you stay. Basic but a brilliant way in which to feel part of the local community, the kids of the village put on a bit of a dance for us and the local dogs kept us awake most of the night, it was a great experience.
I think it is fair to say that most of the group were a bit anxious about the jungle when we set off the next morning, however by the time we got to camp one only one or two of us had been leeched that day and it had not been too difficult a trek. Day two we set out for camp two, group two had been unable to reach this camp due to the high rainfall at the time of their trek, we decided to give it a bash as the weather had been more clement and the river would be a bit lower.
As it was the river crossing was OK but it was a tough day on steep muddy banks rounded off with a major downpour just after reaching the camp, many leeches were experienced that day. Day three saw us return to camp one via an alternative route where the guides gave us a demonstration on how to use bamboo and a parang to make matts, cups and fish traps.
Day four the group expected to return to the Homestay via a two hour route, I however had a different idea and with Neil’s ( One of our guides) help set a route through untracked jungle with two river crossings.
It was a weary but very satisfied group that eventually arrived back at the homestay almost five hours later. However it is amazing what a plate of oat gruel with frankfurters washed down with slices of juicy pineapple can do for morale and suitably refreshed we boarded a small minibus and headed straight off for our climb of Mnt Kinabalu.
By 1.30pm the next day we were in the hut at 3300m after an early start and 1500m of steep ascent in high temperatures. The group however were in very high spirits as beds and a three course meal were provided. Its amazing just what becomes important after four days of living in the jungle.
I sat that evening and watched a massive lightening storm over the jungle to the south from the window of the Pendant hut. The lightening lit up the interior of the storm cloud which was at the same altitude as the hut with white and yellow flashes , the setting sun lit the exterior of the cloud with an orange glow. It looked a bit surreal and scary but although it took up three quarters of the horizon it was so far away that the sound of the thunder did not reach us.
0130 hrs after really no sleep to speak of Ryan’s alarm went off and the light was put on a millisecond later, bloody hell, I hate getting up in the middle of the night. Coffee and toast and out into the small circle of headtorch reality. We wasted no time and were on the top of south east Asia’s highest peak by 0530 for a rather insipid sunrise.
We took an alternative way down to the hut for second breakfast via Asia’s highest Via Ferrata which the group took in their stride and from there descended back to the park gates meeting group two en route as they made their way up to the hut.
It was a weary group that made their way from there to the Sabah tea plantation longhouse that night but hey, we had a rest day the next day as we waited for group two to catch us up.
Next morning I sat on the veranda after breakfast and looked out over the workers picking tea leaves in the plantation below, in the middle distance the jungle covered foothills were wreathed in early morning mist whilst Kinabalu dominated the horizon, its head stuck in the clouds. Group two were up there right now, we however had other things on our minds, such as the difficulty of walking with painful legs created by 2100m of descent the day before. Group two arrived at 1700hrs looking as tired and weary as we had the day before. There was no difficulty sleeping that night, only problem was getting Gp Two up for a 0700hrs breakfast as guess what, yup we were away again.
We left after breakfast for the east coast and Kinabatangan reserve, after an hour or so of driving we left the highlands and jungle covered slopes behind for a flatter landscape dominated by palm oil plantations.
Desecration, the oldest ( 120 million years ) and richest bio diverse eco systems ripped up and destroyed to be replaced by a monoculture that supports rats, snakes and wild boar. It also supports a minimum wage labour force and makes a few people incredibly wealthy and all for generally the cosmetics and fast food market. It makes me weep.
The UK cannot adopt the morale high ground here, we destroyed our forests and ripped up our hedgerows to create industrialised farming, such is the price of modernisation.
We arrived at Kinabatangan in time to take our seats in a boat for an evening river cruise. The Kinabatangan reserve is some 30000 hectares of reasonably well protected rain forest bisected by Sabaha’s biggest river. This makes it possible to get around the reserve quickly and to spot wildlife in the trees. Within 20 mins of leaving the accommodation we saw a young male Orang-utang in the trees next to the river.
To see this made this whole trip worth while for me, an Orang in its natural environment, just brilliant. We also saw many other primates and birds over the next two days in the reserve. We broke down on the river and took a night cruise down the river to see pygmy elephants trumpeting in a diminutive kind of way in the grass.
However we were tired and the short treks we took part in took their toll, we left the next day for the airport, en route we visited the Sepilok Orang rehab centre ( for Orangs that have been displaced by the destruction of their habitat ) This left a rather foul taste in my mouth, watching mans closest relative ( sharing over 95% of our DNA) being paraded for the benefit of camera wielding tourists. We also went to visit the Sandakan memorial to the many allied POW’s killed in the enforced “death marches” at the end of the second world war, a humbling experience.
That was it, back in KK we had come full circle around northern Borneo, we had improved some peoples lives along the way and learnt shedloads about Borneo and ourselves into the bargain. The time could not have been spent any better.
I take my hat off to the guys who took part in this trip, they gave it their all and were successful due to their spirit and careful preparation.
What more can I say.