After a long ass journey which included a 2 hour breakdown we made it to Kinabatangan for the start of our jungle experience!
At Kinabatangan we were volunteering with a NGO called Kopel which supports the Reforestation of Borneo’s ancient jungle. A lot of jungle has been lost to logging (in the 80s the majority of the world’s wood came from Borneo) and, more recently, Palm oil plantations. This has left Borneo to be about 60% jungle/forest. So, we had a week to sort this environmental injustice out.
The Government has designated certain areas for the jungle which are protected or need to be reclaimed and replanted. The aim is to make a jungle corridor so that the wildlife can migrate over a large area, increasing their gene pool.
Before we got stuck into work we needed to get some much needed sleep. Our accommodation over the majority of the week would be in the form of a homestay. After my first homestay in Peru many years ago my views on them are fairly tarnished, however, the Amnesa family were very welcoming, clean and could cook so things weren’t so bad. Thankfully they also had a western toilet but we did have to squat for the shower. The kids were sweet, the mum was nice and the dad was grumpy/quiet – like a regular family anywhere in the world.
Our first full day started with a jungle trek and river cruise. Our guide, Jeff, was quite excited about a herd of over 100 elephants in the vicinity. There was also the potential to see crocodiles, monkeys, sun bears, pythons, wild pigs and Borneo clouded leopards. We therefore had high hopes when we set off on our trek.
The jungle was hot, moist and noisy. And, despite the promise of exciting wildlife, 30 minutes into the trek we had seen diddly squat. Sad times. But suddenly Jeff exclaimed “tracks!”. A hush came over the group, part excitement part fear. Was it the elephants? Or maybe the leopards? Or even the sun bears? Danger could be behind the next tree so, like a midget using a urinal, we had to stay on our toes. Jeff led us forward. After a while he turned around. “Many tracks!” Gosh…Could it be the elephant herd?! We ventured on. “There, there!” Jeff’s hushed excitement pointing in the direction of a tree…”Where, where?” we said as we searched the jungle looking for the herd. It then came into view. It was a f-ing millipede! Well, it didn’t happen quite like that but on our first walk all we saw was the millipede.
On the river cruise we had more luck and got to see monkeys playing in the trees, herrons, eagles and wild pigs. Awesome.
Our volunteering then started which was thankfully lighter work than the heavy labouring of our previous project. First stage was collecting saplings from a matured part of the jungle which we took back to a plant nursery. Here we planted them in small bags where they would be left to mature slightly.
Before completing the final stage we spent the night in the jungle. We set up a hammock camp which seemed a very vunerable option so close to a crocodile infested river but, what the hell.
That evening, before sunset Jeff said the elephants were close so we set off by boat to see if we could find them.
OMG! Find them we did! We caught the herd just as they were crossing the river. This is a pretty rare sight and we couldn’t believe our luck as over 100 elephants went from bank to bank. Watching the huge creatures stumble their way down the slippery banks was fun and the noise they would make incredible. Seeing them in the wild in such numbers was truly breathtaking.
Back at the camp we floated into a rewarding sleep in our hammocks/coffins.
In the morning, after a solid breakfast, we moved onto the final stage of our volunteering task – replant previously collected saplings. We did this in a large clearing at the side of the river that Kopel had managed to reclaim from an illegal Palm oil plantation. Some trees had already been replanted here so our first job was to machete away any vines that were growing around the young trees. Only about 40% of replanted saplings survive so it’s important to look after the ones which are showing promise. Once that was done we got on with replanting our saplings.
On our R&R day we visited the Sepilok orangutan and sun bear sanctuary. The orangutan sanctuary was really cool. Here it’s the humans which are behind fences and the orangutans that are free. The sanctuary rehabilitates orphaned or rescued orangutans by teaching them survival skills (but not fire lighting…that’s our secret). The orangutans stay close to the sanctuary as food is provided but as their confidence grows they start to venture further out to the jungle until one day they simple don’t come back. It was awesome watching these great apes monkeying around and strange just how human like they could appear.
On our last night we were invited to a wedding of a village local. We were provided with traditional dress and the girls were told to wear make-up for the pleasure of the local men. It was a bizarre ceremony. The couple sat at centre stage whilst the whole village came by to enjoy free food (no alcohol as it’s a Muslim village), watch traditional dance and provide their best wishes to the couple. Towards the end the party got a bit mental as sober karaoke went down a storm. The Twilight zone version of an English wedding!
Overall we had a fantastic time volunteering in the jungle and being close to nature. We leave with our heads held high in the knowledge that now Borneo is 60.0000001% jungle. Problems solved.