Summer in Sabah: A tropical adventure
Four weeks, a ton of noodles and a holiday like no other...
“Nothing goes to plan in Asia”
That was the first thing spoken by our leader when we all agreed on our trip out to Malaysian Borneo last summer. “But you’ll have a great time.”
However, while we had more than the time of our lives, that opening phrase kept proving itself to be true. The birthday barbeque that only three of twenty two had managed to keep down; the rucksack that never made it past Heathrow; and the fire ants that crawled into our hammocks to wish us a painful “goodnight”. Even on our rest and relaxation day, we’d all splashed out to have our first ever massage in the city of Kota Kinabalu, and I must have pulled the short straw – while everyone else was thoroughly contented with their gentle female masseuses, the overweight man straddling me was trying to rip muscle from bone. Talk about life experience.
The brochure said “the adventure of a lifetime”, but it only lasted for a month
We were a group of teenagers from up and down the UK, lumped together to head out on a month’s expedition with Camps International to the tropical state of Sabah, in the Malaysian part of Borneo. With 18 months planning and £3445 of fundraising behind each of us, everyone in the group had earned their trip, so we were like-minded and determined people who gelled instantly. The aim of the trip? To help in wildlife preservation and community sustainability projects, all topped off with a week of trekking through the jungle.
After crossing seven time zones and fighting the wrath of jet lag, our jungle exploration began almost instantaneously. Thrown in at the deep end, jungle fever took hold, and we relished it. Cutting through the undergrowth with our parangs, a local type of machete. Clambering over fallen trees. The bird song rang out, snakes crossed our paths, and the sun filtered down through the emerald leaves in a green haze – there was too much life around us for anything to be calm. Despite the gender difference, I was Tarzan; sleeping in a hammock, catching fish with my bare hands for dinner (maybe only one fish, but I’m still proud) and feeling a part of the amazing surroundings. As far as the trekking and the terrain itself goes, the rainforest is surprisingly manageable. The leafy canopy filters out a most of the direct sun - although the humidity means that you’re inevitably warm - and because of the number of roots, vines and branches to trip over, it’s impossible to walk quickly. As a result, it wasn’t as tiring as we anticipated; what a great way of completely immersing yourself into a world of colour and wildlife.
I’d thought that the trekking might be a little awkward with people I didn’t know – looking horrid and sweaty, feeling too tired to converse – but that couldn’t have been further from the case. United by the trials of fatigue and the highs of achievement, a uniquely fraternal bond grew between all of us as we shared everything new together.
That included those bizarre moments of unanticipated hilarity. While settling into our hammocks one evening, a huge crack rang out, followed by booming laughter. Spinning round, I saw a pile of fabric behind me quaking with every chuckle – a hammock had fallen! The unfortunate, Connor, had hitched his hammock between two tiny trees; carrying the weight of a 6’2” male, one had given way. Making sure he was unharmed, apart from the paralysis of hysteria, I helped him out of the folds of material. Everyone else looked round, intrigued, and was in stiches within seconds. The sight of a wriggling, laughing, material cocoon – that really did it for me! We helped set the hammock up in a safer place (this time with between trees wider than my calves), but not one of us had recovered enough to talk in full sentences. The episode made us all smile, and double check our own hammocks – I don’t think anyone’s stomach muscles could have handled any more laughing at a repeat occurrence!
Obviously, we weren’t just there to see the jungle, as the main aspect of our expedition was to help in local projects for the villages and wildlife. As a group, we planted over 500 trees, picked hundreds of tea leaves and lost track of the number of walls and fences built. Hard graft? No trouble – that was what we came here to do. Besides, nothing’s too much work when you’ve got an awesome team by your side. Like I was warned, things don’t always go to plan, but we made do with what we had and were all the more pleased with our efforts.
My favourite project was working on a village community centre. Tasked with making bricks, everyone had their job and only stopped working to watch each brick being “birthed” from the mould: the whole group watched those tense moments to see the results of all our toil. As each brick took significant effort, each success was treasured and prized - we made 100 and genuinely named each one. The village chief was overseeing the project, a man of tremendous gravitas, kindness and no English. On site every day, he knew the trick of every trade, and just how he wanted things – when he saw our bricks and smiled, we knew our work was done.
Whoever said the English could dance was lying
Even with the Western influence of football and T-shirts swooping in, local culture remains of paramount importance. Every village has a chief, at least one of its own languages, with local music and dancing to unite the community with visitors like us. We’d flailed our arms like birds and done our best puppet impressions, all trying to emulate the unique and frankly bizarre dances the villagers performed with ease. A personal highlight was in the village of Bongkud where, in the Dusun tradition, we were encouraged to join in with a dance between sets of moving bamboo poles; everyone found it great fun until the tempo increased and we were dancing to keep our toes still attached to our feet. Perhaps this is the reason it’s considered rude to wear flip-flops indoors in Malaysia – you can’t avoid moving bamboo poles when you’ve got coloured rubber dangling in the way.
Generosity is more than just part of the culture: it’s a way of life there. During the Muslim festival of Hari Raya, we were in the village of Batu Puteh on the Kinabatangan River, and were invited into the homes of almost every family to share food as part of the celebration. Being a bunch of foreigners with clearly nothing to offer in return didn’t stop them; the locals just wanted to give what they could and share their feast with us.
We weren’t the only wild animals around
Nature was around every corner, and we grew accustomed to her presence very quickly. A family of geckos frequented one bathroom, while on another site, a frog refused to budge from the bucket I was using to wash. Yet even after spending a week in the jungle, the most exciting creatures we’d seen by week three were the snakes crossing our paths and the leeches in our socks; the heavy foot traffic of a group of twenty scared away anything larger.
Our first jaw dropping wildlife sight was the proboscis monkey, sat proudly on the branches looking out over the Kinabatangan River. With their distinctively humongous noses, the proboscis monkey is an endangered species found only in Borneo, capable of diving 65 feet under water and is the largest monkey found in Asia. Cameras out and sunglasses on, everyone in the narrow, wooden boats was twisting to get a look, until those of a keener eye realised there was actually a crocodile under the water below the trees. Both in a day - what were the chances?
What we didn’t realise at the time was that the best surprise of the trip was hiding just a little further down the river, to be found later that week.
Planting trees in spaces left by bulldozers, used in harvesting palm oil, was our conservation effort that week. Courtesy of these bulldozers, small groups of trees have been left isolated from the others, causing huge problems when the river floods during the rainy season. Although monkeys can swim, orangutans aren’t so fortunate, so they become isolated in groups of trees with little food and no means of escape. But while helping the orangutans was the goal, there was another species that benefitted from our work.
Elephants. The endangered, wild pygmy elephants, to be precise, which grow to around 2.5m tall, and they’d come to pay us a visit. Even our local guides were dumbfounded, lost for words at such a rare sight. Watching the magnificent creatures frolicking in the water, completely astounded by the spectacle, we stayed for the best part of an hour. The sun was setting on the river, as the roar of the life in the trees behind us slowly woke from its daytime slumber. Although we’d been staying quiet to prevent scaring the elephants, now no one dared to break the spell that we were all under for fear of losing the moment. As tacky as it is to say, there was something entirely magical about the whole thing. It was extremely rare that elephants were around, but the fact that they’d appeared during our short stay on the Kinabatangan River blew my mind. To me, seeing that astonishing yet unlikely sight almost felt like a “thank you” from Borneo for all our work. Cue violins.
Notes to a future explorer
An adventure too far? No such thing.
Whether you know every trick in the book regarding travel, or it’s your first solo adventure, Sabah is an ideal destination for anyone with a thirst for exploring because of its variety and safety. There’s an endless list of possibilities – trekking; scuba diving; climbing Mount Kinabalu – and all of it can be organised prior to or upon arrival. A must for any nature lover, Borneo’s home to some of the rarest and most beautiful plants and animals in the world – many must be seen to be believed.
There's no glaringly obvious downsides to staying in Sabah. Even regarding the weather, you know that it will rain, thunder and lightening for for half an hour at 4pm before drying out - if only our weather was equally predictable! Malaysian Borneo is a safe place to stay, with the only real crime being petty theft, although there are few pickpockets in the cities compared to other countries; vigilance is still recommended. Unfortunately, in one village, we saw a monkey chained to a tree, but all of the other villagers saw this as heinous crime against nature, and this isn't common. It's not the cheapest of the Asian countries to visit, but to put "expensive" into context, cans of Coke in the city cost around 20p.
While not for a seasoned adventurer, travelling as an expedition group with a company like Camps International truly helped me overcome the fear of going solo for the first time, but provided the chance to experience amazing things that I never would have done otherwise. For pre-university students in particular, it can be anxiety that delays holiday plans, but I’d recommend group travel for any sociable or travel-nervous soul. I now relish the idea of organising more travel – I’ve caught the bug, like anyone would after a trip like mine.
Our travel tip-offs
Not everyone gets the chance to do project work or see Sabah from the inside track, but there are some great ways to discover the area without spending weeks amongst the trees. In Sabah, near the city of Sandakan, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre provides food and care for the orangutans in the area, which are wild and come in just for feeding; the ticket for the day costs RM60, which is about £12. On our trip there, an orangutan swinging overhead followed us for five minutes, which was rather surreal. Pouring Hot Spring near Ranau offer swimming pools and hot springs for soaking, as well as a canopy walk for those who aren’t too terrified of rope bridges 40m in the air. All activities are good value for money (a four day PADI scuba course with accommodation costs around £250), but flights aren’t cheap; at least there’s no need for a visa, since Malaysia is part of the British Commonwealth
When all’s said and done
If “nothing goes to plan in Asia”, then I think Sabah is the exception to the rule. Yes, some of the finer details may have been overlooked, but I intended to have the time of my life and definitely achieved that! Where’s the adventure when you know what you’re doing before it transpires? Planning’s always useful, but as far as I’m concerned, everything’s part of the plan when you’re having a whale of a time.