Nearly three days of travel, several sleepless hours and lost baggage panic, and I finally arrive in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia. Was all of the anxiety and hopeless emotion going to be worth the trouble in the end? Was I going to be able to adjust to my foreign surroundings? Adjust I did, and the trouble well worth the headaches. I have learned to experience life to its fullest, with open arms and the philosophy, “Live to learn, and learn to love.” Simply put, as creatures of consciousness, we learn through living. It is possible, in tandem, to gain further appreciation for the possessions and lifestyles we have and lead, and to love what the earth and its people have to offer, while defending what rightfully belongs to Mother Nature.
My stay with the SOS Rhino Borneo Team is an experience to be shared with all. It was an adventure that should be experienced by anyone whose interest has been peaked by the literature they have read and the murmurings they have heard. We do not know the fate of the Sumatran rhino, much less what fate has in store for us. Not knowing what tomorrow brings, those with the spark to know more about the SOS Rhino Borneo Program should seize the opportunity to participate in a program of a life time. During my time in Malaysia I kept a personal journal. The following is a compilation of selected excerpts from my journal as well as a summary of my SOS Rhino Borneo Program experience in the days following the jungle survey.
September 14, 2007
I arrived in Lahad Datu via FAX airplane (which had seen better days). The airport; consisted of a single room with folding chairs, a single check-in counter, and one baggage screener. I waited for my bags to be passed through long low windows adjacent to the door that I had just walked through from the tarmac. After picking up my bags I made my way outside the airport building and parking lot, families and friends picked up loved ones and I was left sitting on the curb waiting for my ride. Fifteen minutes passed and a slim-lined white diesel charged Toyota rumbles up to the curb. And I was greeted by two women eagerly waving from the open window that had a SOS Rhino decal pasted to the door. Bindis had chauffeured Lynn and Fiffy to pick me up and whisk me away to shop for supplies. It wasn’t but a couple of minutes before we were in the heart of Lahad Datu shopping square teaming with men and women in Muslim attire observing Ramadan. Table after table showcased homemade goods for famished costumers eagerly waiting for the sun to set so that they could satiate their hunger and thirst. First things first, I tried to use the ATM but was limited to only RM1500 withdrawal per day. Lynn purchased some goods and I was also taken to a local “commissary” to purchase the highly recommended trekking shoes ‘Adidas Kampung’ (just over 6 RM). Soon we were off, with fresh fruits in hand and a pair of shoes heavier. We bounced around in the truck for at least on hour passing palm tree after palm tree. We had to pass through several palm oil plantations before we would reach Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The darkness soon set in, Lynn, Fiffy and I discussed the importance of the plantations to the very agriculture dependent Malaysia. Tabin is completely land locked by these privately and commercially owned palm oil plantations. The SOS Rhino team has to remain in good terms with the plantations in order to gain the support needed to protect the rhinos and accompanying wildlife. Gates into the plantations are strictly enforced and all people entering are accounted for. The Forestry Department must also have a record of all individuals staying in the reserve. We made a brief stop at the southern base camp to eat and drop off some goods to the stationed RPUs. This was my first introduction to true Malaysian cuisine, a real shocker for anyone from the US who’s accustomed to the traditional meat and potatoes or fat greasy cheese burger. As
we continued on our journey, we saw five bearded pigs, threeleopard cats, and one civet. By this time I had grown extremely tired and pulling up to the Tabin Wildlife Resort was blissful. I was so glad to have made arrangements to stay at the Resort for a couple of nights to get some much needed rest and to acclimate to the heat and time change. I was greeted by Eddie, the manager of the Resort which operates on 3 generators. I graciously accepted a welcoming beverage and excused myself to my accommodations to catch up on rest.
September 15, 2007
I woke up in a dark wood paneled room in a double bed feeling much rested. I joined the other attending guests for a breakfast consisting of fried noodles, hard boiled eggs, toast and selected beverages. Butterflies danced around orchids clinging to trees and freely growing hibiscus. I decided to spend the day taking in my surroundings and observed the wonders around me. Eddie gave me a behind the scenes tour of the now abandoned Wildlife Department buildings and the original Eco-tented platforms, the Resort’s humble beginnings in eco-tourism. The bush was freshly cut back from the edges of the potted road and I was surprisingly greeted by a cobra! I believe that it was just as dumbfounded as I was to see it. Eddie backed off quickly but I was slow to move, intending to give the animal space to go back into the bush. Talk about close encounters! At least the snake was not upset, just confused and made its way back to into the luscious green grasses. The Eco-tented platform consisted of several elevated walkways and tin roofed platforms. I sat alone for an hour or so, waiting for the wildlife to emerge. Pleasantly, I was graced by the presence of a pair of muntjac (barking deer) as well as several butterflies and birds including the grey-throated spider catcher. As I made my way back to the Resort, my path was crossed by a six foot monitor lizard, just as spooked as I was, it stopped in its tracks and then tore across the patchwork of fallen leaves. Later in the afternoon I was taken by truck to a short narrow path through the outskirts of the jungle to the mud volcano. The mud volcano oozes with methane charged mud, the local stomping grounds for wildlife to supplement their diet with necessary minerals. Large pancake impressions of elephant tracks lead to the giant grey mound of slowly oozing mud. All is quiet except for the resident birds busying themselves in the trees. Later that night, after a pleasant evening meal, I found myself in the back of the Resort’s wildlife drive truck. The animals usually move from the plantations on one side of the road to the jungle on the other side in the early evening just after dark. Unfortunately, our journey was not graced with an abundance of animals, but a few bearded pigs charged over the road and a leopard cat groomed its self at the edge of the brush and waited eagerly for its next meal to make an appearance.
September 16, 2007
I woke early in the morning to take the morning drive to look for wildlife waking from their slumber or slinking off to bed. The 6am drive presented a pair of hornbills, a monitor lizard lounging on an outstretched tree limb, a regal crested serpent eagle, flocks of chestnut munias, as well as a troop of pig tailed macaques. I returned to a satiating breakfast and was soon picked up by Fiffy and Bindis and was shuttled off to the SOS Rhino Core Area Base Camp. I purged all of my belongings onto a crude bed platform topped with a thin foam mattress encased in plastic. The four RPUs I was to join had been waiting for my arrival and I had to repack everything for eight days in the jungle. I packed dried food from home that I knew I would not be able to get in Malaysia, five kilograms of rice, ten packages of instant noodles, canned beans and fish, cookies and crackers. Lynn and Fiffy picked up some extra food for me to take as they knew that it might be difficult for me to adjust to eating the same thing every day. I was introduced to Lusry (the team leader), James, Tindrus, and Medrus. We sat down to discuss the survey and to answer any questions that I had. It seemed to me that I was going to be with company that didn’t speak English, so I immediately asked which of the RPU team members spoke the most English. Though he was hesitant to say anything, it was clear that James was going to be the person with whom I would best communicate with. After all packs were stuffed to the gills, we tied up our leech socks and laced up our trekking shoes. Bindis drove us out to the entrance to the jungle (good bye to what I know as civilization). We ventured into the jungle, single file, following what appeared to be trails made by elephants, pigs, deer and people alike. Almost immediately I saw elephant prints and dung. Just as we entered the jungle, the leeches sensed our presence and like metal to a magnet gravitated to my pants. Thank God I have the leech socks. These 1cm to 2 inch long slimy creatures are passionate about blood. The trekking shoes soon proved to be a must, we slipped down slopes of mud, crossed many slick, moss covered rocks, and waded through rushing rivers hiding boulders beneath the muddy waters. We crossed at least five rivers on our one kilometer trek to a moving base camp. We came upon an old camp, I wasn’t sure if it was an old RPU camp or a poacher’s camp. I speculated that it was an RPU camp, as the guys didn’t seem to make much of a fuss over its presence. With such a huge language barrier, I just follow my RPU guides. Bugs of every sort are everywhere, I guess the guys have gotten so used to them that they don’t even show signs of agitation from the bugs’ incessant behavior. We arrived around lunch time completing one kilometer, and the guys efficiently went to work setting up our one night base camp. It seems that all of the trees that they use to set up camp are hard wood and the wood used at our camp site was the wood that had been left behind by a previous RPU team. One end of the chosen tree
was hacked into a spear with a machete and was repeatedly jammed into the ground until it became stable. Tarps that draped over a horizontal long pole with the ends tied off to makeshift poles provided our roof of sorts. I take time to observe the things around me I haven’t got much to say as Malay is as foreign to me as breathing underwater. I think that I have seen the biggest ants ever at least one inch in length. The flies and leeches are incessant. I am so very glad that I brought my zip off pants! This experience reminds me of when I was little and wanted to live in the woods. This is not as glamorous as a child’s dreams of living amongst the trees. The guys sit comfortably on the ground, seemly unaware of the ants and leeches. I guess if you experience them long enough, you just become used to them. I want to lie down but the leeches and giants still scare me. The guys carry with them checklists of mammals from the Sabah Wildlife Department. I didn’t bring my book, so for now I read these. Lunch consisted of rice and sardines with oyster sauce. There is nothing much to do, I wish I had my book. Dinner consisted of dried fish (way too salty for me) and rice. All of the meals contained garlic and onion. The dark of the night set in at 6pm.
September 17, 2007
Last night I was attacked by fire ants. They infested my backpack, which I was using as a pillow, and rampaged through my mosquito net, they were everywhere! They look like the large black ants in the States (those are not fire ants; fire ants in the states are tiny and red). To add to the pain inflicted on my shins yesterday from the rocks in the river; ant bites pricked my scalp! There was no hesitation in applying MelaGel ointment. All four of the guys moved quickly under the tarp attempting to free me of the ant infested mosquito net. James grabbed my pack and hung it up to put it out of the way and began pouring water around the edge of the ground tarp to evade the artillery. Tindrus and Medrus flicked and smacked the ants left and right with meticulous precision. Little did I know that the few rambutan rinds I had left near the ground tarp were the beacon of light that the ants were looking for! Breakfast this morning was instant noodles. I went down to the river to fill up my Nalgene water bottles for the day. I brought along a SteriPen (a new gadget that is suppose to kill 99.999% of bacteria and viruses in the water by using UV light, the catch…the water must be clear). So I start filling up the water bottle with the detachable filter and I flippin’ stumble and fall into the river, breaking or spraining my left pinkie finger which soon swells and turns purple. What a great start to the day! I turn on my SteriPen and wouldn’t ya know it, the damn thing doesn’t work! It is suppose to be water proof, but the gasket to the battery compartment leaked and now it doesn’t function. To add insult to injury, the gasket around the filter doesn’t hold a tight seal so even if I want particulate filtered water, it ain’t happenin’. I guess that $70 worth of crap is going back to REI! I now have to drink minimally boiled, somewhat cloudy river water, but “they” say that boiled water is the safest water. We hiked about two kilometers today in 1.5-2.0 hours. The terrain is very rough; the embankments are steep and slick with mud. Grabbing trees is an art form, not only because I’m now dealing with a pinkie finger braced in medical tape but because I’ve got a 50/50 shot as to grabbing a limb or vine encrusted with spikes or spines. We took three breaks along the way to our base camp. The guys are hauling more weight than I, so I think we break more for them than for me. The trek is not an easy one nevertheless. Lusry spotted a tarsier along the way and I missed itL. Camp was set up in \about one and a half
hours. The trees and branches assembled from the last camp were taken down to reconstruct a communal tent. The tent is similar to last nights but our hammocks are raised off of the ground by an intricate yet seemingly simple framework able to hold 5 people and their gear. All of the joints are tied off with vine, rope or a universal plastic string that every RPU packs. \I tried to help the best I could, tying off joints and holding poles. After camp was assembled, another RPU walked through our camp. Amit, Rasman and Lukas sat down for a smoke and had a chat with the guys. I took my first bath in the river today. Yay!
for clean unddies! The water was cool and refreshing. Lunch today was rice and sardines with chili sauce and some peanut butter cookies I had brought along for dessert. The rice fills me up fast but I become hungry about and hour and a half later. I did not do much the rest of the day. I had a simple conversation with James about working for SOS Rhino and talked to all of the guys about the topographical map of Tabin showing general locations of presumed rhinos, two males and two females. The guys say that they can tell if the rhino in the area is a male or female by the height of the urine sprays. I was also shown a pile of dung right in our camp that is about a month old. Since the dung is all fiber, it stays intact for quite some time. Rhinos are able to shear off smaller twigs but they must twist off larger branches and course fibers. These are some of the rhino signs that the RPUs look for when out on survey. Dinner tonight was rice and canned beans and canned chicken. It starts to rain, good thing I took my clothes off the line.
September 18, 2007
The rain came down with a vengeance last night; it was loud on the tarps, like a tin roof hanging just above my head. Everything is damp! Leeches are out with battalion force. For breakfast we had fried rice and I supplemented my meal with some granola I had stashed away. We will be staying at this camp for the rest of the survey and all of our trips will be day trips out and back. I did not bring my small backpack, so the guys let me put my things in theirs. I brought along my first aid kit, some munchies, a container of rice and my camera equipment. After following fresh trails hacked down by
machetes, I realized how tough the job is for an RPU member. There is one rhino that has left signs just over a kilometer away from our base camp. We came across 5 wallows over the course of the day. A wallow is indented into a gradual slope, often with tree roots exposed over the top. Some are shallow while others are deep like a mini cave. As far as I can understand, the rhino circulates among the many wallows and the oldest one was first seen four months ago. I guess all have been active the past month. Due to the rain last night, any possible prints would have been washed away and it is hard to find a good print when the ground is saturated like a sponge. Some older prints that had been protected from last night’s down pour were pointed out to me. It is hard to tell that they are prints as I am used to seeing black and white rhino prints as well as elephant prints which are all much bigger. Lunch was rice with canned curried oysters. Two of the four guys smoke, so we break often. I’m able to push myself harder if necessary but I am glad for the breaks. I am drinking the boiled river water. Lusry saw a silver leaf monkey and Tindrus found a hornbill feather. I wish that I had a better eye for spotting these animals; the jungle is so dense that you can hardly see 30 feet ahead of you. Fortunately I suffered no major wipeouts today. My finger is swollen and turning darker. We did walk through and area today that showed evidence of a rhino browsing and from the looks of it, after the rhino moved on, the elephants moved in and ate wild durian. I hear the hornbills flying of the canopy quite often, the sound is difficult to describe, but I guess it would be similar to the sound of an old car trying to start and the battery has just enough juice to make the started roll and groan. At twilight, four to five silver leaf monkeys passed through the canopy over the camp and I was able to get a good look at two of them. They remind me of the spider monkeys I work with at home. There is a huge barking gecko that hangs out on the strangler fig at our base camp and I was able to get some great pictures of it. On our adventures today, I managed to grasp a thorny vine hard enough to draw blood! I also found what looked to be a piece of round glass and was told that it was actually sap fallen from a tree and that the sap is excellent in expediting a camp fire.
September 19, 2007
It rained again last night and the damp air actually made me cold. I wish I had brought an extra blanket to lay across the hammock for added warmth. Everything is still damp and I have since learned that if I want something dry, I must dry it by the fire and accept that my clothes will smell of smoke. I had some tea this morning with my noodles. Logs of the fire are pointed towards a center point, just like spokes on a wagon wheel. The temperature of the flame is controlled by moving the ends of the logs closer to the center of the fire or they are removed to reduce the heat. Three logs are pounded into the ground pointed at a pinnacle over the fire; the frying pan sits perfectly on the ends of the logs. So the rhino survey continues… So far today, one inactive wallow and some old prints that was barely visible. It appears as though elephants follow in the foot steps of the rhino, browsing on plants that the rhino doesn’t eat and cannot reach. Lusry and Tindrus are able to estimate the age of the wallow by following rhino tracks to a wallow and then monitoring the wallow activity. We had rice and canned fish again for lunch. I brought my dried cinnamon apples with me, thank God for those! A bug flew up my nose, and I mean ALL the way up there! The guys were more than slightly amused watching me trying to get it out. Trekking up and down the vine laden, mud swamped slopes and valleys is time and a half of the StairMaster™ and a few hall lengths of squats. Nevertheless, I feel good that I can keep up with the guys’ pace. We managed to avoid a swarming wasps’ nest today and I saw some very busy ants that remind me of honey pot ants. I took a bath in the river and washed out my clothes but they still smell of sweat and smoke. The soot from the fire will not come out! I am starting to drink more tea; it makes me feel better about drinking cloudy water. James observed a gibbon, and of course I missed it! Dinner was a little more tasteful tonight, still rice, but a soup of chicken and peas was to the mix, finally a different taste! I am trying to ration my dried fruits and cookies so that I have something sweet to eat everyday. I am wearing pants and socks today, just in case it rains, hopefully that will keep me warm. The barking gecko in the strangler fig shed its skin tonight. I thought that is was going to shed, as its skin had been getting grey. The guys are always singing, I suppose that it helps to pass the time and I’m starting to recognize some of their songs. I have kept my contacts in this whole time for fear that I may need to see something at night and I won’t be able to find my glasses. We walked about three kilometers today, which doesn’t sound like much but most of the way was trail blazed by machetes. We walked along an old tractor route which was previously used by loggers. Logging ceased about 20 years ago so the jungle is in its infancy. Spider eyes reflect brightly at night, and you’d never be able to guess how big the spider is based on the light reflecting back to you. The strangler fig appears to be a condominium to spiders of many sizes. I love the sounds of the frogs at night. I can’t wait to get a massage! My lower back aches from all of the crouching under fallen trees and spiked vines. Every one of these guys is shorter than I am, so they don’t cut the bush back as high as I need them to. Also if I were any taller (5ft 9 in), I wouldn’t fit on the hammock. I have to lie diagonally as it is when I stretch out. We are all equipped with candles for the dark hours which the guys use religiously at night. It freaks me out because the flame is so close to our wood frame tent or the plastic tarps which cover us. On the plus side, candles don’t attract bugs like flashlights do. The guys are learning English, so tonight they study.
September 20, 2007
The keruing tree is one of the trees that produce the sap that expedites fire building. This giant tree is covered with mini sap volcanoes that drool down the trunk. The sap is hard on the tree so it must flow only at certain times and then harden right away. All I can say right now is, hell where’s my beer? We only trekked 2.44 kilometers today but it was the most physically and mentally challenging 2.44 kilometers I have ever dragged my body through. All we did was traverse slippery, muddy slopes, slick moss covered rocks and trip endlessly over prickly plants, only to see two wallows and no new rhino prints. If only we were tracking elephants, we had sure seen enough of their dung. I saw the movement of whipping plants as a samba deer ran through the thicket. It could be heard crashing through the low bush for only a few seconds and then it was gone. I saw a hornbill today; thus far I’ve only heard them flying over head. I keep getting “bitten” by thorny plants but at least my finger is starting to feel better. I stumbled upon a marvelous toad today, it sat absolutely still as I picked it up on a leaf to take some great macro shots. I swear we got lost at least five times today. Thank God for the GPS! We did see four piles of rhino dung, all of which were unfortunately old. The guys found a fungus that is palatable so they picked what they could, we shall see what it tastes like. I am hoping for anything other than rice and sardines, the breakfast of champions this morning! I once again had to supplement with granola. Lunch today was of course rice, but to my delight, canned beef and potatoes. I am sick and tired of leeches, they are always there, waiting to ambush, as if I am waving my white flag and the have no intentions of stopping their march. The guys have taken to calling me “Syn,” I don’t think that they can pronounce my name. James was the first to address me as such and the others followed suit. We have all started calling Lusry, “Lucy.” It is common practice to hoot to one another in the jungle to locate each other if one looses sight of another. Lusry is always behind us so we just ended up yelling “Lucy!” to find him. Last night the guys were studying English words, so I helped them out a bit with pronunciation. I took a bath in the river again. I don’t think I will be buying the same brands of all purpose soaps the next time around. The manufacturer of the undergarments that I bought for the trip claims that the material should dry in two hours, six in humid climates. Well it certainly does not dry in six hours or less in the jungle. I doubt that there really is such a product that does. So I have decided that I am wearing my pants with my socks pulled up over the hems when I am in camp. Leeches suck, in every way possible!!! This experience does make me appreciate the animals that I work with, it is so hard to get a glimpse of animals in the wild and at work I get to see them every day. I broke down and made my own noodles tonight, I couldn’t handle anymore rice. Medrus fixed the fungus with sardines, and it tasted good but are definitely not for anyone who doesn’t like slimy/squishy things in their mouth.
September 21, 2007
I am tired, I have not had a good nights’ sleep since we’ve been out here. If its not crazy dreams that wake me up it’s the tornado siren bugs that do. This morning we had rice and noodles. I skipped the rice because I knew that I would be having it for lunch without fail. I also ate some granola and needed some caffeine so I stirred myself some powdered coffee. Yep, I still don’t like coffee! So far, the trek has not been as strenuous as yesterday the “straight ways” are much welcomed. We trekked through what must have been an elephant “way-side” where there was plenty of dung and obvious signs of browsing. On one of our many upward hikes, the canopy was quite visible, the sounds of gibbons called out over the towering foliage. We stopped in observation and witnessed four gibbons brachiating through the hard woods. I was told that it is rare to see them so clearly and unfortunately they moved much too quickly to obtain any good photos. Medrus showed me some of the jungle’s edible fruit, it tasted tart like an unripe crab apple. So far we’ve seen four wallows today, one of which is very old and no longer active. We have also seen some prints, but again old ones and not very clear. The leeches are not so bad today. A barking deer called out this morning around camp while we were eating breakfast. Even though I feel like we are walking in circles, there’s always something around the corner to see. We walked through a community of butterflies dancing effortlessly in their coats of black and light grey, males fluttering about wooing the females. What silent elegance. I really want some fresh fruit. I think that my iron is getting low; a sluggish feeling has slowly been setting in. My eyes have become accustomed to the low light levels under that canopy and feel pinched when I look up at the sky. I now understand the intense light sensitivity that the Sumatran rhino experiences. Apparently we walked four kilometers today, and I would like to challenge that figure if I may. We stopped quite frequently to check the GPS and to orient ourselves with the compass. I could tell that there were some differences in opinion among the ranks on which route to take. And just as I was about to stop and collapse onto the ground, something fabulous happened…a samba deer came crashing out of no where, no more than 30 feet behind me and as quickly as it came is bolted right back into the bush. That renewed my drive to keep walking. On the way back to camp we collected some wild durian that had good flesh for cooking. Medrus prepared it with our dinner and it was surprisingly good, it really didn’t have much flavor beyond cabbage when I tasted it raw. Just as the dark started to set in, we heard cracking and movement across the river. I could see two shadowy blobs moving on the top of the slope. To my amazement and delight, they were pigmy Asian elephants! The guys don’t like having the elephants around the camp area as they can be destructive. Tindrus managed to scare them away when he shown his flash light in their direction. As the elephants moved on, they grumbled through their trunks to one another. They guys practice English vocabulary again tonight. James informed me to never drink alcohol after eating durian unless I want a very unhappy stomach and intestines.
September 22, 2007
Something huge fell last night, it sounded like a gigantic tree but James pointed out a new boulder in the river as we set out for the day. I’m sure that the elephants dislodged it as they hurried away from us the night before. After yesterday’s super hike, my body ached this morning and I really needed a jump start on the day so I filled up on some of the instant coffee. Tiny ants infested my bags overnight. I spent about a half hour de-bugging my belongings of the tyrants. I haven’t brushed my hair since I have been out here, I figured, what’s the point! The hammock isn’t really comfortable; my body is in a constant state of curvature. James asked me this morning if I wanted to stay at camp for the day since the next day was going to be a long hike out of the jungle. I figured that I would miss something if I didn’t go, so despite my protesting body, I challenged myself through the day. At this point, I feel like I should have stayed at camp for the day, we only saw two wallows and again they were inactive. All the rhino prints were also aged but one was rather clear, good enough for a photograph. Lusry said that we had walked 2.4 kilometers today, but really I think the distance to the wallows was 1.2 kilometers and 1.2 back. They guys could tell that I was getting tired so someone in the group decided that we should take a short cut back to camp. Well, I think that this short cut was a long ass round cut! Once again we did the dance, up and down, slip sliding around down the slopes and getting stuck in the mud. We headed out on survey at 9am and were supposed to be back before lunch but didn’t step back into camp until 1:40pm. Needless to say I crashed on my hammock right away. It seems to me that every plant that could possibly get stuck on my clothing did! My shirt is now feathered with thread loops and my right leech sock has a gaping hole in it. I think I tripped on enough vines to last me the rest of the year. The ants from this morning managed to get into my clothes and are crawling over my journal as I write. I have had enough of the ants! Despite the encroaching darkness I bathed in the river which for the first time felt absolutely fabulous. The water is finally running clear and is just the right temperature to be refreshingly crisp. I really need some fresh fruit and veggies! My body’s nutrient balance is out of whack. I guess at this stage in the game I have to go all mental and gear myself up for the hike back tomorrow. I keep thinking about a fresh fruit salad, some ice cold carbonated water and a thick strawberry and banana protein shake. James asked me if I missed my country and I hadn’t really thought about it. I think because I was trying to keep myself in mental survival mode. But I think the hardest part about being here is that I can not have a normal conversation with anyone but myself. The language barrier sure can make you feel lonely. The RPUs have such a physically and mentally demanding job. I’m so glad that there are people who really enjoy the jungle surroundings. I love my job even more now; part of me feels like crying because I miss home so much. THESE ANTS WON’T GO AWAY!
September 23, 2007
Today is the trek out of the jungle and back to the core base camp. The distance is less than three kilometers. The base camp was left standing as I packed my back pack. On the way out my calf muscles began burning and my hands cramped. The visions of cookies and using the internet dangled before me like a carrot on a string. All the rivers that we crossed were running clear, I tried to avoid getting my feet wet but as soon as one foot got wet, I slogged through the rest of the rivers we crossed. Our hike was only 1.5 hours long. We waited on the red clay colored gravel road for our ride. A few dump trucks kicked up dust before we were picked up. James and Medrus headed back into the jungle to finish out the 15 day rotation while Lusry and Tindrus came back to the core area with me to pick up some supplies and then go back out into the jungle. On the hike back, I managed to impale my head on a thorny vine. It went right through my hat and drew blood. Arriving at the SOS Rhino core area was wonderful, although far, far removed from living at the Ritz. A cold shower awaits jungle trekkers! I was let down though when I learnt that the water is drawn from the river. So I end up drawing water from the rain collection tank to ladle over my head.
There’s nothing like a good refreshing shower, after layers of bug repellent, sweat, and sun screen have clogged every pore of one’s body. My re-entry into remote civilization marked the second phase of my program experience. The SOS Rhino Borneo core area base camp is the jungle version of a north woods family cabin. The water supply is via river or rain, and generators keep the lights on for 22 hours a day. In a dorm room sized bedroom, I slept on a 4 inch thick foam mattress on a wooden plank frame. In addition to lodging at the core area, I spent four days in the fishing Village of Dagat.
SOS Rhino Borneo has a satellite base camp at the water’s edge in Dagat. The overall population of the entire Village is just over 200. The base camp house has absolutely no running water, so water is collected in rain tanks, or from the river. The homes run on electricity from a generator starting at 6pm to 10pm. The RPUs sleep bunk bed style and use a squat toilet outhouse. One of the major responsibilities of the SOS Rhino Borneo team is to seek opportunities for COP (Community Outreach Programs).
The relationship between SOS Rhino Borneo and the Village of Dagat is based on the foundation of the COP, but it also helps the SOS Rhino mission that a couple of the RPUs hail from Dagat. SOS Rhino Borneo has provided the Village with a generator that provides electricity to the villager’s homes for four hours a day, in exchange, the villagers provide SOS Rhino Borneo with any information that they see or hear in conjunction with poaching, hunting, and encroachment of the rhinos and their habitat. Dagat is deeply rooted in Muslim culture and as a volunteer I was warmly invited into some of the simple stilted homes for meals as well as participating in traditional cultural activities such as basket weaving and cooking local desserts. The Chief of the Village is a short, sun weathered man of his 60’s, still paddling the river with his net for prawns. His generous wife, weathered in much the same way, is a fabulous cook. With years of experience from cooking fresh fish and shell fish, the flavors that come from her kitchen are nearly indescribable. The only way to get to Dagat is by boat, so possessions are minimal and cars are nonsensical. Living the “Dagat way” is harsh and at the mercy of nature. The livelihood of the village rests solely on its ability to harvest and maintain prawn and fish populations. Dagat turned my perception of a third world country living into reality. It is obvious to me that the infant country of Malaysia (50 years old) is dependant upon an economy based on agriculture and that some parts of Malaysia are advancing more quickly than others, leaving smaller communities in a semi third world state. Hopefully Malaysia will soon find a balance in sustaining itself economically while protecting its endemic species and precious habitats.
In addition to the COP in Dagat, I accompanied some of the SOS Rhino Borneo team members to a local plantation primary school. The children were shown a Power Point presentation on the Sumatran rhino and watched a couple of videos about the rhinos as well as Sabah wildlife. After the oral/visual learning session, we divided into groups and prompted the children to participate in activities to review the information presented to them. I took on a group of eight to nine year olds and we colored a photocopied sketch that one of the RPU’s drew for the project. I found myself surrounding the simple sketch with foliage and
words and signs about poaching and saving rhinos and the environment. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a handful of girls, and the occasional boy, attempting to copy my images. I’ve heard it stated that “to copy someone is the most complimentary form of flattery.” I very much enjoyed the time spent with these children. Children have the most impressionable minds, and hopefully by educating them on the importance of rhinos and the ecosystem they will share the information with family and friends and join in the fight for wildlife preservation.
The people at SOS Rhino Borneo are wonderful, very warm and hospitable, offering their meager accommodations to volunteers hungry for a mental and physical environmental journey. My time here has felt both painfully long and yet bitter sweetly short. A volunteer will certainly be tested mentally and physically and may question, at times, why they have decided to participate. I would do this program again in a heart beat. I love the people who have surrounded me for 3 weeks. They know how to work hard and take full advantage of relaxation time. With such demanding tasks in the field, I think that many of the RPU’s welcome the opportunity to accompany the attending volunteer to the waterfall for a refreshing swim or hike the tower at the mud volcano for an overnight stay to watch the wildlife. It’s moments like these, with people sharing a passion for wildlife preservation that make all the unbearable minutes/hours worth the pain at the end of the trip.
The Sabah experience is for the physically fit and mentally stable/strong. I trained for several months beforehand, preparing for cardio and musculoskeletal endurance. I prepared myself mentally for pushing through moments when I felt like tossing in the towel and I am proud to hear that the RPU’s have ranked me in the top three volunteers as able to sustain the RPU pace in the jungle. I hope that some day I will be able to return to Sabah and that the rhino population will be increasing. Until then, it is now in my hands to educate, for I have lived to learn, and learned to love the gem known as Tabin.
The must have list:
For the jungle:
- Pain and itch relief balm/ointment
- Tight pack travel pillow
- Two pairs of fast drying pants with zip off legs
- Two light weight, fast drying long sleeve shirts
- Two-3 pairs of fast drying underwear
- Two fast drying camis with built in shelf bra
- One pair of shorts for base camp
- One t-shirt of base camp
- Sandals for base camp
- Roll of toilet paper
- Vitamin supplements
- Protein supplements
- Pedometer to record daily distance
- Compass/thermometer key chain
- Two or more heavy duty carabeners
- Plastic zip ties (short and long)
- Roll of twine or string for setting up camp
- Bug repellent with lemon eucalyptus
- Plastic bags (three times what you think you might need, small and large zip-locks)
- Travel light sleeping bag (temp rating 45F +)
- Laxative (if rice is not a daily staple in one’s normal life)
- One-2 pairs blister free socks
- One pair leech socks
- One pair trekking shoes (avail in Borneo)
- An All-In-One soap to wash body and clothes
- Two water bottles
- One-2 small containers for meals
- Silica gel packets
- A long book
- Pocket species guides
- Mosquito net
- Multi-day back pack and one day pack
- Head lamp/flash light and extra batteries
- Travel tooth brush and toothpaste
- Small sewing kit
- Dry food items to fit your taste such as instant oatmeal, granola, dried fruits (meals consist of rice and fish and sometimes noodles)
- Small journal(s) and pens
- Watch with 2 time zones and alarms
- Sarong for the women
- Camera with extra film/memory/batteries
- Water tablets/filter/etc… (water will be boiled for you)
- Travel towel
For the program:
- Items mentioned above plus…
- Set of bed sheets
- 2-3 pairs of shorts
- Swimming suit
- Power cord adaptor
- Cash to exchange for RM upon arrival (ATM only allows RM 1500 per day)
- Calling card
- Translation guide
- Bath towel
- Hand towel
- Anti-Malaria medication
- Up to date vaccinations
- Nice casual pants (or skirt) and shirt
- Sun screen
- Goldbond Powder
- Anti-fungal skin cream