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Volunteer Report of Sumatran Rhino survey
(Commencing 20th September 2003 to the 14th October 2003)
I touched down in Kota Kinabalu (K.K) a few days prior to commencing my volunteer stint with SOSRhino; this gave me a chance to sleep off my jet lag but also to get reacquainted with Sabah after reluctantly leaving five months previously. I managed to do three days of successful sightseeing despite not climbing the ever-famous Mt Kinabalu.
|The group photo taken at base camp4 before we departed at the end of the survey
From left: Beate, Penny, Sarianus, Opop, Armit, Justin (kneeling in front), Husrain and France.
The day before I was suppose to fly down to Lahad Datu to join the project I received a phone call from the SOSRhino project administrator telling me that I would have to delay by a couple of days. My presence as a volunteer was not expected so the members of staff at base camp were unaware of my intentions to join them in the jungle for a three-month period. As a result of the base camp remoteness, the field staff were out of contact until they next surfaced to the nearest town (Lahad Datu), they were then able to communicate with the main office in KK. So my only choice was to sit tight until further notice, an annoying prospect especially as I could not plan anything in advance to fill my spare time of waiting. Still grounded in KK; the next day I met up with Faye (SOSRhino project administrator); she took me to my first Malaysian wedding reception! A totally unexpected activity! It turned out to be a massive affair with over five hundred people in attendance; I met the bride and groom who seemed more than welcoming considering I was a total stranger. Everyone I met were most friendly, they all wanted to know who the ìOrang-Putihî (white person) was! At the wedding I was introduced to a very energetic man who turned out to be the head of SOSRhino in Borneo, a Dr Edwin Bosi.
The beer flowed and along followed the laughter. An intense beating of metal drums started up and the traditional Kadazan wedding dance commenced. Much to my horror I was dragged up to the dance floor in front of everybody to perform this bird like flying dance with many a merry men and women.
After six days of waiting in KK I finally got the all-clear to fly down to Lahad Datu, here I was suppose to meet someone named Tinju; the SOSRhino driver). As soon as I walked off the runway and into the airport, (an overly large hut placed at the side of an airstrip) I was met by two men, one of which turned out to be Tinju, the other; his friend and English translator, whom left as quickly as he appeared. After loading my gear into the 4X4 we sped off, excited at the prospect of finally being able to join the project after so much waiting. Unfortunately we didnít drive far, to the nearest hotel in-fact were I was deposited at 11am for reasons I couldnít make out. I was told to take a nap and he (Tinju) would be back at 3pm to pick me up. 3pm came and went with no sign of Tinju, finally after 4 _ hours of sat in the hotel lobby he arrived looking very sheepish. We drove to a place called Sabahmas. After 1-_ hours of bumpy off-road driving and many wrong turns we arrived. Sabahmas turned out to be an Oil Palm Plantation bordering the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (the area SOSRhino operates in). There I was met by Dr Edwin Bosi, Mr Ooi Min Choo (the Sabahmas Estate manager) some great Malaysian food and a hot shower.
The next day Doc (Dr Bosi), Tinju and I drove back to Lahad Datu. In town we dropped off Tinju and picked up some food supplies before leaving to go into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve for a couple of days. 1-_ hours of off-road driving passed before we arrived at the SOSRhino base camp1. A small stilt house and a rhino enclosure turned living quarters with toilet and shower.
Albert and the only female field staff member, a lady called Leni manned the camp. As it turned out Leni had to leave that afternoon to go to KK, and Albert disappeared for the rest of the day. The night closed in, and the jungle came alive with various noises of creatures hidden to us. The only lights came from the stars and the fireflies emitting a flashing abdomen to attract mates. A 4X4 night safari from the nearby rainforest lodge passed us by, picking out our figures in their bright spot light and nearly blinding us!
After a good nightsí sleep in the bunk beds we continued to drive deeper into oil palm plantations crossing through secluded patches of jungle. 1-_ hours of driving we arrived at Kampung Parit (meaning Village Drain), located on the edge of an oil palm plantation. Here we challenge the mud and loaded our gear into a small rickety wooden boat that looked set to sink at any moment. Our helmsman Justin motored us down the drain and out into the Segama River. Two minutes downstream and across to the other bank of the river I get my first view of SOSRhino base camp2 (the ecotourism sustainable village resort). The ëresortí consisted of a jetty made from washed down logs lashed together and pegged to the riverbank thus preventing them from washing away, a small wooden hut covered with rattan leaves, a kitchen complete with a double gas ring positioned on a table which, constructed from a few planks of wood leant up against the nearest tree. This was covered with a trusted tarpaulin, and last but not least the toilet; a tarpaulin squared around a plank covered pit with a central small circle cut out, accessorised with an enormous canister of mosquito killer.
Once I had mastered how to cross the ëjettyí without falling off into the river Doc showed me the unwritten plan (in his head) of the proposed ëresortí layout, which was to be constructed soon. I took a quick wander around the facilities at which point the field team members of staff turned up. The group comprised of six young men (Armit, France, Husrain, Jallie, JJ, and Opop), the team leader; Sarianus, and the helmsman who turned out to be the base camp2 landownerís husband, but does not live at the camp.
The afternoon passed with a stroll to the local oil palm plantation shop and watching the boysí fish for dinner. The night drew in along with the mosquitoes and the generator was started, illuminating a strip light in the hut and kitchen. Dinner was prepared from rice, Kangkung (a local vegetable found on the banks of the river, English name: Water spinach) and fresh fish caught that day. After our fill I was asked if I was going to take a shower, unsure of how to go about this task or indeed where to perform it I let the men go first. Shower time turns into show time because all the men proceed to strip down to their underpants and line up along the jetty logs. They showered by pouring water over themselves direct from the river. Being the only girl in camp I was quite enjoying the show until it dawned on me it was my turn next to shower! A daunting task but I donned my bikini (I had no sarong!) and strutted my stuff along the logs, balancing precariously in front of eight pairs of male eyes! I soon learnt that there is a great art to the river shower; balancing and washing at the same time.
|Measuring a rhino track.
For the rest of the evening I watched a very serious game of cards between the guys and spotted incredible looking insects attracted to the light in the hut, whilst fending off mosquitoes.
Bedtime and we roll out the thin mattresses over the floor of the hut and strung up our mosquito nets. The hut was too small to fit nine people in so the boys slept outside on makeshift structures with hammocks covered by tarpaulin.
The following day Doc, Sarianus (Nus) and I left base camp2 and drove the 2 _ hours back to Lahad Datu. There we picked up Faye, Tinju and the new volunteer Beate, a journalist from Switzerland.
We drove to a nearby supermarket, Beate and I are told to go and buy some food for the jungle survey. With no advice or indication on what foodstuffs to buy we stocked up on a range of items, at a later time most of these prove to be highly impractical.
Lunch at a Chinese cafÈ and I had my first experience of a popular local dish; chicken rice, very basic but tasty. Subsequently we all drove to Sabahmas and put up there for one night.
After breakfast of noodles we continued driving to Kampung Parit, arriving in time for a heavy downpour of rain. We loaded up the boat with our gear and ourselves, almost capsizing in the process! The initiative is taken to unload half the contents and eventually it takes three boatloads to shuttle everything and everyone across to base camp2 safely, without capsizing.
Everyone relaxed in camp after the journey and I helped the boys to prepare dinner by cutting up the Pakis (wild young fern shoots found locally) into sections to be fried, which is then coupled by rice and fish. After dinner Beate and I realised how big the verbal communication problem was between the field staff and us. We spoke no Malay and the boys only spoke basic English. We voiced our concerns and quickly found ourselves in the midst of a language lesson learning how to say basic Malay phrases. Everyone found our mispronunciations and lack of memory amusing but at least the entertainment was of good value!
Breakfast consisted of bread with honey and sweet coffee. An all day boat trip was planned and we loaded up pack lunches, fishing gear and sun protection. Downstream we hit a massive thicket of Water Hyacinths that completely blocked a long stream of the river. The boys produced parangsí (Malaysian jungle machete) and proceeded to chop our pathway through; this combined with skilful handling of the outboard got us clear to the other side. Proboscis monkeys were sighted high up in the trees, watching us, sat in their stereotypical posture of belly out and legs open, almost armchair like. Not long after, we sighted Gibbons, Leaf Monkeys and further up stream, five otters, playing on the mudflats of the river. I took over the helm for _ hour and motored us out to where the river met the Sulu Sea, here we lunched and fished for 3 hours.
Heading back to base we spotted Giant Flying Foxes moving silently overhead. Arriving at camp we found an English couple (Emma and Tom) that had come to view the base camp, they hoped to include SOSRhino as part of a young persons expedition to the jungle. The camp came alive with lively chatter and Malay language lessons. After dinner of the usual rice, fish and Kangkung we had our first official meeting of base camp2 ecotourism sustainable village resort. The jungle survey was the main topic of discussion and we made plans as what things we were to take with us. The team was decided and the following people were to prepare their things for the survey which would commence after one full rest day (Armit, France, Husrain, Justin, Nus, Opop, Beate and myself) The team leader; Nus was concerned as to what me and Beate would wear on our feet for the survey and so an order was put with Tinju to buy us some Kampung Adidas shoes when he dropped off Faye and Doc in town the next day. Bedtime; as many people squeezed into the hut as possible, the rest slept outside on makeshift hammocks.
The next day Faye, Doc and Tinju headed back to Lahad Datu leaving Emma, Tom, Beate and myself behind at camp. Emma and Tom went off for an all day boat trip up river with some of the boys. The remainder stayed at camp. Heavy rains most of the day permitted us from doing any kind of activity. Beate, Nus and I stretched out and napped for most of the day. Come late afternoon, a bedraggled and very soggy Emma and Tom arrived back at camp; they had been caught in the all-day showers that we had slept through.
Kangkung was on the menu for dinner once again so I did the honours in helping to prepare it. After dinner we amassed all the food we had brought for the survey and pooled it with that of the boys, the food we had brought were mostly heavy tins of a substantial weight with pasta, bread, honey, crisps, biscuits and sauce packets. The boys on the other hand had 20kg of rice, dried salt fish, which weighed almost nothing, and a large bag of dried anchovies. We all had brought lots of coffee, hot chocolate sachets and tea bags so all was shared around. The food was divided into six packs and each of the boys took one, Beate and I were fortunate that everyone else was to carry our food because of the weight! We all disappeared to pack our bags for the survey meanwhile Tinju turned up with our new shoes. Kampung Adidas turned out to be cheap football shoes made from rubber with studs on the soles for grip. Neither of us thought very much of them, however we trusted the boys advice and left our trainers/walking boots behind.
Everyone had their river shower and went to bed early.
At 4.30am we were woken briefly by the sounds of Emma and Tom leaving to catch the early and only bus back to Lahad Datu. At 6.30am Beate and I were up, dressed and eating breakfast noodles. A mixture of nervousness and excitement spurred us on and we rapidly repacked our bag in an attempt to condense it further, slinging out luxury and excessively heavy items. We lifted our rucksacks for the first time groaning under the weight of them, they must have weighed about 18kg. We hauled all the bags into the boat and I was shocked at the weight of some of the guysí packs; the leanest of the boys had a rucksack that easily weighed 25kg! I wondered how they were going to manage over the next ten days in the jungle.
|The bird eating tarantula passing through base camp3.
After a three-hour boat ride up the Segama River then across and up the Tabin River we arrived at the drop off point where we were to leave the boat behind and go into the jungle. We unloaded the boat of all bags and the outboard engine was removed from the back and also carried in. The guys hid the engine somewhere in the jungle for collection upon our return. We heaved on our packs whilst Justin and France disappeared in the boat up stream. We walked a short distance and crossed a small river flowing out of the jungle (a contributory to the Tabin River) and discovered a grotto-like place with huge boulders and pools of clear water perfect for swimming. Scrambling over the boulders revealed a large cave with bats and swiftlets inside, our presence had disturbed them and they were darting around the cave above our heads. This place was called House Cave.
Sweat was already dripping off our faces and after a few minutes break here Justin and France appeared from the other side of the boulders, they had been hiding the boat somewhere for collection upon our return. Moving up stream and into the jungle we climbed over steep rocky boulders along the riverís edge, at times the water was shallow and we could walk along the bed, at other times we had to climb the steep river sides to cross deep sections of water. On some occasions the water level was high and we were wading at chest height, passing our rucksacks forwards and over our heads to prevent them from being dropped in.
We walked up river for about three hours, crossing under huge fallen trees that blocked our pathway leading us deeper into the jungle. A variety of different coloured butterflies as big as a small bird glided alongside us and the Hornbillsí call echoed all around the trees. Around 3pm the sky grew very dark; the heavens opened and everyone was drenched. Nobody bothered packing waterproofs for a number of reasons that follow:
1. No waterproof coat could keep out that much rain whilst you are constantly on the move.
2. Raincoats make you hot and under jungle conditions with 90% humidity it increases your rate of sweating.
3. It is very impractical to keep removing your backpack to put on a raincoat for every shower as it will slow down your progress.
4. Everyone is wet anyway from sweat and walking up river.
Not long after it started to rain the river began to swell at an incredible rate, soon it would be too dangerous to continue so we walked until we came across a suitable flat spot higher than the riverís edge ideal for our first base camp (1). The base camp area was backed against the hillsides of the river valley so it was very dark and almost claustrophobic; there was nowhere to wander and very few secluded areas to pee, which was not very comforting for us girls. Walking up into the area I spotted a small snake darting across the lower branches of the nearest tree, it were about one metre in length and a camouflage brown colour, it moved at lightening speed obviously scared by us.
Both us volunteers had no idea how we were to make a camp so for the first twenty minutes we were watching like tourists!
The boys whipped out the tarpaulins they had attached to their rucksacks and quickly covered the bags that everyone had thrown off their backs. They began chopping down large poles to construct a frame that the tarpaulins were pulled over, keeping it dry underneath. Once I got a feel for the size of poles they were retrieving I pulled out my machete I had brought over from England and contributed to this act, the boys showed me briefly how to angle the blade to get the most effective chop, although there were worried glances that I might hurt myself! However they seemed impressed at my willingness to get involved and at my ability to wield a large knife fairly accurately with some results.
Once the structure had been built and the tarpaulins stretched over the top, we took out our hammocks and secured them by running a pole down each leg at each side and laying them across the structure underneath the tarpaulin, they sat at about three foot off the ground keeping them dry. The hammock poles had to be secured to the structure and this was done by tidying them down with a combination of string Beate had brought with her and small vines. As it turned out vines proved to be the better option for this, they had more grip on the wood and were easier to secure. As we found out it takes some practice to select the right type of vine that isnít too brittle, otherwise it snaps halfway through the task, which is very annoying.
After the camp was finished we put our rucksacks on the shelf built at one end of the hammocks. The river was still too dangerously high to shower in so we all got dry and changed into our set of dry clothing while someone made a fire and boiled water for coffee. After coffee the evening meal was prepared; rice was boiled and the boys opened a tin of sardines, Beate and I boiled some pasta up and opened a tin of tuna to mix with it. We both swapped foods but because the guys were not used to eating pasta they had soon had enough and passed it back.
The evening meal had warmed everyone up and given us back our energy, a Malay/English lesson commenced and soon we all relaxed into each otherís company. Everyone got into their sleeping bags and drifted of to sleep by about 8pm.
Woken at 6.30am, the air was still damp but the rain had stopped during the night and the river level had dropped to almost the same height as yesterday. For breakfast we had biscuits and coffee and ate the last of our bread.
We all got dressed back into our wet clothes from the previous day and began to pack up camp; pulling off the hammocks and untying the tarpaulins.
Beate and I quickly pumped some drinking water from the river with my filter and by 9am we were back in the river and walking up stream for about 1km before donning our leech socks, at this point we started to move away from the river and were walking amongst the trees. The front boys that headed the procession cut our trail through the undergrowth; they obviously had no problems with the weight of their packs because soon they were striding ahead. We split into two groups; the front group contained nearly all the boys and they shot off into the jungle like a pack of husky dogs whilst the second group (which included Beate, Nus, Justin, France and myself) took our time. At every rest stop we caught up with the first group who had arrived about 5-10 minutes before us, everyone dripping with sweat however the two volunteers looked the worst for wear!
Lunch consisted of cold rice cooked at breakfast time mixed with Dalmio sauce, for desert Beate pulled out a luxury packet of Pringle crisps that were quickly consumed!
Food gave everyone an energy boost and soon we were clambering up and down hills getting covered in mud and pulling off leeches that had attached themselves to us.
The next hill revealed a large waterfall that cascaded down the rock; this had to be crossed if we were to continue. We slowly walked our way along the ravine side that had a sheer drop of 80ft; any slip could have sent us tumbling to our death. Exclamations of ìHati Hatiî were called to remind us to take care. Once we had crossed the ravine we had to climb down a steep rocky section using vines as support, our bags were passed down ahead so we had only ourselves to worry about. Being a rock climber myself, this proved to be an enjoyable part of the journey; once you had mastered the use of vines you could actually abseiling down at extreme speed! Although Iím not sure Beate shared my enthusiasm in this.
Further along the trail we cut our way through very dense undergrowth and discovered an incredibly huge dead tree buttress, I cannot begin to describe the size of it except to say that it took our breath away. The steep hills walking down from the dead tree buttress soon turned into flatter land where a river meandered through. The area contained a massive living tree with huge roots that easily spread ten metres in diameter; in the canopy of this tree were many old orang-utan nests, recognisable by a large pile of leaves.
This was to be the area of our second base camp. Everyone was in a happy mood, pleased to have made fairly good time; we quickly got to work in clearing the ground debris then cutting down poles to make the structure of the camp. This camp was drier than the previous and we had more space to move around. France and Armit; the skilled fishermen disappeared to cast their lines whilst the rest of us showered in the river and changed into our dry clothes. A fire was started and we all hung our clothes over it in a desperate attempt to dry them for the next day. Coffee, biscuits, noodles, rice and fish were on the menu for dinner. Afterwards we all settle back in our hammocks tending to wounds and leech bites, exchanging languages and talking about each otherís lives and families. At about 7.30pm the mosquito went up and sleep commenced.
Woken up at 6.30am, had noodles and coffee for breakfast. Quickly dressed back into wet clothes and packed up camp. A large bird-eating tarantula passed through our camp; about the size of a hand and orange-brown in colour, it reared up on its hind legs when Justin challenged it with a stick!
Walking was easy for the first kilometre but then the terrain increased in height and before long we were crossing a large ridge about 1500ft, we took the shortest path that happened to be straight up. An exhausting trek up that Beate found it easy, however I did not. Midway we stopped for lunch of cold rice and tinned sardines. My legs ached and I was beginning to trip over my own feet in tiredness. The descent on the other side of the ridge was much easier, half walking, half sliding or in steep places using vines to lower ourselves down. At one point my feet slid out from underneath me and I found a much quicker way to descend the hill; on my side! Nus picked me up and I was unharmed although I could feel my energy levels dropping rapidly along with my patients, because my feet would not do what I wanted them to.
|Taken at base camp Ecotourism sustainable village resort; Opop (left) and France (right) waterproofing the boat built by the field team staff.
We passed an old base camp from a previous survey months back and knew that we were coming to our third base campsite. We met up with a river that had gorged out a deep valley; and climbed over the large boulders that dotted the waterís edge, further down stream we scrambled up onto a flat area overlooking the river and began making base camp3. Whilst the boys were adding the final touches to the camp Beate and I went to explore the river to find a descent place to bath, we were rewarded with some magnificent natural pools with crystal clear water. Perfect. We stripped off completely and swam with the tiny fishes that were trying to nibble our toes. We scrubbed the dayís mud out of our clothes and pumped some drinking water via my filter, changed into our dry clothes and the boys took their turn to bath and wash their clothes. Coffee and Pasta for dinner and the rest of the evening was spent laughing and joking and practicing our Malay.
After the usual breakfast of coffee and noodles we packed up camp and set off leaving base camp3 behind. We walked through thickets of wild ginger and under dense dark canopies. My pack seemed heavier now than it had done at the start of the survey and the sweat was beginning to drip off my face. The previous nightís rain had made the trail very wet and slippery and it was not long before we were all sliding around and loosing our footing, luckily the Kampung Adidas shoes had been pretty reliable; they were good in water because they were rubber and did not absorb it, therefore keeping them light, they had a certain degree of grip in the mud because of the studs and they were easy to wash at the end of the day.
After two hours of walking the boys spotted Rhino tracks! They were clearly identifiable because they were located in an area of open soft mud and the tracks were so distinctive that they could not be mistaken for any other animal. The track shape consisted of a flat palm and three toes, one toe positioned at the front of the flat and two offset at an angle: one each side. The boys estimated that the tracks were about 2-3 days old; they marked out each with sticks so they could be easily found later.
We set up a new base camp (4) a few minutes away from the tracks in a flat area raised up from a nearby stream. The area was reasonably light due to a gap in the canopy allowing the afternoon sun to penetrate through. The nearby stream always had some signs of life in or around it, be it small fish, birds, butterflies and spiders or tracks leading down to the water indicating the presence of deer, elephant, rhino and wild pig coming to drink.
By midday the camp was finished and we were all seated on dead logs eating our lunch of cold rice and tinned sardines, covered in mud and sweat. The word seemed to have got around the jungle that there were blood donors in the area because all the leeches seem to home in on us at that point. Traversing their smooth expandable bodies along the ground with such speed it became impossible to be leech free for more than five minutes. They were removed them by elastically pulling them off and depending on the mood of the victim, they were either rolled between the fingers and flicked off, chopped up with a parang, smouldered with a lighter or tossed into the fire.
After lunch Beate and I wandered off down stream looking for a place to bath and wash our clothes, unfortunately for us the stream had seen better days because we had to make do with a trickle of water and a small pool with 2ft of water that heralded many hungry fish, and we seemed to be the best thing on the menu!
After bathing and washing, our clothes were strung up over the fire and hung off every available branch and stick in sight; the camp looked like a complete laundrette. The only downside to washing clothes in the jungle is they very rarely dry unless they are hung dangerously close to the fire in which case they get scolded brown or catch on fire if they are not kept an eye on, as it was we nearly lost a few pairs of leech socks to the fire.
After trekking for the last few days we all crashed out in our hammocks until dinnertime, rousing to cook up pasta and tuna, and rice and fresh fish from the stream.
Lying back in our hammocks we traced the route we had come and discussed what the next dayís plans were. As everyone slept around me, I lay listening to all the jungle sounds, imagining what was producing them; I could easily distinguish a variety of frog noises, Cicardas and owls.
Woken at 6.30am, the base camp was damp from the previous nightís rain and all the trees were dripping from the moisture trapped in the canopy. The morning sun, gradually burning it off, was slowly piercing the low-lying cloud over our valley.
Everyone was keen to leave base camp and go off surveying the tracks we had found the previous day and by 8am we had packed day bags with a GPS, powder, measuring tape, camera and lunch. We easily found the same tracks and took measurements of the length and diametre of the foot and diametre of the middle toe. The tracks were then dusted with ordinary talcum powder to depict the shape and I took photographs of them for future records.
The set of tracks were then followed for a few hours over logs and under scrubby undergrowth, through streams and up hills, becoming in places, invisible to the untrained eye. Along the trail plant samples were collected, the top new shoots of the leafy plants at the height of 3 to 4.5ft that had been eaten were a very good indication that it was the diet of the rhino whose tracks we were following. These eaten parts along with a sample of the plant were collected and bundled up to take back to base camp4.
At 11am heavy rain engulfed us and we quickly headed back to camp to shelter and off- load the plant samples. After lunch and a coffee we headed off in a different direction to the mud wallows where rhino tracks are often seen. The closest wallow to the camp heralded no new distinguishable tracks so we moved off up to the next one; a larger and more enclosed wallow with two mud baths. The surrounding ground was soft and muddy making it easy to see fresh tracks. Tracks of a rhino were apparent at this wallow; leading in and out of the area and along mammal trails used by that of the Sambar deer and wild pig. Measurements were recorded and food samples were collected again.
Back to camp in the early afternoon due to heavy rain that set in for the second time that day. Nothing else to do apart from reside in camp learning more Malay and teaching the boys some English.
After dinner of the usual rice and fish we all turned into bed at 8pm.
Woke to a dismal cloudy day, rain threatened and later turned into small showers. Subsequent to breakfast we departed camp into the surrounding jungle and surveyed tracks, measuring and photographing them. Lunch was taken out in the field; consisting of cold rice and tinned dace, during which time we stopped to collect brown snails that lived in the river, piling them into a container for later.
Whilst following a trail of rhino tracks the GPS broke, a faulty button causing it to be unusable for the rest of the survey. At one point during the day France had disappeared off on his own, unbeknown to us, he had located a good fishing point along the river and had stayed there all afternoon.
Back to base camp4 at 2.30pm and we all bathed and got dry, sitting in hammocks and relaxing. At around 4.30pm France appeared in camp and excitedly informed us that he had sighted a rhino whilst he was fishing! We all enviously listened to his tale of how he had been sat fishing quietly and the rhino had turned up, eating leafy plants 15 metres away from him and walking into the water to excrete faeces. He had followed it for a while and determined it was female, collecting samples of the food and faeces.
Previous to the sighting, six actual rhinos were known to exist in the central and most undisturbed area of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (where our survey was conducted), so this sighting was very important in raising the population figure one more. It was equally important because it proved that within our particular plot area there were a male and female so the possibility of breeding was high.
Once France (the cook) was back in camp, dinner was prepared, out came the unfortunate snails who had the tips of their shells chopped of with a parang and were then tossed into a soup and boiled. The rice was boiled up and we all enjoyed a very tasty meal, sucking and blowing the snails out of their shells, I learnt that there is a technique to this and I obviously didnít have it because everyone was laughing at my out-of-breath unsuccessfulness!
Laying in our hammocks we got invaded by huge ants who had come to investigate our camp, luckily they were not of the biting variety, but they were swept off the camp anyhow as no-one fancied them in their bed at night.
The frogs were very loud that night, a sign of rain ahead.
Our day bags were packed and we set off once more for the last full dayís surveying, we walked for a long time far away from camp, crossing rivers and valleys and following an old logging road which acted as a major migration path for a variety of animals ranging in all sizes. Rhino tracks were sighted and a variety of food samples were collected along the way. We continued to walk down and around valleys when we suddenly stopped, listening to the jungle sounds; the call of a rhino could be heard at the bottom of the valley somewhere along a river. We excitedly hurried down the valley moving silently not a word spoken or twig snapped, arriving at the bottom of the valley and moving swiftly along the river bed revealed nothing but butterflies and fish. A lunch stop was called and we all tucked into our cold rice and dried anchovies, sat on rocks along the river. The sun was fierce so we all kept in the shade of overhanging trees so as not to get sun burnt. After spending so much time under the dark canopy of the forest, our eyes were not use to the bright sunlight and we all felt relief when we moved off again back into the shaded forest. We moved back up a different side of the valley following rhino tracks through the undergrowth when we came across some very deep and clear tracks and a dayís old deposit of faeces in a tiny stream, a sample was collected and everyone halted. Opop and myself started to record the measurements of the tracks whilst everyone else mixed up a plaster-of -paris paste to get a cast of the deepest and clearest track. Regrettably the paste was off so a solid cast was never retrieved.
The skies grew blacker and torrential rain fell along with deafening thunder and lightening right over our heads, half running half walking back to camp because we did not want to be struck by falling trees as a result of the heavy rain and lightening we arrive at camp a lot quicker than I had anticipated. Our trail had lead us in a roundabout way and we all quickly ran under the shelter of the campís tarpaulin.
Once the heavy rain had ceased, Beate and I went down to the stream to bath and wash our clothes; the recent rain had raised the water level so we enjoyed a slightly deeper bath than usual. In the evening Nus, Justin and myself sorted out the plant samples, drying them over the fire and wrapping them in newspaper to protect them against the rough journey back home. After dinner Nus, Justin, Beate and myself sat on each others hammocks chatting and laughing, it were a good sign that the language and cultural barriers had long since been removed. I fell asleep that night nursed by the chorus of frogs, not wanting to go back to the civilisation that awaited me.
Morning; and we packed up camp and took a group photo, it had been a successful survey and everyone looked very proud in their leech socks and filthy clothes.
We retraced our steps back to base camp2, skipping the 3rd camp because we were fitter and able to walk a longer distance quicker. We Climbed up steep rock faces with the aid of lianas, mud covered and sweating buckets, however I noted my fitness level had much improved for my rate of recovery was much quicker and I had more stamina. After climbing the steep back of the massive 1500ft ridge we had the pleasure of descending it, halfway down we stopped and heard the sound of a male orang-utan, calling through the canopy and across the valley.
Half the group had gone ahead and when we arrived at base camp2 the fire was already started and half the camp was set up. We added our tarpaulins and hammocks completing the camp. Beate and myself grabbed our towels and made a beeline for the river, having only 2ft of water to bath in for the previous three days, we embraced the deep river enjoying a long swim.
The evening catch of fish was a successful one and combined with the Pakis we had picked on the way back, we all enjoyed a delicious meal. As the evening closed in the rusty call of hornbill sounded echoing around our camp.
During the night Beate had managed to share her bed and mosquito net with a rat, apparently she had tried to wake me and help her with some pest control but I had been so tired I had not stirred an inch!
In the morning I made my apologies to Beate for laughing so much at her rat antics and for not being awake to help her.
After breakfast of the usual coffee and noodles we packed up camp and set off towards base camp1. We climbed up the valley opposite the massive ridge and stood admiring the fantastic view for a few minutes before carrying on, arriving at the bottom of the waterfall. The vines and lianas we had used to abseil down on the way in were still in position. Passing our rucksacks ahead via the boys we started to haul ourselves up, a welcome relief to use our arm muscles instead of our legs for a change. We edged our way along the ravine side of the waterfall watching the water tumbling down creating a rainbow in the shower of mist. Due to heavy rainfall and the fact Beate and myself were the last in the group, the trail was very muddy and slippery and getting a solid foothold was a problem because of the conditions. This irritated Beate considerably and she was a little worked up by constantly fighting herself with this manor of trekking, it was strange how we both had different thresholds of tolerance for different terrains; my cracking point had been climbing the huge ridge, however I found the mud climbing quite an enjoyable challenge. Just when things couldnít get any worst for Beate she stepped onto a mud flat and sank knee deep in a bog, helpless in rigid mud she call at me to help her so I grabbed he arm and tried to pull her out unfortunately I pull her over face down in the mud. She was not happy in the slightest and I got the brunt of it! Nus and myself who were walking behind her could not contain our fits of giggles so we had to drop back incase she heard us. In that situation the only thing to do is laugh at yourself otherwise you get worked up into such a frenzy, not ideal if you have another 3-4 hours of the same trekking conditions.
Our group; (Nus, Justin, Beate and myself) broke for lunch at the top of a hill whilst the others carried on walking ahead, Beate was very quite during which and very little was said apart from amusing glances exchanged between myself and Nus. After our cold rice we picked up the trail again and walked for a long time, up and down hills crossing valleys, we eventually met the river that ran passed base camp1. We waded in and out of the water walking along the banks whenever possible, the rain coordinated its downfall with us reaching the river, clapping thunder right above our heads. We quickened our pace walking down stream and arrived at base camp1 five minutes after the first group had arrived.
As we were stringing the tarpaulins up I felt something go in my eye, blinking like a madman I thought I had rid myself of whatever bit of dirt had gone in, I was going to ignore it putting it down to a scratch as a result of my rubbing but decided to get Beate to have a quick look. She peered into my eye and exclaimed with immense shock and horror that I had a tiny leech in my eye! She was a little uncertain about what to do until I compelled her to pulled it out, luckily in quick time she managed to fish out the slimy creature before it had a chance to continue itsí route down behind my eyeball! After the excitement the hammocks went up and each of us collected some sticks and made a doormat for ourselves on the ground at the end of our beds, this ensured that we could clean our feet before sitting on our beds and also we could get our shoes on properly before stepping into the mud. They worked well, a very resourceful homely touch.
A fire was started and the water was boiled for the coffee. After coffee I wandered down the shallow river for a shower, luckily the rain had increased the depth so I was able to submerge myself in deeper pocket of water, using a fallen tree as my changing curtain and clothes hanger.
For dinner we opened most of the remaining tins and used up the last of the pasta, a feast was prepared from baked beans, peas, pasta, rice, fish and Pakis picked from the riverbanks that day. Subsequent that that we laid in our hammocks exchanging gossip, chatting and listening to Justin practicing his English; he had become fairly good compared to the start of the survey when he could not speak a word of the dialect. Me and Beate spoke about the bog incident earlier and we both had a good laugh about it, she could now see the funny side however was set to kill me at the time.
Over the night no rain had fallen and the river had dropped back to itsí normal water level. We had breakfast of rice and shared two tins of dace in black beans, very tasty.
We packed up camp and headed down the last short distance to the where we had left the boat ten days previous. We had to walk down stream climbing the cliffs to avoid the deep pools of water and impassable obstacles such as fallen trees and buttresses blocking our path. One and a half hours later, passing House cave and climbing the huge boulders that isolated the area we arrived at the drop off point. Everyone offloaded their bags and Nus and Justin got the boat whilst the boys went in search for the outboard engine. The boat was bailed of all the collected rainwater and the outboard was put back in place, the gear was loaded up and we set off back down river towards home. The journey was long and the sun was radiating immense heat under the peak of the day, I trailed my hand in the cool water as we motored down stream, relaxing and recalling the experience whilst watching Kites circle high above us, riding the air currents.
We arrived back at the base camp (ecotourism sustainable village resort) and unpacked our gear, hanging our wet rags of clothes out to dry. We sorted all our gear out and packed our bags to return to Lahad Datu the next day. Everyone was in good spirits and happy at the prospect of going home.
The next day we took the boat across river and down the drain to Kampung Parit, there we picked up the vehicle and drove the 2 _ hours to town. Beate wished the boys a fond farewell and I told them I would see them again very soon; my stay with SOSRhino had only just commenced. We checked into a hotel for the night and treated ourselves to a few luxuries like a hot shower, a descent meal and some cake! The next day I wished Beate goodbye, we promised to stay in-touch. She was continuing her stay in Sabah by a week to do some diving on Sipidan Island before flying home, I myself had other plans before going back into the Tabin jungle to continue with SOSRhino.