Rainforest regeneration in Sabah: pt 2

The group now split for the day. Kevin plus six volunteers headed off to clear a trail into the jungle. A campsite had been recced previously but the jungle grows back quicker than an old man’s ear hair, so it needed cutting back to get our provisions in. The remainder of the group stayed with Karen, our assistant leader, and packed a few weeks provisions onto the back of a 4×4 and set off to the temporary nursery. As I was carrying the first of many injuries, I stayed behind with the women and children and helped with the supplies.

An Hour and a half from the Field Centre is the temporary nursery. This is the place where the young seedlings are stored ready for planting. This is also the place where the local Malay workers have their camp. We arrived and unpacked the provisions and personal kit. We then spent a few hellish hours sunbathing by the river and chit chatting

When the entrepid explorers arrived, we picked up our gear and headed off into the jungle for the first time. The journey from the nursery into our camp would take between twenty minutes and an hour depending on weather conditions and the amount of gear being carried. This first time seemed to take about a week! We eventually arrived in a semi clearing by the river to find that the local boys had been busy building us a table. I must point out here that this “table” was about twenty feet long, four feet high and six feet across. It also had cross poles rising to about twenty feet for a tarpaulin to be strung across. This was to be the focal point and “dry” refuge for our camp in the weeks to come.

Over the next few days, the camp took shape. A tarpaulin was raised over the main admin area table and a kitchen area was built. A fireplace and shelves were created and tarpaulin was erected over the kitchen. Slops pits were dug behind the kitchen. The basha area was cleared and all of our hammocks were put up and little touches like tables for rucksacks were cobbled together. The toilet facilities were basic but functional. A tree was selected for the boys and an area was selected for the girls. Number twos were conducted in the quaintly titled “shit pit”, that was dug and set out away from the sleeping area. A burns pit was dug for the burning of paper waste. Lastly, a shower area was built. This was a major feat of jungle engineering. A pit was dug and then filled with varying sizes of stones and gravel. This was then covered by a raffia mat and a tarp erected around it. We were situated next to a river but, for obvious reasons, we could not use soap or shampoo in it. The theory is that buckets of river water are ferried up hill to the soakaway and then a proper wash could be had. Needless to say, this facility was used, on average, once a week by most of us. At the end of a day’s work falling into the river fully clothed and washing the grime away in river water was chore enough! So, camp built and fully briefed, we prepared to embark on our project

Oh, sorry, did I not say that it rained? Fuck me, did it! On about the third day in, it started to rain. I’m talking RAIN. Biblical fucking rain. At one point we considered dismantling the table in favour of an ark. Let me explain the theory behind living in the jungle. You have two sets of clothes. A dry kit and a wet kit. During the day you wear your wet kit. It is expected to rain. The rainforest is eponymously named. After work you clean up, dry and powder your poor blistered and pruned feet and put on your dry kit. This you then sleep in and in the morning put your wet kit back on (you do get used to putting on wet clothes – after an hour or two of sun, it dries out). OK. Theory over. Time for reality. It rained so much that everything got soaked. Dry bags my arse! The waterproof liners of most peoples rucksacks decided that enough was enough. Hammocks became waterbeds. Three days later and it had not stopped raining. We were, as you can imagine, mildly despondant. Was this how it was going to be for the next two months? Tempers became slightly frayed. Good humour was in short supply. Feet started to break down. I joined the increasing band of trekkers with immersion or “trench” foot. It’s hard to powder your feet with talc when it is pissing it down all the time. Dry socks were as easy to come by as a non Scottish Big Issue seller! Try as we might, we could not get our feet dry. The only slightly dry place was the admin area table. This became increasingly full of people with feet in bowls of betadine (to keep infection at bay).

Why didn’t we light fires to dry out our kit, I hear you cry. OK. Theory time again. Ray Mears can light fires in the rain with soaking wet wood. Normal people can’t. It’s that simple. The local guys use camping stoves for Christ’s sake! So, not only were we soaking wet and miserable, we also didn’t get much in the way of hot food or drink in those early days. OK, don’t get the wrong idea, we were not crap. We were just new to all this. One of our team, Jo, was pleased as punch when she had finished digging the slops pit. This was because she had never dug a hole before. If I want a cup of tea at home I switch the kettle on. I don’t have to locate dry wood (a particular type of wood), chop it into varying sizes, get it lit, then keep it alight long enough to boil some water. OK, I was in the RAF in a previous life but not the SAS. A few of us had done some camping and we had all done the jungle training but this was real. Anyway, all was resolved when, about five days after it had started, the rain stopped. Like that. The sun came out and our spirits soared. Clothes and hammocks were dried. Fire was possible. The river, that until then had been a raging brown torrent, dropped and became a beautiful jungle stream. We smiled and team-hugged. I understand that other expeditions into the Danum Valley had rain for the entire time that they were there. My heart goes out to them (and my admiration). I am sure that we would have got used to it eventually but I have no regrets that the rain stopped and we then had a good few weeks of sunshine.

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