Jungle training. Not a loin cloth in sight. A collection of Ray Mears like activities that blurred into one long rain soaked week.
How to erect a basha and put a hammock and mossie net up was very good fun. The fact that it pissed it down for the whole day, made it even better. The theory being, if you can do it in the pouring rain, you can do it any time. Lighting fires (even with wet wood â€“ I still think it was an illusion), river crossing, trapping animals, how to move and spot dangers in the jungle, collecting and making water safe to drink (even now water tastes strange if it hasnâ€™t got grit in it and doesnâ€™t taste of iodine!). These, and many other activities that I canâ€™t now remember, made up that first hectic week. Interspersed with all of this was a series of lectures and practical sessions from navigation to first aid.
Do you know what colour your urine should be? What should you do in the event of a snakebite? How can you get football scores in the middle of the rain forest? All these questions, and more, were answered during that first week.
Two projects were on offer: the Maliau Basin â€“ mapping terrain and the Danum Valley â€“ rain forest regeneration. Either one would do for me. It turned out to be Danum Valley. I had to look forward to six weeks of digging holes and planting trees. It is more varied and interesting than it sounds (more of that in the other section). Due to the nature of the project, the trekking phase was ditched in favour of a week at Sepilok (the famous orang-utan sanctuary) where we were to repair some collapsed bridges (again, more about that in the relevant section).
So, armed with a weekâ€™s intensive training and extraneous items stowed for the duration, we boarded the bus for Lahu Datu and the first leg in our journey to the Danum Valley.
It takes the best part of a day to get from Kiolu to Laha Datu. Upon arrival, two things are apparent. One, it is a shit hole (the architect, when asked how to build the town, was told â€œI donâ€™t care what it looks like, just make sure it stinks!â€) and, two; the kerbstones are very hard. I noticed the second one when I leapt from the bus in sandals and smashed my big toe against the kerb. This ensured that I spent the first couple of days of the expedition in a little pain and missing out on the pioneering work of camp finding. Oh well, shit happens (to me).
Laha Datu does have an airport. Imagine a cab office with aeroplanes instead of Ford Cortinas and you will have some idea of the scale and facilities on offer. It does, however, also have shops and electricity and this was, especially after the expedition, all that really mattered. So we rested in the town while Kevin our trusty leader tracked down our budget for the next two months and a few other happy shoppers went in search of kerosene.
Next stop the road head. A few miles out of town we met up with our four-wheel drive vehicles and drivers. Within the hour all kit and provisions were transferred from the bus to the 4x4s and we were off into the Danum Valley itself. Dusk was upon us and the excitement was growing. As was the pain in my bandaged toe at every bang and jolt of the vehicle over the â€œroadâ€ into the Valley. After a couple of hours we reached the entrance to the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Passes were shown and the barrier was raised.
Off we went again and, within a matter of minutes, we screeched to a halt in a storm of dust. There on the logging road in front of us were a couple of elephants. I have only ever seen one of these amazing creatures on the TV before and stood open mouthed in wonder. Not a good idea considering the dust storm so, after coughing my lungs up, I closed my mouth and just stared. Elephants, wild elephants, are not to be messed with. They are the animal worldâ€™s equivalent of the bloke with â€œMillwall skinsâ€ tattoos drinking Stella that you see in the local. You try not to stare even though you find him fascinating knowing that, at any minute, you could well be running for your life wearing his lager and fending off blows from his sovereign bedecked fists. Same thing with elephants. Minus the Stella. We watched for a while, at a safe distance â€“ no flash photography please, ladies and gentlemen â€“ and then they, kind of, sauntered off into the bush. Welcome to the jungle!
An hour or so later we reached our destination (for the night). The Danum Valley Field Centre. This place was, for the next seven weeks, to become a kind of dream for most of us. It had beds, running water, electricity and a shop with a fridge. Gear was unpacked and a brew was conjured (we are British, after all). After a briefing of what was to happen on the morrow, we all retired to bed for a well-earned nights rest…
By David Perkins