Men of the forest

Malaysia's flag
Asia » Malaysia » Sabah » Kinabatangan
January 25th 2010
Published: February 25th 2010
Edit Blog Post

Photo 3Photo 3Photo 3

Batu Puteh village under water
After seven months of travel, it was time to put down my backpack for a while and do some work. I've been interested in the plight of the world's rainforests for some time, and had been particularly enchanted by the island of Borneo. This trip was the ideal opportunity to explore this great natural resource, and the length of my trip encouraged me to spend a month as a volunteer somewhere on my route... so I chose Borneo. My placement is with a community organization called MESCOT, who operate from a small village called Batu Puteh, on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, northeast Borneo. MESCOT comprises about 400 local people who turned from working on logging operations (both legal and illegal), cocoa and palm oil plantations to tourism and conservation projects. The organization is now providing a new economy for the village as well as protecting and regenerating the local rainforest, most of which is secondary rainforest with a high level of biodiversity. The area is home to wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons and hornbills, and a huge range of other wildlife including kingfishers, eagles and squirrels.

I flew in to Sandakan and was collected by a MESCOT worker, Jai,
Photo 23Photo 23Photo 23

A wild orangutan, stranded by the flood waters
who took me to my homestay in the village. One of MESCOT's main sources of income is a homestay scheme, where volunteers and tourists stay with families in the village. As I would be there for a month, I was to rotate families every week or so. My first stay was with the Musa family - all 11 of them! I arrived during a difficult time for the village, as heavy rains had caused the great Kinabatangan river to flood. Batu Puteh was therefore sitting under several metres of water when I first saw it! Luckily this happens every year, so the houses are built on stilts. I settled into my room and met my family... mother Anie, her 5 children and a range of other relatives... a few more than I'm used to sharing with at home! Jai told me that the other volunteers were already camping in the forest cutting trails, so I opted to dive straight in and join them. After purchasing a pair of Malaysian rubber jungle shoes, which would turn out to be one of the best purchases I've made for the whole trip, I boarded a boat and headed off, in the rain, down
Photo 11Photo 11Photo 11

Sailing the Kinabatangan
the river.

The Kinabatangan was wide, muddy and high - swolen by the floods, and flanked by dense, green forests. I arrived at camp and was greeted by Albert, a MESCOT member who was providing the food and other general services for the group. Luckily the camp was sheltered by a big sheet of tarp, as the heavens opened about 5 minutes after I arrived. I've never seen rain like it... litres of the stuff plunged off the tarp every few seconds, and soon the ground had turned from grassy slope into a quagmire. The rest of the volunteers soon returned, drenched to the skin from cutting a trail in the rain. So I met Rosli, the leader and one of the founders of MESCOT, along with Charlie (an American who'd fallen in love with Borneo and had been volunteering in and around Batu Puteh for some months), Conny (from Germany... 'yah, yah, yah!'), Paul and Sarah (from Leicester), the current volunteers. We chatted about the project and the next day's activities, which would involve cutting a trail on a nearby hill. We spent the rest of the afternoon under the tarp, snacking on Cloud 9s (an amazing Snicker-like
Photo 16Photo 16Photo 16

Carved coffins at Supu
mini snack bar... I became quickly addicted), and after dinner I went for a short walk around camp with Charlie. His impressive knowledge of the forest found us some mouse deer, tree frogs and various other insects, all set within the eerie dark forest, alive with a multitude of sounds which seemed to come from every direction. We returned to camp and settled into our hammock tents... which sound great but are like sleeping in a coffin, with a mosquito net which practically sits right in your face.

The next day, Paul and Sarah decided to head back to the village (Paul had rediscovered a phobia for spiders after a rather large one visited his hammock!) while the rest of us cut a short trail through the mud. It was hard work, but along the way we spotted a group of otters and got a chance to walk through a palm oil plantation which bordered that part of the forest. The stark contrast with the neighbouring forest (monotony versus diversity) was a bit of a shock, but Rosli told me that the palms still provide a habitat for the majority of species inhabiting the forest, which is some consolation.
Photo 19Photo 19Photo 19

Rosli gazes out over his domain
We returned to camp for lunch, where Rosli decided to change the plan and relocate to Supu, an area of forest upstream from the village... the floods restricted the work we could do downstream, so we packed up camp and returned to Batu Puteh. I had one night in the homestay and a morning to buy some secondhand clothes and food, before heading out once more for 3 nights in the forest.

Supu is an area of forest reserve about 45 minutes by boat from the village. The area is characterised by a series of low limestone ridges, inside which is an extensive cave system which supports populations of bats and swallows. The ridges and caves also house a number of burial sites dating back about 600 years, which still feature some carved coffins despite fairly recent ransacking. We set up camp next to the river and set about cutting the first trail, from camp to the largest burial site at the top of an adjacent hill. Rosli, Charlie and another MESCOT worker, Komsar, led the way, clearing most of the big trees, while Conny and I followed, picking off the rest of the vines and saplings, and generally
Photo 27Photo 27Photo 27

Feeding time at Sepilok
clearing the trail. The terrain made the going slow, and we were constantly slipping on the mud, swatting mosquitoes and fighting off leeches (I only knew about my first leech encounter by finding the large blood stain on the back of my shorts!). But by the afternoon, we reached the top of the hill, where about a dozen ancient coffins were arranged beneath a hulking limestone outcrop. Some of the carving, of buffaloes, crocodiles and turtles, was very fine... looking like it came from the Pacific Islands. Over the next few days we cut a network of trails to connect the ridge with nearby caves, the camp and the river. The caves were an impressive sight, and practically unvisited by westerners. Locals had farmed the swallow nests for years, but the area hadn't yet been opened up to tourists. Our trails would link in to a permanent camp, from which visitors could hike through the forest and visit the cave system. The presence of tourists would help to protect the forest from plantation owners, who were already trying to get their hands on a large swathe of forest on the opposite bank. After three nights of cutting, being eaten by
Photo 26Photo 26Photo 26

One of Sepilok's inhabitants
mosquitoes and consuming large quantities of Cloud 9s, we returned to Batu Puteh. On the way we were lucky enough to see what most tourists come here to see... wild orangutans. Some trapped by the flood waters, others just out foraging, we saw five or six individuals, all of which threw branches to try and make us go away. To see such iconic creatures in their natural environment was a great experience, and something I didn't honestly expect to see so easily.

During our trip, a new volunteer, Nikki (ice cream lady and serial volunteer) had arrived, so we greeted her at the jetty (now accessible as the flood waters had receded). Charlie was leaving the following day to go back to Hawaii for a few weeks, so Conny and I joined Rosli for a day out in Sandakan, the nearest town. Conny had already seen the sights, but I hadn't, so asked to be dropped off at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. It was nice to see the interaction between the keepers and the orangutans, and I'm happy to support the work here, but Sepilok for me just couldn't live up to the wild sightings I'd already had on
Photo 24Photo 24Photo 24

Looking up at the high canopy
the river. My luck continued in the neighbouring Rainforest Discovery Centre, where I saw another wild orangutan along with a smattering of birds and insects - some from the great canopy walkway, fixed 20 metres up amid the treetops. Even at this height, the giant emergents, such as the mengaris tree, still tower overhead like organic skyscrapers. After walking round RDC, I caught a bus into Sandakan, turned down an offer of sex with a shemale (my request for directions to the harbour were mistaken for the Sandakan hotel... close call!), then met Rosli and Conny for a nice seafood dinner looking out over the Sulu Sea.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


25th February 2010

Just great!
Your pictures are wonderful and I love the way you talk about the forest, the animals AND the People (which is rather seldom in the travelers blog who visited the Kinabatangan). All the best! Clo
25th February 2010

Hey Clo, I'm so glad you've subscribed to my blog and hope you enjoy all the Borneo stories! The people are such an important part of the story, and without a doubt the thing I miss most now that I've left. The next blog will be on our visit to KK - I'll try not to say thank you too many times for your hospitality, but I make no promises! PS - sorry again for breaking the glass!!
25th February 2010

Hi again. Sorry the timing was off on my part. But if still interested in hanging out with my people, please do not hesitate to let me know at your soonest. Thanks to your blog and the fantastic pics, I have no doubt my next visit will take me to Indochina and East M'sia. Mosquitoes, get out of the way! Have a safe trip back to S'pore.

Tot: 2.357s; Tpl: 0.076s; cc: 27; qc: 132; dbt: 0.0766s; 2; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 3; ; mem: 1.7mb