Thinking that a year was a long time to fill, and wanting to do something useful with myself for some of it, I looked around for something I could do that might be considered beneficial. It didn't take long to find Trekforce Expeditions. Like most similar organisations, they appeared to concentrate on students taking a gap year either before or after university. However, I signed up regardless, and was pleasantly suprised when I went to the briefing event in early March 2003 to find a couple of people of my advanced years, and a fair spread of people throughout their twenties.
Trekforce offers a choice of programmes in Belize, Borneo and Guyana. All of them start with a two month conservation project, then there is the option of following on with a teaching phase. In Belize this consists of a month of Spanish courses and two months of teaching. With Borneo, it is just a week of basic teacher training and cultural acclimatisation before the two months of teaching. I had already decided that I was heading to Asia, so despite the fact that I want to learn Spanish, I signed up for the Borneo expedition.
Time passed, and soon enough it was Easter, and time to leave the UK for the start of my year seeing a bit more of the world. It started off with just a few days in Thailand before heading to Borneo. As I'd had those few days in Thailand, I didn't fly out with the rest of the trekkers. Instead I met up with them at Bandar Seri Begawan airport in Brunei, where they were changing from their flight from the UK to another plance for the short hop from there to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
From Kota Kinabalu, we loaded ourselves and our bags onto a coach bound for the site of our jungle training. On the way there, the heavens opened and we saw the first of what was to be many downpours of the next few weeks. It was dark by the time we had carried our bags fown from the closest the coach could get to the site, and we didn't do much before being shown to our beds for the next few days. A few rows of stretcher hammocks suspended from a bamboo frame and covered with tarpaulin.
The week of jungle training that followed was split into two halves. The first few days were filled with courses on navigation, first aid, camp layout, camp procedure, evacuation procedures and so on. We were also split into our two teams. At the original briefing evenig, we'd been told that we were all going to be working on a construction project in the Maliau Basin (as you will know if you read these pages previously). It then turned out that none of us would be doing that. Instead there were two projects. The first was still in Maliau Basin, but this time mapping a trail for future use. The second team would be working on the Sabah Biodiversity Experiment. I was in the latter team.
The Sabah Biodiversity Experiment is the largest biodiversity project in south-east Asia, and one of the biggest in the world. It is sponsored by the UK's Royal Society (specifically the South-East Asia Rainforest Research Programme) and Imperial College (where coincidentally, I was an undergraduate and then worked for seven years), and is an attempt to discover if a rainforest can recover its biodiversity after it has been logged. To do this, a 500 hectare area of forest about 10km from the Danum Valley Conservation Area is being planted with dipterocarp trees of the type that have been logged. The area is split into 125 4ha plots, and this is being used to experiment with different densities of the species of dipterocarps.
We were the last of a series of groups of Trekforce volunteers to be planting the plots that are to be studied. Each of the 200m x 200m plots has 20 lines, 10m apart from each other. Every three metres along each of these lines, either a tree is planted, or a reason is given why a tree cannot be planted (for example, the terrain is too steep or rocky). As this is logged forest, you might imagine it to be relatively clear, but the truth is very different. As the trees that provide the canopy have been largely taken out, more light reaches the ground, and so plant life there flourishes. Primary, unlogged, forest is much clearer at ground level -- apart from the huge buttress roots of the trees that is.
For the second half of the jungle training, we headed into the forest near to where we'd been training. The expedition leaders and medics had already set up most of the camp with the help of some locals. All that was left for us to do was raise a couple of tarpaulins and set up our own sleeping areas. Of course, as this was the first time most of us had set up a basha sheet, hammock and mosquito net, this was no mean feat. For whatever reason, I was one of the last up to the site and had a bit of trouble finding a suitable pair of trees to sling my hammock between. In the end, I had to use some trees that were on a little bit of a slope -- by that, I mean that my head was about 30cm off the ground, and my feet the better part of a metre above it.
This is when the heat and humidity of the jungle really started to hit. We were moving about quite alot, and most of us were sweating to the point where we could wring it out of our clothes. This, however, is good, as the alternative to sweating is heatstroke and even death. We had to ensure we were drinking at least 5 or 6 litres of water every day, all with the subtle hint of iodine to add flavour.