Borneo Expedition – The Silverleaf Project – 19 March 2011

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With a blissful weekend of R & R (Rest & Relaxation? Rock & Roll? Rum & Raisin?) at Raja View (our wooden palace in Bario) under our belts, it was time to trek back into out to Silverleaf camp and crack on with our conservation project – the construction of an eco-lodge deep in the Kelabit highland jungle. In order for the construction process to be efficient, builders can use the equipment and machinery from sites like Boom & Bucket.

In an attempt to preserve our bitten and blistered feet however, we opted to travel back to camp in a more stately fashion. In a benevolent response to pleas for employment from the local community, we each hired two Kelabit tribesman to carry us and our bulging rucksacks in the traditional style on fern-covered bamboo logs back to camp. It was a bizarre and other worldly experience. We felt like the ‘White Rajas of Sarawak’ and would have felt a bit guilty if it wasn’t for our jolly Kelabits being even more thrilled than us by the novelty of the work, the free Chep Apek (local moonshine) they drank, their singing and the continuous foot tickling all the way there.

Once back in camp and after a long and emotional farewell to our jungle chauffeurs, we unpacked, upped tools and got back to work. Like tireless water buffalo, we heaved and lifted, dripped with sweat under the sweltering sun, battled against leech infested swamps and swarms of bees (who seemed to attack in malicious and coordinated efforts), waded through the eternal all invading mud and got hammered by rain so massive and so intense that it actually seemed angry that air had ruddy cheek to fill in the gaps between its bowling ball-sized droplets. We ploughed on regardless and at points only the timeless lyrical genius of the late, great Freddy Mercury helped prevent morale land sliding to a suicidal low – “God save Queen!”

With the ambitious shelter construction progressing well despite the 45 degree slope of sheer mud and 20 foot platform Rian decided was necessary to provide the ‘right view’, the group bonded into a well oiled unit of jungle builders as we lifted, hammered, sawed and chopped the next epic few days toil into the history books.

Two contrasting opportunities then arose to increase the group’s wildlife contact.The main concern was reports of a spate of fresh-water crocodiles floating up the meandering Baram river (a tributary of which flows fitfully right through our camp). The next couple of days were dedicated to ‘Croc watch’ with Simon and Joe patrolling the main north shore, Beth on the south shore and Jim up on the hill enjoying the panoramic views and working on his tan. After two days of daily patrols we decided the crocs were probably elsewhere, or had been put off by ‘Beelzebub’s belly button’ (the long drop).

Conversely we had then our closest encounter yet with some adorable jungle Civet cats. Although initially suspicious, we dutifully smeared our bare legs in crunchy peanut butter as instructed by Rian. After a couple of hours silent waiting, two of the furry beauties emerged from the foliage and before the day was out, we were being licked and nibbled by a veritable herd (flock? gaggle?) of Civets. A truly wondrous event and we would recommend extensive stocks of Crunchy Sunpat to all future groups.

As the rations dwindled, motivation for wor

k waned and the coffee beginning to run low, Oz decided to simultaneously lead by example and set the benchmark for a working day by stabbing himself in the leg with an outdated adrenaline pen at breakfast and proceeding to single handedly shift 3 tonnes of planks up the slope for the shelter.

Then…disaster struck! An immediate ‘priority seventeen’ casevac! Cue mass tree felling to create a landing zone for the chopper. All hands at the ready to administer sedatives and bandages. It’s impossible to describe the sheer scale and excruciating pain of the accident. Whilst balancing 2 entire feet above soft ground, hammer one hand, permanent cigarette in the other, Joe risked life and limb for the project as his bent most of the nails into paper clips on the iron wood shelter supports. With just one minor lapse in concentration (day dreaming about his next cigarette) he… stubbed his big toe! The primordial screams were unbearable and likely to haunt poor Beth’s dreams for the rest of her days.

We are happy to report that Joe has since made a full recovery. He is now up and walking and enjoying playing with cards and lighters at the camp table.

On a less serious note, as the conversation project reaches completion and jungle phase of our expedition draws closer to the end, we volunteers feel it a good time to express in our blog our appreciation for our indefatigable leader Oz and mischievous local guides Rian, Wawawawan and Aslano.

Their herculean efforts, consummate professionalism and hearty bon homie have made what could have been a gruelling month, an enjoyable, action-packed, body hardening and pride swelling ride. Whether weathering the prolonged wet season, logistical conunderums or the ridiculous trickery of jungle architecture, they have managed to maintain high morale with their racey banter, a mischievous feeling of fun, deeply entrenched comraderie and inspiring work ethic.

With project complete, we now pause to bathe in the glory of completing our canopy-scraping eco-lodge, the Bario sun and the absurdly cheap and fiery local moonshine. Tomorrow we’ll polish our boots, pack our rucksacks and stretch out our hard earned jungle muscles in preparation the much anticipated trek.

We’ll be spending the next eight days and nights climbing the summit of Sarawak’s highest peak; Mount Murud.

We’ll dig deep. We’ll nail it. And we’ll sing Queen from the summit. Bring it on!

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