2nd April 2015
Like being flung around a bouncy castle made of metal, the 4x4s safely delivered us Alpha 3 to Maliau Basin, where we stayed for nearly three weeks. How far we’d come after one phase; the sight of the octagonal pagoda with a square kitchen complete with mesh metal and windows and robust toilet blocks was heavenly. We couldn’t forget our beloved tasks though! Before even unpacking our bags we were mopping the floors and wiping the surfaces. I had the pleasure of unsticking clumps of stubborn insect carcasses from the toilet walls with some trusty bleach. Boxes were unpacked and the lists were instantly drawn up. We were now more efficient than the armies of ants that insisted on trying to eat all our snacks. The first night was spent playing games around the table after dinner and chatting before crawling mercifully into our bashes to sleep.
It took a day or two to glance up from our schedule long enough to really appreciate the environment we were in. Only in the last three days at Belian Camp, our home whilst building the trail, did I notice the macaques watching over our camp from some trees nearby, quaintly tall and sparse. This became only more real when we started work on the trail through the forest to give access for scientist and visitors. Every now and then you had to gaze up while wheel barrowing gravel or laying a bridge and look among the trees: it was hard to keep hold of that feeling of wonder for long.
Like true jungle explorers we set off one night to spot wildlife down the trail, valiantly stumbling over roots or sliding over loose earth. Mouse deer wandered past and for a moment we all stood in awe. And then they were gone. We soon settled into a routine.
After having your foot rigorously shaken from the end of your basha by that day’s day leader, you’d wait till as close to 7am as you dared before climbing out for a prompt breakfast. Porridge came drowned with each person’s desired weapon of choice for giving it flavour. It was then a smooth rush to be ready, strapping up your boots, before 8am to start work. We’d clomp down to the trail, thankful for the shade the canopy would provide later in the day. It was surprisingly cool in the forest compared to the overbearing sun around the camp. Breaks came every two hours for our saviours: ice gems. The work was demanding but the group kept it jovial and there was a certain pleasure to be had in doing the manual work, hoping you’d come back looking like a Spartan Soldier.
Working early meant we did enough each day to finish and go straight for lunch. In the afternoons we could play volleyball, football or try our hand at takraw with the rangers and their families (they could run you ragged), or look around the library at the Maliau Basin Study Centre. Just down the path we were working on was an incredible swimming spot: duck under a branch or two off the right hand side and up opened a small beach area, the huge red-tinged river stretching in each direction to mash dash fields of rocks. It was feasibly the set to a King Kong sequel, with the trees bordering the calm water in great contrast.
Some evenings we could turn out all the lights and just stare upwards: Orion’s Belt was always there, vivid in the sky, with stars and more in every direction.
Little things stick out in my memory from my time here: wheel barrowing gravel past a trail of spidery ants a couple of inches across stretching straight up a tree taller than you could see. I remember the time Leo informed us after dinner with pure conviction that he was doing the chocolate challenge so wouldn’t be eating any this phase: ‘but you were just eating Oreos weren’t you……..?’
I remember being told after dinner one night that in an emergency I would be the first one eaten. Then again there were times that tested you. On the walk back from the Observation Tower one morning I took my shirt off and after an hour or so in the blearing sun I would then endure three nights of waking up thinking my shoulders were made of burning plaster. There was the time pests managed to eat some of our food, or when only five of us could make it to work one day. But these moments were just as, if not more, important in making this phase what it was than the times spent gaily running each other round in wheelbarrows or the time I used a rain poncho and a stick to dress up like Hagrid.
And of course part of the relevance of us coming to Maliau was the stuff we’d learn about conservation that we’d take with us to future endeavours. A lovely lady named Terry and her associate Walter, from Finland and Peru respectively, showed us through her plots one afternoon looking at the ability of logged forests to store carbon. Later we met a guy named Mike who gave us a presentation on his work looking at the ability of logged areas to regenerate. It was a whole new experience to be able to see the forest and then the analysis of it in front of you, and put the two together.
And after all the difficulties we had with people’s health, we are still attempting to head to Maliau Falls to end this phase, a three day trek into primary rainforest.