Fire ants, durian, and ‘chocuna’: an update from Alpha 7, written by volunteer Jessie

14th July 2015

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We at Alpha 7 have had a fantastic first week and a half on phase, which has involved a variety of complex and challenging projects at the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) in Merisuli, south-western Sabah, under the excellent leadership of our project managers Beth, Max, and Carl.

The Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre works to reforest areas of rainforest which have been degenerated in order to clear space for palm oil plantations. Part of Alpha 7’s work, led by Carl, involves working on a project known affectionately as the ‘damn dam’, which will be part of a gravity fed water system to water plants in the new nursery.

The first problem we encountered was blocking the original river flow, which we solved using a stylish contraption involving a blue barrel and straws to divert the water. Despite the setback, due to the hard work of Sasha, Fliss, and others mixing cement, the gabions have already been constructed and filled with mortar and rocks. This was a fiddly job requiring both mind power and physical labour, comparable, according to Ben and Taraka, to a game of Tetris.

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Ben and Carl inspecting the dam on the morning of day 4

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The end of the work day

Another of our tasks involves mixing and bagging soil to nurture the saplings of critically endangered plant species endemic to Sabah. Using a home-invented machine, the team (often Leye and Naveen overseen by Max) collect and sieve fertile soil, shaking a metal contraption back and forth to filter out the stones. Despite the hard work, the sense of fulfillment is intense when we finish three truckloads of soil, and in the afternoons, as we work towards our target of filling 3,000 bags, we enjoy deep chats about our life experiences, hopes and dreams.

In addition to the other tasks, we have also been involved in is completing biodiversity surveys deep in the rainforest, overseen by Beth. The survey sites are often in remote areas which we can only reach by trek, where we can hear the distant grunts of orangutans. We are also helping a research student preparing for a dissertation about seed dispersal. This involves placing durian fruit in wire cages in set locations in the rainforest, a fruit so smelly it is banned in most transport systems, hotels, and public spaces in South East Asia. On trying this fruit, the general consensus was that it was disgusting, sweet and creamy but with an aftertaste somewhere between garlic and vomit. Despite this, Ben, Taraka, and Jessie between them ate about five large slices.

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Naveen, Toby, and Minnie at the top of the quarry

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The beautiful view from the top of the quarry with TRCRC guide Ali

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The moon over the campsite in the evening

But it’s not all work and no play for Alpha 7. Our relaxing lunch hours have been filled with eating ‘chocuna’ (chocolate, tuna and mayonnaise all mixed together, which Leye introduced us to and has converted most of the group including Minnie, Amber, and Pippi). We have enjoyed delicious dinners made from Raleigh’s relatively simple rations, thanks largely to our head chef Toby. And on our day off, we enjoyed a trek to the nearby limestone caves where a tribe of ancient river people are entombed, as well as bringing a baby bird back from the brink of death and going for a sunset walk up to the quarry.

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Fliss writing letters at the group's communal table

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Waiting for dinner!

We have faced many challenges along the way: swarms of army ants regularly patrol the area between the basha beds and the long drop, biting any unlucky soul who needs the loo in the night, while stick insects as big as our hands have made poor Princess Leye scream (or according to Leye, ‘shout boisterously’!). Carl and Max’s snoring has also posed challenges for the venturers sharing a basha with them.

But despite this, Alpha 7 are having a brilliant time. We would like to say hello to all our parents and friends, we miss you lots, and hope you are having an enjoyable time back home. We will see you all after our rumble in the jungle!  

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If you want to read more about the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre, please visit their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/trcrc.org or their website http://www.trcrc.org/

Photographs taken by Abigail Long (5 Week Communications Officer)