Heathrow Airport, Terminal 2, Sunday 19 October, 2014. Oh god, this is a heavy backpack. Crane my neck up to check the board. Hugs and kisses goodbye to the family and boyfriend, and I’m off.
I’ll skip through the boring flight bits, lalala Dubai, zip, BOOM! 13hrs later, we land on the island of Borneo. Oh no wait, it was Singapore first. Right, yes, Singapore then Kuching, Borneo, BAM! I’ve landed.
Brain: “Fuck sake, there’s only a bloody Starbucks! My god it’s humid here.” *Eyes desperately scan around for a ‘Matang Wildlife Centre’ or ‘Project Orang-utan’ t-shirt*
Brain: “There she is!”
Natasha Beckerson, General Manager, Matang Wildlife Centre is there to meet me. I’m one of the last to arrive, we head to a lodge in central Kuching to meet the other 10 or so volunteers (who are also spending two weeks at the Matang Wildlife Centre) we share some drinks, get to know each other, then it’s off the next morning to the jungle (around 2,200 hectares of it.)
Skipping any other boring anecdotal observations, I’m cutting straight to my top five picks from my time there:
- ALL THE FOOD!
I love soy, and in Borneo it’s a common ingredient in most dishes. There was this unrefined tofu dish that I forget the name of that basically changed my life. Also, what Borneans can do with plantain and breadcrumbs is magical. Just trust me on this one, it’s all delicious. Malaysian Borneo also reawakened my passion for coconut water, so now every time I find myself drinking that Vita Coco stuff, I’m instantly transported back to a Bornean beach with sand in my hair, laughing my lungs out, just intensely happy.
- The people
A real mix of people were drawn to the volunteer experience at Matang: Americans, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, Germans, they were all bloody brilliant fellow journeymen.
However, I really enjoyed meeting the locals, who were always extreme in everything they did; whether it was the abundance of knowledge they had to share about local plant life and indigenous animals (like orang-utan, sunbears, crocodiles, gibbons, frogs, snakes etc…) or in their insistence of sharing local rice whisky with you (many a good night was had.We’ll say no more.)
Matang Wildlife Centre near Kuching rescue orang-utans, macaques, sunbears and various other beasties. Most have come from the pet trade where people have surrendered them because they’ve become too big and dangerous to keep as pets. The staff here do the best they can with what they have. They make every effort to rehabilitate animals and give them a good quality of life. Major props to all who give up their time and salary to work here!
- Wellington boots
A strange pick I’ll admit, but this was the last item you’d put on before you trudged off on a day’s work up the farm, mucking out animal cages or just general manual labour, and I loved every moment of it! OK, not the time I got a leech on my leg in the middle of the jungle, or that time I scraped the back of my leg with a scythe and thought I was going to develop septicaemia and die. But all those other times were immense!
From night hikes spent discovering the wonders of phosphorescent moss, day hikes to waterfalls strong enough to blast your pants off (literally) and mountain journeys to fairy caves.
Oh…and one final thing:
I learnt more about animal cruelty-free tourism by actually taking a trip than any ‘share and vent’ Facebook article could tell me. Let’s just say, I won’t be riding any elephants, visiting tiger temples or holding wild animals any time soon. Oh and I’ll be doing my best to avoid buying products that contain unsustainable palm oil as best I can.
If you’re curious about other cultures, exotic animals and landscapes. Go to Borneo. Here’s a link to the oran-gutan project I went to if you’d like to read more about it.