the real adventure begins…….Up at 8am with a five hour drive ahead of us to the river at Tekong. We pack up all our belongings and set off for a bumpy ride. Our aggressive and somewhat unpleasant driver dodged the sea of transport that managed to somehow occupy the narrow main road with its usual array of transport caught in a chaotic and dangerous dance; everyone competing for a space. The journey was arduous and somewhat boring for the passenger as the scenery didn’t particularly change apart from a range of mountains in the distance. Behind the ribbon of houses, the palm oil, rubber and banana plantations ranged from small individual plots to enormous foreign-owned gated enterprises. After several hours we turned off of the main arterial road along a side road which was predominantly unmade but once again, lined with small colourful bungalows. Another bumpy hour or two and we arrived at the river bank where our luggage was unloaded and placed on a traditional wooden dug out river boat manned by two men; one at the back with the engine and one at the front with a long pole.
We squished in amongst our luggage and set off up the Besilang River from Tekong to Sikundur where the research station is situated above the river bank on an old logging road left over from the 1970s. Along this stretch of river, there remains tiny fragments of rainforest. It is not until we reach our destination that we see an unbroken horizon and skyline of forestation. Sikundur is a in a beautiful setting apart from the large broken concrete bridge that lay collapsed and poking out of the river bed; an ugly symbol of an even uglier trade that began the demise of the rainforest.
It is quite a basic research station; a small wooden house with a veranda which is divided into several small rooms; a kitchen at the back and a very dark, dank wash room. It is from this small remote hut that ecologists come and study the elephants and primates that make this part of the forest their home. The guys who run the camp, Ben and Supre, and their team, make us very welcome. From the tiny kitchen at the back comes an array of interesting and wonderful food. The toileting arrangements take a bit of getting used to but for the feint hearted, the river is just down the steps for bathing in. Whilst we are settling in to our surroundings, there is a little drama in the kitchen as a snake is found under the sink; fortunately for the cats, not a dangerous one. After claiming our beds and unpacking for the night, we take the opportunity to stretch our legs and explore the old elephant camp that is a forty-minute walk along the old logging trail. Today the camp is empty apart from a husband who is a forest patroller and his wife and two very sad looking chained domestic elephant; one of which is pulling pathetically at his short chain and the other in slightly better spirits on the riverside.
The camp would actually be a good location for an eco lodge similar to those I have experienced in Nepal where elephants are used to take tourists into the jungle to seek tiger, wild elephants and other wildlife. It is, however, no longer acceptable to use domesticated elephants for tourism purposes. Fortunately there has been much publicity about the ethics and particularly the cruelty that is involved in training domestic elephants and no eco tourist should want to be part of this. However, were it not for the importance of the field station and the lack of traffic in the forest, this old station would make a good base for river trips and forest trails. Today it stands empty and void of life apart from the odd researcher who happens to drop by. It is clear that elephant patrols like this are very ineffective ways of protecting the national park from hunters or locals collecting firewood.
On our return the light begins to fade and it is time for supper. We have good spicy vegetarian fare followed by the most exquisite fried banana fritters which taste like nectar after our long and tiring journey. We sit out on the wooden veranda and watch the night fall over the forest whilst we plan our expedition up river to seek out the primary rainforest. It’ll beat least five and half hours upstream and we will be camping out; there was some essential kit to pack. The two leech bites I had received from our short walk to the elephant camp reminded me that I need to plug the gaps in clothing; socks and nylon stockings are vital kit to keep them out.
The station’s electricity generator is switched on at dusk to enable us to have some light and with this light came the most amazing insects; particularly moths, spiders (complete with babies) and praying mantis. The station’s resident giant toad walked stealthily along the skirting towards the toilet. But for me the moths stole the show, as a budding amateur lepidopterist, I was in heaven!
At 9pm when the generator was switched off the station was in darkness, we rolled out our sleeping mats and crawled under our mosquito nets and fell into a blissful sleep soothed by the sounds of the forest and thoughts of the adventures to come…
For more information about this LEAP (Landscape, Ecology and Primatology) project visit: http://go-leap.wix.com/home