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Pickles, packet noodles and plenty of leeches

  • Written by  Matthew Jones and Rosalie Wright
  • Published in Explorers
Pickles, packet noodles and plenty of leeches
20 Dec
Matthew Jones and Rosalie Wright were delighted when they unearthed details of an expedition to a remote corner of Borneo’s rainforest in the 1950s. Forming their ideas at the RGS-IBG Explore weekend, they spent almost a year planning on how to retrace the route for their own research journey to the Usun Apau plateau

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• Leech bites: 128
• Packet noodles Consumed: 300
• Number of falls: 9,000
• Number of trees measured: 200+
• Monopoly Deal games played: many
• Time taken: A year to plan, three weeks in the field
• Transportation: Car, foot, bum-sliding!
• Team size: Five students, seven porters and two guides
• Essential item: Monopoly Deal – a ruthless card game certain to bring out the competitive side in anyone, it’s an ideal distraction from the porridge/noodles/rice life and without it we would have all gone insane

Take yourself back to 1955. Four young students, all with a taste for adventure, set their sights on the Usun Apau plateau. A remote patch of jungle raised a thousand metres above the canopy below, situated deep in the heart of Borneo’s highlands. Beautiful, pristine and isolated, it remains virtually untouched by the pressures of the outside world.

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Lead by Guy Arnold, they successfully raised £6,167 (£160,000 in today’s money) to carry out a journey along the complex network of rivers running through Sarawak. Their aim: to collect as much information as they could on a region that the Western world knew very little about. Spending six months in the field, they summited unclimbed peaks, met with Indigenous local leaders and carried out one of Oxford University’s largest ever expeditions. Gordon Pickles, the team’s botanist, collected over 500 samples (some of which are of course ‘pickled’). Colin Campbell, the team’s geologist, successfully guided RAF re-supply drops to small, man-made clearings and spent his time sampling and mapping the plateau’s unusual landscape. Tom Chavasse, the team’s zoologist, sent mammalian species samples to both the Oxford and London Natural History Museum, which are still on display today. In essence, they were truly inspirational explorers, leaving behind a wealth of material just waiting to be re-discovered.

Sixty-four years later two students, unsatisfied with life in lecture halls and keen to do something different, stumbled across the story of the Usun Apau plateau. After a wealth of research and unravelling a mountain of literature from the previous expedition, we (Matthew and Rosalie) decided it would be almost rude to not dedicate the next year of our lives to retracing this ambitious adventure. However, our motives were different to those that came before us. Following three decades of exploitation, the forests of Sarawak no longer look the way they did in 1955. Surrounded by a growing oil palm industry and developing logging infrastructures, the Usun Apau plateau is becoming an isolated island of primary rainforest. It only takes a quick Google search of the area to show the growing number of logging roads and fragmented habitats that have never experienced such large-scale human destruction before.

the old teamThe original 1955 team

The 2019 teamThe 2019 team – from L to R: Maraym, Matt, Rosie, Pouvalen and Azam

Aware of these issues – and inspired by our predecessors – we began planning a conservation-focussed expedition, aiming to highlight the issues Usun Apau is facing by conducting practical research somewhat similar to that of our 1955 counterparts. However, instead of surveying species diversity by specimen collection and preservation, the focus was on rapid camera trap assessment surveys. Without removing physical vegetation samples, we instead recorded tree diversity and measured abundance in situ to give insight into forest types found in this elevated region.

We also spent a significant amount of time working towards effective collaboration with local institutions, building relationships with other researchers and the WWF to advise on future management of Usun Apau National Park. All of this would not have been possible without the help of the third Oxford team member, Maryam Jamilah, whose Malay translations were of vital importance. After countless emails, we also managed to find two other students crazy enough to want to live on a remote jungle plateau for three weeks. Both from the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, Azamuddeen Nasir and Pouvalen Seeneevassin became a key part of the planning process and developed their own ideas for potential research opportunities on the plateau. Together, our team of five set about preparing for what would likely be one of the biggest challenges of our lives.

Usun Apau’s finest showering spot, located just above one of its many majestic waterfallsUsun Apau’s finest showering spot, located just above one of its many majestic waterfalls

However, at the time, none of us truly understood what we had got ourselves into. We (Matt, Maryam and Rosie) attempted some training in the Lake District. Well-known for its lack of trees, we struggled to find a spot for our hammocks and were hindered further by failing to bring half of our food. A naive lack of insulation taught us valuable hammock tips (always use a sleeping mat) and over the course of the trip, many other lessons were learned. After writing a 34-page risk assessment and discovering that the safest method of evacuation from the plateau would be via helicopter, we decided that doing some kind of medical course might be helpful. Luckily, the RGS-IBG saved the day with its Expedition and Wilderness medicine course, providing an opportunity for some team bonding in the process. This also prompted the purchase of the world’s most well-packed medical kit, fit for a small army and almost any emergency, following the sobering stories of venoms, infected wounds and tropical diseases that jungle life could produce.

Despite these issues, we successfully managed to raise £13,000 in sponsorship to revisit the Usun Apau plateau, also negotiating a few deals with some fantastic outdoor equipment providers. Feeling slightly more prepared, our UK-based team members set out for Sarawak with a week of further preparation in Kuching, to allow for team bonding and numerous kit checks (essential if you’re about to be trapped in a jungle for three weeks together). Once an incredible array of Malaysian delicacies had been consumed and the age-old question of ‘why do British people eat rice with a fork?’ was out of the way, the full team was ready to depart.

Arriving at first camp after a six-hour, incredibly bumpy and rather warm car journey, thoughts instantly turned to how we were then going to move 200kg of food, equipment and general paraphernalia for the ten-hour hike planned for the following day. This issue was quickly solved by the willingness of the locals to support our journey, meaning the team grew by an extra seven people. Once this small hiccup was dealt with, everyone went on to dance the night away to the sound of the sapeh, Sarawak’s traditional wind instrument.

The 1955 expedition spent six months trekking through the jungleThe 1955 expedition spent six months trekking through the jungle

The following morning was somewhat less enjoyable. Heads still slightly fuzzy, we all awoke at 4am to prepare for the journey ahead. Although only a short distance, the hike involved around 1,200m of sometimes vertical ascent through uncut jungle trails with slippery mud underfoot. It was also our first introduction to the intense humidity inherent to tropical rainforests. After a ten-hour slog up onto the plateau, we arrived at our basecamp in the dark. Fumbling around with hammocks (after the first of many packet noodle dinners), and river-washing by torchlight, the first night of jungle life was a success.

Keen to begin work, the following day was spent setting up base camp properly. Establishing an area for research, dining and cooking, it became as comfy as could be, given it would be home for the next three weeks. We also spent time getting to know our two guides. Both part of the indigenous Kenyah community, and having grown up in a culture so strongly tied to the land around them, their knowledge of the Usun Apau plateau was second to none. Without them, the expedition would not have been possible, as we relied on their skills to help place camera traps, navigate the dense jungle undergrowth and identify the venomous snakes, frogs and insects that we found on an almost daily basis.

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The research protocol itself (once all camera traps had been established) involved misty 6am starts, donning head torches and fuelling up with a tasty breakfast of plain porridge. Once adequate leech protection had been implemented, we would trek off towards the central plateau in search of new survey sites. With the help of the incredibly knowledgeable guides and use of a satellite phone, vegetation studies could be conducted at a range of elevations and forest types. Armed with numerous tape measures, notebooks and monitoring devices, we set to work recording species composition and vegetation density at each site. With a nutritious packed lunch of white rice and perhaps a splash of soy sauce to look forward to, the mornings passed quickly and these surveys were a highlight of the day. Generally lucky with the weather, it was only occasionally that we got caught in the tropical rainstorms so common to this region. With barely any notice, huge thunderstorms would cause the rivers to rapidly rise, blocking paths home.

The team’s focus was to record a range of flora and fauna, monitoring the biodiversity of this unique regionThe team’s focus was to record a range of flora and fauna, monitoring the biodiversity of this unique region

Typically, evenings at base camp consisted of ‘fine’ jungle dining and small comforts. When you’ve been trekking through uncut trails all day and sleeping through the sounds of civets rustling under your hammock, literally anything somewhat edible becomes enjoyable. The main luxury was an extensive array of packet noodles, varying from duck to mi goreng (fried noodles in Malay) flavouring. The latter was the packet noodle of choice and became central to evening discussions; the best way to mix the seasoning in, or who was hogging the noodle portions most. When things got too much, differences could be solved through a tense game of Monopoly Deal, which kept everyone entertained (and often became incredibly competitive).

The camp was also positioned a short (but steep) hike from one of the most amazing waterfalls in all of Sarawak, which made for some inspiring excursions during rest days. Dropping 300m off the edge of the plateau, the sounds of the Julan waterfall could be heard throughout camp and was a truly awe-inspiring sight. Cascading from the jungle canopies above, the Julan torrents down a sheer face of volcanic rock into an immense pool of black water that is encircled by precipitous cliffs. It was sights such as these, combined with the simplicity of hammock life and jungle routines, that made this expedition so unforgettable. The wonders and challenges faced in this rainforest reminded us all of the urgent need for its conservation and sustainable management practices. Being one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, it is places such as Usun Apau that remain on an ever-decreasing list of truly wild landscapes.

Now that we’re back, we’re all working hard on the expedition outputs and research reports which will be published as soon as possible. For the meantime, we’re finishing up our undergraduate degrees (sometimes wishing we were back in the jungle bubble) and planning future endeavours. All involved are incredibly grateful for the support we received along the way and encourage people who are more interested in the expedition to get in touch.

Matt, Rosie, Maryam, Pouvalen and Azam are all undergraduate or Master’s students with a passion for conservation. They hope that this expedition can help to jump-start their careers in conservation research, as students of their age very rarely organise something of this scale while also studying for degrees. If you’re interested in the research and want to hear about the final outputs, check out the website at: usunapauretraced.com, or follow the Facebook
page: Usun Apau Retraced.

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