Dan Rees takes us back to Borneo in May…
Since Tom’s tragic passing last year there have been some amazing ideas to raise money for the Trust set up in his name. When Ed Jackson proposed the idea of jumping into the wild and doing something way out of our comfort zones, I suppose I had no reason to say ‘no’.
Eventually we decided we would take part in an expedition of the third biggest island on the planet: Borneo, which comprised three countries – Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. A ten-day adventure in the rainforest, through thick jungle, blood-sucking leeches, Malaria-carrying mosquitos, 35-degree tropical storms and a load of orang-utans was about all we knew…
I met up with the other members of the “Unbelievable Trekkers” team at Heathrow on the afternoon of 9th May. My three companions were Ceri Maynard, Tom’s sister; Ed Jackson, one of Tom’s best pals; and Lois Rideout, Ed’s girlfriend and a friend of Tom’s. They were all a bit dusty from the night before, having attended the first Tom Maynard Ball, which raised over £60,000. A day or so later we made it to the Sabah capital of Borneo, Kota Kinabalu. We had no real idea of the time, though it was somewhere around 10pm local time, and we were taken to an hotel. First reaction was the heat and the humidity: it must have been 30 degrees Celsius. With jet lag kicking in we were all up early and tucked into a buffet breakfast, each of us well aware that it could be our last proper meal for quite a while, Ed getting bold and choosing something resembling a barbecued three-toed chicken foot. The adventure had well and truly begun.
It was a two-hour journey in what must have been the slowest vehicle on the island up through the hills to the village of Kiau. Our tour guide, Mr Mike Miki, along with many chickens and wild dogs and cats, greeted us at the village. I couldn’t quite get my head around the process of names. The family name is carried on and you take your father’s name as well, or something like that… Either way Mike Miki is a great name! After tucking into fresh rice, chicken cooked that day, together with the most amazing pineapple we’d ever eaten, we set off on our journey.
Our afternoon adventure was very interesting. Mr Mike was a good laugh. He also taught us things along the way, always with good humour and an understanding of our backgrounds and what we were experiencing. We followed him along a narrow path which dropped off steeply down the hill. It was hot and humid and the first hour or so we encountered only open land that was cleared for farming. We passed through pineapple plantations, chilli and ‘veggie’ plants, rice and the famous tiger balm plants. Mr Mike handpicked a load of hot chilies; little did we know they would become our best friend! After the farmland we entered the jungle, where, being hidden from the sun, it was a lot cooler, but the sweat patches were still growing…
After a few hours of jungle trekking we arrived at our first camp, the Miki Survival Camp. A simple campsite with two shelters made from bamboo roofs and floor, and another shelter where we ate and sat round a camp fire. Of course food was waiting for us when we got there. Mr Mike’s sister and friend had some rice, chicken and pineapple waiting for us. Top service! Out of nowhere Mr Miki came with a bowl of dark soy sauce and those chopped fresh chilies – a great addition to the meal! As if like clockwork, just as we had sat down the daily afternoon rain shower began. During this Mr Mike taught us how to make a blow dart out of bamboo. In the past the locals used to tip the ends of the dart into a poison made from a mixture of plants and use it to paralyze and kill their victims. For obvious reasons it is now illegal! Shortly after the rain passed we were taken on a tour to learn about the different traps used to catch wildlife. Unfortunately by this stage, jet lag had hit me like three dozen sleeping pills and I was literally falling asleep standing up. Ed was the same.
After our dinner we went on what turned out to be an unsuccessful night walk in search of frogs and other wildlife. Our promise of BBQ’d frog would have to wait…. The night ended with a few glasses of local rice wine and a good old chinwag round the fire. I awoke on day two early due to the sounds of the wild, the sunrise, and jet lag. Actually I had woken around 35 times during the night. I had slept so badly I don’t even know if I’d slept at all!
My mood quickly brightened, though, as I heard one of Ed’s infamous “Bear Grylls” video diaries and opened the tent to see the famous Mount Kinabalu (Tallest mountain in Malaysia) up close. Fried noodles and chilli awaited us for breakfast as well as a freshly caught frog; sounds boring to say it, but it tasted like chicken!
The plan was to make our way back to the village. Rather than take the simple route from the day before, Mr Mike took us on an adventure through the forest. It was an entertaining morning, with us spotting our first monkey and encountering our first leeches. Seeing Ceri getting attacked by leeches is something everyone needs to experience (Ed: get that video up on YouTube!). They just simply wouldn’t leave her alone no matter how much she swore. Which was a lot. A couple of hours later we found a river and jumped in to cool off, and Mr Mike showed us how to make a bamboo cup with his machete. A few hours later we made it back to the village where we were greeted with the usual lunch. Pineapples were a godsend after the walking. The morning’s trekking was hard but manageable. We all agreed on that, but then it dawned on us that if that’s the easy stuff, what on earth was the tough stuff going to be like? How little we knew…
We checked into the village’s local hostel, a simple convenient set up at the local church. We were the only ones there. Mr Mike came to the party and organised some beers for us. They
went down like water. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a cold beer more in my life. It was a fun evening with the four of us, Mr Mike and Mr Nial, the local beer supplier. Mr Mike supplied the music through his Mini Cooper replica car speakers, a strange sight in the middle of nowhere! There were many stories told and we learned some of the local language. One phrase that I will use for life is “Goo-Goo” which is “cheers” in Mr Mike’s local language.
His village is in a great location. It is the highest of all the villages on Mount Kinabalu, so they get first use of the water from the river running down the mountain. It was another early wake-up call due to the hundreds of roosters trying to impress the local female birdlife! The locals were such friendly people, with everyone waving and saying ‘hello’. The kids walk down the hill at 6.30 in the morning for school and finish early so they don’t have to walk back in the rain. We were picked up at 8am and we had a day of driving ahead. It wasn’t until it took us over an hour and a half just to get around Mount Kinabalu did we realise how big it actually is.
A few hours later we stopped to swap vehicles. We needed a 4×4 Hilux to take us a couple of hours down a dirt-logging road where we were greeted by a friendly old man named Dennis at our destination. Our first reaction was at how simple the set up was and how content the family was that lived there. Mr Dennis was soon dubbed “Lord Dennis” and his “castle” was one raised building about 15m long by 6m wide. It was all made from bamboo. The floors seemed like we would fall through them but were much stronger than they appeared. There was one wall that separated Lord Dennis’s private family part where they all slept on the floor, the other section being open and twice the size, used for communal eating and relaxing with guests. It was simple and limited but had everything we needed. It also put into perspective our little worries about being ‘inconvenienced’ in our own modern lives.
We were treated to a lovely meal of rice, noodles, chicken and vegetables with, of course, some chilli. You would have thought we would be sick of the same food but somehow they cook it so well and manage so many different flavours. Ed and I stayed up and enjoyed a few rice wines and beers with Mr Mike and Lord Dennis. It was fascinating to listen to their stories. Actually I could have listened all night to them. Mr Mike and Lord Dennis are from different villages but from the same tribe – “Dhusun” – and therefore speak the same language. If people are from different tribes the universal language is Malay. It appeared that Lord Dennis was a wise, popular and important member of his village. His priority is to build up the tourism in the area to help improve community life. Some of the rituals in beliefs were fascinating as well, such as the one which says that if a millipede crosses your path it’s bad luck and you have to turn back.
We were woken to Queen’s – and Mr Mike’s – version of “I want to Break Free” blaring from the Mini Cooper. It was awful. Mr Mike had continued his tradition of getting hammered each time he comes to Lord Dennis’s castle. Today was ‘game day’: an 8km jungle slog up to the base camp of Mount Trus Madi. Mount Trus Madi is the second highest in Malaysia but the hardest to climb. We loaded up on breakfast (you guessed it!) and got ourselves ready. I still hadn’t perfected the long drop dunny by this stage… terrible aim!
Just 500 metres into the trek I saw the famous millipede on the path; fortunately it was walking towards me rather than across. Good luck was to come! It wasn’t much further on that we had to take our shoes off and cross a fast-flowing river about knee deep. We managed to get completely drenched crossing it. The terrain we walked was a mixture of jungle floor, rock, moss padding, tree roots, rivers and streams. There was very little level ground. It was pretty tough physically, particularly on the calves. Ed and I agreed we had never sweated so much in our lives. It was a constant drip. Our shirts were drenched. We must have produced a couple of litres of sweat when we wrung our shirts out. Mentally it was hard but if you got ‘in the zone’ it was do-able! Mr Mike and Lord Dennis made it look like a Sunday stroll.
After collapsing at base camp it was pleasing to hear that we had shaved the quickest time by over an hour! Still it seemed a very long six hours! No wonder we were all cooked! When we all took our shoes off our socks had turned red: the leeches had sucked through them and we spent the next 15 minutes pulling off the ones that had got to our skin. The camp site was literally a tarpaulin sheet tied to some trees for shelter. Mr Mike had bought up a few hammocks. He couldn’t set them up quick enough as I had an awesome siesta as soon as mine was tied. It was an early dinner of you-know-what as we were planning a 3am departure to reach the summit by sunrise.
That start turned into a 3.30am leave as Mr Mike fancied a sleep in but we got him up as we were determined to make the sunrise. The next two hours were pitch black apart from the lights emanating from our head torches. The 4km to the summit was the longest and hardest thing we had ever done. It was just mud and trees everywhere, climbing vertically and under trees on hands and knees. It was a constant grind. There were markers along the way every 100m counting down from 12,000 at the start. There were times that morning that took what felt like half an hour for 100 metres. It was made even tougher not knowing how long each hill would last, just continuing on and on.
As dawn began to break our legs and feet were soaking, and we had long since given up caring about the leeches. We slipped over, got covered in mud, tripped over roots, slid on our backsides. Where the hell were we? What were we doing? Our calves, thighs, lungs, shoulders and knees were feeling pain they hadn’t felt before. Physically we were pushed to our limits. But to everyone’s credit no one ever whined or said they couldn’t do it. I know for myself, and I’m sure for everyone else, what got us through was thinking of Tom. The whole reason we were doing this was for the Tom Maynard Trust. It wasn’t the first time when things are physically tough that I’ve thought of him and it certainly won’t be the last. I’m sure most people close to Tom would say the same thing.
Eventually we made it to the summit, again in record time. Unfortunately we weren’t there in time for sunrise, but somehow that didn’t matter too much as it was overcast. By the time we got to the top we were absolutely cooked! There was a massive sense of relief and achievement. It felt great knowing we had made it to the top and the pain felt worthwhile. However it wasn’t total elation as we realised we had to get back down to base camp and then travel another 8km back to Lord Dennis’s ranch! Nonetheless we posed for a few photos, munched on a few Borneo Snickers and shared a celebratory cigar whilst carving “Trek 4 Tom” on the white summit.
It was obvious on the descent why we left so early in the morning in darkness. It wasn’t so we could see the sunrise, after all; it was so we couldn’t see how bloody steep and long it was! There was no way we would have managed to get up! It was ridiculous! Going down was just as hard. It was impossible to get any sort of rhythm and impossible to get our feet on a sturdy landing on a branch or hard surface. Constantly trying not to slip down, we still each fell any number of times. Our knees began to feel like knives were digging into them. Despite the physical pain there was no complaining, though. There was still a long way to go and everyone had a “just get on with it” mentality. It was still a fairly slow descent on the steep parts and definitely took longer than we expected.
We were given a well-earned morning break when we got back to base camp. 8km down; 8km to go. None of us dare take our gaiters (or more suitably known, our “leech collectors”), or our socks or shoes off. We didn’t even care about leeches by this point. There was an option to stay the night at base camp but as we’d made such good time and the lure of a “comfier” night sleep we all wanted to kick on. The remainder of the descent was just a hard old slog. There were no more photos taken, no stopping to observe the wildlife, barely even stopping for water. Everyone was in the zone and marching on. It wasn’t as steep as the early morning, yet it was still steep enough to find a comfortable stride very difficult and the knees were still hurting.
By this stage the soaking wet socks were having an effect. The constant sliding forward of our feet in our shoes meant to they were starting to rub with the wet socks and we could feel the beginnings of blisters. I remember each river we crossed (in our shoes by this stage). I would wriggle my toes and circulate the water to try and sooth the blisters. We were starting to get more sun on us and it was rather hot now. Our shirts, shorts, shoes and socks were all drenched with mud, water and sweat but we kept going knowing we were stopping for a paddle and a cool down in that last river. That moment when my head went under the water was so refreshing. It beat any time I’ve dived underwater at the beach back home in Australia, be it boiling hot or hung-over. It was so chilling and soothing. It felt so fresh. Holding myself underwater against the current felt almost like a shower. And by this stage we hadn’t showered for five days!!
I remember when we got back to the ranch; I fell backwards and lay on the “bed” with backpack still on. I just lay there and reflected on physically the hardest thing I’d ever done. After ten minutes I took my bag off and sat up. Instantly all the muscles in my shoulders and neck seized up. I couldn’t raise my arms or anything. It was the most bizarre pain; I’d never experienced anything like it.
The rest of the afternoon we just laid on the grass and decking trying to stretch out our bodies! As part of Lord Dennis’s community project we planted a couple of trees. One tree was dedicated and labelled “Unbelievable Trekkers”, the other, of course, being for Tom. It was a fitting gesture to mark the end of the trek.
The next morning we were up early and on the road. It was a nine-hour journey across the island to Sepilok, the home of the orang-utan sanctuary. Despite the long journey it was a well-earned reward and a nice way to finish off the trip. We visited the sanctuary the next morning. There is a 2,500-hectare forest that is home to hundreds of orang-utans, with a small boardwalk about 300m long for tourists to walk around. Halfway along this there is an open area with a big feeding platform for the orang-utans where they are fed each morning and afternoon. They are fascinating creatures to watch and I never realised just how similar to humans they actually are. We were told they share 96.4% DNA with humans and after watching them for a while it was amazing to notice the similarities. Some of them were playing up to the camera, striking different poses.
The next day it was a flight back to Kota Kinabalu where we were to fly on to the UK. On reflection it was an amazingly rewarding trip. We learned a lot about the land and the locals of Borneo and it really put our Western way of life into perspective. Our everyday stresses are non-existent in their life. The locals would take nothing for granted; there was no anger, no arguing with each other, as they all depended on one another. We learned a lot from Mr Mike and Lord Dennis. They really made the trip. Great people.
We learned a lot about ourselves as well. We were pushed to our limits physically and mentally. None of us had done anything like this before and yet we all managed to get through it. The most satisfying thing about completing it was knowing we had contributed to the Tom Maynard Trust. Of course we are hugely grateful to everyone who donated. Between us we raised over £10,000, which we are all immensely proud of. In reality the pain we endured from the trek was nothing compared to the pain of Tom’s loss. We thought about and spoke about him a lot along the way. It was great hearing all his stories. It was just pleasing to contribute in our own, small way to the Trust and to keep Tom’s memory alive.
Where next is the question? One thing is for sure: this is just the beginning! Annually, biennially, whichever it may be, it is a great event for a great cause, for a great man! Did someone mention Everest!?