As most of you know, Emma has a thing for orangutans. For the past two years her focus has been on raising funds and awareness for the plight of these endangered primates. She’s baked cookies, sewed sweater stuffed animals, made paper flowers, sold crabapple jelly, won best in show for her orangutan display at County Fair; and still her enthusiasm is unchecked. With a slow but steady approach she and her friends raised $1000 USD!
Emma was planning on sending the funds to the orangutan reserve. But after talking to her science mentor about possible research projects for the year, she was determined to get back to Borneo by hook or by crook. So she made a proposition: Could we go to see the Orangutans if she paid for the trip herself—and while she was there could she do some science and learn more about the environmental issues?
I agreed that we would check out the travel options and make a budget to see if it was at all possible. After some inquires and a week of waiting, we were stunned by an enthusiastic response from a nature camp on the Kinabatangan river. They offered to sponsor her and be our hosts; complete with a private boat and guides at our disposal to help Emma with her project. Suddenly our trip became a bit more complex as Emma planned a field study to learn about the water in the river. She wanted to discover more about the orangutan’s habitat.
We were all excited about the opportunity to return to Borneo. Josh wouldn’t be able to come because of work, but he was very supportive of the project. He made some emails and set up a meeting for Emma to present a really big check to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center. The countdown began!
Bags packed with lots of mosquito repellent, cameras, batteries, silk sleeping bags, raingear, flashlights and science equipment; we traveled all day from Singapore and arrived in Sandakan on a rainy evening. We checked in to the base camp lodge and were delighted that the science equipment we shipped from home made it. Emma opened her testing equipment almost reverently.
She was ready to get down to some serious work. Then Emma and Max practiced running some water testing procedures until bedtime. After a short night sleep (too hot in our claustrophobic room and to keyed up about the trip) we were ready to go up river.
The transport van drove north and west into the fields of Borneo. We caught sight of muddy red roads cut into the earth. The two-lane road was slow as oil tanker trucks lumbered up hills. As the afternoon rumbled along, clouds in the distance grew darker. Vast swaths of land cleared of forest were planted with oil palms. For almost 90 min we drove deeper in and there was nothing but hectare after hectare of palm fields, refueling stations, and palm oil processing facilities.
The palm plantations are essentially green deserts—although they are green and growing, they are agriculture areas where no wildlife can live or travel. We had been here before and the deforestation was something we expected. It didn’t make Emma angry like last time we came. It started raining and I felt like crying too for the loss. There was resignation in her face and after a while she didn’t look out the window anymore.
When we arrived at the jetty our guide Jeff called out to us to get our rain gear on. We were going to get wet. I was a bit worried about our equipment (although we had cameras in dry bags) I didn’t want to get anything damaged by the rain. Backpacks on and rain ponchos covering us to our knees we climbed down the steep muddy riverbank on a tree laying in the mud with planks nailed across for treads. There at the bottom in the churning brown river was our boat.
The guys were smoking, hauling and loading fuel. One of them sucked on a plastic tube to start a siphon transferring the diesel from one container to the next. Max looked at me with huge eyes—shocked that the guy would put petrol in his mouth. The rain poured down insistently reminding us to get in and shut up. We quickly arranged ourselves in the boat, keeping it balanced with our bulky bags. Emma was reluctant to let anyone handle her science box and she kept it tucked between her feet. The boat was only about 4 m long with bench seats, no roof and a big outboard motor at the back. As soon as we were seated the boatman opened the throttle and away we roared upriver.
I heard Emma say to Max almost casually “If the boat were to go down which way would you swim?” Max looked thoughtfully side-to-side as the boat rocked and motor roared and rain poured. Both kids knew that crocodiles, poisonous snakes and scary bacteria lived in this river. So the game wasn’t really for fun, but actually a stress reliever. “That side” he replied. “I could climb up the bank,” he added pragmatically.
Stay tuned for more from the river! I’ll post more with photos from the river tomorrow!