Written by Alexandra Nunns
Photo Courtesy of Sophie Harrad
Having flown halfway across the world alone, I checked in to ibis Makassar, and met my first peer- Ester- in the hotel room. We were shy initially but excited, and commented on the interesting lack of privacy in the ensuite design… little did we know. What we were about to experience is easily the most intense bonding experience possible in the space of just two weeks, which made ourselves and a dozen others into an unbreakable team.
It began in Labundo; awkward introductions, name games and the assignment of a homestay with local villagers. After a packed day of lectures and practical sessions, we hastily bundled into an open truck, and had a bumpy ride into a reserve to begin the “jungle training” expedition. Three days of hiking ensued, and we quickly became familiar with steep slopes, thick mud and hostile rattan thickets. We learned how to identify edible plants, built and subsequently slept in a shelter made from * p r i c k l y * rattan fronds, and searched for the rainforest’s charismatic inhabitants.
We were welcomed back with open arms for the Eid al fitr celebrations, marking the end of Ramadan for the Muslim residents of Buton. Our local family laid out a table of cookies and drinks, and insisted that we join them for three delicious meals. After a few days, their two adorable children had warmed to us, including us in their games.
All too soon, we had to leave again for the next phase of the journey: mobile camp.
Everything we had done before was merely a warm-up, a trial run. The trek to the site alone tested our strength, perseverance and team spirit. Through torrential rain, we marched into the unknown, with only the supplies on our backs. Somehow, we finished the typical 6 hour hike in under 4 hours, and when blue tarpaulin finally emerged from the trees, sheer bliss washed over us all.
The camp is basic – makeshift bamboo tables and “jungle toilets”, minimal resources and a raging river to wash in. I have no doubt of the practical skill of our local guides, who could materialize the essentials for life from what seemed like nothing. We were truly privileged to use their intimate knowledge of the environment to assist our surveys, both in physically carving out transects through dense undergrowth and in their ability to recognize every single living thing we encountered. Whilst far from comfortable, the research project would surely be impossible without their expertise.
Indeed, conditions were pretty unforgiving- two weeks of constant rain meant that we had to settle for “jungle-dry” clothes and sleeping bags. The entire site was a mudbath- from the river to our hammocks- and planks had to be laid across particularly tricky bogs. At times, the only thing keeping us sane was a cynical sense of humour (and plenty of rice).
The scientists are a wonderful bunch. Their enthusiasm to scale mountains in search of their target species is near ridiculous. Adi the ornithologist never failed to wake up at 4am to catch the dawn chorus; Arthur the Megafauna specialist chased the Anoa, referred to as the “sexiest animal in Sulawesi”. You could hear his infectious laugh from anywhere on site. Josh the herpetologist scaled transect 3 on a whim to catch the venomous Pit Vipers we stumbled across on a butterfly survey, and Team Habitat went out in all weathers to record the carbon density of trees (which, conveniently, do not hide during a downpour!).
These efforts paid off, and we were able to record dozens of species unseen in the region. Be it a mile long cave network from which a tornado of bats emerged, an enormous strangler fig, a photograph of the elusive dwarf cus-cus, or the exhilarating discovery of Anoa tracks, natural wonders gradually revealed themselves. A round of applause erupted one evening when Arthur’s camera traps had captured the mighty Anoa- a mother and her calf!
Even on less eventful days, we would walk through cathedrals of limestone and pristine landscapes. We would be visited by various critters, snakes, frogs, beetles, butterflies and a foot-long centipede.
Sadly, all but two of my group had to leave after a week for the marine site at Hoga. Gone but not forgotten, I look forward to having an OpWall UK reunion with these amazing people!
A new group of volunteers arrived for the second week, which offered fresh ideas and conversation. As certified jungle veterans, myself, Matthias and Thibault passed on our survival tips, not least on the hard-learned lesson of foot care. Some of the best times were spent drying our feet whilst playing card games and chatting in the dining area, enjoying a brief moment of respite from the challenges of daily life at mobile camp. It was fantastic to have local guides come over to practice their English, teach us some Indonesian, and share in the sacred ritual of Uno. My sole souvenir from our time in the jungle is a braided rattan bracelet (making these is a favourite local pastime). It will probably outlive me.
In my fourth and final week on Buton, I acted as a trainee staff member in the more established Lapago school camp. Here I had heaps of fun teaching the students about the importance of the forest, helping them adjust to jungle trekking and culture-shock, and reveling in what is, by comparison, sheer LUXURY. There was even a natural pool to bathe in, and sunshine smiled on the beautiful site for several days. I was lucky enough to see a civet’s eyeshine one night at the river- which admittedly made me jump.
If I had to use a single word to describe this entire experience it would be humbling. All of us have received a newfound appreciation for everything that we have, and equally everything we lack. Having seen the untamed beauty of the natural world, and faced its unforgiving forces head-on, my respect for my place in all of this is greatly deepened. In addition, I am absolutely certain of the urgency with which we must protect the global ecosystem, which sustains humanity despite our reckless attitude.
We are but a small part in a biological picture infinitely larger then ourselves- and the absence of anything in that picture is an irreparable loss that we cannot afford.