As always, weather permitting in Borneo, we had to wait for the rain to stop before we set off on our trip to Lembu from Camp Lesik. It was time to collect monthly phenology data at Lembu, and we would be spending two nights in a basic camp by the river. Phenology is a branch of ecological science that studies the timing of recurring biological events in plants. In Kehje Sewen forest, phenology data is collected monthly during which Post Relase Monitoring (PRM) team records when the plants flower, produce fruit, etc. One of the purposes of phenology data collection is to determine when and where we should release orangutans.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but we packed bags full of rice, noodles, tinned sardines, snacks and much needed logistics.
Eventually, when the rain stopped Rusda, Handoko and I set off for our temporary camp. We began walking along the road towards the river, and then when we eventually made it to the river it was socks off and trousers rolled up – we were going in! The camp was not too far, but with the zig-zagging across the river along with balancing all our belongings on our back it took a lot more time.
Feeling through the water with our feet to make sure we had a sturdy enough rock to step onto, I only knew it was a matter of time before I fell in. The water was not too high, Rusda had told me that sometimes they have had to wade through the river chest deep, this time for us it only just reached the top of our legs.
Part of the journey was broken up with small tracks alongside the river, and this is where I was re-acquainted with the many leeches! Without the protection of my football socks over my trousers, the slimy creatures found it a perfect opportunity to latch on to my feet and legs as we marched through the damp undergrowth. Despite the leeches (which I decided I would rather have wet socks than having to find another latched on to me), this was a part I particularly enjoyed. Strong smells of tropical plants, every now and then a musty animal scent which only made you wonder which animals regularly made the trip to the river’s edge when we were not around. Eventually, after slicing our way through beautiful scenery and ducking and weaving through vines, we made it to Camp Lembu.
The camp was a scaffold of logs and trees, all in place for tarpaulin to be attached and rice sack beds to be made. After an afternoon coffee, the camp began to take shape (with thanks to Rusda and Handoko) and soon enough once the shelter was over our heads our home was ready for the next two nights.
We settled for a meal of tinned sardines in tomato sauce with rice and waited for the night to close in around us. The great thing about the forest is you can tell the time by the sounds, right on cue the 6 o’clock cicada started its piercing call cutting through the blend of other sounds. Once it was night, there was not much else to do other than get comfortable and fall to sleep as the nocturnal forest awakes.
Waking up at 5:45 am in the forest is easy with the buildup of different sounds pulling you out of your deep sleep. We had breakfast, and prepared the data sheets and ourselves for a long day ahead. Marching through the trees and jumping over fallen logs, we reached the phenology trail and began to record the data on young leaves, flowering trees, ripe fruit and unripe fruit. We were two hours into our task when in true rainforest style; the skies opened above us and down came the rain. This made it difficult to record data and to look up at the trees so we waited again for the rain to stop.
When the rain slowly began to lift, we continued our data collection. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy. Up and down hills, hanging onto vines to help abseil down the side of hills, using the vines to help climb up and always being aware not to grab onto the spikey rattan for support!
Every now and then we would hear crashes in the trees and the work would freeze, all looking to see if an orangutan had come to check out what we were doing, unfortunately not this time. After the data was collected, we headed back to camp the way we came which seemed so close when we were not looking at the trees! Getting back to camp and having a refreshing wash in the river was much needed, and we again settled to the sound of the 6 o’clock cicada and eventually fell asleep.
Gibbons woke me the next morning, chorusing their songs to one another and it was fantastic! As we were cooking up breakfast, two gibbons trapezed their way over to us and stopped above the camp as if to see what we were up to. After they had satisfied their curiosity they left us as quickly as they joined us – returning to their morning songs.
This day was the beginning of a new section of phenology, and this was a steep one! We climbed up and down, up and down, following the phenology trail and hunting for tags. One fantastic part of the trek was an opening in the canopy. A landslide had taken dozens of trees with it, causing a gap which opened up to the most fantastic view. You could hear the hornbills clearly, look across to see the thick roof of the forest on the opposite hill… accompanied with a welcoming breeze – a view you seldom get when trekking through the undergrowth, a whole different world.
Scrambling around to the other side, we had to find the continuing trail. Luckily Handoko and Rusda know the forest well and can duck, weave, and climb their way through the trees with ease which definitely speeded up the process of regaining our trail. After persistent work collecting data, batting away bees, flicking off leeches and brushing off ants… we finally finished what we set out to do. We headed back to camp, to collect our things and make our way back to base Camp Lesik. The walk back was beautiful… the sun was shining and lighting up the top of the water, amplifying the colours of the bright and beautiful dragonflies that darted across the surface then suddenly stopped statue like on a shimmering log or rock.
It felt good to get back to base camp, we were all pretty tired and we’re looking forward to a well-deserved wash and clean clothes. All in all, a successful, beautiful, exciting and exhausting phenology trip to Lembu!
Text by: Lucy, PRM Volunteer in Camp Lesik, Kehje Sewen Forest
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