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Written by and photos courtesy of Anni Walsh
I recently returned from the most incredible experience of my life, thanks to Operation Wallacea, an organisation concerned with biodiversity and conservation. A representative for Opwall came to talk at my university and after around 10 minutes I knew I wouldn’t be happy until I’d booked onto a trip. I originally asked to join a 4 week marine-only trip to Cuba, to learn to dive and work on coral and fish conservation. Unfortunately that was fully booked, so I had to explore other options, and settled on a 4-week Indonesian expedition, with a nerve-wracking 2 weeks terrestrial and 2 weeks marine. In retrospect I can safely say that I am extremely glad Cuba was fully booked, and that I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go for the terrestrial camping element too, because it was possibly the most challenging, rewarding and consequently best 2 weeks of my life.
Having never even camped once in the UK, except sleeping in a tent one night in a friend’s garden (I don’t think this counts) and being privileged enough to always stay in top rated hotels wherever I go, the idea of heading off to the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world to sleep in hammocks nestled amongst biting ants, ravenous mosquitos and poisonous plants was a little daunting, to say the least.
After a 14.5-hour flight to Jakarta, a 2.5-hour flight to Makassar, an overnight stay and another 2-hour flight, I arrived on an island called Buton, located in South East Sulawesi, which is an Indonesian island. The nearest large landmass is Australia. Darwin is around 800 miles away. In other words, I arrived slap bang in the middle of nowhere with a rucksack and no idea what to expect. I was greeted by this:
This is a mandi, an Indonesian ‘toilet’. On the right is what we did our business in for 4 weeks, and that container of water on the left, with the bucket? The shower. I had officially exited all zones of comfort and luxury, no doubt about it. And you know what? It wasn’t all that bad. Squatting for 4 weeks does wonders for butt toning. I’d love to list the benefits of a bucket shower, but besides it being wonderfully refreshing after some 4 hour hike carrying 15kg through 33 degree heat at 80% humidity, one too many times I found leeches jumping around and I don’t want to know where they ended up.
The first week was spent in the little village of Labundo-Bundo, so great that they had to add on an extra bundo (I have no idea what bundo means, fyi).
Here I was in for even more shock as I stepped through the door-less frame of the hut I was to call home, into my ‘bedroom’ complete with mosquito net and foam pad.
By this point I was more than a little concerned at how I was going to survive here, but for the sake of my 15 other seemingly super-cool-with-the-living-arrangements peers, I had to keep my cool!
To my surprise, I settled into life in Labundo quicker than anticipated. The sun set early, around 6 p.m. and after a dinner of rice, rice, rice and rice (my fussy eating habits were not going to work here, I soon realized), without any signal, internet, Wi-Fi or electricity besides some lights and charging points, we had to entertain ourselves the old fashioned way. We played card games, talked, wrote diaries and looked at the incredibly visible stars and Milky Way, before heading to bed for the fun filled day ahead. Already I was appreciating the simple life in ways I hadn’t even thought I could.
Morning in Labundo began with the horrendous cry of what sounded like a massacre of chickens and cats, at around 4a.m. underneath our wooden houses. I wish I could describe to you the sound of this alarm like no other, but be thankful you don’t hear it. It’s even worse when you’re not even allowed to eat the chickens.
According to my diary entries, and if memory serves me correctly, everything except our morning wake up calls and the how-do-I-survive-on-rice situation was going well. I was blissfully ignoring the impending doom of spending the next week CAMPING in the middle of the Indonesian jungle.
We were eased into the camping lifestyle though, with jungle training for a couple of nights, made fun by the amazing Fifin; who desperately needs his own movie and action figure. This man could do anything, be anything and was nothing short of a jungle king.
At jungle training we “built shelters” – in all honesty we ripped up a few leaves and carried tree trunks to some more incredible locals who built them up for us, but the thought was there!
We cooked eggs in banana leaves on a fire, learnt how to set up traps for jungle meat, drank water from trunks and ate leaves. We boiled our own water, made our own fires (again, with a little help from our friends….) and cooked rice and noodles in small groups. We trekked up a river to find incredible blue waterfalls and jumped off rocks into cool flowing water, then we sat around the blazing camp fire and sang songs, played stupid games and contemplated life in this remote corner of the vast wide world.
Sounds pretty cool, right? That would be an understatement of the year!
After 2 nights of jungle training, I had survived sleeping on a plastic bag suspended on tree trunks and a hammock which, to my absolute delight, was thriving with ants as I came to settle into it for the night. With only a head torch and the light of the moon poking through, I had no hope of making them disappear, my only choice was to get in the hammock, pray for minimal damage and settle in for the night with the ants. I was invading their tree, after all…
The most amazing thing was, was that I woke up in the morning, absolutely fine. Minus a few bites on my bum, I was alive, and happy. Fear of creepy crawlies? Demolished. I was really starting to get the hang of this jungle life thing!
Back to Labundo for a night where the mandi shower and the foam pad mattress on the floor felt like bliss, but I realised the jungle nights had been my best sleeps yet, and I genuinely missed camp! So, the week ahead actually excited me, and I was eager to get back in a hammock and sleep to the deafening sound of cicadas and wake up to Hornbills and Sulawesi Bablers, and a view like this:
The week camping was not exactly what I expected. We hiked for a few hours every morning to check and survey transects, then headed back to camp only to be done for the day, sometimes around 8 am! The hikes were a real test of my fitness and coping abilities, and most ended with me collapsing on the pebbles after hours of muscle ache and buckets of sweat pouring off my face. It wasn’t easy at all, but the feeling of accomplishment was incomparable to anything I’ve ever done before. If you want to get fit fast, head to Indonesia where you eat rice and vegetables and can hike through dense forest to your hearts content! The end of the hikes called for hammock naps, but then upon awakening again around 11 am, what else could we do for the day?
Again, with nothing but a river, a pack of cards and each other’s company, we didn’t have much choice on how to pass the time. Besides finding picture perfect waterfalls to hike to and jump into. It really made me think about how 1.2 billion people in the world live, in developing countries – many have the same conditions – improper sanitation (our toilet was a quickly filling, fly infested hole in the ground), lack of clean drinking water (any water we drank was boiled over a fire and had a strong taste of smoke) and no access to proper medical facilities (Andini, our on site doctor, was wonderful, especially for extracting rattan but if we fell off the cliff on transect 3 and broke a leg, our nearest hospital was 2 days away…). If that doesn’t change your outlook on life, I don’t know what would.
It’s strange to say I’m lucky to have experienced this way of living, because I know that for the people who live day in day out like that it’s not much fun. It makes you realize how we have grown to expect such a materialistic life, when we don’t NEED it. Even though I felt weak sometimes from a lack of protein, it made me well aware that I don’t need to eat meat twice a day to survive. I got home to a room full to the brim of belongings and felt almost sick at the sight of it, having lived and coped perfectly well out of a rucksack with about 4 t-shirts and 2 pairs of shoes for 6 weeks. We are extremely lucky to have all this wealth and luxury living conditions, but there’s no doubt that our excessive use of the internet, Wi-Fi, electricity etc. takes time away from proper human interaction, and some good old fashioned fun.
The last two weeks of my Opwall expedition were spent on the painfully beautiful island of Hoga. This island doesn’t even show up on Google, and it’s not named on a map. Just off of Kaledupa, part of Wakatobi, also in southeast Sulawesi, it took a 2-hour drive and a horrendous 6-hour boat journey from Buton to get there.
Here we were welcomed with the luxury of beds, bread, tuna EVERY NIGHT, lights, and Internet! All were a pleasant surprise, but I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgia for those nights surrounding a campfire. Nobody was complaining though; after two weeks with no contact with the outside world it was refreshing to get in touch with friends and family, and to eat something other than rice and fish heads! We still had to squat to pee and shower with a bucket, so the authentic experience wasn’t completely over. I, and everybody else was just thankful to get out of stinking camp clothes, and us girls were thrilled about whacking out our shoulders and knees having been immersed into strict Muslim culture for two weeks!