Into the jungle: Experiences from a Ten-Day Expedition in the Maliau Basin

December 14, 2017 by Lilian Seip from The Netherlands

 

It has been two months now since I got back from Borneo. I still remember that moment back in my living room, my mind full of great memories, a bag full of dirty clothes and arms covered with leech bites.

 

Recap to the beginning of this year when I decided to escape the urban jungle for a while. Taxon Expeditions was mentioned in a television program. I got really enthusiastic about the project and was excited to hear that there was a possibility to actually join the team on a next expedition. At that time, I was thinking about doing an internship or voluntary research during the summer holidays. The program of Taxon Expeditions seemed to be a perfect combination of travelling and doing scientific research.

 

So let me tell you something about my personal reasons for joining the expedition. You could not necessarily classify me as a sporty person, a backpacker, a thrill seeker or an adventurer purebred. However, I love everything related to nature, basically anything that grows or crawls. My home is stuffed with plants, framed insects and biology books. It probably comes as no surprise that I’m graduated in biology. I did a master in Ecology and Evolution, and ever since I have been fascinated by the way species interact and evolve. This brings me to the point why I enrolled in the expedition; not only would the expedition provide me with the opportunity to enliven my knowledge but also to enrich my research experience. On top of that, I was interested in acquiring new skills, especially in species determination.

 

The expedition was about to be my first time travelling to Asia (on my own!) which I was really excited about. I was looking forward to go to the tropics, to experience the virginity of the rainforest and – not to forget – to discover new species. I am always wondering why people are so fascinated by exploring other planets while there is so much more to discover on our own beautiful globe. Can you imagine how much we still do not know about Earth’s creations? There are still millions of species hidden under rocks, high up in forest canopies and deep down in the oceans. In every corner of our ecosystems there are species waiting to be found. And how amazing would it be to be on top of this. To learn to characterize these little creatures, to reveal their vision of life. Life that is constantly evolving, adapting, changing. A vision that reflects on our own lives in which we sometimes seem to be disconnected from nature. This beauty of not being discovered in a world where everything appears to be arranged in our own defined niches, that is what inspires me the most.

 

So there we are, I decided to go and planned my trip to Borneo. To give you an impression, I will share some of my tropical adventures.

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Jungle time!

 

And then the moment was finally there; the first day of our expedition. After an endless session of cleaning my room and getting my stuff together, I was finally ready to go off to the jungle! The trip towards the Maliau Basin alone was gorgeous. We left all the modern buildings and busy traffic of the city behind and entered a bushier environment with more quiet and relaxed surroundings. Beautiful trees popped out of the horizon and the landscape was covered by thick woods. You couldn’t spot any inhabitant for miles. But there was also a downside to discover. Big parts of the forest were burnt down to the ground making space for palm oil and banana trees, two types of trees that were dominating the scenery for a while already. They perfectly seemed to fit in the environment (plus, who doesn’t like palm trees?), but you could tell the introduction of monotonous land must have been catastrophic for the indigenous species living there.

 

Maliau Basin Studies Centre

 

After a seven-hour car ride we reached the Maliau Basin Studies Centre (MBSC), the base camp of researchers and anyone keen on exploring one of the most biodiverse hotspots of the world. It was great to spend my time at the MBSC. It looked a bit like a small village, including a dining hall, library, gallery and even a mosque. After a while, it already felt like coming home each time we came back from a field trip. I had my own comfortable room that treated me to all the luxury you would not expect to see in the middle of the jungle: two private beds (so I had a clean one after a sweaty walk through the forest), my own bathroom, hot shower and a veranda right in front of the forest.

I spent a lot of time on the veranda listening to the sounds of the jungle. They created a peaceful atmosphere which sometimes almost caused me to fall asleep. These lovely tropical sounds are probably the most memorable about the whole expedition. Every morning I was woken up by crickets, birds, gibbons; probably the best way of starting your day. No wonder that sound now serves as my wake-up alarm in the mornings to drag me out of bed getting ready to work.

I remember a power break on our first night at the research centre. It was kind of spooky being surrounded by nothing else than the hymns from the forest. Sounds that were unfamiliar to me. Sounds I only knew from records of a new age/yoga shop. I could barely imagine a place bearing no sounds of traffic or any other sign of human life.

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Wildlife around the Maliau Basin

 

You didn’t have to go far from the MBSC in order to spot animals. In fact, you didn’t even have to leave your room to take notice of the huge variety in wildlife. I could regularly see a small lizard crawling on my ceiling. Large buzzing cicadas and barking geckos were not loath keeping you awake at night. However, I thrived really well in this natural environment. I even secretly liked that the Wi-Fi was not always working properly. I was rather picking up small snails from rocks back at the cave, which was real meditation.

During the expedition, we encountered loads of different plants and animals; macaques, hornbills, pitcher plants and even a pygmy elephant that crossed the road on the way back from our caving adventure. Maliau is definitely a good place for anyone who adores birds. I’ve spend some time bird watching, searching for the helmeted hornbill which was number one on my checklist. I didn’t have much luck since these guys were really hard to catch with my binoculars. Eventually, I saw a couple of them when they showed up near the lab, ironically enough, when I was not looking for them.

 

Field trips

 

It was great to attend the interesting program activities and to share my passion for biology with others. We definitely had the best team ever: several entomologists available for all your questions about creepy crawlies, Mary for teaching me yoga, Sean our reptile hunter, a TV-host and two reporters to record our story.

Our first field trip brought us to a small stream near the Maliau River. Here, we collected our first data. We took samples from the forest floor and searched for small aquatic invertebrates inside the creek. Like grown up kids we were playing in the water picking up little creatures, ready to be discovered. Back in the lab, we tried to identify them using determination keys. It was great to learn more about species I had never worked with before. True, the insects were really small, sometimes almost not distinguishable from a small piece of rock. But knowing that you could not find these species anywhere in the world, made them unique and therefore interesting, especially for me as a biologist. What challenges have these species encountered? What caused these species to evolve their extraordinary characteristics?

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Getting ready for the first field trip – Rubber boots (check), photo camera (check), water (check), long sleeves (check). Bring it on you leeches!

 

I especially enjoyed the workshop about dragonflies and damselflies. We caught a few dragonflies at two ponds, to have a closer look. They wore amazing colors and the variety of shapes and other morphological features. It was fun chasing these dragons with nets. But difficult as well. In order to catch them, you had to blend in with the surroundings. You had to stand still for a while, be sure not to move one single bit. After a while, it became clear that every species had a different level of difficulty. First you had the blue ones that were the easiest to catch, then came the red ones, the pinkies, the tiger dragonfly and finally one with red-colored wings. Most of us, including myself, didn’t succeed in catching the challenging ones. Luckily, we had Sean who was the absolute winner in this human-dragonfly game.

 

Maliau at night

 

Sunset starts early in Maliau. As soon as the sun hides behind the mountains, everything turns pitch black. The nights in Maliau were different than the nights back home: a moon tilted by ninety degrees and a starry sky as far as you could see. Lots of animals seemed to become active at night. It was like they revived from the heath they were exposed to during the day. We had two night walks where we took notice of the most incredible species. Catch of both days: spiders, moths, fungi, fire ants, fireflies, a tree snake, snails and many more.

One night I woke up in the middle of my well-deserved sleep by some scratching sounds. I immediately realized that the sounds had been caused by a nocturnal mammal, so I decided to have a look. (Didn’t want to miss this out! This could have been my chance to see the sunbear.) But as a true Dutch girl befits, I was scared as hell. I mean, there is no chance you would encounter a wild animal in the streets of Amsterdam. Let alone that I would have known what to expect when having one right in front of my nose. So suddenly fear kicked in, even while I knew I was not in the middle of a life-threatening situation. By the time I had the guts to open the door, the mammal (which seemed to be a civet) was already done with the leftovers of one of the expedition members. It probably liked the western food because there was no crumb left. I stared into the darkness and saw two red eyes gazing at me from a fair distance. For a few seconds, I felt a weird connection with this mighty animal. As if we both thought we were from a different planet. We decided to follow our own natural instincts, which brought me back to bed.

 

The big trip

 

The biggest highlight of the expedition was by far the two-day hike. This was the moment when we actually went into the basin. The way up was harsh: 8 kilometers uphill with steep slopes, ladders and exposed tree roots where you would easily fall over when distracted by the area. Then the trail became more flattened. We had to cross some bridges that were leading us over tea-colored streams. It was nice to see the landscape changing while we were heading towards the research station. The fairytale-like scenery with the tree trunks covered by mosses was absolutely my favorite. I went to sleep early that day. Utterly satisfied and tired to the bone, I was completely knocked out as soon as I hit the bed.

The next day we visited one of the Maliau Falls which was absolutely breath-taking. I exposed my feet to some refreshing cold water, while the others took a swim or collected more samples. Our way back to MBSC went way smoother. Literally smooth; about halfway we ended up in a heavy tropical rain so everything became muddy and slippery. And clumsy as I am (remember what I told you before), I was almost completely covered in mud by the time we reached the end of the trail. I was dying for a shower.

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To sum up, the expedition was a huge inspirational and educational trip for me. I would describe the expedition as a digital detox, an acquaintance with eye-popping organisms and a trip full of (personal) challenges. I learned a lot over the course of the expedition: from the know-how of unique species to getting a glimpse in the world of a taxonomist. It was great to get the chance to explore new things and to take part in valuable research. I especially liked to make the drawings for our species description, so to eternalize our discovery. Funny to think about the biologists that will look at my drawings when trying to identify their own lookalike beetles.

Biggest achievement: I am now more than ever empowered to do my work as a biologist. Not only to contribute to biological knowledge about rare and endangered species but also to help conserve places like the Maliau Basin. I recommend whomever would like to do a jungle trekking while being involved in significant conservation research, to join the next expedition.

I’m bearing warm memories of the staff who prepared lovely meals for us every day. It was nice to see other people bringing love and dedication to things that actually really matter. But above all, I would like to thank Taxon Expeditions for this memorable experience!

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