Feeling more than slightly nervous at the prospect of two more sites located along an increasingly unreliable road, we launched ourselves into the final stretch. All I needed was two weeks or so in which it didn’t rain too much or heavily enough to jeopardise those bridges that were only just hanging on in there. Our numbers were down to three, equating to a lot more running around for me, but it was eminently doable in the time remaining just so long as the road remained passable.
Although I love spending time there, Malua field station is in a sorry state. The road is only part of (or more accurately, a symptom of) the problem. A broken and seemingly irreparable (and irreplaceable?) generator means no electricity, and the buildings and other structures are in varying states of disrepair. In its heyday Malua must have been a truly magical place; vibrant, full of life, idyllically located, and functional. The magic is still there but now there’s a sadness too, a mournful sense of loss. The jungle doesn’t allow you to get complacent about maintenance, and uninvited visitors soon make their own homes, hastening the rot.
But for Peter and myself and countless other scientists it was and is a peaceful haven, inspiring fantasies of living off the land and off the grid. We dined on pakis (jungle fern), tapioca leaf, papaya, and jackfruit, swam in the river, and enjoyed the simplicity.
Despite this tranquillity, the state of the road was a constant worry, and I was sure that certain parts wouldn’t survive the next big rain. Fortunately enough the contractors had finally arrived and were making steady progress along the road, but with so many repairs to make it wasn’t entirely reassuring! I became very invested in that road, and each journey along it revealed the progress of the contractors as they fixed bridge after bridge with ingenuity and remarkable efficiency* that was genuinely impressive.
Miraculously, and despite a major rebellion during this time on the part of my digestive system, we finished the first Malua site with the road in tact. At this point I had to make a decision. I had a back-up option that I could use in place of the second Malua site, and I truly agonised over whether to stick to the original plan, or go with the safer but less scientifically-good option**. Luckily (now that it’s done. Hindsight is wonderful) my nerves held. Luckily (again) so did the road. And luckily (yep) the long-disused logging road to the final site had recently been cleared and was passable, saving us a 4 – 5 km hike in. And very luckily (and this is the last one), I had an amazing pair of absolute heroes helping me, who were (more or less) happy to give it their all to get the work done.
In the end we had 30 trees remaining and three days to get them done. Feasible in good weather and good forest. Crushingly, it rained early on the first day, after only seven trees. Not great. But the following day dawned with us all feeling motivated, and though rain threatened all day it miraculously held off, and somehow tree after tree fell (metaphorically speaking) before us. Unusually it was I that had to call it quits for the day, with Amat driving us on and on, apparently aiming to do all 23 trees in one day. We were in a delirium of arboreal fatigue, and it was only later that we realised we had tallied up 17 trees in one day! A truly unbeatable record.
So that left only six for the final day. The final day. I couldn’t believe it. I had doubted so many times that we would finish these last sites without something happening to throw it all off course, so I was happy and extremely relieved, but simultaneously dreading completion, because it meant the end, and goodbye. Maybe slightly melodramatic but I have spent so many months working in Sabah, and in particular with Amat, that I am genuinely wretched by this farewell. But I won’t harp on about it here. We finished!! The forest had a few parting gifts for us: another caterpillar for me, a river which had almost risen beyond even the capacities of a 4×4, and, terrifyingly, one last road collapse, which occurred as we drove over it. Yep. Better not to think about that one too much. But we survived, and to celebrate (finishing, rather than surviving) we went for cocktails and dinner at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (5*!) down the road, where I had recently given a talk to some of their guests, for which I have been amply and generously paid in food and accommodation***.
Sadness aside my last day at Danum was fantastic. The very recently discovered (March 2017) Tallest Tropical Tree in the world happens to be located about 8 km from the field centre, not far off an already established trail, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go a see it while it’s still the Tallest! So Peter and I, and a friendly Lithuanian called Boris, trooped out there to have a swim at the base of the Purut waterfall and gaze at the giant Shorea faguetiana. Stunning. Even the gibbons came out to say farewell.
But I’ll be back, one way or another. Thank you Sabah, you’ve been amazing. And thank you to all of my long-suffering team! I couldn’t have done it without you.
*Remarkable in that it’s not often you see any job in Malaysia carried out with speed and efficiency!
**I wanted to have two primary (pristine) forest sites and two logged forest sites, but the alternative site was also located in primary forest, unbalancing the design.
***You can’t say no when you’re being offered a room with a hot tub on the balcony, no matter what your stomach is up to. I’d happily forge some sort of career out of this kind of arrangement!