15 Sep Canopy 1000
Climbing in the worlds tallest rainforest for the Big Canopy Campout 2018
Day three in the Borneo rainforest and despite officially being the dry season, it was raining, hard. Under the blanket of wet and noise a rope access supervisor, tree climbing instructor, arborist, wildlife photographer, camera man and primate conservationist huddled under a tarp in the middle of the jungle cooking as many instant noodles that could fit into a 5 litre kettle.
Amid the unrelenting rain beating down on our tarps we were taking turns to carry out the standard leech checks on each other before committing to our hammocks, hoping to prevent locking in any blood sucking passengers for the night. It was only 4 days until the actual Big Canopy Campout event and the weather was the latest in a series of hurdles our motley crew had had to overcome in an attempt to set up a sleeping camp in the treetops of the worlds tallest tropical forest.
Our small team offered a colourful collection of career paths, experience and skills. But two things we all had in common became the foundation of what has become the Big Canopy Campout (BCC) and the reason we have arrived at our current situation in Borneo: our desire to both climb trees and protect them.
Motivated by the environmental concerns we all currently face the BCC was founded in 2017 as a means to create a platform for the international community of people who spend their lives in and around trees. The idea was to come together on one night of the year to share the experience of camping out in trees and wooded areas around the globe whilst raising money to preserve endangered forests worldwide.
In its first year the BCC event supported the World Land Trust (WLT) Kinabatangan Campaign led by Steve Backshaw and Helen Glover to help raise £300 000 for an area of critically endangered rainforest in Borneo, Malaysia. At the heart of the BCC that year was Unding Jami and his team of professional climbers who pulled out all the stops to camp out in their local rainforest, Danum Valley. Braving storms, rain and insects Unding who had been climbing for over 15 years supporting scientists in their canopy based research is all too aware how crucially important the forest ecosystem is to everything and everyone within it. 12 months on we were standing in that very forest looking up at trees that dwarf anything we’ve ever climbed before. Our jaw dropping awe was for both the local climbing team’s ability and the shear beauty of a pristine environment run entirely by nature. The intimidation had reached a whole new level.
Despite the months of preparations we were dealing with a few unforeseen logistical matters, oth- er than the weather. The 800m of rope generously donated from Teufelberger was currently being held in KL airport customs for reasons unbeknown to ourselves, our 9 day supply of camping food from Tentmeals was also imprisoned somewhere; we believed it was awaiting a drugs test and the unusually severe rain was in-fact the tail end of a typhoon coming from the Philippines.
As if arriving in the country with no food or ropes for a camping and tree climbing expedition wasn’t enough of a headache it turns out we had arrived just in time to celebrate the Sultan of Malaysia’s Birthday causing the entire country and its inhabitants to come to a standstill for three days and delaying the delivery of our much wished for Harken Motor winch. At that point I was unsure whether we should be using the hashtag #adventure or #perilous as Jez our team arborist asked the question: ‘how strong is a liana’!
However, with little to no contact with the outside world and several issues to address, our soggy jungle crew were unaware that over 1000 people from all corners of the world were also preparing their teams, families, camping equipment and trees to create the worlds largest community of forest ambassadors to camp out around the world on the 15th of September. Nor were we aware that over half of the 1000 bespoke BCC DMM Perfect-O karabiners had been bought contributing to preserve an area of endangered cloud forest in Mexico.
We were absolutely oblivious to the movement going on outside the jungle we were in.
Once we were confidently leech free and drinking hot chocolate we start talking about the possible means of rigging a toilet space in the tree and how to go about using it. After Unding kindly came to the rescue and provided us with ropes we had secured a fabulous 60m first anchor point in a tree that forked in three different directions and gave us the opportunity to rig our Tentsile Triullum Triple hammock for maximum comfort. However without the luxury of the Harken motorised winch we were all very aware of the long climb up and down for such bathroom necessities. Our conclusions resulted in trying to rely on a strong coffee in the morning and a strict confidentiality rule in the incidence that any emergency toilet situations were in fact unavoidable. Rules of the Jungle.
The next morning we wake to a heavy sound of silence being slowly punctured by the colourful conversations of the dawn chorus. It had stopped raining! As we ate our morning noodles a curious female orangutang sat watching from a nearby tree with her more boisterous baby crashing around the branches nearby. Her presence was both humbling and comforting. The ease in which she watched with very little reaction to us pottering around in our makeshift kitchen spot allowed us to relax into a mutual curiosity until the little boisterous one surpassed his comfort zone in a tree and called for a rescue from mum. They silently disappeared into the forest.
Several hours later the team had sweated the 60m+ of vertical rope, motivated largely by the close yet unknown whereabout of a herd of forest elephants and lay lounging in the Trillium platform. Shoes come off, helmets are discarded to feel the breeze, climbers nestled themselves into the comfort of the hammocks and we sit watching, listening and trying to take in the rainforest canopy which appeared to grow in depth and complexity the more we looked.
Tree climbing. Arboriculture. Canopy Research. Recreational Tree climbing. However you experience it, getting into the canopy is like entering a different world. It provides a unique perspective creating a sense of absolute awe in being apart of something so immense, complex and naturally perfect.
From mid morning till afternoon we spent our time in the canopy. Photos were lazily taken, conversations swung from poignant and meaningful to silly and ridiculous. People nap in 10 minute bursts and others quietly try take everything in going on around them. Coffee is made, biscuits are eaten and only since I’ve come to write this down has any guilt been felt for what can be considered a lack of productivity. The rainforest is not a quiet place, but it is not the noise of the world we live in; there is calm in the sounds there and it’s an undisturbed noise. Enveloped in it and with no need to move from the safety of the tree tops the noise created a stillness amongst our group chatter.
We enjoyed the inactivity of our afternoons.
At almost exactly 4pm the moody clouds that had been rumbling in the distance all day creep over the ridge and bring the rain, thunder and lightning. We evacuate our comfort spot in pairs, disappointed at missing another night sleeping amongst the branches but also not keen on taking our chances of becoming a lightening conductor in the worlds tallest rainforest.
We were all woken before the light had filtered through to our hammocks to the sound of an enormous tree crashing through the forest to the ground. Without knowing it everyone had adopt- ed the foetal position in our sleeping spaces throughout those 5-6 seconds of gut wrenching fear. It had sounded like it was mere meters away!! Why are trees falling down? Is it ‘our’ tree? The impact it made on the surrounding forest and on our heart rates could be heard for miles.
There is a lot that can kill you the jungle. Most things in fact. Plants, animals, weather, exposure, rivers, infections etc but huge trees falling to the forest floor left everyone very aware of their vulnerabilities to all eventualities in the wild. Again we were reminded that the wild places we knew were very different from the wild place we were in now. Trees we had encountered in our lifetime were generally managed to an inch of their lives to prevent any danger of harm or inconvenience to humans; these trees had so far outlived human management and were left to live a natural life of growth and death with no interference other than the environment itself. I felt small again. Delightfully small.
Breakfast brought new encounters as a troop of short tailed macaques walked past in a mildly intimidating manner. They were quiet and respectful of distance however the unspoken under- standing is that of keeping our eyes, voices and heads down while they passed. This was distinctly different from our experience with Mama Orangutang and her baby. These wild animal meetings in the forest make so much more of a memorable impact than those in fully controlled situations. Without the convenience and guaranteed safety of cage walls and locked doors, instinct kicks in and demands a certain respect for the forest and its full time inhabitants. With heightened awareness to the presence of other animals, focus was taken away from capturing the moment with a phone or camera and back to understanding the behaviour and non verbal communication required to be present with them.
It was the eve of the BCC event before we got the chance to ascend to our hammocks in complete darkness. A break in the weather had offered us an opportunity to attempt a night in the tree and if it worked out we’d be waking up 65m on the morning of the event itself. There was a real comfort in the darkness, just the faraway voices and darts of light from the head torches. I was the last to arrive and everyone was excitedly getting comfortable for ‘bed’ using stage like whispers to organise themselves and their stuff. It’s surprisingly more difficult getting ready for sleeping when attached to a rope and sat in a hammock. Coats, extra clothing and sleeping bags are shuffled under bums, around the harness and climbing rope which is acting like an umbilical cord of safety. The rope is not too tight to ensure blood circulation to legs as we sleep but it is very much present!
Shoes, helmets, bags, snacks, diaries, cameras all need to be secured somewhere within reach but not obstructing anyone as they slumber. Easier said than done. The shuffling gradually gets quieter and the adrenaline of a 65m night climb wears off. I adjust my harness and reduce the tension on my rope letting my hammock take my weight but ensuring the line is not slack. I’ve never fallen out a hammock at ground level or at height however precautions are everything!
I lay wondering if the distinct and melodic chirping that is taking centre stage amongst the gentle chorus of night creatures is a frog or insect and conclude it’s possibly neither. I fell asleep taking comfort from the darkness, animal sounds and the feel of my climbing rope in my hand.
The stage whispers woke me up the next morning, I had slept soundly not even the dawn chorus got through. Sticking my head out my hammock my bleary eyes try take in the view. It’s spectacular. We all try take it in from our respective views, it feels like there is too much to see. Sunrise is a gradual change in the hues of light and the mist moves at almost an invisible rate making the whole scene change completely between what feels like a single blink. The depth of view makes it feel like we’re travelling through space, a few half arsed attempts to capture it with a camera are futile and pointless. We are once again brought to quiet.
Eventually our bladders overruled all comfort and we descended for breakfast. It was the 15th of September and we had woken up 65m up in the Borneo forest canopy. Very happy.
After wolfing down a 800kcal breakfast (Tentmeals arrived!) the discussion turns to whether we chance another night in the canopy or begin the de-rig process now and prevent everything having to be packed wet for our return journey tomorrow. After several coffees the team decided to try for another night aloft. With the terrifying statistics on how flying and global travel is contributing to carbon emissions the team had spoken at length about the juxtaposition we had created in being here to raise funds for forest protection and we are well aware that this is a chance we may never get again. So we decided to take our chances with overweight luggage on the return journey!
The 11pm short shower was enough to make those uncovered in the Trillium damp and cold so when the second shower came at 2am the three of us made a dark descent to base camp for the remainder of the night.
As we arrive at our ground hammocks we were met with the aftermath of an opportunistic civet cat who had eaten an entire pack of dried noodles and then chewed through our water dispenser to quench its thirst. Jungle rules apparently.
Those that remained aloft in their dampened hammocks were rewarded with sightings of a troop of Red Leaf monkeys casually swinging through the tree tops at dawn.
Everyone else made a final ascent to say their farewells to the forest canopy and the morning was spent de-rigging everything and trying to fit it all back into the bags it came in. For several hours we played the familiar game of ‘whose karabiner is that?’ and wondered at the inability to re-pack ropes into the same space just 9 days prior before the inevitable chat of what we’ll eat when back to the city began.
Elated, tired, humbled and collectively smelling like one giant sweaty sock. The time spent in Danum Valley wasn’t long but it had without a doubt made a hard hitting impact. The forest doesn’t provide certificates for survival, qualifications for number of insect bites endured or trophies awarded for best wildlife encounters but if treated with respect it can make you so very very welcome and privileged to have the memories of being a part of it.
This was provided on Jan 17th 2019 from World Land Trust:
‘In 2018, support of WLT’s Buy an Acre programme helped to save 2,107 acres of habitat in Mexico. This land is now managed and protected by WLT partner Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) for the species of the region. The year has started with great news from the field: a Black Bear has been recorded in Sierra Gorda for the first time in 100 years and you can read more on our website here.”
The organisation and expedition was carried out over and above day jobs, family and other commitments. There is absolutely no doubt that without the support and encouragement from those who contributed, it would not have been such a success. However it most definitely wouldn’t have been so memorable! The event provided us a unique chance to meet professionals in their field who went above and beyond to contribute and for that I wish to thank you personally for the effort you made with us.