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The LAHG Research Station in the Sabangau Forest

As soon as the lori (train) trundles into the colourful lush garden of the LAHG Research Station just inside the Sabangau Forest you can sense the marriage between the forest and the world beyond as this is a camp dedicated to its preservation born from a logging camp that was engaged in its exploitation; from chainsaws to binoculars. In 1996 50,000 hectares in the north of the Sabangau River catchment area was protected as the Natural Laboratory of Peat Swamp Forest (NLPSF or LAHG). The NLPSF is managed by CIMTROP (the Centre for the International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands), an Indonesian research and conservation institution based at the University of Palangka Raya (UNPAR). The NLPSF is managed by CIMTROP (the Centre for the International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatlands), an Indonesian research and conservation institution based at the University of Palangka Raya (UNPAR). The LAHG Research Station, within the NLPSF, is situated in a former logging concession 20 km southwest of Palangka Raya in the upper reaches of the Sabangau Forest. The Borneo Nature Foundation http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/ works in partnership with CIMTROP, and it was necessary for me to first get a support letter from them for my 2 month social/cultural visa and then a permit to work in the forest.













The camp is constructed from wood that is well seasoned by the elements; imbued with the essence of the surrounding swampy forest and frequented by some of it’s wild opportunists in addition to a regular ebb and flow of the local Borneo Nature Foundation field staff, researchers and interns from overseas. I felt at home as soon as I started springing along the wooden boardwalks in keeping with one of the nicknames my parents gave me as a child: Spring-heel Jack, because I have always been a springer and a strider rather than just a walker, and there’s nothing like a wooden boardwalk to add extra spring to my step like a diving springboard. I used to own and live on old wooden boats, and feel a serenity being surrounded by old wood just as if I was immersed in the forest. I love the creaking and squeaking that only a wooden environment can provide, and of course the musty smell to complete the ambience of being within the skeletal remains of deceased trees inside a living forest.

But it wasn’t just the ambience of wooden buildings, the wild garden, the surrounding forest, and wild visitors that made me feel right at home: there was also the warmth of all of the BNF field staff that you can slide into right away like a deckchair on the beach including an ice cream, with the bonus of having your spirits raised by the humorous banter and cackling that’s on tap there for much of the time as soon as the crazy gang arrives like a trainload of merry football fans intent on having as much fun whilst engaged in their important conservation work in the forest. It was hi-fives as soon as they arrived, with some guitar playing and singing after breakfast in addition to the hyena laughter and joking, which always made me curious to know exactly what they were laughing at. The clown-in-chief was Supian who is part of the Kelasi (red langur) research/monitoring team along with his assistant clown Uji who combines good looks with infinite silly faces. Shortly after arriving at the camp for the first time I gave an introductory talk and presentation of some of my photos in my usual energetic party popper fashion. Evidently I made a good impression, and Supian was the first one to congratulate me and tell me “I really like your style man!” as we overtly exchanged style gestures, and someone else told me that I was the first foreigner to make him laugh. Although I was restricted by language most of them are more than adequate with their English and I was soon made to feel as if I had been accepted into the brotherhood of having a laugh as well doing serious conservation work. I look forward to seeing my conservation brothers again soon for more work and play – Twenti, Ajat, Idrus, Marta Bina, Hendri, Aman, Azis, Iwan, Santiano, Supian, Uji, Aziz K, Ari, Unyil, Tomi, Jali, Kades and Sadi……and I hope that I got your names right.

In addition to the regular commuting BNF team there is the camp manager and lori driver Twenti, and the cook Lis with two helpers, Ibu Yanti and Ibu Zariah. Twenti made me feel very welcome and manages the camp with a busy swagger and Lis is one of the sweetest gentlest souls I’ve ever met, and does a great job of keeping everybody well fed with very tasty food, which I never tired of. He is also a very keen amateur photographer who was always very quick to notify me of any photo opportunities in the camp, and in return I was always happy to share my photographic knowledge with him. When I arrived at the camp there was an international mix of young female interns and researchers: Jess from England, Caitlin from Scotland, Alexis from the US and Debbie from Italy. I subsequently met Cara the kelasi specialist and Sophie the orang-utan specialist, both from England, and Eka from Indonesia who replaced Cara when she left. It was an absolute pleasure to get to know them all and work with them whenever I could.





















And of course I mustn’t forget to mention Sid from India who is working there as an ethnobotanist, and adopted me as a fellow eccentric and mentor as soon as he strode towards me like a big lumbering bear with his hand extended at the BNF staff house in Palangka Raya. His obeisance to my greater confidence and experience was manifested when he sought sanctuary from a marauding forest spirit by sleeping in the bed adjacent to mine in the dormitory room that I had been allocated. He brought some holy water with him for additional protection but unfortunately I accidentally drank it by mistake, which probably endowed me with additional forest spirit mojo power. I like to think that I’m a magnet for forest spirits just as I am for all of the bloodsucking insects in the forest so I’m probably a good person to have around.












I was very happy with my dormitory room, which I had to myself most of the time unless Sid was at the camp evading forest spirits or the camp rats were having a party scurrying along the beams and shelves knocking my things on the floor. The rats are always skulking around the camp but there’s no mistaking when they’re having a party at night as if they’ve drunk too much coffee and go into hyperdrive, or maybe it has something to do with the phase of the moon. On such evenings I found myself in something akin to a fairground game as I threw missiles at the rats dashing back and forth along the shelves, but alas I never achieved the prize of hitting one of the little buggers. It reminded me of one of my many rodent skirmishes when I was camped beside an abandoned house on an island off the coast of Madagascar. The rats were just hanging around waiting for an opportunity to nip in and steal something. I can never forget the sight of one of them running along the ridgeline of my hammock like a tightrope artist in a circus, as if it was mocking me while sticking out its little tongue. Fortunately there were plenty of coconuts to use as missiles in that particular fairground game! One of the things that I have learned from a lifetime of sea kayaking in remote places is that you may be able to escape people but you can never escape bloody rats!

My dormitory room had its own en-suite bathroom with an invading plant stem hanging in the middle as a reminder of where I was and to give me a fright when it tickled my head during the night. My favourite feature was having my own balcony although I was happy to share it with sunbathing skinks. The balcony looks out across the flooded garden of the camp with frogs that you can hear a lot of the time but rarely if ever see in the dense swamp vegetation. Next door to me was the main office full of research data and equipment, which I used to work in most of the time because everybody else used the outdoor office in the main corridor that runs through the camp.Ants were always an annoying distraction just as they can be on my desk here in Puerto Princesa. I have a love-hate relationship with ants depending on where I’m encountering them: in the forest they are one of the marvels of the animal kingdom but as soon as they invade your home they are a proverbial pain in the ass, and a lot more places too as I discovered with the tiniest of fire ants there. One day when I was laying on my bunk bed thinking that I was fully protected by the mosquito net I suddenly started writhing around from a multitude of burning daggers all over my body. I soon discovered that I was being attacked by microscopic ants that were stinging well above their weight. It took me a while to figure out that they were actually coming from my laptop, which they were using as a Trojan horse to transfer from the office desk to my bed! At the start of this post I described a perfect marriage between the forest and the outside world, but on this particular occasion I was ready to ask for a divorce. I encountered larger red fire ants in the forest with the usual painful stings but these little buggers sting with a vengeance and the pain lasts a lot longer.



















Anyway, apart from the ants and the rats life at the camp is idyllic. I loved the changing moods with the weather when it could go from scorching sunshine with just the melodic sound of birds, frogs and crickets to a deluge of rain clattering on the tin roofs in a matter of minutes. Most of the corridors are covered so you can go for a virtual walk in the rain without getting wet. The level of human activity and noise varies a lot from hour to hour and day to day from feeling like you’re in a lively pub on a Saturday night when all the crazy gang are there and playing cards in the afternoon to some blissful nights when I was the only one there in addition to the four camp residents. The domino card game the men play religiously every afternoon is as rousing as a Thai kickboxing match and as quirky as a gay mud-wrestling match as they don’t gamble with money but with the penance of bottles dangling from their ears…….as one does???











I particularly loved it there at night with the camp lights reflecting in the swamp and shimmering on the wet boardwalks, and the moon and entourage of illuminated clouds gleaming from above with the nocturnal sounds of the forest completing the nocturnal ambience. The main hubs of activity are the kitchen and dining area with its perfect swamp viewing, the washing area, the corridor office, the crazy gang’s building at the far end, and at the beginning and end of every working day for the men the entrance hall in my accommodation building, which has a large roster board detailing the work schedules of the different activity teams; orang-utan, gibbon, kelasi, butterfly survey, dragonfly survey, phenology, dam-building, replanting and boat patrol. I will describe all of those activities in some detail, including the education outreach programme that I was also involved with, in subsequent posts along with more information about the Sabangau Forest and the objectives of the Borneo Nature Foundation. But next up is the animal life in the camp!








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