Thursday, 27 March 2008

RWW 2008: We Rule The Skies!

Friday, 14th March 2008 – Monday, 17th March 2008: Raptor Watch – We Rule The Skies!

When I first started volunteering for Raptor Watch Week (“RWW”) in 2001, there were no Fun & Games booths, no Arts & Crafts sessions, no face-painting or temporary tattoo booths, no grandstand with an emcee and performers, and no massive merchandise and snack stalls. Imagine that!

In 2001, the ballroom and gazebo of Ilham Resort weren’t even constructed yet, and I don’t recall there being a fence around the Resort grounds, or an adventure playground facing Ilham’s front entrance, or a properly built-up entrance to the Lighthouse trail. There was a big tree with a rope swing, which provided us with a great deal of entertainment when we weren’t counting birds. Imagine that!

In 2001, all we had were 2 tents: 1 for MNS membership registration, which also doubled up as the tent where merchandise was sold (t-shirts in only 3 or 4 designs, and a few standard bird field guides) and another with exhibition boards giving you information on bird migration, resident raptors and migratory raptors. There were probably no more than 20 volunteers, almost all of them keen birders, and the visitors who came for the event probably numbered no more than 100. Imagine that!

I am now in my 8th year as a Raptor Watch volunteer and I can say that RWW is one of the Malaysian Nature Society’s greatest success stories. 20 years ago, only the scientific community was interested in the phenomenon of spring raptor migration. Only scientists and ornithologists realised that Tanjung Tuan is a stopover point for exhausted birds of prey on their way back to China and Siberia, being the closest landmass from Sumatra, across the Straits of Malacca.

Then, in the 1990s, Tanjung Tuan faced the threat of development. The state government had intended to convert the forested area into beach resorts. The Malaysian Nature Society had to get sufficient public support for our cause to lobby for the conservation of Tanjung Tuan, not only for the Raptors, but also for the surrounding marine life and forest growth.

And so the Malaysian Nature Society swung into action, and today raptor migration is no longer an esoteric phenomenon witnessed only by birders, but a massive, public eco-event covered by all the papers and even some international nature publications. The state government and state tourism ministry are supportive of our efforts, as they realise that it is an event with enormous eco-tourism potential. We now have rows upon rows of tents offering everything from jungle walk sessions and nature books to ice cream and batik painting. We now have busloads of schoolchildren who know a fair bit about thermals (i.e. hot air columns), bird migratory patterns and bird breeding grounds. Baby, we’ve come a long way.

RWW is traditionally held on the first weekend of March, being the peak period for raptor flight through the area. However, this year it was postponed until 15th and 16th March, due to the General Elections being scheduled on the 1st weekend. This year, Loretta, Eugene and Hui-Min are in the organising committee, and I, being over-committed and over-committee’d enough, decided to focus on Green Living’s outreach activities.

The volunteer briefing was conducted on Friday night at the event grounds by Loretta and Andrew. We then checked into our rooms at PD Marina, which have thankfully been cleaned, unlike the previous years.

We assembled at Ilham on 0700 hours Saturday to set up our respective booths. Somehow, the level of commitment of this year’s volunteers was rather dismal. The volunteers assigned to my booth never did turn up, so it was just Horng Yih and I holding the Green Living fort. Still, thanks to key volunteers such as Lillian, Passu, Eugene, Hui-Min, Dr. Kana and Hafidz, everything went swimmingly and we made sure that the visitors were well-looked after. There were educational talks, documentaries, jungle and marine walks and fun activities galore to keep everyone occupied while waiting for the raptors to arrive.

Since I had only one other volunteer for Green Living, we had to scrap the 3R crafts and focus instead on only 3 main activities, namely, the 3R Game, the Climate Change Action Survey and the sale of pre-loved books, apart from offering green living advice and coordinating a recycling programme. Horng Yih is a sterling volunteer with a great personality, and I was very glad of his company. Thanks to his help, we sold over RM300 worth of used books.

We were given a volunteer appreciation dinner on Saturday night, and it was made all the more enjoyable because it was outdoors. Over dinner, they guys and I discussed walking up to the lighthouse at 2200 hours, to try to spot insects and night birds. Armed with a pansy little torch that we borrowed off one of our nature guides, Horng Yih, Bushcraft John, Hafidz and I walked up to the lighthouse after dinner. The forest canopy wasn’t thick and once our eyes got accustomed to the dim light, we discovered that we didn’t need the torch at all. John searched for spiders and arthropods while I kept an eye out for bats and Buffy Fish Owls, which I’ve seen before in the same area.

The lighthouse is breathtaking at night and I am so very glad we came. There was a cool breeze blowing and the coconut leaves rustled in the wind. Behind the lighthouse, on the cliff overlooking the sea, we could see fishing trawlers and what I guess are border patrol boats.

Our usually responsible John had a moment of insanity and proceeded to send out an SOS signal to the boats. I made him stop because it is a criminal offence and could put the boats to danger and inconvenience. Moreover, we were in a high security area, which increased the likelihood of getting caught. We saw a light flashing back at us at regular intervals and presumed that a boat had seen John’s distress signals, so we started arguing with each other over whether the boat had been there all this while or whether it had approached the lighthouse upon spotting our distress signals.

While we were arguing, Horng Yih, who has sharp eyesight, pointed out: “You do realise that you guys are arguing about a buoy, right?” And so we were! It was one of those moored buoys with a warning light, and we laughed at the silliness of it all. We searched for more insects and arthropods as we waited for another friend, Adi, to arrive, and then we walked back to Ilham together before driving back to PD Marina.

Sunday, 16th March, was Vegan Eugene’s birthday, and I managed to get big-hearted, brilliant Serina and Mohala to buy him a cake the night before from Secret Recipe, because I didn’t think we’d manage to get him a pukka cake out in the boondocks here otherwise. We hid the cake in its box under the Green Living table and got everyone to sign the card. We had to get Eugene to come over right before his speakers (of the professional-human-qualified-to-speak-on-specific-topics variety, not of the sound amplifier variety) arrived, so Lillian duly made an announcement and all the volunteers, led by Eugene, repaired to the Green Living table where the sorry-looking half-melted mango cake sat looking for all in the world like a ski slope with a candle on top, after we have inadvertently dropped the cake box. The birthday song was duly sung and Serina and I massacred the cake for distribution. Thankfully, it tasted way better than it looked (by then). We had to get back on duty even with our hands full of cake and I had my work cut out trying to find volunteers to replace me so I could participate in the Lighthouse Run.

Around 1100 hours, Lillian announced the winners of the Charity Draw and I found that I had won a Nestle hamper, much to everyone’s delight because they knew I would share it with them. The hamper was taken apart and shared out with the volunteers at my table.

I skipped lunch so I could run at 1445 hours in the Lighthouse Run. Cindy decided at the last minute to sign up for the Run in the Women’s Open category, with baby in tow, despite her sore throat. Another lady, Nur, had to run in jeans as she didn’t bring her running shorts. As my trainers have fallen apart, I would be running in Converse sneakers with very worn out soles with holes in the bottom. At the rate things were going, the Women’s Open category should have been renamed the Fruits and Nuts Run.

I pretty much lurched, staggered and wheezed my way to the Lighthouse and down again, lagging way behind the first runner, a schoolgirl in proper running gear who obviously came to win the loot galore and not to learn more about the natural history of Tanjung Tuan. And by gum, she was fast! She was halfway down the hill when I was still on my way up. I came in second in the Run and Nur came in third but Cindy was nowhere to be seen.

We had the prize presentation ceremony at 1600 hours and I went up to receive my prize of a RM200 Timberland voucher. I finally found Cindy watching a documentary with her husband and baby in the auditorium and insisted that she accepted half my prize. She kept declining, but I said that we won together and she deserved it as much as I did, because she gave me a drink of water at the base of the lighthouse to ease my wheezing. I told her it would make me very happy if she would take it, and she finally accepted the vouchers.

Raptor Watch Week 2008 came to a close at 1700 hours Sunday, and the volunteers got down to tidy the place up. It was while I was sorting out litter for recycling that Cindy tried to make me take the vouchers back, but I laughed and said they were hers now, and not mine to take. By virtue of our participation in addition to all the work we had put in as volunteers, we are all winners, and essentially equals, and I wanted the division of the prize vouchers to reflect that.

There was still a lot of work to do even though the other volunteers had left, and so I decided to stay behind to help out on Monday, with the HQ staff Lini and Laila. Had a seafood dinner in town that night before going back to our apartment in Ilham to drink beer on the veranda. There were fruit bats outside, which is commonplace enough not to necessitate my bringing it to the attention of the others, but imagine my dismay when a large Buffy Fish Owl flew past me and I was the only one to witness it! Finally went back inside when the mosquitoes got too much for me to handle.

On Monday morning, we had to reorganise and repack everything in the storage tent while waiting for the truck to arrive. The volunteers this year had made a pig’s ear of the whole affair, and office supplies, apples, electrical cords and filled-up membership forms lay in a jumble in the storage tent. Things were far more orderly last year when Mohala was still in charge, plus there was less pilfering of leftover canned drinks and freebies.

Bala, the truck driver, arrived around noon and loaded the truck with our help. Laila and Lini went rode up in front of the truck with the driver, while I went back so I could sell our recyclables off at the buyback centre near Eagle Ranch on our way home. It came as a blow to me when I discovered over 10 kilos of aluminium cans that I had scrupulously collected, rinsed and crushed had been stolen from the back of my 4x4.

I suspect that the cans were stolen by the Resort staff, as the pickup was parked in their premises, and were still there this morning. What added to my disappointment was that I had given over 12 kilos of cans that I had painstakingly bagged up on Saturday to the housekeeping staff, because they had asked for it. The proceeds from Sunday’s collection of cans were meant to go into Green Living’s kitty.

Serina tried to cheer me up by persuading me that the cans could have been taken by someone in real need, and the extra money could have been of real help to him or her. I found comfort in that idea, and also in the thought that at least all the cans would be recycled in the end, and not landfilled or incinerated. But then again, they could have asked me for the cans, and I would have given it to someone who had asked and was in real need.

Anyway, we managed to sell the plastic bottles and paper to the buyback centre for a paltry sum, and were soon on our way back to KL. Raptor Watch 2008 has taught me 2 things that I will do differently in 2009:
1. Either lock up the recyclables in the Battletank, or sell them at the end of each day at the buyback centre so I would not have to find a place to store them overnight.
2. Serve on the RWW Committee next year and help to draw up a Volunteers’ Code of Conduct and provide a screening, training and pep talk session for all volunteers to ensure that we get quality volunteers who perform and deliver and act as ambassadors for the Malaysian Nature Society.

It’s a sad state of affairs when people sign up as volunteers only because they are enticed by the prospect of a paid holiday, freebies and the bragging rights of having volunteered with the Malaysian Nature Society. If there are any volunteers reading this, I want you to ask yourselves, in all honesty:

1. “Have I left people in a better state?”
Have you assisted MNS staff and veteran volunteers with diligence and goodwill? Did you try to shirk work and make yourself unobtrusive and invisible when there were boxes to be carried, stereo systems and tents to be put up, booths to be manned and visitors to be ushered and assisted? Were you courteous and helpful to visitors? Did you help anyone learn something positive about the environment, the Malaysian Nature Society and raptor migration? Did you give or speak cheerfully, or were you sullen and uncooperative? Did you treat visitors and customers as mere nuisances who hindered you from sitting around gossiping with your friends? Did you utter the words “I don’t know” or “That’s not my job” when your words should have been “Let’s see what we can do”?

2. “Have I left the environment in a better state?”
Did you leave litter behind, even if on tables and in tents, as opposed to along the jungle trails or on the beach? Did you pick up all the litter you see, or did you think “That’s not my problem”? Did you contribute to noise and light pollution that could affect wildlife? Did you go against the principles of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle by making unnecessary purchases, or purchases with excessive packaging? In the course of jungle and marine walks, did you take, damage or touch anything that is not yours to touch? Did you condone destructive behaviour such as the catching of crabs and other small fauna by not politely stopping the perpetrators, or did you instead feel it wasn’t any of your business?

RWW 2008 photos taken by MNS member Zaim:

Nature Guides with their faces painted in animal totem designs.

Mangrove forest ecology.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Letter: Animal Casualties of Unregulated Pet Trade

This is my latest letter to the Editor, in response to a news report that a flash flood left ‘mongooses’ in an exotic pet store in Brickfields dead. There are 3 points that I need to highlight here:

1. There is a good chance that the said pet store does not have the requisite licence from the Wildlife Department to sell exotic pets.
2. There is a good chance, given the quality of journalism in Malaysia, that the mongooses are not mongooses at all, but ferrets or any other similarly long-bodied small mammals commonly sold as pets.
3. The plural of ‘mongoose’ is ‘mongooses’. There are no such things as ‘mongeese’.


I am sure many animal lovers share my sorrow over the unnecessary deaths of the mongooses that had drowned in the rising waters following the flood in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur (NST, 25th March 2008)

Animal welfare organizations such as SPCA and PAWS have frequently admonished the practice of retail pet sale. The level of welfare standards in the pet industry is appalling. Most pet shops are staffed by unskilled workers who do not have the requisite level of knowledge to work with animals.

In the event of a fire, flood, or any other danger, the animals almost always have no means of saving themselves and thus perish. Even more common is the death of animals through illness, neglect, poor diet and other problems brought on by the stress of being transported and then housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Of greater concern still is the sale of exotic animals and wildlife. It is highly doubted that the sale of mongoose is legal in Malaysia. Fragile ecosystems are disrupted when humans invade the natural environment to collect animals for the pet trade. Capturing wild animals can threaten the species’ existence, as is the case with endangered tarantula varieties.

In addition, most people who buy exotic pets from retail outlets do not fully understand the care, commitment or costs involved. Once the novelty of having a new pet wears off, many exotic pets are left to fend for themselves or are foisted off on our overcrowded animal shelters and zoos. Abandoned exotic animals may not survive in an inhospitable new environment and may die seeking food and shelter, or alternatively, they might thrive and become an environmental threat, as in the case of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, pet snakes and pet crocodiles.

It is insufficient for the authorities and relevant bodies to merely create non-binding guidelines on the sale or care of exotic animals, or to expect environmental organizations and animal protection groups to undertake the mammoth task of educating the public on animal care and advising society to boycott the wildlife trade.

The Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) and PERHILITAN are unable to respond to every complaint on the sale of wildlife and exotic pets largely because there are too many retail outlets selling live pets, and those selling exotic pets are often under the guise of legitimate businesses selling companion animals such as cats, dogs and rabbits.

As such, I would recommend that the authorities and licensing bodies severely restrict the sale of live animals to only select stores that are able to meet certain criteria such as having an in-house veterinarian and a 24-hour caretaker to deal with crises such as floods and fires. There should be an outright ban on the sale of pets in hypermarkets and department stores, and pet stores that do not meet the new requirements may be allowed to only sell pet food and supplies and provide services such as boarding and grooming.

Once such regulations are in place, PERHILITAN and the DVS can more effectively monitor the sale of wildlife and provide for routine inspection of pet retail outlets, respectively. Deaths of animals such as the unfortunate mongooses in Brickfields will then be reduced since there will be fewer retail outlets housing animals in unsafe and unhealthy conditions without a minder who could bring them to safety in the event of an emergency.

Although there may be arguments that such restrictions have no place in a free market economy, let us be reminded that if a particular trade depends on trifling with animal lives in order to prosper, then we are vindicated in rejecting or revolutionizing it in order to provide just and fair treatment to other living beings.


Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Letter: Reduced Water Charges Will Not Help Conservation Efforts

Published today (19.3.2008) in The Star. It borrows heavily from an earlier letter I submitted on the need for a National Water Policy (2007).


Although I am deeply moved by our new Selangor MB’s concern for the welfare of the people, I must express my doubts over his proposal to waive the charges for the first 20 cubic metres of water used by households in Selangor (‘Selangor folks welcome reduced water charges’, The Star, 18 March 2008).

I can appreciate that this move is an attempt to rectify the imbalance caused by the artificial inflation of water prices due to subsidies paid to water distribution concessionaires by the previous state government.

However, I am concerned that the offer of free water will not further the cause of water conservation. I would recommend that the savings made by the state government from terminating the subsidies paid to water distribution concessionaires be channelled instead into improving and upgrading substandard and obsolete water storage, treatment and supply infrastructure. The state government should also look into issues such as water theft by squatters and make plans to replace asbestos water pipes with safer materials.

Alternatively, the reduced water charges should only be offered to those who fall within the lower income category. As it is, many of those in the higher income group are wasteful of water and take water for granted despite the high current charges.

I trust that the new Selangor state government will lend its support to environmental non-governmental organisations in our efforts to educate consumers and commercial bodies about water conservation. I also trust that our MB would be willing to consider adopting water-saving technologies, implementing an intelligent maintenance culture, preserving our wetlands and watershed areas and practicing better management of our water resources, all of which will help Selangor reach its developmental goals without sacrificing the environment or the rakyat’s welfare.


Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Winds of Change

It has been an exhilarating month for Malaysia as we prepare for the General Elections, which fell on 8th March 2008. Those of us who have been watching the political development of the country for the last 20 years or so are tired of the cronyism, corruption and positive discrimination that have been plaguing the country and crippling the economy, and want the ruling coalition to be denied their two-thirds majority and be subject to greater check-and-balance. We want peace, but we also need meritocracy, integrity and transparency for the country to become strong.

I have spent almost all my weeknights attending the opposition parties’ election campaigns and public speeches, known locally as “ceramah” sessions. The opposition parties here are not permitted any airtime over TV or radio, or any positive reporting in the local papers (except ‘alternative’ newsletters), but have managed to build up quite a strong supporter base thanks to their hard work, perseverance and response for critical issues such as consumer rights, environmental protection and human rights.

Many of my confederates have been tirelessly campaigning and volunteering for the opposition parties since the day the election date was announced. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) seems to be held in a position of especial favour and esteem by lawyers, as we believe the Party to be a better protector of human rights and justice than the ruling coalition.

Polling Day was a day for justice and People Power indeed, as despite the lack of an equal playing field, the Opposition managed to defeat many of the incumbents from the ruling coalition and deny them their two-thirds majority in Parliament. The people have spoken. What a great step forward for Malaysian democracy! We, the electorate, are ready to work together with our new leaders to reclaim Malaysia for all Malaysians.

Staying up until daybreak to listen to the General Election results did not affect my energy level on Sunday, as I cheerfully went on my way to the SPCA. There were, of course, no shortage of weeping prophets who predicted civil unrest and riots, but the streets were calm, people were genial and the transfer of power has been peaceful.

My good spirits died out when I arrived at the SPCA to be informed that my good friend, the shelter Admin Officer Chelvy, had been hospitalised following illness exacerbated by her grief over her beloved father’s untimely demise. I felt horrible. Nobody from the shelter had called or texted me to inform me of Chelvy’s Dad’s demise. I would have sent flowers or made a cash contribution if I had known. I would have taken the rest of the afternoon off work to pay my last respects.

Maybe the vets and staff didn’t tell me because they too were worried, sad and preoccupied over their colleague. I just wish I had arrived at the shelter sooner so I could have gone in Rajes’ van to the hospital, but I couldn’t leave the parental home sooner because my mother was down with a nasty throat infection and needed medical care.

After a brief discussion with Dr. Pushpa, I took the dogs from the Pound and the ‘E’ Kennels out for walks. I put the sweet-natured but mammoth-sized bull mastiff in the Dog’s Playground to exercise while I took another dog, a Spitz-cross, for a run. Bad choice. The Spitz-cross had a mean streak and attacked all the other dogs, and bit me when I tried to separate him from the other dogs. He bit me again when I returned him to his kennel, and yet again when I removed the choke chain. I have decided to name the dog Mr. Personality, out of irony.

I took the other dogs out for walks and they were duly bathed, groomed and doused with Tactick solution without much incident. It started drizzling around 1630 hours, so I couldn’t walk as many of them as I would have liked. I put away the leashes and shampoo bottles and started cleaning the shelter. I swept and mopped the Office and washed and disinfected the reception/office area, ‘E’ Kennels, Puppy Kennels No. 1, Cattery, Maternity Kennels, Hospital and the bathroom.

It was while I was cleaning the ‘E’ Kennels and Linda was cleaning the Puppy Kennels No. 2 that I heard something eerie and quite possibly paranormal. I haven’t been privy to any unusual incidents since the last animal shelter haunting (reported in an earlier entry) and had believed that the ‘issue’ had been resolved after Alan and the shelter officers brought a church group in to perform prayers for the deceased animals and other restless spirits.

Now there was the unmistakable sound of a baby crying, and it was coming from the storeroom behind the Sick Bay. “Do you hear a baby crying?” I asked Linda in a hushed voice so as not to anger whatever it was lurking in the storeroom. “Has Maran or Muniandy brought their children over today?”

Linda shuddered and replied: “Let’s get on with our work and get out of here. I don’t want to have to meet ‘It’ again.” We worked like our asses were on fire and then got out of the kennels adjacent to Sick Bay as quickly as we could. Still, I felt a tinge of regret that I wasn’t able to help the dogs deal with this mysterious crying entity that visits the kennels at the back. I had earlier believed that the entity meant no harm, but Linda and Muniandy told me otherwise.

What is the nature of this entity and is there a way we can discover the shelter’s history? Was this once the site of a tragedy? When the shelter is forced to relocate in a few years, will we then be free of such supernatural visits, or is the entity drawn to the animals? Does it feed on pain, sorrow, suffering or loneliness, all of which are in abundance in a shelter full of unwanted strays and abandoned pets?

Ours not to make reply, Ours not to reason why, Ours but to finish the cleaning and say goodbye. Linda and I did a thorough job of cleaning the rest of the shelter. I cleaned myself up, bade the animals goodnight and went on home to the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, stopping only for junk food at the night market on the way home.

Tomorrow I will wake up to a better Malaysia. Tomorrow, I can expect the police force to aid and protect the people, not harass and oppress us. Tomorrow, I will have as good an opportunity as any Malaysian of any ethnic group to be awarded a government contract or a scholarship. Tomorrow, we can expect our green lungs and primary rainforests to be gazetted and accorded protected forest reserve status. Tomorrow, the taxes I pay will not be used to finance the elected representatives’ luxury cars and mansions. Tomorrow, the voices of consumers, women and environmentalists will no longer be silenced or dismissed by the government. I hope my joy and optimism isn’t premature or ill founded.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Operation: Kg. Rening

It was in January that Andy Paul asked if I were able to assist him in an aid ops to deliver food and other supplies to the poorest of the Orang Asli (indigenous) communities in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. I had, of course, accepted the assignment and engaged the 4x4 gang to mobilise mission-equipped 4x4s for this trip. Our contact persons were Mr. Ooi, an MNS member who had coordinated the collection of food and clothes, and Kali, the guide who will be leading us to the village.

And so after days of exasperating deliberations with the donors who insisted on tagging along on the trip just because they wanted to see “where their donations went to” but were completely unprepared for hardcore offroading and camping, we were finally ready to roll on 1st March.

We spent a good part of the morning loading the 3 vehicles (a long-wheel base Land Cruiser 2 [Foo’s], a Ford Ranger [Zawalan's] and a Mitsubishi Pajero [Chan’s]) with sacks of rice and boxes of food items and clothes. I was given the responsibility of instructing another teammate, Mr. Chan, on how to operate the ham radio handset while he helped both drivers calibrate our ham frequencies.

It took us 4 hours to arrive at Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, and meet our guide, Mr. Kali. After a quick lunch, we began the challenging 6-hour offroad drive to Kg. Rening in the depths of the montane forest. Much of the trail was narrow, winding, badly rutted and full of sharp rocks that could puncture your fuel tank if you ride too low. It was old hat for the Offroadies (Foo, Sharene, Chan and I), but hell for the donor-tourists from the Buddhist Society, being the lightweights that they are.

Our guides were complete turds who, as if it were not frustrating enough that they weren’t in radio contact with us, never stopped at the forks in the road to point out the correct way to us. They left us to take the wrong track for hours until they sensed that something was wrong and then turned back to look for us. A gentle but firm reprimand from us that accelerating and then having to turn back isn’t exactly Fuel Economy Tip No. 1, set them straight and made them a little more mindful.

Along the way, we passed by dozens of Orang Asli villages. Most were well-kept and neat, and had solar panels for electricity generation. The villagers collected enough jungle produce for trade and the younger men often found work with the vegetable farms.

As we drove through the montane forest, I spotted Greater Racquet-Tailed Drongos, a Black Eagle, and other birds. Majestic Tualang and Kapur trees, bamboo groves, elephant ferns, wild plantain and banana plants and rattan plants thicker than my thigh flanked the trail, and mist enveloped the lush forest.

We arrived at Kg. Rening at 1845 hours, just before dark. It was a tidy, small village of 14 huts, each one a home to 2 – 3 families. A stream and waterfall 200 metres away supplied fresh water, while photovoltaic panels and energy-efficient bulbs provided lighting. They didn’t have much else. Half the time, the villagers could provide for their own needs. They harvested jungle produce, grew tapioca and vegetables, raised a few jungle fowl and caught frogs, fish and wild boar. But now times are hard and the pickings are slim. Many of the young men have left to find work in neighbouring villages and farms, leaving the elderly or disabled men to look after the womenfolk and children. The nearest village is hours away, even by car. The children couldn’t get to school. They had no clothes or shoes, and have had no rice for months. The clearing and bisecting of the forest for agriculture and highway construction also meant that they now find it harder to hunt wild boar and other bush tucker. The hills were cold at night and the villagers have had no blankets or medicine in ages.

With the younger villagers’ help, we unloaded our rigs. The village headman, now old and partially blind, oversaw the distribution of the donated items. There was a mad rush for the used clothes and shoes, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Children screamed and cried when a particularly favoured t-shirt or pair of jeans was claimed by a bigger child. It was heartbreaking to see them so much in need. I normally do not believe in patronising the indigenous communities, but instead, pledge to build meaningful friendships with them and attempt to create opportunities for education and access to healthcare and legal advice. However, we could see that this village was truly in need, and we vowed to come back in 3 months with a convoy of ten 4x4s to bring these good, honest people clothes and food aid to tide them over the rougher months.

It was raining like the clappers by sundown and a conflict arose when we realised that the Lightweights were not Mission Ready at all. They didn’t have a single tent or hexamine cooker between them, and expected us Offroadies to give up our camp beds and mess tins for them. I was pissed beyond belief, but Chan and Ooi as usual helped us all reach an amicable solution when they managed to persuade the village headman to let us have the use of a vacant hut for the night.

It was a pukka comfortable hut but rather dirty, so I swept it clean, removed the rubbish and spread out newspapers so the Lightweights could unroll their sleeping mats on top. However, instead of showing gratitude, the lady, Bee Yong, told me sullenly not to bother because she didn’t think she would sleep well anyway, while the old man, Phua, insisted that I mop the floor as well as sweep! I have never met anyone so single-mindedly determined to have a miserable time of it. I love camping and expect others to make the most of it, too. Those who cannot rough it out should not insist on tagging along and making a nuisance of themselves.

We had a pukka hot dinner of rice and canned sardines, and fed the leftovers to the villagers’ pet dogs and cats. Offroadie Sharene and I did the washing up. After an icy cold wash with my eco-friendly shampoo, the Offroadies sat out on the porch drinking our stout and whiskey. We told bawdy stories to each other and laughed well into the night, sharing our booze and tucker with the friendly villagers who came to visit their ‘new’ neighbours. The solar panels switched their supply off by 0100 hours, and we slept out in the porch with the stars as our ‘bathroom light’.

Woke up to the delicious smell of roasted tapioca. Ooi and the Offroadies had bought bushels of tapioca and sweet potato from our village friends, and the men had roasted some for breakfast. Had a pukka wild tuber breakfast with strong sweet coffee. Had a wash in the stream, tidied up, gave the rest of our tucker and rations to the children, readied the vehicles and shook hands and exchanged hugs with all the village elders before we left our newfound friends.

The drive home was memorable because Chan’s rig kept getting stuck in the unlikeliest of places and we kept having to strap, shackle or winch his rig out. We finally got onto the highway to Raub after more than 4 hours of moderate offroading.

We had a curry lunch at Ratha Restaurant in Raub, which was highly satisfying. At Bentong, we stopped to refuel, and the men proposed ice-cream at a well-known little confectionary shop. Homemade ice-cream on a Sunday afternoon seems to have universal appeal, as the little shop was full. The ice-cream, which came in local flavours such as sweetcorn, coffee, screwpine leaf, coconut and durian, was rich, delicious and surprisingly dense.

Here are photos taken by the group:

Happy, friendly faces!
Unloading the Ranger.

Sorting out the food aid for distribution at the porch of the village headman’s home.

The village headman.

“Hurray! I’ve got sugar!”
Fowl Play?
Group Photo: Standing, left to right: Sharene, Foo, Zawalan, Ooi, Ravi, Kali, Kali’s son, Phua and Bee Yong.
Squatting, left to right: Me, Kali’s business partner and their two boys.

Winching Chan’s Long-Wheelbase Land Cruiser II out of a ditch.

The rest of the drive home was blustery and wet, but at least the rain had washed a good deal of the mud and laterite soil off our pickup. I helped Zawalan tidy the truck and put away the bags, got into my Battletank, and was soon safely back at the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters with Chloe, Pix and Wee Daisy.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

So What's On Your Bucket List?

Sponsoring an AIDS orphan, going up in a hot air balloon, swimming with sharks… come on, there must be more to life than such pedestrian aspirations. So what’s on your bucket list?

Here’s my Bucket List, for what it’s worth:
1. Buy a piece of landed property and convert it into an energy and water-efficient residential home.
2. Convert part of the aforementioned home into a stray animal rescue centre, where I will rehabilitate, neuter and release or re-home a minimum of 80 animals a year.
3. Travel extensively and volunteer at animal shelters and wildlife sanctuaries at every locality I visit.
4. Record my travels and volunteering adventures for posterity and have a travel book published on the same.
5. Study part-time and get the MA in English Literature that I’ve always wanted but could not afford.
6. Earn my diving licence and join Reef Check International as a volunteer.
7. Sign up with Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School and practice tracking and wilderness immersion in a non-tropical rainforest environment, for a change.
8. Drive a fire truck, and 18-wheeler semi truck, a backhoe excavator and a World War II tank. Not all at the same time, of course.
9. Do the Covert Ops Ultimate Action-Adventure Experience and learn espionage techniques and how to use explosives and build booby traps.
10. Start a business supplying and marketing energy and water-efficient appliances, solar-powered outdoor lighting and low-impact camping and survival equipment (kinetic-powered battery chargers etc) to housing developers, local councils, City Hall, building managers, apartment management corporations, retailers and consumers.