Taken by Malaysia's untouched nature

Daphne Iking The Star 8 Apr 11;

THE closest I’ve ever come to my very own Avatar experience was not in some distant, far away nation. It was right here in Malaysia, deep in the heart of the Borneo jungle, to shoot a documentary in Kampung Buayan, Sabah.

The remote village is four hours off road from Kota Kinabalu and seven hours on foot through gushing rivers and dense jungles.

After walking for three hours, the sounds of the forest were almost hypnotic. I started zoning out and letting go of the city, including my initial fears about this trip.

They seemed almost superficial now. I was told I would be living in a bamboo hut with the hill tribes and that I would have to fish for my own food.

I was worried about whether I could survive without my usual creature comforts like hot water, access to my Twitter account or feather-down pillows.

Yet, there I was trekking through a lost world so untouched that I felt a need to tread quietly and respectfully through it.

I marveled at the lush green moss lighting my path like a fluorescent marker. The Borneo rainforest is more than 130 million years old but so many Malaysians I have spoken to seem unaware we have the oldest rainforest in the world.

When I started my journey, I thought I was prepared for life in the jungle. I was not.

For starters, my local guide said my expensive hiking boots would get waterlogged when crossing deep rivers, “You need to buy the kampung shoe. We all wear it. It is less than RM10”

After trekking for about three hours, in my lightweight, brand new pair of waterproof ‘kampung shoes’, a torrential downpour descended upon us.

The rain frightened me not because it was relentless but because I heard that leeches love the wet weather.

True enough, when I finally arrived at the head villager’s bamboo hut, I let out an ear-piercing scream when I took off my shoes. There were leeches between my toes and another one had crawled up to my knee, under my cargo pants.

The villagers who greeted me, amused by my reaction, welcomed me with warm, dry clothes and promptly ushered me to a secluded spot to have a bath. It was breathtaking and it was where I spent every morning, brushing my teeth and bathing in the icy stream.

I was introduced to an elderly woman from a nearby village, fit as ever, because of the long distances they walk every day. I found out she was almost 80 but the most intriguing thing, was the colour of her hair.

It was jet black but she had never stepped foot into a hair salon her entire life. I think it was due to her stress-free existence and the clean, fresh air she wakes up to every morning.

When I got a cut on my arm, my local guide, Daniel Doughty from Borneo Colours, introduced the local medicine man to me. Somehow, he knew exactly which plant would help heal my small wound.

I was amazed because the cut was almost unnoticeable the next day. For the communities living there from the time of their ancestors, the forest was their pharmacy.

Everything they needed was right on their bio-diverse doorstep, or what the locals would call home.

So you can imagine how disturbed I was to hear that the state government planned to build a RM2.8bil dam.

According to Malaysia Today, that will drown 12 sq km of land, displace 1,400 Dusun residences and destroy farms, orchards, community halls, clinics, four schools, several churches, ancestral graveyards, suspension bridges, eco-tourism sites and sprawling rice fields.

Having lived with the hill tribes and understanding their simple way of life, it was impossible to imagine how they would function or find work in the city.

This existence is all they have ever known. As one heartbroken native, Irene, told Wild Asia, “Our lives are here. We have everything that we need. The river is our icebox and the land is our supermarket”

According to a Straits Times Singapore news article, the proposed Kaiduan dam project contradicts the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Malaysia is a signatory.

In addition, the proposed location has long been recognised as a primary centre for plant diversity and is included in the WWF Global 200 high priority eco-regions.

It is my heartfelt wish that the Dusun communities will continue to live on their ancestral land and that the bio-diverse region will continue to flourish and thrive.

I left Borneo, moved by the sheer beauty of the forest and her people but they all shared the same plea, “Please don’t sweep our lives away”.

If you have any comments you would like to share on the building of the dam, please drop me an email, Facebook or Twitter message.

Jojo Struys is an avid twitterer @jojo_struys and is currently directing a reality project called Astro Hitz ‘Yuna Inspired’ Powered by DiGi, which airs on Astro Hitz every Sunday at 930pm with repeats on Friday at 6.45pm/ midnight and Saturday at 9.30pm.