This photo comes up in my memories every year and serves as a constant reminder of how being amongst nature can really have take hold of you emotionally. Every time I see it, I get an overwhelming feeling like I’m transported back in time, back to this moment. This photo was taken 3 years ago by my good friend Ali, after spending an incredible day hiking the Headhunters Trail deep in the jungles of Borneo’s Mulu National Park… this was the half way point of a 2 day trek with a great group of like minded ladies, all from WA from all different walks of life.
A few months prior…
One Sunday, whilst casually visiting the Sunday Markets in Freo I came across a stall showcasing these incredibly colourful woven bags and mats. It wasn’t long before I was approached by a lady by the name of Ali. She loved a good chat, as did I and our conversation turned to where these bags derived from and her history. I was fascinated by her- she is one of the most interesting people I have ever met in my life and to this day remains a good friend of mine. Long story short, these bags that she was selling originated in Borneo, made by packaging straps and handcrafted by the local Penan women of Borneo. Ali spent a lot of time in Borneo, at one point she lived and worked at Mulu National Park. You could tell by the way she spoke about Borneo how passionate she was about the place and it’s people. So much so it became her mission to get as many people there to experience the ‘’off the beaten tourist track’’ version of it that she started her own tour company so that she could escort tour groups there. Needless to say we hit it off instantly, we had a lot in common. I’d travelled to Borneo twice before and loved it and was intrigued about the tours she offered to some of the more remote, less frequented places in Borneo. It didn’t take much convincing, before I knew it I was booked to travel with her…on a trip that was all about nature and culture including lots of caves, visiting local communities, national parks and even an opportunity to volunteer for a day with the Orangutans.
I could write a novel about the trip itself- it was incredible experience and a real adventure. There was one particular highlight of this trip and that was my time at Mulu National Park. Getting to Mulu is a challenge in itself- it’s remote and you know it is as soon as you step off the small propellered aircraft you’ve travelled on to get there. We were being accommodated within the National Park itself in simple yet really nice freestanding chalets that were connected by wooden boardwalks and scattered through the lush forest surroundings. I remember sitting on my balcony most mornings with my coffee and in my own little world as I watched the birds, butterflies and bugs that were busy, going about their business amongst all the vegetation and flowers. I’ve started calling this my Nature Therapy. There were no cars within the national park, the only sound other than the birds and cicadas was the long boats that were regularly going up and down the river. There was little to no phone reception which left you feeling like you’d left a whole world behind.
The days that followed were so good for my soul. We visited enormous caves, I saw my first ever bat exodus (when thousands if not millions of bats exit the caves to feed), explored, walked the boardwalks at night and might I add ate some really great food.
After a few incredible days exploring Mulu itself, our next adventure took us on a 2 Day trek (17 kms in total) of the Headhunters trail. If you’re a nature lover like me and looking for some solitude you’ll be in your element. The air was fresh and the vegetation lush and green and if you’re lucky you’ll see monkeys, bats and vast array of bird life. Which leads me to the explain this photo.
We had arrived at what they call Camp 5, it’s where we stay overnight on the trail. It was hot and muggy, my clothes were saturated and I was desperate to take to my shoes off. Not going to sell it here but despite how lush, green and beautiful it was, this trail is notorious for leeches and I was curious to see if I really was the only one in the group that had been un-scaved all day… there had to be one somewhere…. I’m happy to report that there wasn’t!
Camp 5 is isolated. You literally feel like you are in the middle of no-where. To prove it, the average annual number of visitors in this area is 200 and to get there that day involved a hour long- boat ride from Mulu National Park Headquarters and a 10km hike under a thick canopy of trees, so thick you often don’t see sunlight. I slept on a mat on a sleeping platform covered in a mosquito net in a communal long house, chatted with the locals who shared their stories over a freshly cooked meal and met other trekkers that arrived throughout the afternoon. Yes it was basic but in no way did I feel like I was roughing it- it was such an experience and the scenery that surrounded us made it all worth it.
We were one of the first groups to arrive that afternoon. It was quiet. All you could hear was the rivers water running downstream and the odd cicada. After putting our cans of Tonic in the river to get cold, I sat myself there, in the Melinau River- fully clothed, without a care in the bloody world, in awe of where I was- in the middle of the Bornean jungle, surrounded by the lushest of lush rainforest, limestone cliff faces as a backdrop and a rope swing bridge in the distance which I knew I was going to have to cross the following day. The view that surrounded me was incredible. I was completely lost in my thoughts, which to be honest, was the common theme for most of the day. It was a surreal feeling, I was present, yet overwhelmed and a sense of accomplishment followed as my mind rehashed what I’d experienced throughout the day. They say a picture says a thousand words, this photo might but any other photo I tried to take of the sheer scale of amazingness that I was experiencing so that I could show my husband and kids when I got home was impossible to capture.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting with Ali, enjoying our fancy G&T’s with preserved lemons as the sun was beginning to set. I was telling her how ‘lost in thought’ I was for most of the day and how incredibly relaxed and free that I felt despite being slightly fatigued. Another group of hikers then arrived at Camp. We noticed amongst them that there was a monk. In his brown robe, he was so fascinating to watch and without being creepy, we watched his movements for hours. We soon discovered that he’d walked the same path we did… barefoot. Monks are commonly known to walk barefoot as their way of connecting with nature and the earth so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise but still, it would have been no easy feat. I felt a bit selfish to be honest that one of my first thoughts when entering camp was how much I wanted to take my shoes off! What was most staggering was to learn that he was going to be participating in a climb up ‘’The Pinnacles’’ the next morning. Camp 5 was also the starting point for a diversion to climb the Pinnacles – a forest of 50m limestone shards. It’s a grueling 4 hour each way hike with a series of ladder and rope climbs and certainly not for the faint hearted. It involves getting up very early in the morning and being on time restraints to make certain points of the hike- if you’re too slow you are turned around and have to go back, regardless of how many hours you’ve hiked. That being said, the view from the top is said to be out of this world and would no doubt be the biggest incentive to give it a good crack. Ali had explained to me earlier how tough this hike and climb was and I was in awe at the knowledge this monk was going to do it- again barefoot. Still to this day, we don’t know if he did it… my bets on that he did. And to show how small our world really is-we were in the middle of a jungle in one of the most remote places on the planet and this group including the monk were from one of our Monasteries in WA.
So that’s a small snippet of what was an epic trip to Borneo.. it was probably one of the most rewarding trips for many reasons. I found myself and reconnected with my love of hiking and being completely immersed in nature. Experiences like these are so priceless that I made it my mission to take my own group the following year in the hope that it would have the same effect on the people that join me that it did me. Sadly the universe had bigger plans and COVID happened and the trip had to be cancelled. Not being able to travel overseas right now certainly makes me appreciate how lucky I’ve been to have such amazing experiences.
I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with exercise my whole life…. I’ve realized I’m not a gym person… I have to enjoy something wholeheartedly to continue with it and glad I found a love of hiking years and years ago whilst hiking (AKA Tramping) in NZ’s Abel Tasman National Park. It’s the thrill of the adventure and it’s when I’m at my happiest. Walking in silence (not my strength sometimes) and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells that nature throws at you along the way I find to be grounding and gives me a sense of calm and connection… with myself. It makes you present and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, even when you’re body aches to say you’ve made it.
One great thing to come out of the world wide crisis that is the C word (COVID) last year was that hiking seemed to become a craze. People couldn’t get enough of it and hiking holidays were at an all time high. Why? Between lock downs, being separated from loved ones, some of us losing our jobs and not to mention having to deal with a toilet paper hoarding crisis we were forced to slow down from our otherwise hectic lives. Gyms were closed and many took to pounding the pavement walking, others found a love of hiking and the benefits of walking in nature. Yes, hiking is good for physical fitness but it’s also known to combat stress, relieve depression and anxiety, boost creativity and simply allows you to be present. I call it free counselling.
We often don’t realise the healing qualities the simple things in life give us. Take a hike, get some fresh air and immerse yourself in nature. I guarantee it’s the best healer to soothe all your stresses with some extra added benefits!