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Takin it easy is SE Asia Fluffing around in Asia but soon need to get to work to continue this life.

Counting hornbills

MALAYSIA | Friday, 16 September 2011 | Views [612]

I think finding a familiar breakfast will be an ongoing challenge in Asia. Being a small regional centre Alor Setar definitely did not cater to Western tourists. At the local ungodly hour of 7.45am I set off to do a circuit of mostly closed shops around the bus station to see if I could find something to eat. I was pretty hungry as I did not have dinner but also had the extra task of trying to find a replacement for my power plug adaptor (essential for running my laptop) which had died the night before. Amazingly a 7-11 store (which was open 24 hours for the bus station) had several types of travel plug adaptors so I grabbed one along with a packaged yoghurt drink, (with reduced sugar as everything is super sweet), to take the edge off the hunger pangs.

Nothing much else was open and the rats were still active in the garbage bins on the pavement so I went to finish packing. I came back down an hour later and one café was sort of open with a guy spinning out thin dough on a stainless steel bench then cooking it on an iron plate. He was putting together some take away breakfast for a couple of ladies that were waiting. I worked out that this was roti and asked for a serve. I had no idea about the options they offered so I think I just got the basics of one fresh roti, chopped into pieces and a small pot of dahl (a type of chickpea/lentil soup). You either poured the dahl onto the roti or dipped pieces into the pot. It was very tasty and cost me the huge amount of $0.80 ringget which I think is about 23 cents Aus. I worked out after that this is called roti canai and another option is with an egg folded into the roti which I will try in the future.

The bus station was pretty easy to navigate and my bus turned up well before the time to leave. All the windows had swag curtains which was strange and as soon as they boarded most of the locals went to sleep. It was a two hour journey to the town of Gerek which was the last official stop, 45 minutes from where I wanted to get off. Luckily with assistance of a staff member in the restaurant at the Gerek bus stop who had some English I was able to convince the bus driver to drop me off at the jetty at Banding Island which was not a formal stop. This saved me the hassle and cost of organising a taxi for the last leg and got me there just in time at 2.30pm for the 3pm meet.

The jetty was surprisingly busy with a police station, public toilets, store, well used restaurant, prayer hut, fishing and water activity stall and boats coming in and out of the ramp. But no coordinator for the Malaysian Hornbill Project or any other volunteers, nobody answering phones, and no one who knew anything so I got a bit concerned but I should have just practised patience. Eileen, the coordinator turned up from shopping for supplies in Gerek about half an hour late and three other volunteers eventually made it. The fourth volunteer had car troubles so missed out, apparently for the third year running. While we four girls and one guy waited for the boat crew to be ready we noticed the frequent logging trucks passing over the nearby bridge part of the east-west hwy.

We jumped into two boats with crew from the indigenous Orang Asli village we were staying at. The trip across the lake was pleasant and the water so calm at times the rainforest hills would be reflected. It took about an hour to reach our destination which was the new traditionally built bamboo 2011 hornbill research house at the front of the village.

Each volunteer had a foam mat and mosquito net to define their sleeping area. My bedding was a towel, topped with a sarong, a small travel pillow and another sarong as top sheet. For when it got cool in the early hours I had a small lightweight synthetic blanket. Fortunately the bamboo flooring was flexible which made this bed easier on my hip. One bench supported the kitchen area and bamboo and timber table was the only furniture. Amenities were basic with a wooden slab floor, tarp enclosed bucket shower and a tin cubicle with squat toilet.

A few rain showers prevented us from doing a proper count that afternoon but we headed up the hill to the counting site, which was also the volley ball and general play area for the villagers. Through the drizzle we counted a few hornbills but the following morning was a different story.

Wake up call was at 5.30am so we could be dressed and breakfasted to be waiting in the viewing area at 6.45am just before sunrise for the hornbills to come out for their morning feed. Once I got my new binoculars sorted it became a challenge to keep up the count of the birds coming into my quarter. Sometimes the flocks were large with up to 30 birds but more often there were about 8-12 flying in a v formation. The buggers did not fly straight either and flapped all over the place which made counting them challenging. This morning they kept coming and a few came in from the North also. The open area above the village and small hill is abundant with May Flies which the hornbills eat and they circle around this area in a big loop.

By about 8.15am most of the birds have arrived and we can put down our binoculars to take some photos. I unfortunately did not bring my camera up this morning but got some shots on following days. When the birds flew directly overhead you could hear the beat of their wings and though these Plain Pouched Hornbills are not the biggest of the species the males stand just under 90cm tall and have a wing span of probably around 1.5 m. It was a sublime and almost spiritual experience to be surrounded by over 500 rare endangered birds.

All over by 8.30am and that is your duty done for the day until 5.30pm for the afternoon count. I was pretty knackered still from the travel before and had a bit of Delhi belly (I psyched myself into it I am sure) so I just kicked back, read my book and snoozed. A couple of the other volunteers went for a hike along the logging track. I let the other volunteers take the lead with making lunch and dinner as I was unfamiliar with most of the ingredients. It seems that many Malaysians cannot cook as it is so easy and cheap to eat out at street stalls.

The next day was the same routine but as there was more mist over the rainforest it was a bit harder to discern the new birds coming in without mixing them with the ones that were already counted and were just circling. We only had around 300 this morning and after the count I went with Eileen, our Coordinator, and Anthony, a volunteer, for a walk along the logging track to see if we could get near a tree that the hornbills were roosting in for a while after feeding. It was pretty sad to walk this mud track through prime rainforest and know that it is the large mature trees (essential for hornbill nesting) that are being chopped down.

Later that day was an optional activity to trek to a waterfall and visit a Rafflesia (biggest ugliest flower in the world – discovered on expedition by Sir Stamford Raffles, father of Singapore, East India Company) site. I got to break out my leach socks and along with the two other girl volunteers we headed off on the boat across the lake to the rainforest entry point for the hike. It was only a short distance in to the waterfall and the local Orang Asli guide happily pointed out things to see such as native ginger, a sunbird’s nest and the ever present leaches. The waterfall was ok but I had been spoilt by the large swimmable ones in Fiji. It was decided to get hot first going to the Rafflesia site before having a dip in the waterfall. No information was given on how challenging this bit of the trek was to be. In the middle of the day we hiked, or more often climbed, up a muddy, slippery, forested slope that I am sure was well over 80° for about a kilometre. By this time I am a red faced, sweat dripping, quivering wreck. One of the boys cut me a walking stick to help, but not for the two other girls, so it was obviously just for the geriatric.

I was happy to sit for a while when we reached the Rafflesia buds, which look like brown cabbages. The flower only opens for one week and the ripest bud was not ready to bloom for another fortnight. When open these parasitic flowers can be up to one metre across and apparently smell like rotting meat. Hopefully I will get some shots of this lovely blossom during my time at the Eco Resort.

After more demonstrations of local resources such as rattan and how to decimate a plant to reach the Palm Heart, we slid back down the hill. Well, me and the locals kept our butts out of the mud but once the girls lost their footing a few times then walking sicks (for anchoring yourself in the mud) were cut for them. As always it was a hell of a lot easier going down than up.

The two other girls had a refresh under the waterfall but I could not be bothered getting changed (discreetly under a sarong), climbing over slippery rocks and feeding leaches to experience a shower of water. I drenched my head and face in the stream which helped me to cool off after the hike.

On return to the hut it was very hot as there was no breeze, there were big thunderheads building and the temp gauge was at 32°. I did not feel the best after that strenuous hill climb in the heat of the day so had a bucket shower to try cool off. That did not work as the bucket had been sitting in the sun and it was more like a hot shower but at least I was refreshed. At about 4 pm the sky ripped open with spectacular lightening and thunder with the rain coming sideways through the hut. We ran around protecting bedding and foodstuff from the rain and once the wind dropped I got the gas stove going to heat water for a hot drink. The storm had cooled things significantly and it was quite relaxing sitting there with my cup of tea watching the sediment plumes spread over the lake. A great advantage of the bamboo hut was that water just dripped through and it was relatively dry in no time. No afternoon count again due to the rain.

For the last morning we had even more mist over the rainforest so did not experience as many hornbills as on our first day. After the count, a group photos and some pics with an Orang Asli girl that had been helping we happily packed our bags and headed back to the jetty.  We passed Belum Eco Resort on the way, which I was coming back to but I had to collect my larger backpack which I left in the coordinator’s car.

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Up close and cosy though I was a bit nervous near that big beak.

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