July has been an eventful month for Team Labyrinth – we visited the vibrant multi-cultural city of Kuching in Sarawak, sailed up the west coast of Borneo, explored remote river deltas, seen the effects of logging and palm oil plantations first hand – and it had a bloody end when a freak accident amputated part of Roxanne’s toe.
We started the month crossing the South China Sea. We dropped anchor in the Santubong, a river north of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The anchorage was serene, the river fringed with mangroves and inhabited by rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, all located under the spectacular Mount Santubong.
But there was no time to rest; not only did we had a brand new city to explore but with several orang-utan sanctuaries in the region it would be our first chance to film these gentle, elusive creatures.
Sarawak has had vast tracts of forest logged and given over to palm oil plantations; in many cases by corrupt politicians acting in violation of local law. The local situation was further complicated when we discovered that we needed written permission to film in the sancturies from Sarawak Forestry, the corporation that both administers Sarawak’s diminished forests and responsible for logging them in the first place! Not surprisingly we were unable to obtain permission and our attempts to interview the management of the sanctuaries were refused. However we were still able to get some incredible shots of orang-utans in the jungle.
The sanctuaries are billed as a safe haven, but this comes off as a PR stunt given they are run by the same corporation and government that is responsible for destroying the forests. There are impressive stats thrown around about the size of the protected national parks, but then we discovered that the parks were so small they could only support one dominant male, requiring other males to be caged, allegedly for their own safety.
Next, we headed up the coast to the Rajang river, where we had heard that vast areas of nominally protected wetland and rainforest had been destroyed and turned into palm oil plantations. We took Labyrinth deep into the Rajang river delta, which was an incredibly vibrant maze of uncharted narrow river channels, with thick mangrove and swamp crowding the banks.
Often Jase was required to command Labyrinth from halfway up the mast, where he could get a good view of oncoming hazards, such as floating logs and low bridges unmarked on the charts.
However, the signs of deforestation were everywhere – barges loaded with trees coming down the river and many large cargo ships stacked high with logs. A few years ago, heavy rains flooded out the logging camps, blocking the river with a log jam fifty kilometres long!
James’ drone pilot skills really came to the fore here – launching from Labyrinth’s deck while underway, he was able to rise above the narrow screen of jungle along the banks, exposing the vast palm oil plantations hidden behind.
These plantations were the result of illegal land grabs by the former chief minister of Sarawak who granted permission for their development to companies owned by his family members. The locals were told the developments were for rice farms that would benefit them; instead they were locked out and had their traditional land and way of life destroyed. In the below photo you can see the river on the right, a narrow band of jungle in the middle and then a massive plantation, larger than Singapore, to the left.
Deep within the delta we found more haphazard destruction – cleared areas, often in regions meant to be protected. What got us was how random and pointless it seemed – the land had been cleared years ago, the trees stacked on the side of the river but the whole thing had been left to rot, with nothing ever done with it.
But it was not all doom and gloom. We landed in one village, not realising it was the fourth day of Hari Raya, the traditional feasting holiday that follows the fasting month of Ramadan. It is a time of visiting, where any stranger is to be invited in and fed. We were called into the first house we passed and invited to eat with the family – who then insisted on escorting us to another house so we could eat with that family… who then lead us to another house for another meal! All the time, people were snapping us with their phones, when they weren’t calling their friends to tell them about the orang putih (white people) who were visiting from their kapa layah (sailing ship). We weren’t able to leave for hours until we had eaten with every family!
It was a wonderful afternoon, filled with laughter, kind, welcoming people and amazing food; curries and cakes and succulent fresh fruits. Our Malaysian language skills were enough to understand that everyone was delighted and happy we had visited and we went away stuffed with food and charmed by their hospitality and generosity.
As always, our sailing schedule meant we could not linger and we had to continue onwards. We only had a month in Malaysian Borneo and there were hundreds of miles of coast to pass. Regretfully we continued on, leaving behind yet another beautiful part of the world threatened by the greed of mankind.
Over the next few days we left Sarawak, passed the nation of Brunei in the night, skirted the massive oil fields that give this area its prospertity and entered the state of Sabah. We decided to put into Labuan for a brief stop. The idea of a good night’s sleep in a marina was enticing! The marina was originally government run, neglected and falling apart. It has recently passed into private ownership and the new owners are working hard to repair and restore it.
But there is still work left to do; Roxanne was stepping from the dock to Labyrinth when a loose board slipped under her feet. Her toe slid between the end of the board and the metal rail and, in a sudden movement, cut the end of her toe off. We treated her on Labyrinth but it was clear she needed urgent medical attention.
A car took us to the hospital where Roxanne was admitted over night and operated on the next morning. They managed to save the remainder of her toe but it will be weeks of recuperation until she can rejoin Labyrinth. She is in a lot of pain, but her natural strength of character ensures she remains in high spirits and James has stayed with her to ensure she has the care and support she needs to recover.
In the meantime, Jolene and Jase have had to push on. We have over a thousand nautical miles to sail, and only few weeks to do it in, to get to Davao in the Philippines, where we will join the sailing rally to Suluwesi and Raja Ampat in late August. Roxanne will be right to travel in a couple of weeks and Team Labyrinth is looking to forward to being reunited in the Philippines and continuing to explore this beautiful world together.