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We recently held our annual recce trip over to our camps overseas for teachers to conduct the necessary risk assessment checks, familiarise themselves with our expeditions and get excited to bring their students over for their very own expeditions. Alicia was part of a group of teachers from across Australia who headed to Borneo for a jam-packed week in December 2018. Have a read about her time in Borneo – we get the feeling she enjoyed herself!

On returning from a week in Borneo on a whirlwind Teacher Recce with Camps International, I wanted to write down some thoughts and impressions I got from my time there. What happened instead was more of a letter to home from a traveller experiencing new things, pushing some boundaries, an “old dog learning new tricks” and, (well, there is no other way to put it), starting a love affair with a beautiful culture….

Dear husband and kids,

WOW! We are having a fantastic week 😊 I keep looking around to share the things I’m seeing with you and am disappointed you aren’t here to see, smell, hear and feel what I am right now!!! The flight wasn’t too bad, the longest one I’ve been on in my short travelling experience. 7 hours passed quite quickly, I think it was excitement of what we were all about to embark on and not really knowing just what we will experience when “in country”. My excitement has proven to be quite underrated…. Borneo is quite extraordinary.

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I’m travelling with 9 other teachers from QLD, NSW and VIC, as well as Lyndsea from the Operations Team and Rory, the Asia Pacific Director. We’ve lost someone already, (not really, she missed the connecting flight…), but Vicki met us 24 hours later once we arrived in Camp Bongkud by way of Al, her personal chauffeur and Camps International’s Asia Manager. Turns out it doesn’t matter where teachers are from or what they teach, we all get along very well and have had a great time finding connections and making new friendships. This comraderie and easy conversation has made me realise that when we bring our students here, they will be doing the same and experiencing social growth within a new context and culture.

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We started our adventures on day 1 after a short sleep in the Borneo Backpackers and a wander around KK’s (Kota Kinabalu) markets. Sooooo much colour and soooo many different things to home! The fresh food and juice stalls are simply never ending…

We met our Fab-ulous (Fab is his name, no, really it is!) Leader and we were on our way to the first camp. The bus ride was comfortable, and we had plenty of stops to stretch our legs and use the “facilities”. The toilets have been an eye opener, but not as bad as they first look. You can use the ‘squat’ toilets, but most stops also have western style ones too. I just have to keep remembering to take my own wipes so I don’t have to use the hose! Our arrival at Camp Tinangol was met with warmth and more delicious food! Gosh, these people can cook. Soups, salads, stir frys, chicken and fish, I am LOVING the food. We had a safety induction and have checked out the bamboo longhouses where we’ve been sleeping. They are really unique and very comfortable.

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The mozzie netting is a bonus and so far, I’ve managed to stay out the way of them – thankyou Bushmans with DEET! I’ve learnt a few things about Bushmans this trip. It doesn’t taste great (wash hands after applying it), and make sure you only have 50% DEET in it, any stronger and it’ll become corrosive. The showers have been cool, (ok, been mostly cold), but not unwelcome as the temperature has been so hot that a cold shower hasn’t been an issue. And “shower” is sometimes a word used for “bucket bath”, but I think I prefer a bucket bath and feel more refreshed after that than a shower, go figure?!

We’ve met some of the locals in Tinangol village and seen some of the project work that Camps do. It’s really impressive. I’m so keen for our students to have an impact in these villages. Tinangol is quite famous for its beads and we have some beautiful mementos to bring home. I even had a go at learning traditional dance here. Yes, I can have 2 left feet in many cultures it seems.

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From Tinangol we travelled to Bongkud. Such a special place. We witnessed the opening of a completed Kindy project. I felt such pride for the community, even though I had no hand in anything except to eat the great feast and admire the excellent work done by volunteers and the villagers. We were so lucky to be part of the 10 year celebrations and had a spot of karaoke-ing and dancing. Big Al has a singer’s voice, think I might get myself a playlist together for him to sing for when we are back with the students 😊 We had a great afternoon at the community sports day. The local kids are gorgeous and so much fun to get involved with. We got flogged at tug-of-war by a local team who were serious enough to be wearing what looked like snow boots to get traction on the grass!! I may never get the use of my arms back…

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I have done a bit of washing here – hand washing, no less! What I thought would be an arduous task was actually quite relaxing and I think I may have to impart some of my new-found washerwoman skills onto the students before they head here so they know what to do when “in camp”.

We visited the Hot Springs nearby, and wait for it, climbed the Jungle Canopy and walked the suspension bridges! I did it! All in the name of risk assessment…. I didn’t even die from heart failure or lose all bodily functions when I looked down and realised how high up I was…. #challengingmyself

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This was backed up by a sunrise climb up the nearest “mountain”. We witnessed an extraordinary sunrise while we were above the clouds. Just incredible. I fall more in love with this place each day.

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From Bongkud we travelled to the Kinabatangan river for our night in the jungle. I now know how to put up a hammock and I slept in it all night. It didn’t even fall down, I’m quite proud of myself! They are surprisingly comfortable. We saw monkeys at the water’s edge at sunset and witnessed the sounds of the jungle readying itself for nightfall. This was followed by a night walk finding all the creepy crawlies and avoiding leeches. I really can’t describe how cool it was. We were unable to visit the project site here as we had a lot of rain and couldn’t access it in the time we had, but I look forward to coming back and planting some trees or de-vining the jungle, so the natural forest can re-generate. Seeing the endless palm oil plantations and learning about the impact the tree clearing has had on the habitat here is just devastating. It makes me more acutely aware of how our small contributions will make a lasting impact on the future of the jungle and species living within it.

Next stop:  ORANGUTANS!!!!!! And SUN BEARS!!!!!!

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There is nothing else I can say but…. ORANGUTANS!!!!! SUN BEARS!!!!!!!

Ah-maze-ing!!!!!! Sepilok, I love you!

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One of the most incredible revelations on this trip has been the education we have gotten from the Camps staff. Fab has enlightened us on the Sandakan Death Marches and we have visited memorials and gardens. Not a dry eye in the house. We were all so affected by what happened here during WW2. I think I have some reading to do on our history when I get home…

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Had a fabulous “last night” dinner at a local western food restaurant and was able to reconnect with people we had met at the camps. Just such a great bunch of welcoming and gracious hosts.

We have spent our last day on the island of Mamutik (with the lovely Mel from Camps International), 10 minutes from the mainland. Did a bit of snorkelling and relaxing. Gorgeous weather and fantastic reefs here. The abundance of marine life rivals the Great Barrier Reef.

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We are off home now, I’m sad to be leaving but so incredibly energised to push our last fundraising ventures through and get all our students here to experience this incredible place. The variety of culture and beauty of the country has made a lasting impression on me. I can’t wait to come back for longer and get stuck into some project work.

Dearest Sabah, I will see you again in 9 months!

Dearest family, I will be a bit smelly when I get off the plane! But, that just means I’ve had the most diverse of experiences and am now a fully-fledged backpacker!!!!!

Love Alicia xx