Niamh Varney in Borneo

Young Explorers' Trust

World Challenge Borneo and Malaysia 2015

Report by Niamh Varney

On the 14th of July 2015, I left Bristol for Malaysia, travelling with my World Challenge group. We left at an absurdly early hour for Heathrow Airport, all 14 of us both excited for and somewhat dreading the month to come.

Within an hour of arriving at the airport, we lost our first people. Dawn and Hillary, two girls in our group, had mysteriously vanished while going through luggage check-in, completely without a trace of where they might have gone. Matt, the leader, (who was often called Dave as we already had a Matt in our group) gathered us all together and sent us out to search for them, claiming it was good practise for if we got lost in Malaysia. Half an hour later, we still couldn’t find them.

Laura, one of the teachers, found them about 45 minutes after they had vanished on the other side of security, sitting by a column and acting as if they hadn’t just disappeared on us at all. When we all got through security, which took about 5 minutes as there were doubts I was actually 16, like my passport claimed, we all gathered together and headed towards the boarding area, stopping off to buy breakfast along the way.

I have never been a fan of plane journeys; stuck in a highly pressurised tube with hundreds of other people, hurtling through the air at a ridiculous speed, just isn’t my idea of paradise. Between turbulence, screaming babies and people who refused to turn off their lights, I got roughly 3 hours of sleep on our 11 hour long flight. Regardless of this, I was probably functioning the best out of our group.

Claire had reached the point where everything was funny. She sat in her spot and wouldn’t stop laughing at every tiny detail. Dawn was sobbing over bread and the turbulence spilling her tea; exhaustion always made her act like a melodramatic anime character on the trip. Hillary was possibly the worst, stroking the food cart and talking to her breakfast. I sat in the middle of all of this, fully prepared to knock them all out if it meant I would get an extra few hours of sleep.

After we landed in Singapore it was a two hour flight to Kota Kinabulu. The plane was freezing and I slept maybe half an hour before Dawn decided I was a comfy pillow and attacked me with her bony elbows in an attempt to stay warm. It was at this point I decided that my fleece should always stay in my bag, along with at least one book and a codeword puzzle selection; the only thing worse than a plane journey is being stuck on a plane with no entertainment or warmth.

Kota Kinabulu, the capital of the Sabah region in Malaysian Borneo, is possibly the nicest place I’ve been. Everyone was friendly and reliable when we first arrived, and the sound of Malaysian English and Bahasa Malaysia became as familiar to us as the sounds of home. You could spot tourists by how long it took them to cross a road; in Kota Kinabulu the pedestrians were never yelled at or hated for crossing the road at any moment, but were treated with respect. The drivers were always polite, even when it was clear they were in a hurry. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw anyone acting like we didn’t belong.


Next came the trek. Everyone tells you how hard trekking in a jungle is, how good your cardiovascular endurance has to be, but nobody ever thinks to tell you you’ll be carrying 20kg up a steep hill or mountain so you’ll need to be strong enough to carry at least a third of your own weight. I think the trek along the Crocker Range was the hardest part of my month on Malaysia. The part of the first day of trek was almost entirely uphill, in the direct sunlight of a 32°C day. Within the first two hours, three members of our group had thrown up and almost all of us were done with trekking. Our guides, Jack and DD, were possibly the only reason we didn’t just turn back and go back to Kota Kinabulu.

The next part was downhill, which was a lot easier than uphill. Under the cover of the trees, everyone could breathe easier despite the more intense humidity. We wound our way downwards through myriads of trees hundreds of years older than ourselves. At many points the downhill was so steep that you had to stop walking and start sliding down the mud. At this point I was at the front of the group with the fittest of the boys, whereas during the uphill part I was at the back. I found it easier as I could see where was best to place my weight and how to pivot in order to get around the most difficult of trees. By the time we reached and set up camp, a storm was rolling in and we all had to set up fast or not set up until after the storm had moved on.

There was a waterfall at the first camp, with a pool large enough to fit all of us before it turned into a stream. This was possibly the best part of all of the trek, being able to swim and clean both our clothes and ourselves. Jack and DD showed some of the group how to set up a fire while the rest of us were organising our bashas and hammocks. We ate the spiciest noodles I’d ever tasted that night, and I was most definitely not a fan.

When asked what it’s like sleeping in the jungle, everyone will tell you it’s loud. However, loud doesn’t even begin to cover it. You are trapped in a camp surrounded by 13 other people, most of whom you don’t know properly, and almost all of them either snore or talk in their sleep. The river constantly tricks you into thinking it’s raining, which would mean your washing would get wetter and you have to trek in wetter clothes than you would if it didn’t rain that night (nothing ever dries in the jungle, so you’d be trekking in wet clothes anyway). The insects scream at night, and animals creep around, snapping sticks and jolting you awake in a sudden fit of paranoia. ‘Loud’ doesn’t even begin to cover just how noisy it actually is.

The second day was almost entirely uphill, not the most amazing thing in the world when you only had overcooked porridge and chlorine-tasting water for breakfast. I was still in agony from the day before. When your joints complain about having to carry your body’s weight, even when you’re the perfect weight for your height and build, you struggle to carry a heavy bag up the side of a mountain. Because of this, I was always at the back. At one point, my pain reached an eight on the pain scale, which meant I felt like throwing up, curling up in a ball and sleeping for the next one thousand years, preferably with decent painkillers in my system. If my pack was lighter, I would have just thought of it as scrambling, which is a lot easier than hiking and trekking by any stretch. But, sadly, my pack didn’t magically get any lighter and I remained in pain, at the back of the group with Claire as we commiserated over having to carry all the stuff that the boys refused to take.

The next day was only a 4 hour trek, mostly downhill, and we arrived at camp early. That night, me, Claire, Hillary and Dawn watched the stars from our camp just to the side of a rice plant farm. There were fireflies weaving in and out of the crops, and the stars spread outwards like a spider’s web above us. I don’t think I felt more at peace during the trek aside from that moment. For all the hell the trek had put us through, somehow that one moment made it all worth it.

The next day, we left the Crocker Range and went white water rafting. They were only grade 1 rapids, which is no stronger than a fairly calm river, so our group had to make it fun. We were split between three boats, three teams, two of us with either Jack or DD and one of us with the rafting instructor, who was also called Jack. Between all of us, we started to team up and betray each other in a desperate attempt to pull each other into the river. Jack, the guide, was small but stupidly strong, and would leap from boat to boat, throwing all of us in without an effort. In the end, we’d all been in the river at least once, all of us soaking and completely uncaring that we’d pretty much be drenched for the rest of the day, no matter what clothes we changed into. It was Claire’s birthday that day, so according to Malaysian tradition, we threw her in the river when we got to dry land. It was extremely funny for everyone who wasn’t Claire.

After that it was a return to Kota Kinabulu, to stay at Marina Court, a luxurious apartment with six rooms and enough space for us all to have some time to ourselves. By the second day after returning from out trek, the city was as familiar to us as our own. We found ourselves giving directions and advice to tourists on the best places to eat and where they could find the cleanest backpacker’s hostels. The city was an open book to us, and no place was left unexplored in our free days in the city. The night markets drew our attention, and we would spend from about sunset to 9pm wandering around aimlessly. You could get lost in a sea of jeans and fake designer sunglasses.

Next came Tampat Do Aman, a place at Kudat (the tip of Borneo) ran by a man named Howard. Howard was a constant mass of energy and enthusiasm, bouncing from one job to the next effortlessly. We completed a project in one of the local hamlets, about 2 miles from the café Howard ran. We were building a wheelchair ramp for a young lady, who hadn’t left her home in almost a year. We divided the project into three sections for three groups: the first group was responsible for adding extra supports beneath the house, the second group had to move the gate and steps so the ramp could attach to where the gate and steps previously were, and the third group were tasked with building the ramp. Once a group had finished their task, they were told to start helping the others or start entertaining the local children. Claire, Cameron and I bought sweets for the local children. Once the leader of them, Febian, decided we were safe, the other children soon grouped around us and began practising their English, and encouraged us to practise our Malay as well.


All too soon, the project was finished and we had to leave Tampat Do Aman. Our return to Kota Kinabulu was long, and the next day we were leaving for Sepilok’s nature reserves to see the sun bears and orang-utans. Soon we returned to Kota Kinabulu, ready to leave for Kuala Lumpur the next day.

Kuala Lumpur was a cacophony compared to the relaxed hum of Kota Kinabulu. If you walked across the road at the wrong time, you would get hit. If you stopped walking for so much as a second to get your bearings, you would be shoved from side to side by pedestrians. It was a constant battle between you and your surroundings, like London but worse. By the time we left for the Perhentian Islands, I was exhausted from trying to find balance in the city.

The Perhentian Islands seem like the epitome of paradise, and for many it is. Bubbles Dive Resort was a friendly, relaxed place with kind staff and lots to help out with. Kieran was responsible for giving me and Claire tasks to complete whilst the others were diving, which mostly involved either making sure tourists followed the correct jungle trail or tidying the recycling yard.


In addition to this, we were also told to do nightshifts as it was both laying and hatching season for the green turtles. I did 5 out of 7 nightshifts, checking on the turtle hatchery every half an hour and checking for turtles up and down the beach every hour. Turtles, though one of the most beautiful swimmers, are awkward and agonisingly slow on land. They are easily confused by white light and are picky about where they lay their eggs; sometimes they will start digging in one location, change their minds, then move half a mile down the beach and start all over again. It was frustrating, having to sit there and watch as they slowly edge their way down the beach towards the sea, sometimes for hours at a time. One night, a turtle decided she would start digging in one spot, then decided to move up into the resort area, bumbled about, slamming into benches and kayaks, before coming to stop by a mural of a turtle on the wall of the restaurant. After all of that effort and shuffling around, she decided to turn back and go back to sea. It was both the funniest and the most devastating of all five nightshifts I took.


World Challenge has been one of the single greatest experiences of my entire life. I’ve come back with a new love of travelling and a new knowledge of myself, an awareness of my flaws and strengths. The chance to dive into another culture, to visit another continent, to explore a place I would have otherwise never have been able to go to has been an educational and enriching experience, but it has also taught me that home is more of an emotion than a place, and just as easily as the house you live in can be home, so can your backpack and your group be.


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