Just 15 metres from the Poring National Park boundary in Sabah, East Malaysia, the forest is alive with birds making their early morning ablutions. Resident-volunteer Graham stares into the forest and gestures to me with two fingers from his eyes outwards. "I don't believe you can count a creature unless you've looked into their eyes," he says. That would make my count the morning after the night before at "eco-jungle camp" Lupa Masa four humans (including Graham) and two birds -- one sleeping.
Graham is volunteering at Lupa Masa, which means "forget time", set up in late 2010 by long-time Sabah resident Tom Hewitt. Set above a tumbling river on the edge of the national park, the camp is an extremely rustic affair that promises the chance to "observe fantastic flora and fauna, waterfalls and go trekking in a pristine rainforest setting".
I'm at the camp by chance. Tom and I had been in email contact for years, so when I found myself in Kota Kinabalu we met up at the excellent El Centro bar, run by his partner. Tom was more succinct on Lupa Masa's offerings: "The camp gives people the chance to experience a true introduction to the jungle."
From Kota Kinabalu I take a share minivan for 2.5 hours to transport hub Ranau, on the far side of Mount Kinabalu. From there it's another 30 minutes by share-taxi to Poring hot springs, where I meet two Dutch backpackers also headed to Lupa Masa.
Twenty minutes later our guide appears. She's a 20-something Chicagoan volunteer fresh off the boat after a year teaching in Japan with a hop through the Philippines. Couchsurfing and volunteering ("It's better when they throw in the food") her way through the region, she's about a third of the way through her two-week stint at Lupa Masa.
She sorts us out with blankets from the laundry (I foolishly pass on the leech proof socks) and we head off. After 10 minutes on a gravelled track we veer left, duck through a natural gateway of dead banana palms and fallen bamboo and we're in the jungle.
You can still see glimpses of sky through the canopy but the temperature and ambient light plummet while the volume of birdsong ramps up (along with the humidity). Grand trees and clusters of enormous bamboo come together in a tapestry of greens while echoes of life in the village of Poring behind us are muffled by the river rumbling ahead. The trail is easygoing and leads us to a bamboo bridge over a waterfall crashing into a pond below. "That's the shower," we're told half-jokingly -- and then we're there, "Lupa Masa Jungle Kamp".
With many years in the adventure travel industry, Tom wanted to create a back-to-basics jungle camp where visitors would be able to experience jungle life in a manner close to the "real deal". Arriving at the camp it's easy to see he's achieved his goal -- jungle life is brutal, uncomfortable and unyielding.
Initially I think we've reached a previous incarnation of Lupa Masa. The common area is a tarp-covered platform with a split bamboo floor; otherwise it's open to the forest and its inhabitants. There's a low-slung table littered with beer cans, ashtrays, candle holders and a guest book. Bags of rubbish ready for carting out are piled on a bench and a small book collection, ranging from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance through to Birds of Borneo are scattered about. Handmade parangs (a kind of traditional machete), local jungle concoctions and warm Chang beer are for sale, a faded map of Sabah adorns one side of the room and a filtered water tank drips near the other.
There's not a soul to be seen and it feels like we've tumbled into the jungle camp the world forgot. Everything, save the bird book and a bright red generator, feel either moist to touch or grimy underfoot. To the rear is an open-to-the-jungle canopy platform with a couple of hammocks and beyond the railing: wilderness. I walk onto the platform and the relaxation washes over me like the thunder above.
I've hit Lupa Masa at an inopportune moment. The Scottish manager, Michael, was called away at short notice when his partner went into early labour with their twins. The brief handover to volunteers was unexpected and while it feels like they're finding their footing, they're also clearly making it up as they go. There's little guidance nor information we can find and we're largely left to our own devices. Compared to the smooth-running El Centro, Lupa Masa feels shambolic.
A storm knocked out the camp's small hydro system, so with no electricity one of the first tasks is to cool the beer. We put cans of Chang into string stockings and stow them in the camp's natural refrigerator -- the river. My mood improves immediately, not so much at the prospect of beer but rather because the river and its surroundings are stunning.
A tributary of a larger river that flows out of the national park itself, the fast-running, rock-strewn river is enveloped by the forest overhead. I find rotund flat-topped boulders ideal for relaxing on and while there's a bamboo platform near the trailhead, sitting atop one of the boulders is meditative.
I plan to sit just for a moment to catch my breath but don't rise for almost an hour. The water rushing around my boulder is chilled to touch and dances around my feet while I gaze upriver for signs of life. Birdsong abounds but the protagonists escape my eye.
Heading back to camp I meet affable Graham, who shows me my lodgings. Save sleeping in the open they are the most basic I've ever had: a simple, half-walled platform with a tarp roof, deckchair mattress for a bed (sans bedding) and mosquito net. It's adequate though and when I wake at around 2am after yet another Close Encounter of the Leech Kind, the jungle hum eases me back to sleep.
I ask about the trail that runs off from the far side of the river, but the response involves a tale of two British guys who tried it, got lost and returned hours after dark sans torch. With a personal history of getting lost in the jungle -- in daylight -- I opt instead for a warm Chang and traveller talk in the common area. This is frustrating, as I could be doing this back in Kota Kinabalu. But without a guide, I need a jungle with signposts or a map, or something! The next day, when I return to KK and unload on Tom, he tells me there is a map -- so if you head out, be sure to get one!
Around warm Chang #3 (we're saving the coldies for dinner) the skies deliver on the thunder's promise. The rain is solid and it's obvious why everything feels moist and a century old. Outside our elevated Shangri-La, the camp is sodden and the leeches come out to play. A quick dash to my room scores me three. Tom's "Jungle Experience" deftly illustrates the struggle to keep what we came to experience at a comfortable distance -- blink and the rainforest will take it back.
While Graham's primary responsibility is leading the bird-watching side of things, he's also a handy cook, and he whips up vegetarian mie goreng in the jungle kitchen. I watch and we chat as he and the other volunteer work over hot woks to a jungle backdrop. Outside the rain pours.
When not volunteering in a jungle camp, Graham is in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago off the east coast of Cornwall, with his whale- and porpoise-spotting partner (opposites attract apparently). There the birding is all about migratory birds while here in the camp he's still getting a handle on what is where. In his 40s, he's in for a longer haul of volunteering and admits it has been more challenging than initially expected. The insects in particular have been brutal and he shows me a nasty wasp bite from earlier that day as evidence.
Well travelled and with a keen interest in birds (he recently limped past 3,000 species) we chat about parks across the region and while he doesn't build up hopes about the evening's walk, I'm at least comforted in knowing that we're in the hands of someone who knows what they're on about.
The rain eases and we head off for a one-hour jungle trail excursion. We see precious little: a beautiful frog, some spiders and a sole sleeping bird. The highlight is glow-in-the-dark lichen plastered across a fallen tree's bark. I pick up a piece and wield it light-saber style -- the photos are not convincing.
The rain strengthens, the trail gets more slippery, and we're a bit "what am I doing here?". There's a collective sigh of relief when Lupa Masa's signboard appears out of the dark.
Colonel Kurtz we are not.
The next morning, Graham and I rise early and we walk a different trail by the park boundary. As with the river the previous day, the beauty of the place impresses. Birds are everywhere. Graham talks about past visitors, and as with the previous night, it is illustrative of the jungle's hit and miss nature -- the Australian snake groupies who enjoyed superb spotting while another wildlife expert left empty-handed after weeks on end.
While walking we pass a banana leaf lean-to left over from a jungle survival course that Michael runs. In this regard, the appeal of Lupa Masa is obvious. The guestbook and reviews online -- both resoundingly positive -- wax lyrical of the experiences guests have had with Michael, so I'm unfortunate to have missed him at camp.
Much as every visit might bring different creatures of interest, the jungle appeals differently to different people. For me the appeal is solidly in its meditative nature. Sitting on a boulder in the river, swinging in a hammock on the terrace, wandering the upper trail, listening to nature. The other side, the damp and those blazing leeches, hold less appeal. Outdoor types and those who want to learn how to survive in the jungle will find Lupa Masa of considerable appeal.
A recent guestbook entry reads "All round fucking best rainforest/life experience" -- and it's easy to see how the right guest could have this reaction. Lupa Masa has a beautiful and memorable setting, but some will certainly prefer their jungle with a few more comforts. If you're looking for the real deal, however, Lupa Masa is a great spot to forget time for a few days.
Lupa Masa official site
Lupa Masa on Facebook
I paid 70 or 90 ringgit for a night's accommodation including meals (sorry I lost the receipt!). Drinks and the night walk are extra. The Jungle Survival course starts at 150 ringgit for one day, 250 ringgit for two days.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 8th May, 2015.