I am nearing the end of my first week in Borneo, and so far I have somehow managed to escape the horrid reactions to mosquito and other insect bites that some of my companions have been cursed with. All else, though, we deal with together; the draining heat, the cravings of food from home and familiar luxuries, and of course the love for the work we will soon be undertaking.
When I talk to friends back home they describe to me a typical New Zealand winter; iced-up car windows, clear skies with cold days suddenly turning to heavy cloud and tumultuous rain. Winter is hard to imagine when here the hot air presses in on me like a weight. Sitting still sees you covered in a trickling sweat; my skin constantly glistens, and smells of Deet. Although the jungle is sheltered by an entwined tree canopy, there is no breeze; the heat captures you, so you keep moving to create a slight air current that makes it seem less stifling. Right now Sabah is in its driest months, but every night we hear the furiously loud thunder and see the lightning storms. Dry weather keeps the leeches to a minimum – I have yet to come across one of these worms, but we know that after the rain they will become much more familiar, as will even greater populations of buzzing, biting insects.
While us volunteers are still in our “quarantine” week, we have been given the opportunity to travel around the area a little. We’ve been split into two groups for various activities, the first being a trip around Sandakan. This was mainly to allow us to get to a supermarket so that we could pick up some essential items, but also saw us visiting a couple of local tourist destinations.
On Thursday my group of six hopped in a van with our cheerful and knowledgeable local guide, Gary. Gary gave us the chance to mention the types of shops we needed to visit, and also told us bits and pieces about Sanakan. Sandakan used to be the capital city of the state of Sabah, but this ended in the 1940’s when the Japanese invaded. Once a main trading centre and site for British settlement, in 1944 Sandakan was destroyed by the devastating Japanese occupation and consequential bombing by the Allied forces. Now the region is known for its fishing, eco-tourism and resource exports. Gary says it is nothing like the capital city it used to be.
Our first stop of the day was to the Sandakan Memorial Park. This park is a beautiful tribute to all of those who died during the horrific events of the Japanese occupation; British and Australian troops, and locals alike. I admit that I had little knowledge of what actually happened in Sabah dring those years, and to learn its history was harrowing. The Memorial Park itself sits on the very site of one of the infamous prisoner of war camps where countless soldiers were tortured and killed. During the war, Allied forces damaged the Sandakan airfield and surrounding area so greatly that in 194 the Japanese had to move their local operations. Thus began the “Death Marches”.
At first, hundreds of prisoners were selected to carry food and other supplies to Ranau, a town 260 kilometres (160 miles) away. They were made to travel on foot. While these soldiers were deemed the strongest of the bunch, they were still malnourished, and often injured or diseased. Many died along the way or were shot. Once the Sandakan camp was completely closed several months later, the remaining prisoners were forced to do the same journey across two further marches. Keeping in mind that these leftover men were generally deemed weaker as the first group, they also fared terribly. Ultimately 2,345 Allied prisoners died thanks to these horrific marches. Only six prisoners survived – a mere six Australians who, incredibly, managed to escape during the three marches. They were the only survivors left to tell of the true horror.
The Memorial Park as it stands today is a sobering and moving tribute. Every year on ANZAC Day a service is held in remembrance of all those who fell. Being there, in that exact spot where so many fellow humans were held captive, tortured and slaughtered, was a very emotional experience. We spent many long moments in silence. I won’t forget it.
The rest of our day included a visit to a beautiful Chinese temple overlooking Sandakan and its long bay. The Memorial Park and temple instilled a sense of stillness and quiet. It was a very moving few hours. Sabah holds a great deal of history, and there is a richness of diverse cultures. Usually my focus is just on the animals, but it was really good to learn a little about Sandakan’s past and its people.
Our day ended with a complete contrast – a frantic but necessary trip to the (huge) local supermarket. We are now equipped with snacks, practical items such as washing powder for our soon-to-be filthy clothes, and other bits and bobs. We’re as prepared as we can be for our first working day on Monday, and are more than excited for the next stage of our adventure.