Borneo is an island rich with natural beauty, from ancient lush rainforests to stunning tropical islands, but behind the idyllic surface, the island faces a wide range of problems. With permanent camps based in Borneo since 2009, Camps International volunteers have been helping to conserve the country’s natural resources and make a real difference to the lives of people in rural communities.

One of our lovely travellers Joanna has recently returned from a 3-month Asia trip, spending time in our camps in Borneo and Cambodia. Here’s a small snapshot of her time spent in our beautiful Camp Mantanani, Borneo…


Picture the scene: a hammock strung from tree to tree hanging above pale sands. The gentle swing as an occasional breeze takes the edge off the sun’s early afternoon glare. The sound of birds calling to each other in the depths of the jungle inland mixed with the peaceful swell as each wave brings the sea back to the shore. Now you know where I am.

I am on the Island of Mantanani and, if there ever was an earthly paradise, then maybe this is it. Each day is perfect.

Joanna Stell -Borneo 2017 - Matanani Sunset

Our mornings have been spent working on a new community toilet. Making our project as eco-friendly as possible, the walls are made from bottles collected from the beach stuffed with styrofoam and plastic wrappers. We’ve locked away litter that could otherwise seriously harm the marine wildlife behind layers of chicken wire and cement to build our walls. Now this is the feel-good volunteering that I came for.

When not working we’ve made the most of our location with sunset boat rides, sea kayaking trips to explore the nearby islands and far too competitive games of beach volleyball. I’ve also learnt all there is to know about the wonders of coconut.

Joanna Stell - Borneo 2017 - Project Plastic Bottle Wall

The island is so breathtakingly beautiful and so ideally remote. But it is these qualities that are also the root of most of the islands issues. The remoteness of the island has directly impacted our stay on Mantanani with limited fresh fruit and vegetables, no contact to the outside world and only generator-powered electricity from 6pm to 6am (although for some reason the electricity seems to be on a twelve hour timer from 6:37pm at the moment).

But for the locals the issues are felt far more severely. Firstly, with no hospital or health clinic on the island, any medical emergencies require a 60 minute boat ride to even get within driving distance of a doctor. Consequently the villagers hold home remedies in high regard, whether it be coconut water or turtle eggs (old habits unfortunately die hard).

Joanna Stell - Borneo 2017 - Camp Matanani Buildings

But now the issue closest to my own heart: education. In 2006 the level of academic achievement was so poor here that every child failed their end of school exam. An 100% failure rate from the island’s eleven and twelve year olds. With just a primary school on the island, any child wishing to pursue their education beyond this must enroll in a boarding school on the mainland, something few of the families here can afford. Most children are limited to six years of schooling and even this is rarely sufficient. Despite the beauty of this place, few teachers are willing to travel across to teach and of those who do, some of these do so with so little enthusiasm that they spend Monday taking all their time to arrive and Friday leaving the island early, giving their pupils only three days of learning.


Yet there is hope for this little island. There are now marine conservation programmes in place to help educate the villagers on how to protect their coral and wildlife: don’t use fish bombs anymore; stop eating turtle eggs; try to stop rubbish getting to the sea. We were lucky enough to participate in part of this conservation, helping the school children to replant coral with the intention of bringing back the life to the dying reefs. In terms of education, there are teachers within the school that do care about the children and are prepared to fight for their right to learn. We did what we could over the fortnight in teaching basic conversation classes and helping the children count to twenty in English.

Joanna Stell - Borneo 2017 - Project Painting Wall

As for the issue of land ownership, volunteers are beginning to educate the islanders on their legal rights and encourage them to claim the papers stating that the land they live on does in fact belong to their family and cannot simply be snatched from under their feet by hungry developers. Meanwhile, the stray cows of the island keep roaming, the monitor lizards keep paddling and the geckos keep partying on the ceiling. The natural world, as ever, seems largely oblivious to the worries and stresses of man happening around it. Maybe we should all try to stay as beautiful and perfect as nature, whatever struggles are going on.

Joanna Stell - Borneo 2017 - Camp Matanani

If you are inspired by Joanna’s story and would like to be part of the important project work that is making an impact in communities like Mantanani, check out our range of programmes in Borneo here.

We are currently running over 20 projects in Borneo, including rainforest regeneration work, repairing and extending school buildings, contributing to the local economy through promoting homestays, constructing a community centre, market place and toilets, installing a gravity fed water system and many more. Whether you travel with us for just a couple of weeks or 3 months – to Borneo or any of our other destinations across Asia, Africa and South America – you’ll be contributing to lasting and sustainable project work which we are absolutely committed to finishing, without compromise.

To view all of our volunteer programmes, click here.

You can also read about the rest of Joanna’s adventures in Borneo and Cambodia in her blog here.