From humble beginnings in an empty longhouse in Sabah, Camp Borneo has flourished over the last 10 years, creating positive impact for communities and wildlife all over the region and establishing a home for international volunteers to immerse themselves in Borneo’s unique culture.
We caught up with Rory, our Asia Director and Mel, Camp Borneo Country Manager, to talk about this incredible journey.
Describe the Camp Borneo operations and team when you started working there 10 years ago… how has it grown since then?
Rory: Camp Borneo really started in August 2008, when we finally got the company registered and licensed and I took on its first employee, Mel. Other than that, we had nothing other than an empty office and a computer.
We spent much of 2008 looking for our first camp location – we were shown various empty fields and met many communities but weren’t doing so well until someone mentioned the community of Tinangol and their under-utilised long houses. I knew as soon as I drove down the track to the longhouse that this was where it was all going to start from. It ticked nearly all our boxes and the community – and specifically the management of the longhouse – were ideally positioned for us to start a mutually beneficial relationship. And so we sat down on the floor in the longhouse and discussed our hopes and dreams, listened to the community’s wishes and we very quickly came to an agreement. And as they say, the rest is history…
10 years on we now employ over 30 permanent staff, most of whom have been with us for the majority of the journey, have 3 permanent full-time camps which are working all year round, and relationships with scores of other communities, providers, NGO’s, authorities, and movers and shakers in Sabah. Our bright orange T shirts are a very regular site around state from North to South and East to West.
Mel: Joining the Camps family seemed only a moment ago, yet we have grown so much from how we operate then and now. Being able to work on a sustainable community development programs has always been a great passion and lifelong dream of mine and being able to do it long term meant the whole world.
We went from working on my kitchen table to cafes to eventually having a proper office to run the full operations – from getting the required licensing to operate, putting in place a responsible and sustainable standard of operations, planning/training/implementing the activities, right up to shopping for volunteers’ groceries and the camp food menu… the list goes on, with great improvements every year.
The most rewarding part has been setting up good relationships and trust working alongside local communities. Through mutual understanding we’ve developed meaningful projects all over the Sabah region that benefit rural local communities, volunteers and members of staff as a whole.
Camp Bongkud – before and after
What do you love most about Borneo?
Rory: I have lived and worked in Sabah for 14 years now and know every nook and cranny. It’s got incredible jungle, beaches, Mount Kinabalu, marine life and food to name but a few things. But to me it’s the people – the small communities in which we work, the people who we have worked with and amongst for many years, their generous warm nature, unassuming, open and giving.
Every team or visitor that goes into our camps is welcomed with open arms like a long lost relative. That’s what I love most and that’s what has made our operation here so successful – that sense of family and kindness.
Mel: Having been born in Borneo, it’s only natural to say it’s home sweet home, but that’s not just it. Having years of experience working and traveling overseas, it kind of hits home when you are away in foreign land that what Borneo has to offer is so extraordinarily unique in culture, nature and its people and that is what I love about my home!
What’s your favourite camp in Borneo?
Rory: That’s tricky and a bit unfair to single one out. Of the 3 main camps, they all have features which mark them out amongst my favourites. Tinangol was our first camp with its stunning traditional longhouses and fun Rungus staff. At Bongkud, I love its location in the centre of the village, high year-round capacity and smiley kitchen crew. And of course on Mantanani, the relaxed atmosphere and stunning beach and lagoon. The common thread throughout all 3 is the amazing staff.
Mel: It is very hard to have one favourite camp as I genuinely feel that each of them are unique in character, have different cultural backgrounds, amazing infrastructures and members of Camps crew from the village who make you feel like you belong in their lives. It is what makes us feel like family everywhere we go.
What’s your favourite project?
Rory: Again tricky, since there have been so many, but it probably has to be the kindergarten at Tinangol. This was our first major project and took a lot of time to complete, but I was there a few days ago and it still looks stunning, bright, and provides a brilliant setting for kids to start their education. To see all our projects being used day in day out is so rewarding.
Mel: It’s a hard one to pick. We have so many worthwhile projects, from connecting water to homes, building educational, sports and community administration facilities, building homes for the elderly who have no families to support them, building bridges to common routes to schools and farmlands, planting trees, protecting and conserving our marine and jungle wildlife that’s near to extinction and much more. These are all projects with great purpose and in the end, all of what we do connects the pieces of the puzzle.
How have you seen the communities and environment grow and develop since working here?
Rory: I have seen change everywhere with roads and buildings, but it’s the change in the staff and community members which is the most rewarding. They started with us shy and unsure. Now they are seasoned, professional and confident, both with their language but in their day to day dealings with the volunteers.
They know how we tick and our funny nuances (fussy eating, weak tummies, funny language and accents) and they take it their stride. And they are also now very proud of who they are – a self confidence that their background and village is something to hold on to and be proud of. This is the most important change.
Mel: We have grown in so many ways – through experience and skills we thought we never had, trees planted from 10 years ago are now more than 20 ft high, villages who had no kindergarten now have a place for their children to get education, homes which used to depend on water from a well or rainfall now have gravity water connections, our dying culture and traditional dance performances are constantly kept alive through performances to visitors… so many more positives to add – we could write books about how much we have grown!
What’s your proudest moment from the last 10 years?
Rory: There have been so many. So many moments where I have been moved to tears and pride – my sunglasses have been pushed back over my eyes on many an occasion.
Probably one of my prouder moments was watching the girls on Mantanani perform their traditional dance at a village gathering which also had some press and TV crews along. When we had first suggested starting a dance troupe on the island to come into camp to perform it had taken some persuasion to get past their initial shyness. But they started it and it was mainly made up of the girls who work in our kitchen. They started slowly and gradually gained confidence. But when I watched them perform in front of nearly the whole island population and TV crews and dignitaries, it was amazing to see the transformation. They were incredible. Confident, heads held high, outstanding dance – it was amazing and I was struggling to see through my blurry eyes at the end. I think this sums up that growth of self-belief across all our camps in all sorts of different ways – this to me is the Camps Effect.
Mel: It gives me great pride to be part of an organisation that cares for its staff the communities we work alongside, the environment and wildlife, and cares about running the operations in a responsible and ethical way. This is all thanks to the people behind the scenes who make it a successful and meaningful experience for all.
The proudest moment of all for me is to be able to see how it all started, seeing through the growing pains and all the successful results that makes us who we are today. Though there have been ups and downs throughout the journey, the wonderful results of the Camps Effect rubs off onto every single person who has had the opportunity to be a part of it.
What’s in store for the future of Camp Borneo?
Rory: Well I hope another 10 years and much more of course. I want to see the younger members of our staff coming up through to take charge as older ones start to step back. I want to continue to grow our relationships using our camps as a hub to reach out further and to surrounding villages in order to spread the love.
Mel: I’m hoping in years to come as we grow, we are able to engage with more rural communities around Borneo that need our assistance, spreading the Camps love, creating more awareness to do good, improving the lives of others and inspiring more young generations from within and internationally to be future responsible leaders.
You can be a part of the amazing impact in Borneo too. Check out our volunteer trips from 2 weeks to 3 months.