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Volunteering in Borneo

April 22, 2017
Pygmy elephant Borneo

I’ve wanted to visit Borneo for years to see orang-utans in the wild. Like many people, I’ve felt strongly that we need to do something about the palm oil production and deforestation that is destroying their habitat and leaving many of them injured or orphaned (not to mention all the other species now extinct or endangered).

I searched online for orang-utan volunteering projects and was excited to find one that allows children to participate, since many volunteering opportunities are only open to adults. The social enterprise we volunteered with is APE Malaysia (Animal Projects and Environmental Education), and having just spent the Easter school holidays having an AMAZING time in Borneo, I’m keen to share our experience.

We arrived with a little trepidation having never participated in an organised trip like this before. (Our previous volunteering trip which involved teaching English to children in Cambodia was done on our own schedule and we booked all our own accommodation and meals.) We were advised that we wouldn’t have access to wifi, shops, or hot water and that all meals would be eaten in the villagers’ homes. Annabelle can be a fussy eater so I was imagining her living on boiled rice for the week!

We spent our first project night in a traditional Bornean longhouse, which was a stark contrast to the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu. We shared a dormitory with the English family joining us on this project – a mum, dad and twin boys the same age as Annabelle. The toilets and showers were shared not only with other travellers from all parts of the world, but all the resident bugs and critters of the jungle!

There was a nice community feel at the longhouse though. Really, it was just like camping!  There were several families with young children all passing through on their way to the same destinations we would be heading to (Sepilok where the wildlife sanctuaries are, and Sukau village on the river).  I overhead lots of chatter over breakfast about people’s plans for the day.

We met our project co-ordinators, Mark and Sumira for dinner. Mark has worked with APE for the past nine years and is a passionate and knowledgeable conservationist. Sumira joined APE in 2016, and spends much of her time working in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). She loves children and was a fantastic support during our week together.

Adventure Time..

The next morning we were up and away to our jungle destination of Sukau via a supermarket stop for any last minute purchases (snacks for fussy kids and footy socks to deter leeches in the jungle!)

First things first – our B&B on the river had air-conditioned rooms, ceiling fans, hot water showers and wifi in the café. The café also had free flowing coffee and tea all day and a beautiful view of the river. The food was great and included a mix of Malay and western options. So our minds were put at ease about those things immediately. It felt like luxury compared to what we were expecting.

When volunteering groups come through, they rotate through different B&Bs in the area to spread the income around various local businesses. I think we got the best one as it’s been upgraded over the years with more tourists bringing income to the area.

As soon as we arrived, we saw dozens of long-tailed macaques chasing each other through the trees, which made us feel like we’d definitely arrived in the jungle.  Later, we took a boat trip along the river for wildlife spotting. Of course everyone wants to see pygmy elephants or orang-utans but there are never any guarantees, so I tried not to get my hopes up. We couldn’t have been more excited to spot a male orang-utan (very hard to get a good picture) and a whole herd of pygmy elephants who put on a show for us when we were the last boat on the river after all the others had headed back for dinner. It felt like they waited especially for us. (Later in our trip, I overhead other tourists saying they’d been up and down the river four times and not an elephant in sight so we definitely got lucky!)

pygmy elephant borneo
Male pygmy elephant

Jungle Work

Our job was to plant trees in sections of the forest that have previously been cleared by logging. In  2006, the ‘corridor of life‘ was officially gazetted as a conservation area and is now protected from further logging or agriculture. We learned that orang-utans naturally move through the forest canopy, and it’s not natural for them to come to the ground. When sections of forest are cleared there is no longer a continuous canopy for them to move through. By replanting trees in cleared areas, sections of forest will eventually be reconnected, allowing the great apes easy passage through the jungle.

Being a kid-friendly project, we had two quite modest goals: The first was to use machetes to clear away weeds and grasses strangling some 70-80 new saplings planted three months ago. (10yr olds with machetes!! But it was all very safe.) The second was to plant 36 trees in a nearby section of forest.

Our days started with breakfast at 6am so we would get to the project site early enough to beat the heat of the day. It was hot, humid and reasonably strenuous work but the tasks were manageable and the working hours relatively short. As adults we all felt we could have done more, but I think the kids were happy with just the two days required to achieve our goals! When jungle time was over, it was game time on their various ipads and phones.

Our group with Mark and Sumira

Play Time!

In our free time, we were treated to various cultural experiences. We learned about traditional music, dancing and crafts in the home of local villagers. Plenty of neighbours came along to join in the dancing and I think the party continued long after we had left.

We also ate most meals in the home of a local family, and I’m happy to report that even my fussy Annabelle raved about the food. SFC (‘Sukau Fried Chicken’) was  a winner with the kids! All of these activities help to provide some income to the villagers and get them on board with supporting eco-tourism along the river.

We visited Gomantong Cave and learned about the harvesting of swiftlet birds nests for use in Chinese medicine. At dusk, we observed birds of prey swooping for their dinner when thousands of bats exit the caves. It seemed that everywhere we went, an orang-utan was waiting to greet us. There was plenty to keep the bird-watchers entertained too.

Pied Hornbill
Pied Hornbill in the jungle

We trekked in the muddy jungle and took another wildlife spotting boat trip.  Mark was able to answer any question about the jungle and its inhabitants, the palm oil industry, and Sabah’s conservation policy. Both Mark and Sumira constantly astounded us with their ability to spot a well hidden creature in the trees from a distance in a fast-moving boat! All up, we saw six of the ten primates that reside in the area, as well as various snakes, lizards, birds and of course the lovely pygmy elephants.

Kinabatangan River Borneo

Always, the scenery was stunning.

On our last project day we visited Sepilok. This is where you can get up close to the animals at the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre We also took a walk through the  Rainforest Discovery Centre before having a lovely farewell lunch and saying goodbye to our friends.

Annabelle and I chose to stay on in Sepilok for another day so that we could independently visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. It’s actually part of a privately owned palm oil plantation, but the owner discovered a living community of proboscis monkeys in part of the forest. To protect the monkeys, he had the area declared a conservation area. He now charges tourists a fee to view them when they come down to be fed. Proboscis monkeys are unique to Borneo and this is the best place to see them up close.

Proboscis monkey borneo
Mum and baby proboscis monkey

In summary, we had a fantastic experience. The information and safety briefings were thorough and our project coordinators were brilliant. Everything was well-organised and our schedule ran perfectly to time so there was never any stress. Seeing the elephants and orang-utans in their natural habitat was a dream come true for me. Annabelle declared that she loved it too. I think all the kids had a great time together.

How to book

APE Malaysia has several volunteering opportunities which you can see on their website. (I don’t get anything for recommending them.)

If you’re in Australia, Mark suggests booking through Barbara Katsifolis, a Melbourne based travel agent specialising in responsible tourism and herself a frequent visitor to Borneo. Barbara recently participated in a 2-week volunteering trip to the Sun Bear Centre so she’s familiar with APE and their work. She wrote a blog about her experience which you can read here.
(Sun Bears are on my list now!!) You can find her on Facebook HERE or her contact details are: or phone 0408 360 890

Happy travels!

Cass Dunn signature - Black

It’s a jungle out there

April 9, 2017
Orangutan in Sumatran

I’m writing this from a traditional longhouse in Malaysian Borneo where my daughter and I are spending the night. I have limited internet and am using this opportunity to let anyone know who might be looking for me that I’ll be non-contactable for the next week.

We will be trekking into the jungle, which is the natural habitat of orangutans, pygmy elephants, gibbons, sunbears and other amazing creatures. and volunteering on a project supporting the reforestation of the wildlife corridor.

View from our long house

I’ll be back in the land of wifi and connectivity next weekend and back at home/work on Wednesday 19th April.

I look forward to sharing pictures and stories of our adventure when we return.

Cass Dunn signature - Black

Update: Life on the farm

April 30, 2015

It’s been almost three months since we relocated from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast hinterland and what a busy time it’s been as we all adjust to our new surroundings and routines. Inwardly, I’ve been reminded of what William Bridges calls ‘the neutral zone’, which is how he describes the ‘no man’s land’ we find ourselves in after we have experienced an ending of some sort, but before the new beginning has fully taken shape. In the neutral zone, he says we find ourselves withdrawing from the outside world, spending time in quiet contemplation, and reflecting on our values. This is very much what the last couple of months has been like for me. (Bridges’ theory of transition is one that my clients frequently find relevant when they are going through a time of change, so I’ll write more about that separately.)  

Only in the past few weeks have I found myself emerging back into the real world and re-engaging with social connections and work projects (and this website and this Facebook page) so I thought it timely to post an update.

Starting with the fun stuff…

The animals!

One of my long held dreams has been to live on acreage and rescue farmed animals and this was one of our main motivations for moving to the country. We are still working on getting some paddock fences to contain larger animals but meanwhile we have added to our menagerie with six more ex-battery hens (Eggy Azalea, Chicky Minaj, Victoria Peckham, Jennifer Heniston, Kylie Mineggue and Bjork) and a lovely rescue dog named Jake who is great company for Scout, our 3yr old border collie.

Jake the border collie
Jake is around 8mths old and loving farm life.
Eggy Azalea

The Cabin

Now that we’ve settled in to our home, my next major project is going to be renovating the existing 2-bedroom cabin on the property so that it can potentially be rented out as a writer’s/artist’s retreat. There is also a shed nearby the cabin, which I plan to convert to a meditation space so that I can offer mindfulness classes here on the property. I look forward to sharing progress photos as the work gets underway!

Inside the cabin
Inside the cabin
The Cabin
The Cabin

And the work stuff…

I am now available for psychology appointments on Fridays at Circle Wellness Clinic in Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast.

I am no longer taking on new clients in Brisbane but I am still available in Ashgrove on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for existing clients and returning clients. So as long as you’ve been to see me before, you’re welcome to come and see me in Ashgrove!

Upcoming courses and workshops:

Introduction to MindfulnessThis afternoon beginner’s workshop is a great way to learn about the theory and practice of mindfulness meditation. Come along and bring a friend to take advantage of the couple’s discounted  price.

Saturday 30th May, 2pm to 4.30pm @ Circle Wellness, Peregian Beach. Register your interest by emailing me or filling in this form.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Stress and Self-Care : It’s hard to imagine anyone could be stressed here on the Sunshine Coast but I’m sure there must be a few people around who would be interested to learn how to use mindfulness for stress reduction and self-care. Dates and venues aren’t yet finalised but if you’re interested, contact me to register your interest and I’ll keep you updated as I firm up details!

Remember that the best way to stay updated with dates for courses and events is to subscribe to my newsletter. I only send it out when there is new information so I promise not to overload your inbox.

Until next time, remember….

Quote by Dalai Lama
Cass Dunn signature - Black

Important news: I’m moving!

January 23, 2015
driveway view


This post is a more of a personal communication than a typical blog post but it seems a good way to get the message out.

My husband and I have recently made a decision to sell our house in Brisbane and pursue our dream of living on an acreage block. We’ve talked about it for many years but have always found it to be far more logical and sensible to live in the city where we can easily commute to our respective jobs.  The idea has never gone away though – and so late last year, when we stumbled upon the perfect place for us in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, we decided there really is never a good time to make these kinds of major life changes – so why not now?

Some of you know that I’m quite passionate about animal welfare, and so for a long time I’ve wanted to live in the country and provide a little sanctuary for rescued animals. I’ve also envisioned that this place would have space for me to create a meditation hall/retreat space where I can run mindfulness workshops and courses. The place we have found is an 11 acre block so it’s certainly big enough for us to keep animals, and as a bonus it already has a fully self-contained cabin with 3-bay shed which I hope to be able to convert for use as a meditation hall and workshop space, or perhaps even to provide short-stay accommodation as a writer’s or artist’s retreat.

The Cabin

The Cabin

What this means for my psychology practice is that I will continue to work from my office in Ashgrove on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only. Over the coming months my goal will be to build a client base on the Sunshine Coast. I am running my Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course on Tuesday nights in Brisbane commencing February 3rd but I’m not sure for how much longer I’ll be able to travel to Brisbane to run an evening course so if you’re considering doing the course, I’d encourage you to register for this one.

I am currently looking for a space to see individual clients on the Sunshine Coast for a couple of days each week and will also be looking for a space to run courses and workshops until I can hopefully create my own space. I’ll keep you posted via my Facebook Page or my Newsletter when those details are all confirmed. By all means, email me at if you know of a place that might work for me!

I’m also still confirming dates for the next Introduction to Mindfulness workshop and plan to run this both in Brisbane and on the Sunshine Coast in late February or early March. Again, stay tuned either by Facebook or by subscribing to my Newsletter.

I look forward to keeping you updated on the progress of our semi-rural sea change, and my availability for individual appointments on the sunny Sunshine Coast.

Cass Dunn signature - Black



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