Volunteering – 5 Weeks on Mantanani Island, Borneo

So, It’s been months now since we first step foot on Mantanani Island and found our own little slice of paradise! Having spent 5 weeks there it’s been SO hard figuring out how to sum it all up in one tiny blog post but we thought it was about time we stop being lazy and give it a go! After all, we can safely say it was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip so far and a great way to kick start our work abroad.

Finding Mantanani 

We’d already been hanging out in Kota Kinabalu for a week when we stumbled across the Workaway ad for Mantanani. If you’ve ever been to KK you’ll know that a week is a crazy boring amount of time to stay there as there’s hardly anything to do! But, we stuck it out, hanging out in cafes, eating a lot of red velvet cake and trudging around every hostel asking if they had any volunteer work to which we received a lot of blank looks and shakes of the head! We’d all but given up and planned to leave for the Tip of Borneo when we received a response from Fred, the host of a Workaway, that he’d like to meet us! Finally!!!

We met him a few days later and (over more cake…!) chatted all about our reasons for travelling and volunteering and he told us about life on Mantanani, the lodge and the work he does there! It sounded SO perfect for us and luckily Fred thought so too…phew! So, we signed on the dotted line and agreed to sail off into the wilderness the day after next! We left the cafe, did our little victory dance and set off to stock up on anything we might need for the next month; mainly bottles and bottles of deet!

Arriving on Mantanani

Fred picked us up bright and early and we squeezed into his car underneath all the supplies packed in for transporting to the island! This was our first real glimpse of just how remote the island is – that even the simplest necessities of fresh water and food must be taken from the mainland weekly! We drove for two hours from KK to Kota Belud and then took a 45 minute ferry (which goes only once daily!) all the while I think both feeling a little nervous and trepidation at what the next few weeks would hold. But, as the Mantanani archipelago grew bigger in our sights and the water around us sparkled absolutely crystal clear from the cloudless sky we gave each other a knowing look like “is this actually for real!?” Not only had we bagged a space volunteering for the next 5 weeks with an eco-service charity doing some fantastic projects but THIS was where we got to do it!

When you dream of travelling and exploring the world, the one thing all travellers long to find is that perfect haven which is yet untouched by the mass tourism which has so quickly swept through South East Asia. And, whilst I think we probably knew that this was to be ours we didn’t realise just how much we’d come to love it!

Our Hosts 

Fred and his partner SP were our hosts on Mantanani and made us feel so welcome from the outset! We would work to help Fred out with the day to day running of Greenhouse Lodge; an eco resort which Fred has built from the ground up. It is an absolutely beautiful place and one which Fred and SP are so clearly very passionate about! It was fascinating learning all about the ideas behind building the Lodge and the attached Greenhouse. There is currently nothing grown or cultivated on Mantanani itself and the villagers rely on fishing for food or produce brought over from the mainland. At Greenhouse they have already succeeded in beginning to grow their own produce and hope to teach the local villagers how to replicate this and become more self sufficient. This along with work on recycling, beach cleaning, fisheries and the development of a home-stay programme within the village are all things Fred is or has been working on and it’s truly inspiring! So, you can imagine just how interesting it is learning about each of these elements and it really opened our eyes to some of the problems people face living in these more remote island parts. We spent a lot of time with Fred over the course of the 5 weeks and for this we are very fortunate! We had many interesting, weird and wonderful discussions over our nightly dinners, learnt so much and had many many laughs along the way! We also spent a few fun weekends when SP visited; expanding our culinary knowledge and recipes, making huge (and sometimes uncontrollable..!) bonfires on the beach and laying under the stars! We had such an amazing experience and we can’t thank Fred and SP enough for giving us the opportunity and making it so much fun along the way!


Now down to the work…! We might have been living on our paradise island but that doesn’t mean we didn’t put in the hard graft. With Workaway you are only expected to work around 5-6 hours a day but seeing as there was so much to get done and we loved what we were doing we did end up working most of our time! But again, when your office looks like ours did it really isn’t much of an issue! Our work was split into two; guests and lodge construction and maintenance!

Lodge construction;

Fred’s main aim whilst we were on Mantanani was to finish work on the toilet block he had been constructing. So, right from the first day we got down to work! Being a girl with the weakest arms in history the heavy lifting and constructing was left to the boys while I literally painted everything in sight…walls, doors, ceilings!

Josh also worked on finishing a bamboo fence to cordon off a storage area – a physical job but one he was so proud of once he’d finished finding, cutting and hammering every piece into place! It was so good to see each bit finally coming together and the block taking shape – every piece was like a mini victory! On our very last day on Mantanani we painted the last wall and watched as the cement was laid on the outside for the final piece! It was finished!!

Lodge maintenance;

As we mentioned, stepping foot off the island we were overwhelmed with how beautiful it was. However, as we got further up the beach it was clear to see that the beach was not very loved or maintained. Being so small and so out in the open of the South China Sea Mantanani is often battered by the storms that roll through – we’re talking REAL tropical storms which you think may never end! And, in the aftermath the beach is the biggest victim with huge piles of seaweed washed ashore, whole trees and their roots scattered across the beach, a whole load of rubbish and the biggest problem – plastic bottles! The beach had so much potential to be a paradise so we made it our mission to get that beach cleaned!

Every single day we cleared the small branches, dug out and rolled away the tree trunks (some easier said than done – one tree took us at least a week and a lot of sawing to remove!), raked all the mess into piles and moved them off the beach into a fire pit and of course cleared the rubbish. It shocked us just how much rubbish gets washed ashore everyday with the top items found being shoes, nappies and lighters! Plastic bottles, however, were the main and worst culprit as we collected at least 5-20 off of the beach each day! Fred recycles these as much as possible, using them to create the whole back wall of the lodge, but when they don’t stop appearing it can be slightly overwhelming! This is definitely a problem which still needs some work on the island but has made us re-consider the amount of plastic we use and how we dispose of it around the world!

Day by day the dream beach was slowly revealed until we got to this….

Absolute. Heaven.

Of course, it just took one windy day or storm to bring back more driftwood or rubbish so this really was a labour of love but Mantanani beach remains one of our absolute favourite beaches in the world to date!


Now that the Lodge is fully functioning more and more guests are booking their escape to this beautiful haven and we were there to help welcome them! We had guests from China, Korea, Germany and Malaysia during our stay and all were so friendly and wonderful to host! While the guests were there the construction took more of a backseat and we focused on making the guests stay as good as possible! This meant preparing their rooms, keeping the Lodge clean, cooking for them three times a day and providing tea/coffee when needed! With the island being pretty remote it was also good to help show the guests around so they could discover more! We organised 5am sunrise trips, village tours and made evening bonfires on the beach for stargazing the Milky Way! We absolutely loved hosting the guests, finding out their stories and talking all things travel of course!

Village Life

Life on Mantanani is….slow! The pace of life here is one you would imagine of a tropical island and it’s hard to see how very much gets done! Those who work (the primary work here being fishing) happens in the morning before the midday sun, during which a long siesta takes place! It really can be scorching so even we would take shelter in the shade or next to a fan! As you wander through the village with its pretty multi coloured houses and cows wandering in all directions, you see most villagers swinging in hammocks or relaxing in the shade…we’re sure some of them don’t ever move!

The way of life on the Island is hard to describe. The best conclusion we heard and agreed with was that the locals live ‘for that day’. If you spend an extended period of time on the island you start to see that they don’t plan for the future or dwell on the past, they fish to eat and fetch water to drink! This seems very attractive at first and, in the setting, like the dream life, however over time you see that it is also a contributor to some of the issues here. For example, the build up of rubbish has no remedy and continues to grow as there are no plans for the future of the island and keeping it clean…apart from Fred of course which is why this project is, again, so important!


As I’ve mentioned the island was remote; there was no wifi and no phone reception…unless you count the one spot at the end of the beach on one particular tree trunk! Now, most people would assume that this was hard to adjust to and that we missed our daily dose of social media and whatsapping but, actually, it was bliss. The fact that you know you can’t use your phone even if you wanted to let’s you completely let it go. This is something that is INCREDIBLY hard to do in the “real world” where we are never more than five metres away from our phone and the temptation to aimlessly browse the web. The detachment from this gave us both a sense of freedom and we agreed, in a strange way, made us feel less stressed. Less stressed at the need to be up to date with everything going on everywhere on every app and in every conversation. Of course it was nice once a week (or sometimes every two depending on the weather!) to make the 45 minute walk to the other side of the island to connect to some very shaky wifi and say a quick “hello, we’re still alive” to our families! But, other than that the seclusion was liberating. Rather than spending time online when we weren’t working we swung in hammocks, read books upon books, learnt Malay and well, actually talked to each other…something people really don’t do enough of anymore!

Living in this remote way I think made this experience what it was and helped us to learn to shut off once in a while and appreciate more of what is around us rather than what’s on a screen!

Back to the Real World

5 weeks absolutely flew by and I think if we hadn’t already made future plans we would have stayed a lot longer! We were counting down the days of when we would leave; not out of excitement but of sadness that we only had those few days left. We saw them out in style making sure we caught every beautiful sunset sat on our hand made chair, swimming in that crystal blue sea, stargazing under the Milky Way, finishing off the projects we had started and trying to imprint on our memory every beautiful angle of Mantanani! On our last day we really couldn’t believe that it was our turn to leave on the boat and wave the little island goodbye; Mantanani felt like home and I think will always hold a special place in our hearts!

The Experience

It’s safe to say our first experience of Workawaying was unbelievable and has opened so many doors to us for doing more of the same in the future. It is clearly a great way to get involved in a local community or worthwhile projects all the while allowing us to save some money in order to prolong our travels longer and allowing our adventures to continue. To give you an idea, whilst on Mantanani we spent a total of £20 as opposed to the £525 we would normally have spent each. This is obviously a huge saving and shows how using Workaway can really be mutually beneficial for both hosts and volunteers.

Watch more of our incredible experience on our latest Just Drifting video here!

C x

2 thoughts on “Volunteering – 5 Weeks on Mantanani Island, Borneo

  1. Hey guys.

    Great blog, we are off travelling Asia next year. Would you recommend using Workaway? We are looking into it now!

    Alex and Becky

    1. Hi Becky! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂 So exciting that you are heading to Asia, you will love it! We totally recommend using Workaway we found so many great opportunities from it and actually wish we had done more! Its a great site and the work, in our experience, was always as advertised! One tip would be to make sure you read the reviews from other workawayers to see how they felt the placement went as this was a good indication of whether it sounded like a good placement or not! Its a great way to travel, see a place and get involved in something whilst also saving money! Let us know if you have any questions at all! Charlotte x

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