“The simplest joys of the Dusun really are the best”
This small but special nature resort in Negeri Sembilan began as a simple family retreat from the city for Helen, David and their five children in 1984. Helen put an ad in the Malay Mail to purchase a rural lot after walking through what was then a rubber smallholding and falling in love with the magnificent view out to the Mantin hills. Lot purchased, the rubber trees were slowly removed and replaced with Durian seedlings. The family began to build their first lodge soon after in the traditional style of the Orang Asli, using local materials and the help of family and friends. Sustainable development in farming and building was key to the project as was maintaining a good relationship with the local community.
Today there are five beautiful huts on offer to guests looking for a break from the fast pace of modern life and a place to relax and reconnect with nature. Managers Haanim and Cee tell us what it’s like to run a music business from ‘the jungle’ and why swapping life in the city fast lane for The Dusan was the best decision they ever made…
LEAVING THE CITY
Haanim, you worked in the advertising industry and lived in central Kuala Lumpur, which is quite a beast of a city. And Cee, you were a full time jet setter, DJ’ing all over the world – what it’s been like swapping life in the urban jungle for your hill top orchard retreat?
H: I had moved to a green suburb with Cee, spending an hour a day driving to and from work. I took a holiday and spent 10 days on my mum’s orchard. I just sat, swam, cooked and with time began to notice all the pretty details… The way the light fell on the water. The little flowers. The rolling hills. The massive trees. How each tree in the jungle is different. I went home and cried on Cee’s shoulder because I was so grateful to have such great parents and this amazing place to go to. At the same time the traffic in KL was getting worse, there were scary stories of crime. As the resort expanded, my mother wanted to retire and there was an opportunity for us to work there so we jumped at it. We spent a year sketching versions of a house which we managed to build quite cheaply with the help of friends.
C: I have a love / hate relationship with big cities. I didn’t grow up in a big city. “Nature” was always there and not just a place to visit. I always loved to be connected to big cities though, go out, see friends, eat out, throw events, maybe perform or go to the movies. KL is where work is and where lots of friends are, but it’s also got way too many cars and shopping malls and not enough parks and places to breathe. It’s usually too hot. But here we are basically outside 24/7 because our houses are all quite open so the wind can come in. Sometimes also some rain, when it hits the house sideways, that causes some fun… I always say it’s like being on a sailing ship. The house and the whole hill is something we have to upkeep or a tropical thunderstorm can cause serious damage to the land or the structures. Nature doesn’t wait and we are living right in it.
How has this move affected you?
H: I enjoy life a lot more now. Even when I’m busy I still have time to look at the hills and notice a bird or a butterfly. When I really have time I pick flowers for the house, which makes you look around and notice all the beautiful details. We also spend a lot less, we go out less so there’s less money stress.
C: Raising a family here is unique. I feel good working for the Dusun and working from here on all my other adventures related to music and things. But being able to stay still for a moment and to look over to the hills and the jungle is priceless. I never knew I would turn out to be a good builder!
H: For most of them this is a perk of touring with us
C: Having a few off days on the Dusun definitely sealed the deal a few times. I remember Djedjotronic loved all the sounds of the jungle, but slept with ear plugs in on the first night. Jetlag plus the jungle orchestra just didn’t go well together. Szary from Modeselektor wanted to help me build something or fix something or at least make a cement mixture. So far everyone truly loved the time here away from all of it.
I know you still make music – how has your change of environment affected your sound?
C: I changed my workflow quite a bit. I started to enjoy actual playing a lot more instead of pure programming. This place is never silent. All the recordings I am working on now have the whole jungle in the background, just because I work in a place which is anything but soundproof. I love all the unplanned sounds and you can hear this in my new project called Bass Sekolah with my good friend Darren Ashley.
The Dusun has your fingerprints all over it. What kind of experience do you want to create for your visitors?
H: I think we created the experience long before it was open to the public. It’s just how we want to live – no walls, so we can enjoy the weather and the view. We figured out after 25 years that other people like it too, so my parents renovated an old guest house, built a new one and a pool. It grew very organically, we added around one house a year, now we’re at 5 and that’s the maximum. This year we’ve been planting, building and living on this land for 30 years. We approach it as a space and platform for fun projects. Too many projects, too little time.
C: I want visitors to feel like this is a place away from their normal home, but still it should feel a bit like home to them. Our home, which we share with them. It’s fun showing guests around and sharing things with them that the Dusun family members planted here, all the beautiful fruit trees. A normal hotel doesn’t really have a human face, but this place does. People sometimes know our whole family and even our pets by name just because they were keen enough to read up on the history behind it. They see my son roaring around like a tiger, but also talking Bahasa Malaysia with our staff. He will then carry on talking English to Haanim or his grandparents and then translate everything into German for me.
If our guests get up early enough, they might see my father-in-law at one of the swimming pools doing his magic to keep the water crystal clear or they might see my mother-in-law working away in the huge garden. We are all involved and that’s also something our guests experience.
You mentioned earlier that The Dusun is a sustainable, fairtrade enterprise – could you explain how you’ve put this into practice?
H: We figured out that what we were doing naturally anyway (living off seasonal produce, building and living in tune with our local environment and community) was something other tourism outfits are trying to market. We’re people who care about other people and the planet. The term I like is responsible tourism because it covers people and culture too.
“It’s possible to find local options for things like the fresh coffee we serve for breakfast or the natural body wash we provide”
Because we’ve been here for 30 years, we like being part of the community. The two closest villages are both Orang Asli (Original People), now a small minority group who tend to have a hard time with education, work and politics. We therefore give priority to people from these villages when hiring. The next closest is a very mixed village which we also hire from. We don’t have many staff, but the team we have has been with us for a while – it’s a job with many perks and flexibility. We try to buy from independent stores or companies, mostly family owned. It’s like working with friends, who believe in the same things. We help our guests engage with independent tour operators, guides and taxi drivers as well, it’s a nice way to experience the place as a tourist.
In terms of the environment, we try not to cut the land too much. We compost and try to use environmentally friendly products. Not things that are commonly used in Malaysia yet, so it does help build awareness amongst our Malaysian and Singaporean guests. Our contractor knows that he needs to take the harder way to build around trees instead of chopping trees to make their work faster, they think we’re pretty funny.
What are some of the green technologies and solutions that you’ve implemented on location?
C: We recycle as much as we can. We compost and separate whatever the recycling chain in Malaysia takes. A lot of the wood we use for building is reused and was purchased from junkyards or collected. We use organic or biodegradable detergents wherever we can. The orchard brings us various fruits, herbs and veggies. My father-in-law David grows fish that we eat and soon we are going to have our own deer. We would love to do more.
Malaysia has been getting a bad reputation as far as ecology is concerned, would it be fair to say that you are at the start of a growing movement towards sustainability?
H: Yes, we are. Before we opened there were only one or two other ‘nature retreats’ in Malaysia. Now there are many. Being trendy was actually bad for us for a while. We had people turn up in high heels and not understand why we didn’t have air-con and TV. Now there are a few nature retreats with air-con, but thankfully, many more without. We’ve found a niche. City dwellers have a need to be close to nature. Air-con, walls, cars, cutting trees and TV just disconnect people. More and more people are understanding the concepts and the reasoning behind our operation because they go to these places and realize why it works.
A business like this can only be conceived when an individual breaks out of the giant corporation and creates something that they want to run themselves, with their hands and heart. Movements are made of individuals. Not just sellers, but buyers too. I always have hope.
C: I do think so. Doing good makes greater marketing stories than doing bad.
In closing, what does slow living mean to you?
H: That the world is still turning when I’m frowning. The same way it did before and will continue to do.
C: Appreciating the moment. Attempting to find calm in all situations, whether that be trying to manually open the not working autogate with a hex driver down at the bottom of our hill in a thunderstorm, cooking a meal or being deep in the jungle working on our water source.
Rates start at 400 Malaysian Ringgit per house per night. You can find more information on the Dusun here The video to this song was mainly shot at or around the Dusun and directed by Cee and Haanim’s good friend Kubhaer Jethwani. http://www.youtube.com/watch?