As a child, Borneo held a place in my mind right alongside the mystical lands of fairy tales and mythology. It seemed just as likely that I would encounter the last unicorn or lose a glass slipper as I was to wander the lands of sultans and pit vipers.
You just never know where life is going to take you. I’ve yet to save a race of mythological creature or fit my foot comfortably into any shoe in Asia, but after last weekend’s adventures in Sarawak, I do feel like I have partially conquered Borneo.
Mulu Caves, located in basically the middle of nowhere Borneo, came highly recommended as a long weekend getaway. Famous (relatively, as many of my local colleagues were either unware of its existence or utterly uninterested) for the nightly bat exodus from Deer Cave, Mulu also has a variety of hikes and caves to be explored and not wanting to let our last month in Malaysia slip away without another weekend-quest, I bought plane tickets, reserved hotel rooms, packed clothes that I didn’t mind destroying and headed out to see what the magical land of Borneo had to offer this time around
Getting to Mulu is no easy task, in and of itself. When I say it is in the middle of nowhere, that is in no way an understatement. The fastest way is to fly, which means landing in Miri and then taking a thirty-minute flight on a prop plane over the mountains to the one-desk airport that is the transportation hub of Mulu. I’ve flown on countless flights over the years, some a bit bumpier than others, but rarely have I been on one that made my nerves wiggle like this one did. My only mental saving grace was the fact that the one flight attendant was strapped into his jump seat, looking bored, like a kid who has ridden the same roller coaster too many times. Unless I spotted a tinge of panic in his eyes, I figured I had nothing to worry about. And there was no tinge. Just boredom by an amazing view that had become commonplace for him. (And possibly the thought that the rest of his day included handing out boxed Milo to disembarking passengers and then the daily return flight back over those mountains to Miri.) If the flight, short as it is, doesn’t appeal, travelers can always opt for the river-route, but that is a painful seven hours, that while I am sure is stunningly beautiful, is not meant for foreigners, but rather a way of life for those transporting goods up and down the river. There are no roads, a fact that becomes quite obvious flying over the rainforest that is just a carpet of green broken only by the brown serpentine river making its lazy way through a land from another era.
Arriving in Mulu is another piece of the adventure pie, as the airport really does have a single desk. The one runway is just long enough for a small plane to touchdown and get the brakes on, make a U-turn and pull up in front of an open-air building. (On our way out of the area a few days later, a Hungarian guy we were sitting with decided to go ask when the flight would depart, as we were told it would be at least a half an hour late; it had not yet left Miri. He came back to our table with a smile, saying the desk attendant told him that when he heard the plane, it was here. That really was the way the airport worked. When you’ve only got two flights a day, it isn’t hard to keep track of them. They arrive when they do. Or, they don’t arrive at all and you go back to your hotel for another night. Nothing to get worked up about.)
Once we checked into our hotel (a very nice Marriott that is about as malapropos as possible in the rustic setting), we embarked on what would be a weekend of adventure.
A weekend of more adventure than I bargained for.
With midday upon us, we decided upon a four-hour afternoon “adventure caving” trek that would put us back at the main park in time to witness the famous bat exodus. (Who can pass up the chance to see three million bats leave a cave at the same time? Not I!) The write-up on our little outing said that we might get a bit dirty and since we would be off the trail in the cave, might have to crawl through a few tight spots. Getting a bit dirty sounded like a fun way to spend the afternoon, as an embassy job rarely offers the opportunity for more than a minor papercut and claustrophobia has never been an issue, so I readily agreed to whatever was in store.
In pouring rain, we set off on our cave expedition. It’s Malaysia; you can’t let a spot of rain stop you. The first leg was in a longboat, headed up river to where a path leads into the jungle and to the entrance to the cave. Soaking wet before we even reached the rainforest, but yellow hardhat adorned with a headlamp perched on my noggin, I was ready for the afternoon. For the first half an hour or so in the cave, I was skeptical about the hardhat that really just made us all look like giant minions. Yes, we were deep underground and there was rock everywhere, but anything that came crashing down was going to be instantly lethal. The hardhat seemed to be mere decoration. (There were no US-style waivers of rights and responsibilities signed. This was definitely an “each for herself” type operation.) Not long after my musings on death-by-boulder though, those hats started to earn their keep. We quickly left the main path and headed into utter darkness, the ceiling lowering with each step we took. At first, it was merely a matter of crouching below a stalactite or two (thank you Mrs. Ketterling for the awesome 8th grade earth science lessons that taught me the difference between stalactites and stalagmites -no need to fact check that one!), but the crouching soon became huddling, which became crawling and then before I knew it, the “might have to crawl a bit” disclaimer on the adventure outing information went out the window and I was doing an army crawl, shoving my trusty Jansport backpack in front of me, foot by foot. At one point, pretty exhausted (my upper body strength leaves much to be desired and I may be contemplating a 2017 New Year’s resolution to successfully complete a single pullup), I called out to Thad who was maybe ten meters behind me, saying that I was leaving the backpack. He could pick it up as he came by or it would be forever lost to the gods of Borneo, but it wasn’t going with me for another foot. (This was about the same time that I began to think the army crawling was never going to end and with quivering arms, gave up all attempts at grace and just went with a barrel roll for several rotations. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job!)
Eventually we reached a cavern that opened up to normal human height again (some of the shorter folks in our grouped skittered through Hobbit holes that left the taller of us questioning the height advantages we garnered throughout our lives.) The cave floor was made of solid rock covered in a light layer of dusty clay, which when mixed with our rain and sweat drenched bodies, became a lovely paste, head to toe. Never was I so grateful for my cheap shopping habits that had me outfitted in $15 Target yoga pants rather than their $40 (but beautiful!) Lululemon counterparts.
While we were inside the cave, the rain had let up and the sun came out, making our reemergence from Morlock-land quite spectacular. The hike back to the river was an easy one, with no crouching, crawling or rolling required, just a couple of kilometers of verdant green vegetation, a stop to look at a pit viper and a huge walking stick insect and a comfort from the rhythmic banging of my hardhat against my thigh. (Needless to say, that goofy yellow hardhat saved me several stalactite-induced concussions after all.)
Covered in sweat and dirt, I felt pretty proud of my adventure caving prowess as I headed back to the hotel that evening looking forward to a hot shower and a hearty meal. If only, if only, I knew what was headed my way day two of Mulu adventuring, when we signed up for the eight-hour trek to Eden and back. (After the “a bit muddy and a bit of crawling” disclaimer, I should have known that “a bit of bouldering and a bit wet” meant more than it said. But, that is an adventure for another blog. Stay tuned…)