Pencils skirts and heels: those are my comfort zones. Give me a light cardigan, a chunky necklace and some brightly painted nails and I am right at home. My toes can be smashed into heels for hours at a time; I’ll jingle around the office in a pile of bangles with a cute pen or two clipped to my lanyard and I am ready to go.
Sports bras and tennis shoes: not my comfort zone. As I’ve discussed many, many a-time on this blog, Sporty Spice I am not. Occasionally I try and at times I overestimate my abilities/desires, and usually I end up with a tinge of regret for my choices during the actual event, but also thrilled to have seen the top of that mountain, to have swum with tropical fishes (and poisonous sea snakes) or to have that tiny “M” marking my driver’s license as both automobile and motorcycle classed.
It was in just such a situation that I found myself last weekend.
To be fair, the overestimating was not totally my own fault. I lay a good deal of blame on the park literature that *way* understated the day’s activity levels.
But, to be fair to the awesome park, even if the literature had been honest, I probably would have gone anyway. Peer pressure. I wasn’t backing out when everyone else was signing up.
Signing up for what, you may ask? Just a trek to Eden and back.
Who could say no to that?
The tiniest of summaries accompanied beautiful photos at Mulu Park’s headquarters, mentioning that hikers might have to climb over a few rocks and might get wet, but would be rewarded with tea or coffee at the end of the day. Seems like a deal to me!
I should have taken those “mights” a bit more seriously.
Our hike to Eden was a full-day adventure; one we felt comfortable embarking on after the previous day’s four-hour trek into Morlock-land with just some snazzy yellow hardhats and blinking headlamps.
The first part of the day was simple enough- just a couple kilometer hike on maintained boardwalks to the main bat exodus viewing area. Everyone was upbeat and excited for the day’s adventure, getting to know each other and chatting, stopping to look at a snoozing pit viper and to admire a giant walking stick insect, who didn’t enjoy our company as much as we did his. (Our guide picked the walking stick up to give us a closer view since we all had a hard time spotting him through his awesome camouflage, but the little critter instantly went in self-defense mode, regurgitating some kind of viscous, yellow liquid all over the guide’s hand. I was impressed that his seemingly tiny body could hold so much fluid! Gross and fascinating, all at the same time.)
Once we got to Deer Cave, we followed the normal boardwalk pathway used by visitors on the “show cave” tours, but soon I literally found where the sidewalk ends! We scrambled over the railing and went off-road, for the rest of the day. Once we’d left the trail behind, the next few hours were spent bouldering, up and over and through, anyway one could find to get to the other side. I must admit, the whole thing was a lot of fun, until my arms started to run out of strength. (See the last blog post about how my army crawl became an unsightly barrel roll in the previous day’s cave.) At one point, I got myself into a rather sticky situation, not able to go up or down, perched on a log and needing to somehow heft myself another four feet up. After trying numerous options and finding none that didn’t feel like imminent death, the massive Dutch man behind me just said, “Want a boost?” in his lovely European accent, to which I nodded and before I knew what was happening, he basically pushed my rear up and over my head, rolling me onto the top of the boulder, a move I was grateful for, but that left me covered in bat guano from head to toe. (Interesting side note: bat guano is not as disgusting as one would think. It has a distinct and heavy odor, but not a gag inducing one. It is dry and grainy, like a black sand, only covered in cave cockroaches and other spindly-legged creatures. These guys are grosser than the poo. On a poop scale, I would say bat guano comes in as as some of the least rank crap around, and thank goodness, since I spent most of the day enjoying a free exfoliate from Mother Nature.)
Exhausted, but proud to have survived the bouldering, I was buoyed to see a beautiful river. I thought we must have arrived at Eden, where we could rest, have lunch and enjoy the sunshine far from humanity.
Boy, was I wrong.
We were only halfway there.
The river was a turning point, in that we went from the “might have to climb a few rocks” to the “might get wet” part. The river, mostly ankle deep, did drop off as it exited the cave, hitting me at the top of my chest and making the shorter folks in our group full-on swim. We followed the river upstream (followed= waded) for about another kilometer, before veering off into the rain forest, where our guide promptly announced “This is where the leeches start.” Hmmm…I definitely do not remember anything about leeches in the literature.
Leeches were the least of my concerns. This third leg of the trek was the toughest for me, basically an uphill climb through dense rain forest, where the temperature and humidity were at levels that an Idaho-girl should never experience. My body was raised on dry heat, the kind that a bit of sweat cools. It does not know what to do with instant flush and dripping pores. At one point, bringing up the end of our line of trekkers (7 of us in total), I realized I was stumble/walking across a ridge between two parts of the mountain, with verdant and foliage-hidden drops just a few feet on either side. That’ll help you regain your focus quickly!
Just when I thought I could go no farther, the beginnings of heat exhaustion starting to manifest, I heard the waterfall that indicated Eden was just over the next ridge. I may have almost died (okay, a bit of hyperbole, but let’s be honest, I was in the middle of nowhere with walking out the only way back and running on energy reserves; it didn’t feel like hyperbole at the time) but the view from Eden was spectacular.
Its name was not hyperbole.
The gorgeous waterfall, huge boulders to rest on and sun shining through the trees were only part of the draw. My favorite thing about this spot was its remoteness. Although I know they take small groups of hikers there a couple of times a week, this place felt like we were the first ones to ever see it. Nothing man-made, nothing electronic, nothing that didn’t come in with us and go back out with us.
Pristine. Untouched. Unspoiled.
Worth the effort.
At times, I questioned my choice to sign up for this trek, but in the end, I would do it all again. I’d roll through the bat guano, hoist myself up rock ledges, ford a river, hike/stumble through a forest filled with biting critters, all for a view that so few get to witness. (Thad paid for the view with a more personal form of currency- his blood. He picked up not one, but two leeches along the way. One he was able to pull off before it got a good latch, but the second make a full meal out of his upper thigh. For the record, leech bites leave huge, target-shaped wounds, with an open sore in the middle, ringed by concentric layers of bruising. Not a pretty sight and probably not so fun to sit on! Also, itchy. Very itchy.)
As promised, our day ended with a mug of hot tea as we curled our filthy bodies onto benches to watch the bat exodus right before sunset. I can’t think of a better ending to a day where Mother Nature tested my mettle than with her gift of wonder, as three million bats went hunting, as if on cue.
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…)