The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure by Carl Hoffman
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…)
On our second day in Kuching, we headed to Bako National Park, a preserve on the edge of the island that can only be reached by boat. (Edward, the all-knowing cabbie, informed us that the idea was that if a road was built, resorts would soon follow so to help maintain the wilderness, it was a boat-only outing.) We hopped into our boat with semi-functional life vests over our shoulders (mine didn’t actually zip closed, but I figured the crocodiles would get me before I drowned, so it didn’t really matter in the long run) and headed out about fifteen minutes across the estuary and ocean to a jetty on a bay at the edge of the national park. We bumped across some pretty impressive swells, each one reminding me that less than six months ago I broke my tailbone- a slight twinge running up my spine as the boat touched down time and time again.
After checking in at the headquarters and being given a map with some crazy highlighting on it, off we headed to our first trail of the day. We wanted to take the trail marked with the white blazes, so were excited to quickly see red and white stripes painted on trees. Figuring the two trails (red and white) followed each other for a bit, up the mountainside we went, being careful not to grab the thorny trees for balance along the way. Up, up, up we went. Sometimes the climbs were man-built stairs and others they were just a matter of scrambling over tree roots, but follow the trail we did. After slipping down a hill and dangling from a tree branch, I found my footing and resumed the trek up the hill. Just as I was hitting the point of being pretty tired and questioning my sanity for having embarked on this outdoor activity, we came to ridge with a beautiful view of the ocean and a sign signaling the end of the trail.
What? The end? This isn’t where my sidewalk trail is supposed to end!
Apparently, the red/white trail is different from either the red or the white trail. We had wandered off in completely the wrong direction of our intended destination, but were rewarded with a view that spanned miles and a trail without a single other human being on it. (I’d suggest more color variety in future blazes! Instead of going red, white, and red and white, why not go with a lovely purple or a vibrant teal?! It would save my legs some burning.)
Time to backtrack and find the illusive white, only white, trail.
Once we were headed the right way, our white trail sightings included a snake across the pathway (not fun!), a spider nearly the size of my fist in a web that was probably five feet across and several macaques having fruit for lunch, husks of which rained down on us as we gawked from below.
And remember how sweaty I said I was at the caves on day one? That was nothing! That was like a walk across Target’s parking lot in May. After hiking in the rainforest for a few hours, I looked like I had stepped right out of a shower. My ponytail was drenched, with water actually dripping off the end of it; my tank tops where wet through and through; and, for the first time ever in my life, I actually had sweat dripping off the tip of my nose! I’ve seen that happen to people in movies and hardcore athletes, but for this rather stationary literature major, it was a new experience.
The best part of the white trail was, after hiking up and down the side of the mountain, we suddenly rounded a corner and there was the ocean: blue skies, sandy beaches, rocky outcroppings full of tide pools and waves rolling in one after another. It was gorgeous! I wasted no time finding a good “poking stick” (for the tide pools, of course) and headed out across the beach to the rocks to see what I could see. My favorite find of the day was the mudskippers. What cool little creatures! (I had no idea what they were as I poked at them. Fish? Reptiles? They could cling to rocks and run on top of waves. What the heck?! I had to send a photo to my nerdy science niece and ask for a full report.)
After fully exploring the beach and tide pools, we figured it was time to head back to HQ for some lunch, but no one was looking forward to retracing the ups and downs of the trail we had just followed. Thad said the ranger told him sometimes boats would occasionally pull into the bay and we could hire one to take us back by water, and sure enough, a guy in a boat was waiting out to sea a bit. Thad signaled to him and in he came, pulling as close to the beach as he could get, but obviously without a jetty, not being able to tie up anywhere. So, off came the shoes and we all did a bit of wading, hoping into the boat from a rather slippery rock. (Only one shoe ended up going for a swim. Not a bad record. 1 out of 8 shoes remained dry.)
The boat ride back included a detour to see a cool rock formation, another beautiful bay (this one has a hiking trail to it, so it is on the list for next time we visit the park, which we will be doing!) and then a second chance at wading in the ocean, this time from boat to shore.
After a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria, I wanted to go in search of bearded pigs. (Lunch would be the very unsuccessful part of the day, as the food looked quite unappealing. It was a small buffet, but the food all looked like it had been on the warmers since breakfast and there wasn’t much there that made me want to dig in, even after a morning of hiking. I opted for a package of cookies and a Coke. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest lunch, but the sugar rush sure was nice!) When I cleaned up our table (something that seemed to surprise the cafeteria worker), I went and asked where I should go in search of pigs. The man I asked laughed and said they were “random.” Sadly, after an hour of wandering, I came across no random pigs. Something else to add to my “next time” list. There will definitely be a next time! (Shannon and Joe. Josh and Justin. We are going.)
Exhausted, we all boarded the boat back to Kuching (again, life jackets were handed out, but I still figure I’ll be a croc’s lunch before I’ll be rescued) and after some much needed showers and a quick nap, we ended the day with another feast of seafood (I opted for butter chicken and fried noodles) on the top of a parking garage.
Two fantastic days in the capital of Sarawak…but wait, that’s not all! Stay tuned for one more day of Kuching adventuring… next up: orangutans and long houses!
I have found my new favorite city in Malaysia.
It’s got caves and bats. There are steep rainforest hikes and huge amounts of cheap seafood. None of these things I care for in particular, but put them all together and through some kind of crazy adventure-math, it adds up to a fantastic city of outdoor fun.
Loyal readers will know I am less than sporty. As a matter of fact, I am the polar opposite of sporty. I have the amazing ability to be on the DL for injuries as wide ranging as bowlers’ elbow and Wii-exhaustion. As the internet informed me today, “my idea of roughing it is reading my book in an uncomfortable chair.” True. (I didn’t exactly know how to quote an internet poster I stumbled across on a pic dump site. Does one need to use quotes? Sadly, there were no references in my 7th edition MLA Handbook to point me in the right direction. Again, bookish. Not sporty.)
But Kuching, an all-around outdoors-y town is now the top of my Malaysia list.
The first full day we were in town, we decided to check out some local caves, with the help of a storytelling taxi driver named Edward. Edward, as far as we could tell, is a kingpin in the region. While we were with him, he got several calls trying to persuade him to be the director of the taxi driver association and he was summoned to his village for a meeting about building a long house in hopes of encouraging tourism to their part of the island. He’s in search of a gong for said longhouse and can retell the history of the island, from the original tribes to the white rajas to today’s present day politics in which Kuching has two mayors, splitting the town in half but creating a healthy competition that keeps it clean and safe. He’s got a lot of pans in the fire. Edward has info and he’ll share it with you, doling it out as appropriate. (Sorry, no orangutan stories on Saturday since those are for Monday morning on the way to the reserve. Patience, my friends. Let’s talk about coconuts and crocodiles instead.)
Edward took us to two caves: Fairy Cave and Windy Cave. Neither was appropriately named. Fairy Cave, while gorgeous, had neither fairies nor anything resembling them, but it did have beautiful cliff faces covered in moss and ivy and a natural skylight from which streamed mote-filled light. At times, we were the only people in the entire cave. It was amazing! (It was also a bit death defying, when it came to climbing down the narrow staircase, in the dark, under a low overhang, to get back out of the cave after our explorations.) And Windy Cave was not so windy. It should have been called Batty Cave. I’ve honestly never seen so many bats in one place in my life. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. When we walked into the cavern entrance, it was the pitch blackness that struck first, but rather the sound: high-pitched squeaks- everywhere. It was incredibly loud as the little critters used their echolocation to find their way around the kilometer long cave. With flashlights (torches, in local parlance) in hand, we ventured forth, avoiding piles of guano on the walkway and making sure to keep our mouths closed when we looked up. There were big bats, medium bats and baby bats. It was a regular Goldilocks story in there! (That sound you hear in the video? BATS!)
Oh, and it was a wee bit sweaty as well. Imagine heat, humidity and an enclosed space. And the thing is, I’m not a sweaty person. Or at least, I didn’t think I was. But after climbing the stairs to the entrance of Fairy Cave, which sits halfway up a mountainside and then going in to discover much more climbing in my future, it was more than glistening going on. Then, Windy Cave had less wind than its name would imply, creating a rather stifling environment, great for creatures of the night, but not as conducive to this girl from the desert of southern Idaho. The advantage to my double-layered tank tops for the day was the inside one could soak up the sweat while I used the outside one to wipe my forehead.
It may not be pretty, but all the dripping was worth the sights.
On the way back to town, Edward informed us we should eat dinner at TopSpot, a huge outdoor hawker stall arena set up on the top of a parking garage. It may not sound glamorous, but it was actually a pretty cool venue and Thad ate his weight in seafood, which means it was a win for him! Dinner and icy cold pineapple juice under the warm Malaysian sky was a pretty perfect end to our first day in Kuching.
Stay tuned for day two, in which I (remember: non-athletic, pretty wimpy and definitely not outdoorsy me- hiking in a humid rainforest where half of the living things want to kill you) go hiking in a rainforest..
With work beckoning Thad to Kota Kinabalu for the short week of the Columbus Day, we decided to make a trip of it, going early to enjoy the long weekend, before he had to hit the ground running with site visits and American Citizen Services for those living on the Malaysian island. We were last here in the summer of 2009, when we stayed in a hostel just a few blocks from the hotel that provides our lodging this time around. While the accommodations are different, the city is much the same. (Originally, I wrote “drastically different,” but then I realized that it isn’t necessarily *that* different. The hostel we stayed at a few years ago had private rooms with small private bathrooms. The hotel we are at this time around gave us a huge room, but it is mostly unused space. I could easily host a Zumba class with the vast expanses of open area available. But, while the bathroom is larger, the shower leaks, creating a lovely ode to Lake Superior each time we bathe, just going to prove the old adage, “bigger isn’t always better.” To be fair, I didn’t have to schlep a backpack up several flights of stairs on Sunday evening, instead my luggage was delivered to my room by a bellhop and the view is much nicer this time around. It turns out, our current digs might not be “drastically” better, but they are definitely several rungs up the accommodation ladder- maybe even a few coveted stars.)
Thanks to Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, we had an extra day to play before Thad’s calendar was overwhelmed with a variety of appointments, so we decided to get out of the city for the day and see what Mt. Kinabalu had to offer. Last week, Borneo was lashed with a massive amount of rain, making the windy road up the mountain a bit slower of a route due to several landslides that had recently been cleared, but other than a few bumps and jolts, the ride was enjoyable. We stopped at the base of the mountain for pictures and were regaled with our tour guide’s stories of how there is a race up the mountain each year, the fastest climber having done both the ascent and decent in a mere two hours. (Two hours wouldn’t even be enough for me to get a few kilometers from the trailhead!) As a part of our day-long tour (on which we were the only participants- yay!), we also stopped at a small botanical garden where Bibo (the tour guide) enumerated the various orchids found in the park, which ferns were safe to eat and the story of why he had renamed one tree in the park as “the sexy tree.” (I had a hard time following the whole story, but something to do with the fact it didn’t have bark or had peeling bark, so it looked naked. Needless to say, even without full comprehension, it was an awkward moment in the tour!) After an overwhelming number of flora-related facts, all starting with “For your information…” it was off to the pinnacle of the day’s events- the hot springs.
When we signed up for the tour on Sunday evening, I saw a vague reference to a “canopy walk,” but it was hidden in the fine print of the brochure, not really registering with me as a part of the day’s events. It may be wise, in the future, to pay a bit more attention to those tiny details scribbled at the bottom of schedules. As it turns out, before we could have a go at the hot springs, we had the “opportunity” to enjoy a canopy walk through the treetops of the Borneo rainforest. Even as I type this, it sounds beautiful and relaxing and a pleasurable way to spend a bit of time. How have I forgotten the torture so soon? (It’s the traveler’s version of childbirth. Combinations of strange chemicals override your memory, lessening the horrors of the event so that you will sign up to do it again and again! One propagates the species while the other seems to keep this blog alive!)
To the canopy walk we went.
To get to the tiny walkways in the treetops, we first had to trek our way up the mountainside, which in a rainforest means a rather humid and sticky climb. From here on out, I’d like to blame the sweaty palms, shaky legs and general irritable mood on this ascent, rather than them being symptoms of my irrationally strong dislike of all things high.
The problem with this canopy walk, and I would imagine many such ventures worldwide, is that once you make the initial choice to start through the maze, you are stuck a gazillion meters above the ground with no recourse other than to continue forward. There is no way to step off the course, wave to your friends and promise to meet them at the other end. Start and you must finish.
So, with sweaty palms, shaky legs and a generally irritable demeanor, forward I went. Foot in front of foot, eyes locked on the next platform (slightly more stable, but not exceedingly) and party to a continual running dialog with myself. (This ongoing self-talk was not the uplifting and encouraging pep talk one might imagine, but rather included a slew of words my mother doesn’t know I know and self-chastisement for having gotten myself in a 40-meter-above-the-forest-floor predicament.)
One would think the reward of some time relaxing in the hot springs would be incentive enough to get across those high wire-esque paths, but, again when you travel, you never know what you are going to get. Rather than the highly heated hot spring pools of Idaho (both Givens outside of Marsing and Zimm’s in New Meadows were childhood favorites), these “springs” were a series of small, deep tubs that the bathers filled themselves from slow-release spigots. After about fifteen minutes and enough lukewarm water to cover our shins, we decided we had experienced this strange version of relaxation to our hearts’ content and headed back to the van; I figure I’d just take a hot soak in the tub back at the hotel and get the same experience, but with the bonus of reading material!
Kota Kinabalu (lovingly referred to as KK to Kuala Lumpur’s KL) is a fantastic town on the ocean with a much more chill vibe than KL offers, even on its quietest day . If State ever decides to open a consulate here, I’ll be pushing for a bid in a heartbeat. It has enough western “stuff” going on to feel less alien than many places we’ve traveled, but still retains more of its core personality than does KL, where foreign influence is seen on every corner, both because of historical occupations and the current fervor for all things western.
Even after tricking me into a death-defying walk through the jungle treetops, Kota Kinabalu still earns a top spot in my ever-burgeoning “Things to do in Malaysia” list and will definitely be a destination for future visiting friends.